Guide to Getting In
by Kat Tancock
November 15, 2022

How to get accepted to a Canadian university: five ways to stand out

Tips on distinguishing your university or college application from a sea of mediocrity

(Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

Not all schools and programs care just about grades. For those that want more, supplemental application materials such as essays, videos and questions about extracurriculars make the process more complicated—and nerve-racking.

“One of the reasons we do this is to differentiate the applicant pool,” says Andrew Arida, director of undergraduate admissions at UBC, which has been requiring supplemental information from all direct-entry applicants since 2013. “Grades have gotten so high—personal profiles are good because they create variation.”

But how do you make that variation work in your favour? Here are some tips on spending your time wisely—and justifying it afterwards.

Follow your interests

You’re more likely to stick with extracurricular activities if you’re interested in them, rather than viewing them as a chore. “We always encourage students to pursue their own passions,” says Robert Astroff of Astroff Consultants. “We advise students to take activities they like and develop their skill set in that area.”

Stretch your limits

Pursuing passions, however, shouldn’t mean limiting yourself to activities you already know you’re good at. Part of the point is to explore and develop your potential. “We always like to see the type of student who’s very well rounded,” says Curtis Michaelis, recruitment and admissions coordinator at Mount Allison University, adding that a variety of interests is attractive in a candidate. “Exposure to a wide range of activities and people makes you more dynamic and helps you stand out.”

Get a job

You might think that aiming for high grades while squeezing in time for sports or volunteer work means part-time jobs are a low priority, but that’s not the case, says Astroff. “There’s a difference between volunteering and doing part-time work. With the latter, someone is valuing your work and paying you for it,” he says. “Any work you do for pay is highly valued by universities.” And don’t discount the experience you’ll gain in any kind of part-time or summer job, such as working at a café or summer camp. “Communication skills, working with customers and doing work under deadlines are transferable skills,” he adds.

Be a leader

It’s easy enough to sign up for pre-planned activities set up by friends, family and organizations. But what many universities are looking for is your ability to create your own opportunities—to be proactive. “That’s something we really value in a high school student,” says Michaelis.

This ability to be a self-starter applies to many fields. The Emily Carr University of Art + Design, for example, requires a portfolio be submitted upon application—and values independent work much more highly than classroom assignments. “We’re looking for original thought,” says admissions associate Joni Taylor. “If they’re doing a class project, it’s more directed by their instructors and peers. If there’s something they’ve been thinking about and they want to express it in their work, then that’s more interesting to us.”

Focus on the journey

For many schools, what you do is less important than your approach—and what you learn from it. “We coach people on how to reflect on their experiences and showcase those transferable skills,” says Astroff. In fact, this is one way the playing field is levelled between those who have the time and financial support to volunteer abroad or pursue multiple interests, and those who have family or financial responsibilities that take up much of their time. “We understand a lot of students have to work,” says Michaelis. “We treat that similarly to extracurriculars.”

The situation is similar at UBC. “It’s not just about accomplishments or activities,” says Arida. “It’s also about what you’ve learned from your experiences.” He notes that a student who has done “spectacular volunteer work” or won multiple awards won’t necessarily get a high personal profile score if they can’t articulate what they’ve learned. Conversely, students whose day-to-day life includes taking care of younger siblings or a part-time job at the mall might stand out if they can explain what those experiences have taught them about the world and about themselves. “It’s not just getting points from accomplishments,” he adds. “It’s saying what you’ve learned. Students who can articulate that in an effective, compelling and engaging way tend to have the strongest personal profiles.”