Decoding the Road Signs…



A few hours of  searching university and college websites is enough to create a whole graduating year’s worth of serial procrastinators….and perhaps a few inadvertent gap year kids!  Seriously, though—making sure you are entering a program which is what you need/want, and which will give you the background you need to get into the graduate program of your choice (should you win a lottery….) is important even if it is crazy-making!


So this brief guide was designed to help make translating the terms and initials and acronyms used, so that you can decode what the department intros, degree requirements, course outlines, and catalogues are trying to tell you—and what each might mean for your future. 


Common terms in post-secondary-ese:


MAJOR/MINOR:  a major is concentration of courses in one subject area; a double major is an equal balance between two areas, while a major/minor means more of the first than of the second: often the two of these are related: English and Drama, Phys Ed and Science, Bio and Chem, History and Philosophy.  Sometimes you are asked to declare a major when you apply to university; in other schools it is done during, or at the end of, the first or even the second year.


SPECIALIZATIONS: it’s no big deal to change majors—probably 60% of students do it—since many people change their minds as they explore other possibilities in fields they didn’t know much about before they started university, or discover that in the big lake they don’t have the talent they seemed to have in the little pond J However, depending on when the major is switched, and how big a change it is, students may have to take extra courses in the background requirements for a different major, or even do a summer program or an extra semester to fulfill degree requirements if the two are quite dissimilar in first year courses.


CREDIT/UNIT:  different universities have unfortunately developed different terminology.  A course used to have a number of credits attached to it which was related to the number of hours/week required but this is no longer the case in many schools.  Some schools consider a course as three credits, or three units, or three hours…some don’t talk about credits at all, just courses: this leads to some weird things, like taking one course which meets only once weekly for 50 minutes and another course which has two 50 minute lectures + a 2 hour lab + a 50 minute tutorial—with the same value, in the same semester, with the same impact on GPA.  Some require attendance at a first year ‘intro to whatever’ course which meets once or twice weekly for a semester, with assignments and tests, for NO credit….but you can’t major in that area without passing it.   Most universities require about 40-45 courses, for about 120-125 credits/units/hours for a BA degree.  What a credit  is NOT is equivalent to your high school transcript:  eg., 1 course = 1 credit , or occasionally .5 credit, and 30 credits = graduation!  You need to be VERY clear when reading the degree requirements to find out exactly what they are talking about at each school….


CONCURRENT:  requirements for courses to be taken at the same time, as opposed to CONSECUTIVE or SEQUENTIAL, which means one must be taken before the other.  Many departments have key courses which have to be taken together, or all in first year; many courses require not just a lecture but a tutorial or a lab, each of which has to be timetabled separately but which MUST be taken in the same semester.  Some university education programs are called ‘concurrent’ because students can get a BA or BS and a BEd degree at the same time at the same university over 5 years—often these are not really concurrent, as most of the BA/BS courses have to be complete before the BEd ones begin. Most  education programs are still sequential as students finish the BA/BS in one university and move to the Faculty of Education at another university to get their BEd and/or MEd.


FOUNDATION YEAR/YEAR ONE/CORE YEAR:  This is becoming much more common as it makes it easier for universities to timetable and for kids to make sure they get all the first year courses they need—it also means you tend to feel more connected to the couple of hundred other kids in the same faculty, as you see them in all the core classes, and subsets of them in the tutorials or labs.  Some schools call these Arts 1, or Sciences 1; others just call it a Foundation or Core year.  In universities which have them they are normally mandatory, and include the first year required courses in your major area of study, as well as the electives, usually from a small group of 2-3, which are part of your overall BA/BS degree requirements. For first year BA students this often equals a choice of 1 of 3 Social Sciences and 1 of 3  Natural Sciences and a composition course of some kind.


