One of the things I emphasize most to prospective students is that their views of their future aspirations will most definitely change over the course of undergrad. The main reason for this is that up until high school, you are surrounded by a very small subset of people. You might not be from a very diverse or multicultural home town, and it may be your first time being exposed to people of certain races, different ethnical foods, different professors’ teaching styles, different weather, etc.

I’m going to do a series of posts that talk about different topics that a person will be exposed to during their undergrad - starting with:

Choosing your program != Choosing your life career
I have had people telling me their 10 year plan of going to grad school after undergrad. This is likely due to traditional parents’ influences in a time or place that required grad school for people to be given a better job selection. For fields like medicine and law, yes, you will need to embark on several extra years of education. But many people will find out that they don’t actually want to do science or they don’t actually want to become a lawyer, though, and there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately high school usually doesn’t provide a good indication for how you will like your undergrad major, and how you will like your future job. Luckily most universities provide flexibility for transferring between various programs.

I don’t think people realize it but transferring programs is a very common thing to do. If you’re going into UW’s specialized programs - AFM, all disciplines of Engineering, our double degrees with laurier, CFM, BioTech/CA, etc. you can see that these programs are extremely specific and allow very little room for electives and exploration. These programs are set for specific future roles, and they tend to be more competitive to get into. But these programs aren’t for everyone. I know a lot of AFM friends that realized mid-way that they really don’t want to be an accountant for their career, and switch out to a different arts program. I know a number of double degree friends who end up just dropping into the degree they like more. There is nothing unusual about transferring programs, and you do NOT necessarily need to perform badly a course to realize that. You also should not think of it as a downgrade if you ever decide to transfer. Although I will not be talking about comparing two individual programs as worse or better than the other, I highly discourage inflicting these opinions on others. Everyone has their own reasons.

General programs like Biochemistry, Arts & Business, Computer Science, and Math tend to allow a lot of room for exploration at the beginning, and eventually you have to declare a major (by then you have hopefully found what you liked, and maybe if you like two things, declare 1 of them as your minor). This is how undergrad should be, but Waterloo just happens to have a bunch of very specific programs aimed at very specific careers.

Engineering is very specialized because you can gain designation after undergrad, but in return, you go through some very tough years of undergrad. A master’s isn’t really necessary, though a number of people still pursue a master’s or even a phD if they are really interested in certain research areas.

Whether you start of in a general program or a specialized program, make sure you think about whether it is what you really want to study by the end of your first year, because it gets to be more difficult to transfer as you move further into your upper years.

Length of Undergrad
Another concerning topic is the idea that you should finish undergrad in 4 years, or even 3 if you fast track. The unique thing about Waterloo, though, is that everyone finishes in about 5 years anyway due to co-op. And once you really become accustomed to co-op and seeing that it helps pay for your tuition, helps break up your amount of school work and stress factors, you might consider extending the length of time taken to complete your degree. Yes, meaning people take less courses per term so they can reduce work load. This is completely fine in most programs but again, if you are in a specialized program, you will likely not be able to take a smaller work load due to availability of courses being limited to specific terms. You basically can’t do it in engineering at all if you want to graduate in the year intended.

I have a ton of CS friends who had the freedom to take 1 less course per term, or maybe drop a course if they didn’t like it some term ago, and are making it up at the end. They would simply graduate 1 or 2 terms later. And this is completely normal. So please, to the people who may have failed a term due to bad life choices, it’s not a big deal. Many people stay up to a year to finish up undergrad.

On the contrast, I have a friend who majored in Physics and graduated ahead of time because she didn’t have co-op and it is completely normal to have a study term in the spring/summer.

TL;DR: although it’s important to plan ahead and understand your options, your perspectives will change once you actually experience undergrad, and there’s nothing wrong with taking a few extra terms to finish school.