Try Making Admission Decisions

Here’s your chance to see what it’s like to make an admission decision.  The following is a hypothetical case, but not unusual.

Let’s say there is only one space left in our Fusion Engineering program (no, we don’t actually have a Fusion Engineering program; it’s hypothetical!).  The following 5 applicants are next in the ranked list of candidates, and have similar total scores (overall average + AIF score).  We will assume that they all come from typical high schools in Ontario and that there are no differences in adjustment factors, and no extenuating circumstances to consider.

Which one would you pick?  The one with the highest average, or highest AIF score (indicating exceptional extra-curriculars or awards)?  Or, one with better English, or physics?  Leave a comment with your choice and an explanation if you like.

English 89 72 79 70 86
Chem 94 83 78 71 87
Physics 78 82 79 88 81
Functions 81 79 81 88 72
Calculus 79 82 80 88 72
Other 81 83 96 90 95
Average 83.7 80.2 82.2 82.5 82.2
AIF Score 1 4.5 2.5 2.5 3
Total Score 84.7 84.7 84.7 85.0 85.2

53 thoughts on “Try Making Admission Decisions

  1. I would go for applicant E. E is the most all round applicant in this pool. The average for the average % is 82.16%. The average for the AIF score is 2.7. Applicant E is above the average in both cases where as all other applicants are below average in one category or the other.

  2. As a student, here are my thoughts on deciding between which student to admit.

    I consider the maths fundamental courses because they can be judged objectively, and a strong foundation in these courses often lead to higher grades in the sciences, which are basically applied math courses. More emphasis should be placed on these courses. In contrast, English is quite a subjective course; some teachers may prefer your writing style and others may not. In grade 9 I had 90s in English, but suddenly in grade 10 it had dropped to the 70s. In addition, the curriculum being taught to students focuses on literary analysis and other things that are irrelevant to engineering. As long as the student is able to communicate clearly, their English mark shouldn’t be a huge factor in deciding between applicants.

    Chemistry is a course that involves a lot of theory and memorization. Doing well in this course shows that you do the work and can spend time to understand the material. It is not a course that you can excel at simply by using logic and working things out in your head. Some people who are indeed smart – meaning someone who doesn’t just regurgitate facts, but also have the ability to think critically and cleverly solve problems based on logic – might not do well in this course because of the memorization and theory you need to know, whereas math and physics courses don’t require as much knowledge in theory. Personally I’ve had bad experiences with chemistry. I’m easily distracted so I’m not able to concentrate on memorizing material, which is also partially why I did poorly in biology and history.

    The 6th course can sometimes show the student’s interests. It is an elective that they’re able to freely choose and a high mark in this course can show how well they can do while working on something they enjoy. Depending on the course, it might just be a ‘bird course’ to boost up their average.

    I’m not exactly sure how the AIF is marked and how the grades compare. How much better is a score of 4.5 to a 4? The AIF can outline more about a student’s abilities, their personality, interests, and if they bother to take initiative and work on something that they’re passionate about.

    Depending on the student’s 6th course and AIF details, I would choose between applicant B and D. I lean more towards B because their ECs may have contributed to a slightly worse grade and doing things outside of school shows me that they’re capable of exploring more than what schools present to you. I believe that someone who is passionate about what they like is more likely to succeed.

  3. Applicant A seems like he/she is putting the effort into their work, but is a pretty average student.
    Applicant B seems like an average student grade wise, but is able to do things outside of school, create social connections, etc.
    Applicant C seems like the average joe. Nothing particularly special at all.
    Applicant D seems like the person who can solve problems, but is too lazy to take the time to work. This person is more likely to have the potential for becoming more successful than the other applicants if he/she decides to start working diligently.
    Applicant E is much like A, but the poor math marks are very unattractive.

  4. I would go with Applicant D because they are the most qualified (according to %) for subjects like Math( Calculus and Vectors), and Physics which form the crux of Engineering and are important for success in the field.

  5. I would choose candidate B. While he does not have the highest of scores in the subjects, it is still commendable, given that he has a great involvement in extra-curriculars. We all know that all-rounded students are almost always the most successful ones in universities.

  6. I would go for Candidate D. With the knowledge that engineering lays a lot of stress on Physics and Maths, candidate D is more suited with 88% in the mentioned subjects.

  7. As a follow up to Peter’s comment from above, I’m just wondering how much emphasis is placed on English for engineering applicants during the admission process. I know communication is a key skill for any engineer, but I feel as if the curriculum has drifted too far from teaching us how to communicate. Instead it focuses too much on Shakespeare and is a very subjective class in terms of marking. Just curious on how English is treated and any thoughts you may have Professor Anderson.

    • I plan to write about this in more detail when I get some time. For now, I’ll say that English communication skills are considered to be quite important for a variety of academic and professional reasons. However we realize that a mark in Grade 12 English does not always reflect these communication skills, so it’s a complicated issue.

  8. When you admit applicants, are you only basing the decision off of the scores as presented in the above chart or do you also read the individual’s AIF as well? Would a strong interest in the discipline an applicant has applied to affect the decision?