CONSERVATORY:  there are very few ‘pure’ conservatory programs in Canada—eg the National Theatre School, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the National Ballet School, and the professional training programs for various dance companies; the Colleges of Arts & Design which were conservatories not long ago have been changed to universities in Ontario, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia.  Conservatories are most interested in talent, so they offer intensive training, taught by working professionals of recognized expertise but often sans graduate degrees.  Generally the better the faculty, the better the program.  They typically have a wider definition of age and academic ability at the same time: a few are purely high school programs, and most of the post secondary programs require an OSSD,  but some don’t, especially for mature students with experience and/or older partial or complete university degrees.  They can totally control what they require students to learn (except in a high school conservatory program like the NBS, which conforms to Ontario academic requirements), with no external degree requirements or provincial standards to meet.  They are also free to see their fees as high as they can—most American conservatory programs are ridiculously overpriced—although ‘national’ schools in Canada normally get government money, or are OSAP qualified, so they don’t have to charge as much as most of the private schools do.  Students spend 2-3 years, generally, in conservatory programs and then get diplomas or certificates, not degrees, although some conservatories have moved into partnerships with universities, usually in training dance professionals.


CONSERVATORY-STYLE:  many college and university theatre, music or dance performance programs call themselves this—generally this means that they offer intensive training for talented students/potential performers with a balance between academic and skills-based courses, taught by a mix of teachers with graduate degrees and working artists.  It is a bit deceptive when used within universities, because by definition they issue degrees for which one must take many courses outside the major/minor areas, and the vast majority of their courses are taught by those with graduate degrees. It is more likely to be accomplished within a college program because they can offer diploma programs in specific areas with far fewer required non-arts courses than a university can.  If schools are honest, it also means that students are selected by audition/ portfolio/ workshop/interview based on talent, and their academic marks in non- performance areas are not given as much weight.  This can lead to problems in universities for students who don’t have strong enough academic skills and backgrounds to do well in the many required non-performance based courses. A few universities require all incoming students to audition for entrance prior to first year and these students take all their performance courses together as part of a group of less than 30 students over four years—this is a stronger conservatory approach. Others admit anyone who wants to take a theatre, music or dance program for first year sans an audition, but become far more selective and move the most talented/focused students into either a smaller conservatory-style group or into BFA degree programs in second year,  based on interviews, marks and staff recommendations, and in some cases, if it is a performance program, an audition. However, in reality NO university program is truly a conservatory since all university degrees require a hefty percentage of traditional academic courses to graduate !


MULTIDISCIPLINARY OR INTERDISCIPLINARY PROGRAMS:  this is another idea whose time has come, and many schools now offer these as a first year option or, in some cases, as a full degree program. They often have catchy names, like Artslinks, Interarts, or Foundations, and usually offer a more personalized-interest degree with greater depth and wider breadth than traditional major/minor arts programs.  Arts, Fine Arts and Humanities faculties have been recognizing this and re-organizing accordingly: they offer degrees in Arts & Culture Studies, or Cultural Studies, or Contemporary Studies, with more choices for the individual who might otherwise not be able to sample courses after first year in a wider variety of departments.


DEGREE: what you get when you graduate from a university program. They are usually intended to take four years, but may take three in some provinces with different high school systems. Or in some cases—usually co-op programs or concurrent education ones-- they can take 4.5 – 5 years to complete. If you don’t take a full course load every year, or can’t get into a required pre-requisite, or don’t pass a required course/get a high enough mark, you will end up spending additional time to get a degree—however, for many first and second year kids a lighter load is very helpful as they learn to balance their university lives.  Anyone planning to work more than about 10-12 hours a week should recognize that they will almost always have to spend an additional semester or year to complete a degree—currently more than half of Canadian students do NOT complete a degree within four years, many because they must work as well.  It is much better to take a smaller load—every year if necessary—to ensure that you do as well as you can, and to bypass the anxiety which is endemic in university students today.


DIPLOMA: what you get when you graduate from a college program, or from a conservatory like NTS; generally diploma programs take 2-3 years. Basically it means that most of the courses you have taken are part of a training program involving a specific set of skills/talents with a career focus, rather than a more general and wider set of courses such as those taken for a degree. There are seldom many options within a conservatory curriculum: a whole group of students are taking the same specialized courses on the same timetable.  Numbers in conservatory and college programs are far lower than in university programs.


