For many Marauders, March is a reminder of deciding to attend university.

The adjustment from high school into post-secondary is a step in formal education that every student in university has gone through, and the repercussions from being unprepared for university remain pertinent.

The disparity between student transitions into McMaster life and academics begs the question of whether this falls on the individual student or whether there are underlying challenges in providing high school students adequate exposure to the university.

Prepping for post-secondary

Ontario students made up 96.3 per cent of the collaborative undergraduate regular session headcount at McMaster.

“We draw significantly from our local community… I wouldn’t say that there are specific schools that we target within Hamilton but we visit them all and that demographic also reaches out to Halton and Peel,” notes Paula Johnson, assistant director of student recruitment.

One could expect local high schools to provide a seamless transition into McMaster due to their close proximity to the university, however there remain challenges for students to adjust to post-secondary life.

“While I was prepared enough to follow lectures and take good notes, I definitely think writing is a different story. I wasn’t taught how to write a proper university level essay,” said Leaha Capriotti, a first-year Humanities student.

Shan Bal, a Health Sciences student who previously attended Orchard Park Secondary School in Hamilton, shared a similar view.

“The level of difficulty of school work in high school is drastically different in university,” he said.

Bal indicated that he did not feel adequately prepared as compared to others.

“Many of my peers were exposed to higher standards of rigorous academia during high school at a level that is equivalent or even higher than first year in university,” he said.

The dialogue is different at the high school level.

From the perspective of local high school students at Westmount Secondary School, we hear a confident attitude in terms of how they feel prepared for university life.

“I definitely believe that this high school is preparing us extremely well for university and college and the post-secondary process in general simply because of the amount of flexibility they give you in the senior grades,” said Matthew Joseph, one of the senior students.

“The pacing and the level of responsibility really prepares us. I have friends from Westmount that have moved on and they were less intimidated by the all-nighters you may need to pull to get stuff done in university,” said Deanna Allain, another student.

Regardless, the students still acknowledge that the transition into university is not as smooth as they would have liked. This hinges mainly on the sharp difference in academic workload.

“One of the challenges [could be] a lot more reading. There could be much more written work than we are used to having,” admitted Allain.

Getting engaged

Westmount Secondary School strives to develop independence and time management for its students. The school provides flexibility in its curriculum and allows students to have the freedom to structure their own time.

“I think that definitely prepares you for when you are having a heavier workload in university,” said Joseph.

Jen Currie, head of student services at Westmount, describes the benefit of giving high school students adequate exposure to the university workload in preparation for post-secondary.

“We have a large number who go to post-secondary and a large number that goes specifically to McMaster. We often get kids who come back and say that they are well prepared,” she said.

"While I was prepared enough to follow lectures and take good notes, I definitely think writing is a different story. I wasn't taught how to write a proper university level essay,"
Leaha Capriotti
First-year student,
McMaster University 

On the flip side, Currie has observed students switching to an “easier” high school in their final year in hopes of obtaining higher marks.

“In this case, typically the students will come back [from McMaster] and say they wished they could have stayed.”

“This high school spends a lot of time trying to shape a culture of high expectations.  Westmount is more rigid in terms of assignment deadlines, and it is a self-directed school.”

With respect to student recruitment and providing students optimal exposure to post-secondary, Currie indicates her dissatisfaction in the amount of exposure McMaster offers students at Westmount and at other secondary schools in Hamilton.

She believes McMaster is falling behind Mohawk College, in terms of student recruitment strategies and offering support to the Grade 12 students interested in the programs available.

“Interactions with McMaster are often initiated on our part. Often I feel like it’s really us who are more interested in giving our students exposure to the university. I wish McMaster would do a little bit more,” Currie said.

“When I look at the outreach program that Mohawk has done — they have counsellors out at every school, providing students with the application process. Sometimes it sways some of the kids,” she added.

On the side of student recruitment at McMaster, Johnson explains the general undertakings of the university to give incoming students a sense of what McMaster is about.

The university offers regular campus tours, fall preview days and March Break week tours. These work to provide an opportunity for prospective students to speak with staff, students and student services representatives.

“We do try to ensure that we spend a significant amount of time visiting [local high schools], connecting with the counsellors. We attend their pathway events and their parent nights to sort of layer up and add more support to our local communities. However, we really don’t have a specific targeted plan in place”.

Communication is Key

Perhaps the important difference, as outlined by Currie, is that McMaster lacks a strategy that gives students individualized support in preparing them for post-secondary.

For students who call Hamilton their home, the geographic closeness to McMaster interestingly serves as a double-edged sword.

“The biggest advantage of going through school in Hamilton while transitioning to Mac is being able to come home to an unlimited supply of food and having the ability to see my family on a daily basis,” said Bal.

On the other side, however, living from home in first year creates difficulty in adjusting to the social landscape of university.

“McMaster representatives were always talking about the experience of living on residence. For me, [commuting to Mac] I know that really alienated me and a few of my high school friends that also go to McMaster,” said Andrew Leber, a first-year student.

The theme of time management and organization appears rather frequently in discussions on how McMaster can facilitate a smoother transition from high school.

"Interaction with McMaster are often initiated on our part. Often I feel like it's really us who are more interested in giving our students exposure to the university. I wish McMaster would do a little bit more."
Jen Currie
Head of student services,
Westmount Secondary School 

“In high school, I feel that I never really had the opportunity to learn and implement effective study methods,” said Joseph Murray, a second-year Social Psychology student.

Murray believes it would have been useful for high schools to begin emphasizing the importance of time management and effective studying earlier on. He would have considered it beneficial to have had a stronger awareness for scheduling and organization, prior to coming to university.

“Trying to learn these things now is especially difficult because I’ve formed some bad habits that can be hard to break,” he said.

“It would be helpful having more exposure to the university’s environment, holding events for classes to come to Mac, or having members of McMaster visit the schools could assist with the transition to university,” Murray added.

The number of students who do not return following first year is 2.5 times higher in comparison to later years.

This statistic lends support for the notion that transitioning into university from high school is difficult. From the perspective of students in the Hamilton community, a better understanding of university course load and stronger organizational skills may soften the blow of first year. Ultimately, as students suggested, this would require the university to communicate more at the secondary school level.

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