Applying to University Should be Like Applying for Jobs

As high school students return to class, here is some key advice for those planning to apply to university or college.  I strongly suggest that when applying to a post-secondary program, it should be treated like applying for a job or career.  There should be some significant self-reflection and “selling yourself” to the university.  The self-reflection part is derived from Prof. Larry Smith’s book, which I have briefly reviewed before.  It’s very important to know why you’re doing something before doing it.  The “selling yourself” part builds on this, and can be illustrated with an example that is a composite of stuff we see for Engineering applications.  For this example, let’s consider two hypothetical applicants to Mechanical Engineering, both with similar grades (say low 90’s) and similar other activities.  Each applicant writes something in their Admission Information Form, along the lines of the following…

Applicant A

I’m applying to Mechanical Engineering because from an early age I’ve been good at building things with Lego.  I like to take things apart and see how they work, and oftentimes I can even fix them.  I love math and science, especially physics, and have no problem solving those problems.  My friends and teachers always say that I should be an engineer, since I’m so good at problem solving.  So I look forward to learning about engineering and more complex problem solving skills, and getting work experience in Waterloo’s famous co-op program.

Applicant B

I’m applying to Mechanical Engineering because I have learned that the program content and career opportunities are a perfect fit with my interests.  I’m really interested in the physics involved with stress analysis and how it is applied to pressure vessel, piping and turbomachinery design.  I would like to tackle some projects in these areas in the refinery, nuclear power, or automotive industries, and I’m planning on completing the Welding Specialization which could be very helpful for a career in these types of industries.  I’ve looked at a lot of information on the ASME website, as well as many others and am convinced that this is the best path for me.  For some co-op workterms, I hope to get involved in some robotic welding projects, maybe at Toyota in Cambridge or Honda in Alliston.


Aren’t both applicants capable of doing well in Mechanical Engineering?

  • Academically, both probably have similar capabilities and potential for success.  But having grades and academic ability is only part of the formula for success.  Aptitude and interest are also key components (and possibly even more important than grades).

Which one is the better applicant from the admissions point of view?

  • Obviously “B”, whether it’s for a job or a university program in engineering.  They demonstrate a reasonably deep knowledge of what they want and why, and what opportunities they might pursue.  They have clearly spent time researching different aspects of the field from reputable information sources.  All employers will look for this sort of demonstration of motivation and interest, and so should university program admissions.

But what’s wrong with Applicant A’s essay?

  • The mentioned motivations (Lego, dismantling things, problem solving) are not specific to engineering, and could be suitable for many other career paths  (for example, bricklaying or automotive repair).  The motivations are also passive; other people have suggested an engineering path.  There is no indication of any self-motivated research, reflection, or insight into the field.  This could be one of those applicants who doesn’t last 6 weeks in university before dropping out because it wasn’t what they expected.  In admissions, we have no way of knowing if this applicant is really a good fit or not.  Universities always prefer admitting people who are more likely to be successful.


Be like Applicant B!   Spend significant amounts of time investigating and researching engineering programs, careers, opportunities, courses, etc., before applying.  There are countless websites and videos available to look at and digest.  When applying to an engineering program (at Waterloo or anywhere else), make a great case for yourself.  You’ll stand out from the crowd, even if your grades are a little on the lower side.  For competitive programs, this could make all the difference between an offer and nothing.

The fall semester (September to December) is the time to be doing this, especially for people in their last year of secondary school.  There are usually events at local colleges and universities that you can attend and discuss more with experts and current students.  This is also the time to be spending evenings and weekends searching online information and videos about the various engineering programs and careers.  As usual, Google (or Bing, etc) is your most valuable tool for this effort.  By the end of December, you should be able to answer at great length and in detail, “why are you applying/interested in that program?”.


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