    • It is primarily based on the scores, like in the example. The AIF score should reflect interest in the discipline to some extent. I don’t personally read them all (there are over 7500), although I see parts of them and look at individual cases where necessary.

  9. English! I think English is the key to success. If you can communicate your thoughts and ideas, I am sure you can succeed 🙂 Math is important too.. Student E and C seem cool.
    I have a question though.
    If a (theoretical/kind of me) student has an average (5 prereqs + 1) that is in the mid 80s and one of those marks include a mark in the 60s, is there any chance of still getting an offer? (management/geological/enviro)

    • We have a minimum grade requirement for the required courses (70% for the Ontario courses), so if one of them is below that it will be a significant problem and chances will be very low unless there are some extenuating circumstances.

  10. After seeing this post, I realize how hard your jobs can be. Making decisions like this probably takes a lot of time and consideration on your part. I would personally chose option E because it seems like he is overall the most rounded applicant. For example, option A has good physics and English marks but that was achieved with little to no ECs. But applicant E had similar grades but with ECs so he would have probably had a higher mark if he did not put as much effort into his ECs. Some people are saying English is subjective but at the same time, if a person is good at writing , they will often get high marks regardless of the teacher because a lot of the marks are based on grammar, syntax and organization which does not have too much to do with creativity or whether your teacher liked it.
    I feel that the English mark displays a persons creativity and ingenuity more than other subjects since a lot of the other subjects are about just doing homework or ability to comprehend difficult ideas but not about creating their own ideas. That is just my two cents.
    Just out of curiosity, which one would you pick prof. Anderson?

    • Yes, many hours are spent pondering decisions like those in this example. It’s actually worse when you factor in different school systems. Which one would I pick? Let’s consider.
      App A: marks are pretty good overall, although the AIF was apparently not impressive.
      App B: AIF must be quite interesting, so I might look at it to see. The English mark (72%) is close to our minimum, so I would look to see if that was a final or midterm grade. If midterm, I would worry that it might drop below 70% and we would have to revoke an offer later.
      App C: overall OK, although the “Other” course is really carrying him/her.
      App D: again, some borderline marks that could be a concern if they were not final and might drop.
      App E: another couple of borderline marks, this time in the math courses. That would be of concern, since math is quite important for any Engineering program.

      There is no obvious correct answer, and I would probably also look at Grade 11 marks to see if they indicate any persistent strengths or weaknesses. For example, if Applicant E also had a Grade 11 Functions mark in the 60s or low 70s, that would suggest a weak math background.

      Overall, from the data given here I might go with Applicant B or C.

  11. If one of your gr11 marks was in the low 70s, but high 70s in grade 12, would it raise a concern? And if the 6th course carried your average would that make you less competitive?

  12. Professor Anderson,

    I’m a big fan. And, I love this post. Your transparency and willingness to engage the students is impressive. Especially given the timing (this must be the absolute peak of the admission review process). A few questions came to mind as I read it. I don’t expect you’ll have the time to respond, but I thought I’d write my thoughts down.

    How do you evaluate the quality of your admission decisions? with stats? individual case studies?
    Many engineering schools (i.e. McGill, Alberta, McMaster, Western, Calgary) use grades as the sole/primary selection criteria. Judging from your incredibly insightful posts, a tremendous amount of work goes into your multi-factor evaluation process – what’s the ROI? Does your admission process allow you to do something that other schools cannot?

    • Thanks. Yes we’re very busy at the moment so this might be brief.

      Yes, annually we do statistical analysis of the admitted students and how they did in our first year program. We use that information to fine-tune various parts of the process. Grades are still the strongest factor in our admissions decisions because they correlate with success (even if the correlation is not that great). Assessing the impact of the Admission Information Form is more difficult to do quantitatively, but we’re working on it over the next few years. Anecdotally it seems to be helpful, but there are probably ways to make it better.

  13. Dear Prof. Anderson,

    I really like the idea of engaging prospective students through this blog and giving insight about Waterloo engineering. I was just wondering about the applicant pool and cutt-off this year for ECE. I know last year a record number of applications were received (9000 I guess) so I was just curious how it was this year?

    • I think applicant numbers are up for ECE, and across the board. We won’t know about cut-offs until later, because it not only depends on numbers of applicants but also what their marks are like. I suspect it will be similar to last year.

  14. Hi Professor Anderson,

    I am a little worried by the above post about increased applicants across the board. Was this the same for Software Engineering? What do you anticipate will be the admission average for SE? Will a 93.167 average be competitive?

      • Is there any chance that the number of spots available will be increased as a result of the increase in applicants? How significant was the increase in applicants for Software?


      • No we can’t increase the number of spots. We are already at our limits in all the engineering programs for class room and lab space, government funding, and faculty. I think the Software applications were up around 10 to 15%.

  15. I was wondering whether an applicant will be able to find out their AIF scores eventually. Also, do you guys give special preference to students from special programs such as IB, or the TOPS program (at Marc Garneau C.I.) because I heard a lot of students go from these programs into Waterloo. Also, what is the threshold of number of students that need to be sent to Waterloo in order for a high school adjustment factor to be applied to that particular school. Thank you in advance.

