Repeated Courses and Why We Care

Admission to our Engineering programs requires the completion of certain Grade 12 courses (or equivalents in various other school systems), specifically Functions, Calculus, English, Chemistry and Physics in Ontario.  For many years we have discouraged the idea of re-taking any of these required courses to boost marks and get a competitive edge for admission.  In recent years, this has taken the form of a penalty of around 5% points off the overall average of the required courses if one or more are repeated (the higher grade is used).  The net effect is that unless the repeated course(s) add at least another 30 percentage points to the total, repeating a course is not worthwhile for competitive advantage in admissions.  In many cases, repeating course(s) will knock the application out of the competition completely.  Other universities seem to have a range of approaches, from accepting repeats without question to ignoring the improved grade completely.  So, we’re somewhere in between.  But why use this penalty approach?

It’s not that we are mean and like to punish people for some perceived flaws.  Instead, we try hard to make admission decisions using an evidence-based quantitative approach (after all, we are engineers!).  As part of this approach, each year we analyze the performance of students that were admitted in the previous few years.  One analysis compares students with repeated required courses versus those who did not repeat any.  Consistently over the years, this analysis has indicated that those students who repeated a course have a lower final average in our first year engineering program.  It is usually lower by somewhere between 5 and 8 percentage points.  We run statistical tests to ensure that the differences between the two groups are “real” and not some random fluctuations, and invariably these are real differences.  We also see a higher failure rate in the group with repeat courses.

Of course, this analysis tells us nothing about the reasons their university averages are lower, and one could speculate on a variety of factors.  The fact remains however, that if we admit someone on the basis of an average that includes repeated courses, they are likely to do less well than the others.  Therefore, the penalty factor takes this into account during the competitive selection process.  Essentially, we are trying to forecast what the applicant’s grade in engineering will be, and to only admit people that we think will be successful.  Clearly, students with repeated courses can be successful so we don’t want to exclude them from admission completely.

Of course each applicant’s situation is somewhat unique, so there is a place in the application process to explain why courses are being repeated.  We look at each case and decide whether to apply the factor, or to use some other modified approach.  As I noted at the start, we try to find some reasonable path between blindly accepting repeats and disallowing them completely, since that’s where our analysis seems to lead.

This can be a complex and confusing topic, so comments and questions are welcomed!

156 thoughts on “Repeated Courses and Why We Care

  1. Pingback: Admissions 2017: How it’s going to work | A Professor in Waterloo Engineering

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  3. My school board went on strike in 2015 and I missed a solid month of grade 11 physics. Although I pulled off a decent mark I felt it really hurt my base knowledge going into grade 12 physics. Therefore I did poorly and repeated it. Would it be a waste of my time applying for engineering at Waterloo due to the penalty? I guess I should have repeated grade 11 physics instead. Since my education dollars are really tight, could you let me know if I should save the 50.00 and not bother applying. thx

    • I took Physics 12 in BC my grade 11 year 1st semester. We have transitioned to a semester system from a linear system due to civil. My grandpa passes away of cancer in the summer. I was close to him, he lived with us. And my father had been pursuing treatment with an oncologist for cancer, when I was taking the course. I received a low mark of 90% because of this. I made simple calculation errors and got marks deducted on final. I have an average of 98% in other required courses. And wish to repeat for a better grade. Will I attract the penalty? Thanks in advance. Would getting a 5 on ap physics exams help?

      • I can’t speak for what the admissions team would do, but you should certainly mention such things in your application form. I wouldn’t say that 90% was that low anyway. Getting a high score on an AP exam is always a positive factor. Philosophically, I generally recommend not repeating courses especially if the original mark is pretty good. It’s kind of a waste of time, that you could be using to expand your education in other areas or to do extra-curriculars or part-time / volunteer work that adds to your experience and value to potential co-op employers.

