Programs that have many more applicants than available spaces all have one major problem.  How do you “differentiate” between many applicants with similar backgrounds and academic achievements?  To illustrate, here is a histogram of the distribution of grades for Waterloo Engineering in a past year.  ApplicantGradeHistogram(How to read a histogram:  the left bar labelled “80” shows the number of applicants with admission averages of 80 and less.  The next bar shows the number with averages of over 80 to 85, etc.) .  The total number of applicants is about 8,000, but there are only about 1,500 spaces, so how to decide?

Clearly the ones in the “80” group are probably not going to get an offer, and the ones in the “100” bin probably are, but what about the large mass in between?  Most people agree that an applicant with an 93% average is probably not significantly “better” than one with an 89% average, given some randomness in grading practices.  So that’s where our Admission Information Form (AIF) attempts to provide a way to “differentiate” between applicants by providing additional “points” to be added to the admission average.  Some past posts have discussed what’s in the AIF, such as this post, as well as how it is reviewed and scored.

The AIF has helped to give applicants with slightly lower averages a better chance at an offer, but it could be better.  So this year, as described on the Waterloo web page, we’re trying some additional bonus points to help identify applicants who are academically strong but also have qualities that might help them excel in Waterloo’s co-op program.  Specifically, the AIF is still given an overall score (from 0.5 to 5) but additional points may be added for things such as:

  1. Heavier academic load.  Taking more than the usual number of grade 12 academic courses during the academic year shows some ability to handle the significantly increased load in university.  In Ontario, this would translate into taking 8 U/M courses during the current school year (not including summer school, or fast tracking courses in prior years).  Note that taking extra courses but not doing well in them would be a negative factor.
  2. Applicants who show better than average “employability”.  This would typically be prior summer or part-time work experience, or significant unpaid volunteer experience that would be attractive to employers.  Our data indicates that students with better “employability” have an easier time getting their first co-op job, and so we would like to encourage or promote this.
  3. Significant achievements.  These would be national or international level awards or very high results in competitions (say top 10% at a national level).  Sometimes an AIF may be only “average” overall, although there are significant achievements highlighted, so we will flag these as separate items.  This will likely be fairly rare.
  4. Participation in selected enrichment programs.  These would be programs where you have to compete to be selected and are more than just a few days in length.  The Shad Valley program is a prime example, although we will consider others on a case by case basis.
  5. Any other “unique” experience or attributes, such as entrepreneurial experience.  It’s hard to say what this might include, but it’s up to the reviewers to identify people with something unique that would help them be successful at Waterloo.  The large majority of applicants will not have this.

So those are a few new factors that might help some applicants stand out a bit higher in the rankings compared to just using the admission averages alone.

(Note:  comments are welcomed, but I can’t give opinions on specific situations and whether they would get any bonus points.  That’s up to the reviewers, not me.)



40 thoughts on “Differentiation

  1. Is taking 8 U courses the only way to get the bonus point for a heavier academic load. For example, I am at a Jewish school and take a dual curriculum of Judaic studies as well as regular studies. Due to this, I am in school every day from 7:30-5:30. For every day, I spend about four hours in Judaic courses. Over the whole year this all gets averaged into two U credits, which brings me to 7 U credits. I think it is blatantly clear, however, that this Is also evidence that not only can I handle a high workload, but I am actually currently taking a similar workload and excelling. Would this also qualify for that bonus point in the AIF? Also where would you suggest I wrote about this in the AIF? Thank you,
    Eli Levinson

  2. Interesting work as always. Just a quick question though: you mentioned that a 93 average can be difficult to truly differentiate from an 89 average – however, would you say that the same principle applies as averages increase? For example, wouldn’t it be equally difficult to distinguish between, say, a 97 average and a 94 average?

    Also, maybe you could give your opinion on this: in American high schools, I’m pretty sure they have final grades measured on a 4.0 GPA scale. If Canadian high schools were to adopt such a practice (instead of averages out of 100), do you think it would help in differentiating between applicants?

    • Yes, a 97 and 94 are probably not that different either. There is a certain amount of random “noise” in any grading. There are all sorts of other GPA and similar grading systems out there. I don’t see any particular advantages of one over the other.

