Certificates, Diplomas, and Degrees in Canada: What They Mean and Which Path Is Right For You

Canada is one of the top five study abroad destinations in the world for international students—and it’s easy to see why. Home to some of the world’s top schools, international students will love the competitive post-graduate work opportunities and Canada’s welcoming and inclusive environment. Another top reason why international students flock to Canada is because the country’s education system offers an array of diverse and flexible post-secondary study options. However, there can be some confusion around the differences between degrees, diplomas, and certificates. We’re here to demystify these terms for you and help you choose the right path for your post-secondary studies!

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Universities, Colleges, and Vocational Schools

Before we explore the differences between degrees, diplomas, and certificates, let’s first take a broad look at universities, colleges, and vocational schools.

Universities: From small liberal arts universities to research-focused institutions, international students studying in Canada can choose the university that most closely aligns with their aspirations. Universities in Canada offer a range of degrees that are respected and recognized around the world, including bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorate degrees (PhDs).

Colleges: Colleges offer an applied, technical education to give students the tools to excel in a specialized field. With smaller class sizes, students will get more one-on-one time with their instructors and benefit from a hands-on approach.

Vocational Schools: Vocational schools provide an array of job-ready programs designed to help students hit the ground running in a specific occupation. These schools are sometimes also known as career, technical, and trade schools.

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Degrees, Diplomas, and Certificates

Now let’s break down the differences between degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Read our blog post, Canada’s Post-Graduation Work Permit: Validity and Application 101, for information on which programs meet post-graduation work permit (PGWP) eligibility requirements, and how the length of a PGWP is determined.

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A student can earn a degree at the university level, although some colleges are also now offering bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is the first designation a student will pursue if they’re studying at the university level, although, as mentioned above, an increasing number of colleges in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario also offer bachelor’s degrees. Most bachelor’s degrees are four years of full-time study, although there are some three-year bachelor’s degrees and two-year associate’s degrees.

Length: 3–4 years
Study Level: Undergraduate
Academic Prerequisites: High school
Offered by: Universities and some colleges

Learn more about Bachelor Degrees at Yorkville University

Master’s Degree

A student can pursue a master’s degree after the completion of a bachelor’s degree for further specialization in their field of study. A master’s degree can be course-based, like a Masters of Business Administration (MBA), or research-based.

Length: 1–2 years
Study Level: Graduate
Academic Prerequisites: Bachelor’s degree
Offered by: Universities


After completing a master’s degree, a student can opt to obtain a doctorate degree or PhD, the highest level of education in Canada and at most universities around the world. These programs are usually research-based and students will need to secure a research supervisor at their university.

Length: 3–7 years
Study Level: Graduate
Academic Prerequisites: Master’s degree
Offered by: Universities

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Diplomas set students up for success in a specific field or occupation and are offered at the college level. There are three types of diplomas a student can earn in Canada.

Regular Diploma

A regular diploma sets students up for success in a specific field or occupation.

Study Level: Undergraduate
Length: 2 years
Academic Prerequisites: High school
Offered by: Colleges

Advanced Diploma

An advanced diploma is more specialized than a regular diploma because it typically has a co-op or internship component. This is a unique opportunity for you to apply your skills to real-world scenarios, network within the industry, and start building your resume.

Length: 3 years
Study Level: Undergraduate
Academic Prerequisites: High school
Offered by: Colleges

Graduate Diploma

A student can opt to pursue a graduate diploma after completing a regular or advanced diploma or bachelor’s degree. A graduate diploma offers students a combination of intensive training and hands-on experience.

Length: 1–2 years
Study Level: Graduate
Academic Prerequisites: Regular/advanced diploma or bachelor’s degree
Offered by: Colleges

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Certificates are granted after a student completes a short course. A student will often pursue a certificate program for professional development or continuing education purposes, as well as to augment a previously attained designation, such as a degree and/or diploma.  

Length: Usually less than a year
Study Level: Undergraduate
Offered by: Universities, colleges, and vocational schools
Academic Prerequisites: High school

Ready to start your study abroad adventure in Canada? Explore top programs on ApplyBoard!