Welcome!

I manage the University of Waterloo’s Engineering undergraduate admission process, which has become one of the most competitive in Canada.  So, I’ve created this blog to help applicants and their friends and families understand more about how the admissions process works from an insider’s perspective.  I’ll offer news and insights throughout the year as we work through the next admissions cycle.  I’ll also comment on interesting items related to engineering research, education, and teaching from time to time.  Click the “Follow” button to keep up to date on admission developments and information.  Comments are welcomed, but I can’t give detailed opinions on your specific circumstances or chances; please contact the university for expert advice.
 

Admissions Decisions Finished

All offers and rejections for our Engineering programs have now been posted on our Quest system and the offers eventually show up on the OUAC system too.  Every year’s admissions seems to get a little more challenging and complicated and this year was no different with about 13,000 applications and the launch of our new Architectural Engineering program.  As usual, there are a few happy people and a lot that are not so happy.  For perspective, a few statistics might be helpful:

  1. Applications overall were up between 5 and 10%, but a few programs stood out.  Namely, Computer and Systems Design Engineering applications were up about 30% each, and Biomedical up about 15%.  Increased applications means higher competition and more rejections since the available spaces didn’t change.
  2. Overall, about 75% of our applicants did not receive an offer.  For some programs like Software and Biomedical Engineering, closer to 90% of applicants didn’t receive offers since there were so many applicants and a very limited number of spaces.
  3. As usual, we gave out some alternate choice offers in a number of programs, although there are limits to how many we will offer in any one program.  This year, a lot of Software applicants put Computer Engineering as an alternate, which makes some sense.  But with the 30% increase in Computer applications, there was quite a bottleneck and many were no doubt surprised to get no offer.

At this stage, all of our spaces are now allocated and we wait until the summer to see if the predicted number of people accept the offers.  We don’t have an appeal or reconsideration process, because the spaces are filled to the limits (and beyond).  We make more offers than there are spaces, with the assumption that a certain fraction will choose to go somewhere else.  Generally our predictions are accurate within 1 or 2%, and there are usually no spaces opening up during the summer.

For those with offers to engineering and are thinking about wanting to change programs, our suggestion is to forget about it.  Recent experience suggests that it is not likely to happen because of space limitations in most programs, even after first year.  The engineering programs have no obligation to take transfers, and lately many have refused to do so.  Therefore, if you’re not reasonably sure that you will be satisfied with the offer you have, you should seriously consider another offer.  Our open house event for admitted applicants on Saturday May 26 is a good last chance to visit and discuss your potential future program with faculty and students.

Gearing Up for Final Round

So many interesting things to blog about, and so little time (and energy).  I just finished grading exams and uploading marks for my Winter term course on Air Pollution Control, and am getting stuff ready for my Spring term course that starts tomorrow.

In the mean time, the admissions staff are busily working away at last minute things, and we are (patiently?) waiting for the Ontario high schools to finish uploading their second semester mid-term grades.  We are in a bit of a holding pattern until we get that data, which will hopefully be completed over the next week.

Once all the data is available, we’ll spend several days filling the remaining spaces in our programs, considering alternate choice programs, double-checking various things, and helping with scholarship selection decisions.  It’s hard to say exactly when we’ll finish, but we do go as fast as we can (including weekends and evenings) until completed.

Waterloo AI Institute

Recently Waterloo launched an Artificial Intelligence Institute to act as a focal point for research and other activities related to AI.  It’s a joint effort between Engineering and Mathematics, but includes researchers from other areas too.  A short introductory video is available that highlights a few interesting points.

The AI Institute’s website also has a list of some interesting feature projects, including cancer detection, forest fire control, and hockey analytics.  Although these are advanced research projects with Masters and PhD students, it is not unusual to find undergraduate students participating too, either as co-op work term students, or part-time as undergraduate research assistants (during academic terms).  There are almost 100 faculty members involved, so lots of variety of potential opportunities.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence, or AI, seems to be the popular topic in media these days, and I have had a number of questions about it from prospective students and families over the past year.  The short answer is yes, we do have AI in our Engineering programs.  In fact, we have an “Option in Artificial Intelligence”  available for students in any engineering program.  This is essentially like a “Minor” in the topic, a package of courses related to the field (at Waterloo our terminology is a bit different, so we don’t call it a “minor”).  If you complete the package of courses, you’ll have the designation on your transcript and diploma when you graduate.