  3. Hello Professor,

    Time and time again I see people explain the importance of the AIF in distinguishing yourself from other applicants, and I was wondering if you could answer a few brief questions for me as my situation is a little unique;

    I graduated High School in 2012, studied for 2 years at Carleton in an unrelated field, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about and so I’ve stepped back, and I’m looking to get credits I missed/repeat courses through ILC to strengthen my average and apply (admittedly to CS not Eng, but hope you can help)

    – I saw in a previous post as a rule of thumb you said repeating a course will incur a 5% hit across your average, making it worth repeating ONLY if you boosted the mark by 30%, would this 5% penalty be the same, greater, or lesser because my High School education was a few years ago? If my English was 83 at the time for example, is it worth re-taking at raising it to a 95?

    – In general, how will the fact that I am returning to High School courses after this gap be seen? A positive sign of maturity? Or will my lacklustre high school marks be a hindrance?

    – Will my two years at Carleton factor into my acceptance at all? Will they look at my marks there? They are in totally unrelated courses, and when I apply to Waterloo I will have not even studied there for a number of years, so I’m hoping to minimize its impact

    – For my AIF, how far can I go to supplement my marks? Volunteer charity work? Building my own computer/teaching myself some code? Tutoring high school students?

    – Will a lot of this boil down to how well I explain my situation in the AIF? I would hate to be ruled out despite achieving a high average and supplementing it with extra curriculars just because of my situation.

    Thank you in advance for your time!

    • These sorts of cases are very complicated, and the Admissions Officers have to work through all the details and factors shown in the file. I can’t really comment, other than to suggest you describe everything in the AIF or a supplemental document if necessary.

  4. Hi professor!
    In your opinion would an Ontario student taking 7 U/M courses in their final year be eligible for a bonus point or would they be treated the same as a student taking 6 courses?

  5. Good day, Professor! I applied to both UWaterloo CS & Honours Math and have a very competitive average and programming ECs. The only problem is that I didn’t apply for Engineering but I’ll be taking Physics and Chemistry in 2nd semester. I’m just second guessing if I really want CS or Eng (specifically Mech). Once I’ll begin my 1A in CS, is it possible to transfer from CS to Engineering? What are the chances? Do I have to repeat 1A? Are there any other requirements? Thank you.

  6. Well, these seem steps in the right direction.

    * The main problem remains: the fact that nobody knows if 92% in one high school with a certain teacher is the same as a 92% in another high school with a different teacher.

    As a parent and engineer, I am dumbfounded.
    I see in the newspapers and in your admission average statistics that there are thousands of students with required high school averages of 95% and over and I’m wondering how can that be.

    In his first two years of high school my son has done well enough in the math competitions to have his name on the list and to be invited to math camp both years. However his high school math average was 91% one year and 92% another year.
    Also my son already took the grade 12 programming course, he had an excellent teacher; he loved it and he learned a lot. He passed the programming AP exam with 4/5. However his grade on the grade 12 programming course was 90%. As a parent I agree with his high school grades; based on the course requirements and the grading of all his work during the semester I think his averages were fair. I also believe that high school is the time to stretch young minds (within reason) and clear, hard-earned grading helps with that.

    So how can one fairly compare grades from one high school to another in the absence of any objective measurement?

    * 8 U/M courses during grade 12 is definitely a good idea to prepare for engineering workloads.
    What if a student doesn’t have enough 8 U/M grade 12 courses left to choose from since the student has already taken 2 or 3 U/M grade 12 courses earlier than grade 12 and for other courses – such as grade 12 biology – the student does not have the pre-requisites for?

  7. Is Biomedical eng supposed to be the most competitive this year? is the average low 90s or mid 90s and how many spots are available this year? Thanks!

  8. On the Waterloo website it says that that the AIF deadline has been extended until March 20. If I send my AIF after February 6th would this have any effect on my admission decision? Secondly, if I submit it a few days after the February 6th deadline, say the 8th or 9th, would my admission decision be delayed significantly?

  9. Hello Professor,
    Since the AIF deadline was extended, I was wondering how admissions will change. Will early admission only be offered to those that submitted it before the original deadline? (Feb 6) If not, what will be the new date for early offers to arrive?

