How to ace your university application
Grades are important but are just part of the picture. Plus, admission faux-pas to avoid.
For graduating high school students, university admissions can seem like an incomprehensible process, where anonymous administrators make decisions about students’ futures behind closed doors. “Many times, students see admissions officers as these mean, bad people who are trying to keep them out,” says Kutay Ulkuer, director of recruitment, admissions and awards at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. For their part, he says, admissions teams need to be selective to ensure students end up at the university that is best suited to them, so they can keep stride with their peers. “We see their success as our success,” Ulkuer says. He encourages students to think of the process as an open conversation between the school, students and parents.
Here are some of the key things to keep in mind as you begin the university application process.
Making the grade
As always, marks matter. “Grades are a reliable metric and a good indicator of ability,” says André Jardin, associate registrar of admissions at the University of Waterloo. Cynthia Lee, associate director of media relations at McGill University, agrees. “Excelling in academic courses and specific subjects will make an application stand out,” she says.
The whole student
But marks aren’t everything, and some Canadian universities are moving toward a more holistic admissions process that considers a student’s experiences alongside traditional measures of achievement. In 2012, the University of British Columbia introduced the “Personal Profile” to its admissions process, a section of the application that gives students the opportunity to describe their unique personal experiences, as well as challenges they have overcome. This can offer the admissions team insight into whether a student will thrive among the UBC cohort. “Don’t focus on what you think we want to hear,” says Sam Saini, associate registrar of undergraduate admissions at UBC. “Rather, use your voice to tell us what you want to say.”
At the University of Waterloo, the admissions department takes into consideration how much time and effort prospective students have dedicated to their chosen activities. “We want to see that you put in energy and leadership and take initiative,” says Waterloo’s Jardin. “It’s up to you where you do that.”
Joel Nicholson, founder of the consulting service Youthfully, which has advisers located across Canada, teaches his clients the “T model” of achievement. The vertical portion of the T represents depth in one or two areas of interest, while the horizontal line represents breadth. Mount Allison’s Ulkuer emphasizes that students should avoid laundry-listing extracurriculars and instead explain why they chose the ones they did, what they learned from them, how those activities fit into their future plans and how their experiences help define them as people.
Teo Salgado, founder of VerveSmith education consulting, which is based in Toronto, says students should try to tell a coherent story about their extracurricular involvement to show alignment between “what you are saying and doing.” In essays and other supplementary application material, a student’s activities should line up with what they describe as their academic interests or the career they hope to pursue. “We hear a lot of students talking about a passion they have for, say, computer science or drama, but if the activities they’re participating in or outside the classroom don’t align with those passions they are claiming to have, then the story’s inconsistent,” says Salgado.
What to avoid
Ulkuer has seen his fair share of admissions faux pas: reference letters addressed to the wrong school, applications that have not been adequately proofread and essays spliced together with material from other applications.
Canadian students also tend to be too humble, he says, which can actually undermine their applications. “This is a time when you might want to brag about your accomplishments,” Ulkuer says. He encourages students to start working on their applications early, as well, to avoid rushing. “You don’t want to be in a situation where the power runs out and you didn’t have a chance to submit your application before the scholarship deadline.”
With mounting pressure to stand out, students might be inclined to take on new extracurricular activities just for the application. Jardin of Waterloo advises against this. “Continue doing what you’re doing,” he says. “If you suddenly say, ‘To get a good score, I’m going to pick up a baseball bat for the first time in Grade 12,’ you’re not going to be able to authentically represent yourself.” Lying on an application is “enough to pull an offer,” says Jardin. He notes it is part of the role of admissions teams to try to detect when a student is lying.
Nicholson says students often underestimate the importance of the “value proposition”; they focus on pleasing the university instead of showing what they can truly offer. This should be communicated in a way that is “clear, compelling and concise,” he says. “Written and verbal communication is one of the biggest skills gaps” that students tend to struggle with.
The importance of standing out
With many high schools offering similar extracurricular activities—drama club, student council and athletics, for example—students can find the job of setting themselves apart quite challenging. Nicholson encourages his clients to discover their “X factor,” which generally takes the form of an independent leadership project they are passionate about. It enables students to “set big goals that they didn’t think they could accomplish,” he says. One of his students completed a TED talk and multiple podcasts, while another wrote a children’s book. Sites like experiment.com can help students create and execute their own research projects and even find endorsements. Students lacking the resources or time to pursue an independent project can still add flavour to their applications by taking courses on websites such as Coursera.org or edX.org, or by accessing opportunities in their schools, such as hackathons or DECA (a business club). Nicholson’s company encourages students to take charge of their lives and their learning. “What we’re saying is, we believe in the power of youth and what they can accomplish despite being so young,” he says. “They’re so tenacious and they’re so determined.”
This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2022 Canadian Universities Guidebook with the headline, “The art of applying.”