  4. Pingback: Submitting Your Admission Information Form 2017 | A Professor in Waterloo Engineering

  5. Hi,
    I took SCH3U in the 10th grade and unfortunately got an 86%. I retook the course in the 11th grade and got a 96%. The reason I retook the course is that I was not satisfied with my mark on the first attempt. If I choose to apply to Waterloo for biomedical engineering, how many percentage points will be docked from my second attempt?

  6. Hey, If I get a mid 60 in Gr12 english summer school (July), and then get a mid-high 80 in Gr12 english in day school, does it matter? Thanks..

  7. My school combines the International Baccalaureate with the standard Alberta program. As a result, the in-course marks are “standardized”, where the teacher looks at the class marks on a bell curve and then increases the class average while decreasing z-scores. The mark from the new curve is the mark that they send to Alberta Education, and is supposed to reflect how the student is supposed to perform in a regular Alberta classroom, but in both my math and physics grade 12 level courses I had gotten low 90s in class and 100 on the standard provincial exams, which shows that the mark awarded in class is rather unfair. Is it still worth it for me to apply to Waterloo and obtain scholarships, since my grades are not quite competitive?

    • We admit lots of people from Alberta, so there is no obvious problem or disadvantage there compared to anywhere else. The only certain thing is that if you don’t apply you definitely won’t be admitted.

  8. Pingback: Admissions 2018: How it’s going to work | A Professor in Waterloo Engineering

  9. Hello professor, I have repeated Advanced Functions and my grade the second time around was 16% higher. If they subtract 5% of my admission average can I make up for those points by getting a good return on the AIF and the online interview or will they just subtract 5% of average. Hope you answer.

  10. hey prof, i have a 70 in english, 14% above the class avereage, this mark is way to low to be accepted into waterloo from what I understand, do you think I should retake the course to improve my mark? All my other marks are above 90%.

  11. Hello Professor,

    I’m currently fast tracking Grade 12 Chemistry and I’m really struggling as I have no time to study because of some issues at home. I’m planning to retake the course next summer.

    What sorts of explanations are generally accepted when explaining the reasoning behind repeating a course?

  12. Dear Prof.
    Hypothetically speaking, what if a student who got a 92% in MHF4U ONLY retakes the class tests and final exams WITHOUT taking lessons in class to get a 100%. Will this count as a repeated course? If so what will be the possible deductions? I’m contemplating if I should take MHF4U this fall.
    I do have valid reasons for this. I’m an immigrant to Canada and was not familiarized with the schooling system, grades, tests etc and also had to take off some time to settle down in Canada. Now when I have adapted myself to my new learning environment, I’m much more confident.
    Applying to Mechatronics 2019.

    • Waterloo engineering will only use the 92% (first attempt grade). Re-taking a course when the first grade was quite good is a waste of time, in our opinion. It’s better to move on and try new challenges.

  13. Hello Professor, I’m a BC student and I just had a question about AP courses and “retaking courses”. This blog has been really helpful in answering my various problems, but I still have one that’s been bothering me lately.

    I already took English 12 before my Grade 12th year, but going into my Grade 12th year, I have AP English Literature and Composition as one of my courses. I’ve heard that Waterloo generally takes AP courses as separate, such as with Chemistry 12 and AP Chem, but I know that I will receive a Grade 12 English mark for taking AP English Literature and Composition. Will this count as retaking? Could you just take the first mark I received and ignore the second one? Thanks for reading.

    Best regards,

      • Thanks for the reply, prof!

        I was just asking since my school gives a regular class mark with an AP class mark. As an example, AP Chemistry will give you a Chemistry 12 mark. Same thing with AP English. It will give me a regular English mark. Could I just hand in my first English 12 mark and explain the second course on my AIF?

      • It’s usually clear to us on the transcript you submit, but it doesn’t hurt to explain it on the AIF too, just to be safe. Usually if there are any uncertainties, the admissions officers will contact you directly.