CERTIFICATE:  a more specialized short term course, often only a few months or a year; sometimes added to a degree, like a one year arts administration certificate at the end of a BA degree—but more often awarded for specific very focused short term programs in colleges.  Some colleges now offer, for example, a first year Foundation or Fundamentals program for promising students in such areas as animation or acting or music theatre.  This is because those who interviewed them, saw their portfolio or conducted their audition didn’t think these students were ready yet to take the 2-3 year program, often because they came from small high schools which didn’t offer the same number or variety of useful pre-requisite courses as do big city or arts high schools: but they do think they have promise which, with the first year certificate program, MAY make it more likely that they will get into the ‘real’ program later.  You need to recognize that the stats vary from year to year, but taking these courses is NOT a promise or a guarantee—or even in most cases a strong likelihood—that someone will be accepted into the full diploma program the following year.



BA, BA Hon, HBA, BFA, BEd….huh???


A BA Gen degree means a Bachelor of Arts—the basic university degree for anyone studying in arts, languages, English, humanities, and social sciences.  Usually this takes 3 years of study and requires about 90 credits/30 courses—depending on how the university calculates it.  These are now relatively rare except in provinces which have longer high school programs.   (A BS degree is the same thing but is aimed at those studying sciences, maths, business, computers or engineering: again, there are few 3 year programs left. )


A BA, BA Honours (aka BAH or HBA) degree usually means a 4 year, c. 120 credit/40 course degree which requires that  c. 70-75% of the credits to be taken in a major area, or a double major, or a major /minor,  and the remainder in other courses in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities, or Social Sciences.  Usually an Honours degree also requires that all first year courses are completed with an average of 70% or better, either in courses in the major only or overall, and that one’s GPA (grade point average) remain above that level throughout the degree program.  In some universities Honours students with exceptionally high overall marks get a ‘with distinction’ added to their degree when they graduate, or are on the Dean’s Honour Roll—very helpful for grad school admission!


A BFA or BFA Honours degree means a 4 year degree in a Fine Arts area in which practical, applied studies in production, studio, performance or practicum courses are a major component of the program.  These are always balanced by more academic, lecture and seminar based, traditional theory/history/literature/critical analysis courses, although there tend to be fewer of these in a Theatre or Drama Studies BFA than in other arts areas. Often students are not admitted to specific majors in a BFA program until they have completed the first year of a general BA; usually some combo of department approval, high marks in foundation courses, and perhaps a portfolio, audition or interview are used to select those who will be allowed to take, for example, very small and select second and subsequent year acting, design, dance, writing, and direction courses. Most universities use this as a way to weed out students who were academically bright enough to get into a Faculty of Fine Arts program out of high school but whom they think aren’t talented or committed enough to become professionals in that arts area.


A BEd degree means one has completed a BA or BAH (or BS, or BSc—Bachelor of Science degree) or BFA degree and an additional year (sometimes two) of university courses: in a few cases in Ontario the Faculty of Education offers concurrent or consecutive programs for their own students. However, most universities do not have a Faculty of Education and students often go to the University of Toronto, Ottawa, Queen’s or Laurentian for their BEd work.  Those who want to teach in an arts area need to make sure they have enough courses in another—preferably academic-- area as a teaching subject (aka ‘teachable’) to qualify, plus extensive experience with children.  Currently there are so few potential teaching jobs in Ontario—a situation which for high schools may well extend another 4-7 years—that it is almost as tough to get into a Faculty of Education as it is to get into graduate business programs, law or medical school in Ontario.  The Ontario government is considering lengthening the BEd program to two years—which would probably mean a serious cost increase although not to the level of MBA, law or medical degrees. The intent may be to make a teaching degree equivalent in time to an MBA, but most teachers feel this would be a waste of time and money unless the two year program included less theory and far more practicum work in schools than is presently provided J  It would however gradually decrease the backlog of young unemployed teachers. This should no longer be seen as a ‘back up plan’ for someone hoping for a career as an artist, musician, actor, dancer—but only for those for whom teaching is genuinely a first choice-- a “calling”, if you like!