  10. Hello professor, just wondering if you could give an idea for the number of applicants and how many spots are available for mechatronics this year

  11. Hi Professor,

    I submitted my AIF in January. I listed 7 grade 12 courses in the courses taken section. However, now that semester 2 has begun, I have taken another Grade 12 U course as I found it very interesting. As you said, students with 8 grade 12 U courses will get benefit. My question is that will the admissions committee be looking at the marks that are sent through OUAC to determine the number of courses taken or will it be based on what courses the person listed in the AIF? Is it worth it to go and make an amendment in my AIF to add this course?

    Thank you very much!

  12. Hello Professor Bill Anderson.

    First, I want to thank you for this helpful post. As I read about the AIF, a question came to my mind. My family has been moving a lot due to the type of work my parents do, so I have quite a few schools that I have attended. In the AIF in the schools attended part, are the schools supposed to be listed in any particular order. If so, does it go from the latest to the oldest? In my AIF, the schools seems to be listed in random order which makes me a little bit worried as that would be wrong if they are actually supposed be to in order. Thank you.

  13. Hi Prof,

    I have an AIF question. I applied to CS and Engineering. I completed all the Engineering sections and submitted it. However, I had yet to submit my Math/CS section because it was due later. Does this mean my AIF for Engineering was actually not handed in?

    Thank you.

  14. Hi Prof. Anderson,
    Thanks for all of the information – I’ve found it very useful. I have a couple of questions that I hope you might be able to help me with.

    1) With regards to a heavy academic load, would the IB diploma programme count? I’m currently taking Higher Level Math, Chemistry, and Physics as part of it, along with Standard Level Economics, French, and Literature, which is the max number of courses that we are allowed to take at my school under this program.
    2) In terms of employability, could you advise me as to how research experience might be regarded? I had turned down offers from Shad Valley and other summer enrichment programs for a chance to do research at U of T for the past couple summers, so I was hoping that it will not work against me. Would it help to note: “accepted to shad valley” at some point in my AIF?
    3) Could you give me an idea of the competitiveness of of the ChemEng program this year, in terms of applicants and spots? Rough estimates would be great.

    Thank you!

    • 1) the IB program is already looked at positively, so no extra load bonus is used.
      2) research experience would certainly be positive for employability.
      3) the chemical engineering competitiveness is about the same as last year, described in the Chances post

  15. Hello professor,
    Do you know have any idea of the number of applicants this year for the nanotechnology program and how many spaces are available.

  16. Hi Professor,

    In this post you talked about enrichment programs, would Waterloo’s Catalyst program, and U of T’s DEEP program qualify. Also, would you say that volunteering at a hospital would be considered “significant unpaid volunteer experience that would be attractive to employers.”

    Thank you,


    • Catalyst and DEEP are nice programs, but not “competitive” for admission like Shad so I wouldn’t think that there will be bonus points for them. Hospital volunteering would be attractive, if it involved consistent effort over a period of months. A few hours here and there is better than nothing, but not the same as a job.

  17. I find it very disheartening to read that SHAD is weighted so strongly on the AIF. Having just looked at their Website, the cost to attend is 4 500, if chosen. Unfortunately I cannot afford to pay for this and must inform my son. The 4+ years of university tuition and residence will be difficult enough.

    • Yes, that can be a significant barrier for a lot of people, although they say that financial support is available. Participation in Shad is a positive factor, but I wouldn’t say it’s weighted so strongly. Good work experience probably carries more weight for us.

  18. Hello Professor,
    Will you be creating an updated post on this subject for the 2017 admissions? Has anything changed or does everything above still stand, and to the same extent?

    From what I understand, the AIF plus the extras can give up to a 10% boost to one’s admission score. Would I be correct to say that?

    As well, due to computer issues (class lists were deleted, I was not able to get into courses I was originally enrolled in because they are now full), and due to lack of staff/student enrolement, I was not able to attain a full eight 4U/M course schedule. I may only have 6 or even 5 courses total (all 4U/M level) in my grade 12 year. Will I be penalized in anyway (lower AIF score or average adjustment)? Would taking e-learning courses (these class lists have also been deleted, I may have a chance of getting in as the waitlist is relatively small) in place of those classes count towards the academic load bonus? I would otherwise be forced to take multiple spares or sign up for a non-grade 12 level course instead.

    Thank you very much Professor,

    • Yes, I hope to update things shortly and there are some changes. I would not enroll in extra courses just for the sake of some possible bonus. It should be done because of interest, otherwise you’re better off doing something else that can improve your resume (job or volunteer work).


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s