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How admissions decisions are made

Staff at six universities explain what it takes to get in to some of their most competitive undergraduate programs.

By EMILY BARON CADLOFF | DEC 20 2017

First, there’s the selection process, “pro/con” lists, piles of brochures and a campus visit or two. Then, the applications come out. Filing transcripts, filling out essay questions and maybe preparing for an interview. Finally, the wait. When will the answer come? Will it be a big envelope full of promise, or a disappointingly small envelope, offering no reward?

It looks a bit different today (swap websites and social media for brochures, and an email for that admissions letter), but this is the process of applying to university that we’ve seen hundreds of times, in decades of movies and television: the hopeful teen, the anxious parents, the end-of-summer bash.

But what about the other side? What do registrars and administrators do to select their candidates, and how do they make those tough choices? As much as we hear about students waiting to get chosen, there’s little out there outside of admissions brochures about how the choosing is done.

Generally, programs across Canada can be divided into two categories: open admission, meaning the prospective university is only interested in a candidate’s Grade 12 or equivalent grades, or supplemental admission, meaning there are other steps required from a candidate for a successful application. University Affairs spoke with six admissions officials from some of the most competitive programs across the country, to find out how they select their candidates.

Arts and science, McMaster University

Arts and science at McMaster makes use of supplemental applications, and with good reason. Director Jean Wilson says over 800 students apply every year, and about 70 are accepted to this student-directed program. Along with a minimum average of 88 percent in their Grade 12 year, applicants must fill out several short-answer essay questions that are designed to mimic an in-person interview.

“We can’t possibly interview 800 applicants, and we’re trying to draw from out of province and diversify our applicant pool,” Dr. Wilson explains. “If you have one in 10 being admitted, you want those one in 10 to be people who want to be here, who will contribute to the program and who will really benefit from it.”

The questions change from year to year, and each application is read carefully by admissions staff, even with the volume. Dr. Wilson says applicants don’t need to worry about “getting lost in the shuffle,” and notes that what she’s really looking for is students to answer the questions honestly.

“One of the questions [for this academic year] was, ‘Select a fictional or historical figure and explain why you would or would not like them to be a classmate in the arts and science program.’ So there aren’t right or wrong answers.”

Commerce, University of British Columbia

Though the application is a chance for prospective students to put their best foot forward, UBC’s associate registrar and director of undergraduate admissions, Andrew Arida, says there is one misconception he tries to clear up every year: more isn’t always better.

Mr. Arida says many applications will feature dozens of extracurricular activities, but the student isn’t able to discuss the personal impact of the experience. “[Applicants] think that when universities are looking at personal profiles and extracurriculars, it’s about just giving you points for what you’ve done,” Mr. Arida laments. “We’re looking for students who can articulate learning from any experience they have, even if it’s the most mundane. I’ve read some great personal profiles from students who were talking about their part-time job at the mall.”

In 2016, over 1,900 Canadian students selected commerce as a first choice in their applications to the Sauder School of Business. Of those applications, just under 1,800 gave the school a viable application, or what Mr. Arida determined was “enough information to render a decision.” From there, 731 students were offered admission, with 404 students registering. That means for every registered student, there are roughly five domestic applicants for that seat.

Commerce at Sauder requires a grade average in the mid-80s and a short personal profile based on about five to seven questions. Last year, the school introduced a video section to their application, which Mr. Arida hypothesizes has affected their application numbers. “While this has served to make better admission decisions, it has also served to reduce the number of students who apply [as the application process seems more arduous].”

Nursing, Ryerson University

“Nursing is probably the most academically competitive program across Ontario,” says Marisa Modeski, Ryerson’s assistant director of student recruitment. In May of 2017, the university received 2,588 applications for 206 spots.

Ms. Modeski notes the entrance average hovers around 92 percent for incoming students, who must also have prerequisites in Grade 12 English, biology, chemistry, and either Grade 11 or Grade 12 math.

“Students need to complete these courses with strong grades,” Ms. Modeski explains. “Having successfully completed these courses, in addition to presenting an overall strong average, indicates that the students will be academically successfully.”

The program relies solely on academic standing for admission, but the admissions officers look at the applicant’s entire academic history, including previous standing at other universities or colleges. It’s a process that takes a while, especially with the volume of applicants Ryerson receives.

“The competency of the [admissions] team should not be underestimated, as these portfolios require attention to detail, complex research, as well as understanding of policy and practice,” Ms. Modeski emphasizes. “In the selection of candidates, the university and each admissions officer is committed to fairness and equity.”

Students begin co-op and work placements within their first year of study, starting at long-term care facilities and progressing by their final year into emergency rooms. That’s why Ms. Modeski and her team seek out students who can begin work right away. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly.

“There is something that is quite special about the relationship we form with applicants,” Ms. Modeski says. “In our area of work, we have the unique opportunity to connect on a personal level and it is through those exchanges that we learn their stories, their accomplishments, their trepidations and their goals. And this is a privilege.”

Computer science, University of Waterloo

The University of Waterloo received more than 8,700 applications to its four main computer science programs in 2017. Its Cheriton School of Computer Science made more than 1,200 offers of admission. And that volume of applications means the competition is stiff. Students typically have entrance averages in the 90s. Then there is the optional Euclid Mathematics Contest that U of Waterloo develops and administers for high school students and CEGEP students in Quebec.