    • We don’t routinely release AIF scores because it would consume a lot of staff resources when we’re already very busy. Enrichment programs are positive factors, but I wouldn’t say we give special preference. Adjustment factors are only calculated if we have at least 10 to 15 people over the past 8 years.

  16. Hello.
    A question in regards to a previous post. If a student were to have a 71 function mark (Grade 11), and a 79 Advance function mark (Grade 12), and a 90 Calculus mark (Grade 12), would this student have a chance? Note that although the mark jumps may seem great, this student’s second semester marks were in the high 80s range, and calculus was not taken in any other alternative education.
    I am also wondering if, for example, the student had a weak first semester average (in the low 80s), but in the second semester, they tried extremely hard and got a mid term average of 90, would admissions hold the second semester mid term marks at higher standing? Since it does show that the student has the ability to achieve high marks, or that something might have happened in semester one, but was not reported in the AIF, as they did not feel it was important.


    • In the May admissions the Grade 11 marks are irrelevant for the large majority of applicants, except maybe in a small number of cases where we’re trying to “split hairs” and distinguish between a few applicants with similar results (the topic of this post). So in the scenario you describe the applicant certainly has a chance. High marks in the second semester will definitely help (assuming they are in the required courses we use for the admission average).

  17. Also, On regards to admissions, previously, a chart was released on the Waterloo engineering website, which shows the percentage or likelihood of a student receiving an offer, does the average shown include the AIF score and adjustment factors?

  18. Engineering is not as easy as business or other programs and students need very strong math and physics foundations to succeed, and in the case all applicants have quite weak math and physics marks. Therefore if one applicant must be selected, it should be applicant D.

  19. Hi, Prof. Bill I just wondering if u could answer some of my question . I am currently in high school and will in high school for next year . I will come to Waterloo I guess the year after ( 2014-2015) …so my question is about I have repeated courses and I am stressed too much and I really want to get in to University of Waterloo . And my dream is to be a computer Engineering , come from Africa last year .so my marks are or will be as follows
    English…… 80 ( I will try as hard as I could to make it 80)
    Chem ……. 86
    Physics…… 85( Repeated )
    Functions ….. 88 ( repeated )
    Calculus ….. 82 ( didn’t take it yet , but I will get 82 or more for sure )
    Other ….. 98 ( Autocad ) …
    AIF Score…. 2 ( currently involved )

    So, Sir, do u think I could get in to Waterloo Engineering ? And what do I need other than this and T.O.F.L.E or English Proficiency Test .
    Thank you.

    • It’s difficult to know anything for sure in advance. It depends on the level of competition, the actual grades, the school or system, other individual factors. The best I can suggest, is that if you’re interested in Waterloo then apply and see what happens. But also have some alternate plans for less competitive universities. All the accredited computer engineering programs in Canada can provide an equally good opportunity and education.

  20. Hello Professor Anderson,
    If a person had a 78% in functions 11 and currently has a 98% in advanced functions and most likely a mid-high 90 in calculus, would that be concerning? Would that be bad, even for early admission? What if the persons other courses were all consistent with their grade 11 marks(eg. Grade 11 physics being 86 and grade 12 being 90)? Thanks for all the help in everything!

  21. IB should be factored in AIF score for sure cause, Ontario universities don’t seem to care of the struggles they went through. IB is way harder than AP, TOPs and other programs, yet the only benefit for being in IB is for a diploma which is worth nothing in the end.

  22. Does Waterloo take into consideration that Alberta students write diplomas that constitutes 50% of their course grade? Also, Does Waterloo have a male to female ratio standard? for example, would a girl with 89% average be more likely admitted than a guy with 90% average (assuming equal in all other aspects)? As well, if my completed math 30 mark is 100%, would my low math20 IB mark of 87% be looked at? will it affect my admission average at all?

    • For AB provincials, we use the mid-term marks we have in April and make conditional offers so that the final acceptance will depend on maintaining your grades. We encourage female applicants, but have no specific targets. Math20 is not used if there is a Math30 grade available.

  23. I understand that the adjustment factor is based on the difference between first year university averages and high school averages. Suppose I go to a high school and get an average between 97-99, but most students from that high school did relatively bad in university. Would I still have a chance of getting accepted? By relatively bad, I mean their university averages were significantly lower or they even dropped out during first year.

    • That’s how the adjustment factor works, but it’s impossible to answer this. On average, everyone’s average drops 15 to 18 marks in university, so that’s what we’re comparing to. There are also statistical methods used to ensure the adjustment is appropriate and we have sufficient data to make a conclusion. A high average will always have a decent chance.

      • I also wanted to know what extra curricular’s would be appropriate for admissions. I should have mentioned this in my original post; I am looking to apply for either software engineering or computer science. So far, I have 200+ hours volunteering on the youth council at my local youth center. I have also facilitated programs for children between the ages 6-12. However, I do not have any extra curricular activities related to programming specifically.


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