Applying to University: Done Your Homework Yet?

For those applying to university for Fall 2020 admission, there is some homework you should have done, or at least started by now. Arguably, this is probably the most important homework that you have, even if no one has explicitly assigned it or told you to do it. Properly done, this homework will make success in university more likely. So what is this homework?

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Campus Tours

Anyone considering applying to a university should visit it, if at all possible. Many people visit campus during the summer vacation period. This is convenient for travel, but not always the best time to get an impression, because most campuses are very quiet during the summer. Waterloo is a bit of an exception, since we have classes going throughout the summer for returning co-op students in engineering and other programs.

The fall is probably a better time for a visit, when things are more active and you can get a good feel for the campus in actual operation. Take a day or two off high-school classes and visit a campus! If you’ve never been on a campus visit try the closest one to home, even if you don’t intend to apply there. It’s good to get a practice visit so you know what to expect when you go to other places of more direct interest.

Of course, in some cases it’s not practical or financially feasible to visit a campus that you’re interested in. In that case, using online videos is one way to get a bit of a tour. I think that most universities have some sort of video tour availability. Here’s a recent video made by one of our own class of 1998 civil engineering alumni, Fanny Dunagan. It’s interesting to see what captured her attention when returning for a visit.

Waterloo Engineering is Now 529 Eligible

I’m told by our Registrar that the University Waterloo is has recently been approved by the US Department of Education.  For US residents interested in our engineering programs, this means that they will be able to use their 529 plans for tuition and some other eligible expenses at Waterloo. (For Canadians readers, this is like our RESP investments, although I’m sure there are various differences.)

We were aware that this lack of ability to use 529 plans was a bit of a barrier to some prospective US students.  I’m glad we were eventually able to remove this barrier for the future. (Thanks to our administration, as I understand this takes significant effort and time to meet all the US government documentation requirements!)

The one continuing issue is that US students in engineering will still not be eligible for US federal financial aid, because their rules don’t permit online learning as part of a program.  Our co-op engineering programs employ a work-integrated experiential learning model, where students do some small online courses during their work terms in industry.  So for now, US federal financial aid is out for engineering, but 529 plans are OK.  With the income from our paid co-op work placements,  students might not qualify for much (if any) financial aid after first year anyway.

(P.S.  all of Waterloo’s other regular programs probably qualify for US federal financial aid purposes.  It’s just our co-op programs, like engineering, that don’t at this time.)

Selecting Your Offer

Offers to Ontario engineering programs will probably be wrapping up over the next two to three weeks (mid-May?).  Then people have until some date in early June to pick the one they want (see your offer or  OUAC for specific deadlines) and put down some sort of deposit.  It seems like most people apply to multiple universities and programs these days.  In the “old days” you could only apply to 3 in total, but I think the average now is around 5 or 6.  I’ve seen some applications in the high 20’s!

So assuming you have 2 or more offers to choose from, how do you decide?  Ultimately it’s going to be a very personal decision, but here are a few common factors to consider:

  1. Program:  do you really know what it’s about, and how well it fits your interests, skills and temperament?  Ignore your family and friends ideas about the “best” program for the future and jobs.  It’s your future.
  2. Location:  is quick and easy travel back home on weekends important to you or necessary for some reasons?  Or, are you fine with staying away for weeks and months and connecting by Skype or whatever?
  3. Costs:  some programs are expensive.  Some cities are expensive to live in.  How do the total costs add up for your budget?  Is there an internship or co-op program to help with the costs, and how much does it help?
  4. Facilities and Extracurriculars:  is there something that you really want or need to do, apart from the academic program?  Does the university have that opportunity available?  Are there clubs or sports opportunities that you are particularly interested in?
  5. Scholarships:  are these important for your budget and affordability?  Did you get a really big scholarship spread over 4 years?  If so, are there performance conditions, such as maintaining an 80% average?  Note that many students have difficulties maintaining these averages, so the scholarship may not  really be that reliable for future budgeting purposes.
  6. Prestige:  studies from the US generally show that going to a “prestigious” school has no particular influence on career (with the possible exception of politics).  Ignore “prestige” or rankings and go for the place and program that is the best fit for you and your interests.  An engaged and interested student will always do well wherever they are, versus a miserable student at a “prestigious” university or program.
  7. Other? Possibly there are some other factors that are more individual?  I can’t think of any more general ones at the moment, but suggestions in the comments are welcomed.

Toronto Engineering Program Enrollments

Waterloo Engineering has direct program admission, meaning that there is no general first year.  The co-op program you start on day 1 is where you stay, unless some other path opens up to you and you take it.  This also means that the number of students in each program is relatively stable from year 1 to 2 to 3, etc.  A few drop out for various reasons along the way, but nothing too drastic.

Toronto Engineering has an interesting “hybrid” admission process, where some students are admitted directly to a program (like us), and some are admitted to a more general “Track One” program for first year.  The Track One students move into other programs for 2nd year.  I thought it might be interesting to see how that admissions approach affects program enrollments in 2nd year, and luckily they publish their data in their academic calendar so it’s easy to figure out.  You just have to pick a calendar from a previous year, look at year 1 data, then pick the calendar for the following year and look at year 2 data to see the progression for a cohort of students.  For the example I compiled below, I picked the 2014 and 2015 calendars. Continue reading

Ignore the Rankings

A group affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education has put out an interesting analysis and report “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings:  Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity”.   Basically it says that college rankings are not a useful indicator for quality or outcomes from a student’s perspective.  Students and parents would be better off ignoring rankings when choosing a college or university.  “Selectivity” (how hard it is to get an offer) is not a reliable indicator either.

What is important is “engagement” inside and outside the classroom.  Opportunities for internships (or co-op), mentors, long-term projects (maybe like student design teams?) are all examples of “engagement” that they cite in the report.  There are lots of other interesting details and observations, so I highly recommend having a look at it if you’re thinking about applying to university.