09/27/2013 04:13 EDT | Updated 11/27/2013 05:12 EST

Primed for post-secondary life? Tips to prep applications and choose right school

TORONTO - It may be just a few weeks into the school year, but soon, thousands of Canadian students will be turning their focus towards the next stage of their academic careers: applying for post-secondary school.

In 2012, there were 793,000 full-time and 234,000 part-time undergraduate students in Canada, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

The annual Ontario Universities' Fair is being held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre until Sept. 29. The free event features 21 post-secondary institutions from across the province aimed at informing and parents and students about school programs and life on campus.

"Grade 12 comes upon students very quickly — quicker than they realize," said George Granger, executive director of the Ontario Universities' Application Centre, whose organization worked with an affiliate group of the Council of Ontario Universities to organize the fair.

Granger, who previously served as a registrar and director of admissions, said selecting a university is "one of the most important choices" students will make at this point in their lives.

"It's right up there with careers and relationships and where you're going to live. For a lot of them, it's a challenging moment."

Granger shares tips on how students can best prepare for the application process and ways to whittle down their pool of choices to select their ideal school.

1. Start thinking of — and settling on — an area of study. While the largest group of students who will attend the fair are in Grade 12, Granger said pupils in younger grades can also start casting their mind to potential areas of study after high school.

"Those are the years where they're starting to fit themselves into the streaming of courses," Granger said of students in Grades 10 and 11. "They're starting to become more aware of what they're good at, what they like to do, becoming more aware of where they'd like to take themselves in their career life in terms of work."

2. Offer a well-rounded resume. While some programs rely entirely on academic standing to make admission decisions, others may factor supplementary information into the fold, Granger said.

For example, some fine arts programs require the submission of a portfolio, while others may demand a profile of a student that demonstrates well-roundedness, leadership experience and community involvement, he noted.

Granger said all students planning to pursue post-secondary studies should be mindful of extracurricular activities that will help balance them as individuals as well as potential applicants.

"Those experiences on the playing fields, in student government, in student clubs — those are all things that develop transferable skill sets that are going to be very important during the university experience, but also after graduation.

"Working as a member of a team, working in groups — there's a lot of emphasis on that in modern education."

3. Location — and size — matters. Granger said once students have assessed longer-term goals and ensured they have the appropriate pre-requisites, another key step follows: selecting the school itself.

"For some students, it's a question of: 'Can I live at home and attend school or do I have to go away?' In some cases, the program that they're interested in is offered only at a few universities. And so, that means they'd have to make a commitment to go away and they'd have to come to terms with that."

In other cases, the program students are interested in may be more widely available — therefore altering the decision of whether to stay put or move away.

Granger said students with some degree of flexibility in their minds and a willingness to be mobile should be weighing whether they'd prefer to be at a larger school in a metropolitan area or if they'd feel more at ease on a smaller campus outside of the city.

"It's all linked to: 'What is the program I want? Where is it available? What's the reputation of that program?'" said Granger.

"For many students and parents, they want to be able to perceive vocational links or career tracks that might come from one program or another," he added. "Others recognize that the goal is to get a good strong liberal arts or science education and develop those critical thinking skills — research methodology, flexibility, those transferable skills. So that all goes into the mix."

4. Check out the campus. As students narrow down their choices, Granger said they should also make a point of visiting school websites and social media pages to gather information.

Another important component of the research and decision-making process is to pay a visit fo the campus.

"All of the universities offer tours, some of them on a daily basis, some of them on a scheduled basis. All of them have special visit days in the fall and in the spring," Granger said.

If students and parents are unable to make the trek, virtual tours of the campus are also an alternative option, he noted.

5. Seek advice on ways to cope with costs. Granger said parents can take the opportunity to speak with school representatives about scholarships, bursaries and various mitigation strategies to address the financial costs of higher learning.

"It's an investment, and I think for younger parents today, you think ahead, you perhaps think about costs of post-secondary education like you think about a retirement fund. And certainly, I think that's appropriate," he said.

"Beginning to think about: 'Where do I see myself going? What's the cost going to be?' And planning for it."