  14. Hi sir,
    I’m planning on retaking computer science grade 12 because I ended up with 65% when I was in grade 11. I know this is not a required course but if I wanted to put my 2nd attempt mark for my grade 12 average would I be penalized for it?
    Thank you

    • I can’t speak for the current admissions processes, but in the past we weren’t too concerned with non-required courses, although low marks in any course can be a small red flag. I should point out that the university gets all of your marks, so it’s not a matter of choice which mark you use.

  15. Hello sir. I recently moved to Canada and started school one month late(started in October). I got 85% for MHF4U which I took in my first semester. Being one month late, not being able to move to our apartment until November affected my mark for MHF4U. Additionally, since there weren’t many courses left that I could take on my first semester, I had to take English3U and Economics4U which I struggled a lot since English was poor. Would I be penalized if repeat MHF4U for the reasons stated above? Also, would taking AP calculus solve this problem(would it be seen as a repeated course since it includes MHF4U). However, I would have to mention that my school gives normal marks for AP classes(for example, 90% in computer science4U and 90% in AP computer science are seen as same marks).

    • In general I don’t recommend repeating courses, and 85% is not a bad mark anyways. I would focus on doing well in the remaining required courses. In my experience AP Calculus was always considered a separate course from MHF4U.

  16. Hi I am currently in Grade 10 in B.C. The school year was split into 4 quarters this year, due to coranavirus restrictions. I was not able to take Pre Calculus 11, and had to take my grade level math course or not take a math course. I assumed the best case scenario would be to learn the material by myself and rapidly finish the next year, or something. When I got around to taking the Math 10 in Q4. The teacher told me I could take Pre Calc 11 with him, assuming he only gives me the tests and does not teach. I finished the course with a 99% final mark less than 2 weeks in. However, because I initially thought I would not have much to do last quarter, I had taken Physics 11 to fill the void. This inhibited my ability to complete Pre Calculus 12 as well. I was more than half way done the course. So my parents and I decided that I could take summer school to complete the class. This year the class was offered both in person and online in the summer. So I registered for both, not knowing the best option at the time. During this time I also got a full-time job. I assumed that the best mark of my two classes would be my final mark on my transcript. So I took the final exam for one of the classes, without learning about permutations and combinations. This led to me only getting a mark of 93% for that class. The final exam for the other class was after that one and I learned that unit and got a 99% final mark for that class.

    In short I took two Pre Calc 12 classes at the same time. I assumed my best mark of the 2 would be the one on my transcript. I used the final exam for one class as practice. I had not learned about the last unit at that time, because I had a full time job. I took the final exam for the other class fully prepared and got a 99%. Will I be penalised for this?

    • I can’t speak for the current admissions team, but this seems like something you should explain on your Admission Information Form (AIF) when the time comes. It doesn’t seem like a major issue to me.

  17. Hi Mr. Anderson, I am grade 12 student in Ontario. Unfortunately, I got two poor grades in SCH4u (not a prereq) and MHF4u, both 68. I am currently repeating these courses and doing very well (sufficient for the admission average). My plan is to apply for Computer science for the upcoming fall. With your expertise, if I end up inside of the admission average, am I likely to be granted admission?


    • Computer Science is part of the Faculty of Mathematics, not Engineering, so I have no direct experience with its admissions. Having said that, many of the competitive admissions programs may take a hard look at repeated required courses, so I would keep my options open with other programs and universities that have a bit lower competition for spaces. The education can be equally good anywhere, if you put in the effort and take advantage of opportunities.

  18. Greetings professor!

    I took AP Calculus AB at my school board’s online school as my first calculus course to prepare for the Ap exam in May 2023, in which I got a higher mark in it (94%). During the school year, I decided to continue practicing by taking Calculus 12 in school. Unfortunately, I had to focus on my two part time jobs and other courses during the year, and got a lower mark at my school’s Calculus 12 class (88%). I understand that because the two courses have different course codes under the B.C curriculum, it would not be considered as a repeated course, but would admissions reconsider which mark is used to calculate admission average due to the variance in mark? Thank you!


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