André Jardin, associate registrar of admissions at U of Waterloo, says admission is a combination of grade average, the student’s score on the university’s admission information form, or AIF, and the Euclid if taken. On top of that, students complete an information form detailing extracurricular activities, challenges they’ve overcome, and what Mr. Jardin calls “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

“For computer science, we read every single one. It’s read by more than one reader, scored, and that score is added to [the] application as part of [their overall] admissions score,” he explains. Though computer science is a math-focused program, Mr. Jardin has come to rely on personal information as a means of selecting candidates. “When you have a lot of students with the same average, which we do, those other things start to play a more important role.”

Over the years, Mr. Jardin has also started to notice smaller things that he says can influence a candidate’s score. “There are students that don’t spell-check their applications. [There are] no capital letters. The effort students put in tells us something on its own.”

Mr. Jardin says it is getting harder to just rely on grades when looking at potential students. Instead, the applications he says he is drawn to are the ones in which the students are most themselves.

Kinesiology, University of Saskatchewan

Over the past two decades, Chad London, dean of the college of kinesiology, has seen the discipline shift dramatically. Where the program once aimed to prepare physical education teachers, kinesiology grads now are becoming coaches, athletic therapists, personal trainers, or moving into fields like medicine. That’s led to increasing competition for this program.

Each year, the college receives more than 500 applications and admits 125 first-year students and 70 upper-year students with the highest grade averages. While there are no supplemental applications for this program, Dr. London says over the past 10 years, the grade average for admission has soared from the mid-70s to close to 90 percent.

Still, for Dr. London high school grades and transcripts are the only real application students need. They are cut-and-dried, he says, which is what’s needed to make admissions decisions. “The resources required to administer [applications with] those types of non-academic requirements [are] significant,” says Dr. London. “Academic achievement continues to be the best predictor of success [in kinesiology].”

Dr. London looks for a high average across the Grade 12 year and students must have completed high-level math, biology, and either chemistry or physics courses.

Occupational Therapy, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

 No fewer than 261 candidates applied for admission to the occupational therapy program at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières in the fall of 2017. The number of spots available? Just 32. Quebec’s Ministry of Health and Social Services determines the number of applicants admitted every year to this specialized bachelor of health sciences program.

In the face of such heavy demand, the main admission criterion is Quebec’s famous R score – a mathematical formula introduced back in 1995 that translates the performance of a student in relation to the average performance of all students enrolled in the same program. It can go from zero to 50, but usually falls between 15 and 35. In 2017, the minimum score required for admission to occupational therapy at UQTR was 28.76. In comparison, students needed 25.43 to be accepted into nursing and 32.04 for podiatry.

Unlike occupational therapy programs at other Quebec universities, the R score is not the only criterion at UQTR. “We select a number of students on the basis of the R score, and then we conduct interviews,” explains Anick Sauvageau, who chairs the occupational therapy undergraduate program committee. “The R score accounts for 70 percent of admission and the interview, 30 percent.”

For the fall 2017 semester, 162 candidates were interviewed by a professor and a clinician. They assess the applicant’s ability to build a rapport, their interest in the university, their knowledge of occupational therapy and the qualities they need to succeed. Various role-playing scenarios are used to evaluate their analytical and decision-making skills.

The program at UQTR has a lower attrition rate than elsewhere; for the class of 2014-15, it was just seven percent. “Students selected on the basis of an interview are more likely to persevere and succeed in the program,” suggests Ms. Sauvageau.

The Registrar’s mantra

Each undergraduate program will require different steps of its applicants, and some processes are more rigorous than others. But one support that decision-makers have is the Association of Registrars of Universities and Colleges of Canada (ARUCC). With over 150 member institutions, and more than 800 individual members, president Charmaine Hack says the association is a chance for registrars to share tips and knowledge with each other, to help make these decisions.

 

“It provides a network of individuals who are experts in their field,” Ms. Hack explains. “Often before trying something new, we’ll say [to another member], ‘I hear you experimented with this? How did it go? What were the challenges? What were the positive outcomes?’”

 

Ms. Hack says the goal for registrars and admissions officers in institutions across Canada is to remain inconspicuous throughout the process. Despite the amount of work that’s needed behind the scenes, it should appear to the prospective students that everything is happening smoothly.

 

“[Registrar’s offices] are to the institutions as the cardiovascular and nervous systems are to the human body; they connect every part. They make communication possible and operate invisibly to support the life and motion of the university.”

 

That can be difficult when processing tens of thousands of applications, with transcripts and portfolios and letters of recommendation arriving across all disciplines. For many schools and programs, picking qualified students is getting tougher for admissions officers. The incoming grade point average for many of these programs has risen over the past five years, meaning officials are paying more attention to the supplemental forms, even in math and science programs. But the members of the ARUCC abide by the mantra that admissions decisions be fair, equitable, defensible and transparent.

 

“Where there are grey areas and room for flexibility, what I hear from our membership is that we will always try to do what’s in the best interest of the student,” says Ms. Hack. “There’s a fair amount of experience in the admissions contingent that’s making those decisions, and there’s high level of integrity and awareness that the decisions they’re making are affecting students’ lives.”

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