Although AI seems new and exciting, the roots and development are actually fairly old, having a basis in  ancient philosophy and mathematics.  Even the more modern versions and applications of AI go back over 50 years to the initial developments in  computational machines.  One misunderstanding is that AI is all about programming, but it is actually highly mathematical at its core.  Programming is just a tool for implementing the math and various algorithms.

Some people may be surprised to know that the mathematical tools and foundations for AI are not even limited to computer science or computer engineering.  My colleagues in Chemical Engineering have been using them for decades for various purposes, and here are a few quick examples with links for further information.

Optimization methods are often a part of chemical plant design, scheduling, cost minimization, and various other things like this example on planning electricity generation.  The control of complex chemical plant processes has been researched using artificial neural networks, like this simpler example of crude oil desaltingBayesian inference methods are employed for dealing with the significant uncertainties in chemical processes, even by me many years agoKalman filter techniques are used to help us handle the noisy data coming from chemical processes, including this example from biotechnology.  And there are lots of other examples, just in Chemical Engineering alone, not even looking at Civil, Mechanical and others (where I know they also use these advanced mathematical techniques).

Just another example of how broad and diverse the engineering fields are, and how concepts and tools are spread and shared across all these disciplines.

A Few More Offers

Recently we were able to process a batch of offers for applicants from outside the Ontario high school system (Form 105 applicants).  Similar to our earlier Form 101 round of offers, this is a limited number based on what documents we have reviewed so far.  There are still something like 60 to 70% of the spaces in each program unfilled at this point, and everyone continues to be considered in our upcoming round.

From now until about the end of April we continue to review documents, AIFs, and interviews in preparation for our main round of offers in May.  The exact timing of those offers is impossible to predict.  We have to wait to get the electronic grade data from Ontario high schools before we can start, so it’s somewhat dependent on them.  I guess we’ll see how it goes.  Thankfully our offers can now be electronically posted on our Quest system, so we’re not scrambling to mail them to applicants in a narrow window of time.

A Few Offers So Far

As usual around this time of year, we have processed a few offers for applicants who are currently in an Ontario high school.  Generally this will fill less than 25% of the available spaces in each program, leaving the large majority of spaces for our final round of decisions in May when we have more complete data for a fair comparison.  People who don’t get an offer at this stage are automatically carried forward for consideration then.

The selection process is a bit random at this stage, which is why I don’t like to commit very many spaces.  Typically, people with offers at this point have consistently high grade 11 and 12 math, English & science marks, and at least 3  Grade 12 required courses completed.  Also they probably ranked in the top end of all the program applicants, taking into account an AIF score (and optional interview score, if one was submitted).  It takes us until mid-April to complete all the AIF and interview scoring, so at this stage it’s somewhat random whether those play a significant role or not for any one individual.

Eventually (by the end of April), we get all the Grade 12 marks and other scores, and then it’s much fairer  to compare everyone on the same basis.  Any high scoring applicants who missed out on the early round will get selected at that point.

For out-of-province applicants (OUAC Form 105), we’ll do a bit of a preliminary offer round in a few weeks when we have more data compiled from transcripts.  It’s difficult to say exactly when (it depends on many things), but hopefully by early April to help out those with May 1 offer acceptance deadlines at U.S. universities.

Problem Lab

Application Trends and Other Stuff

The admissions work is now at full speed with most applications submitted by now.  Before I review some trends, a few important suggestions:

  1. For those within reasonable travel distance, our March Break Open House occurs on March 10 2018.  Highly recommended if you haven’t been on campus before.  Also a good time to visit if you’re not in Grade 12 but are thinking ahead to future years.
  2. Our “Quest” system will be down for a significant software upgrade from February 16 to 22.  Applicants won’t be able to work on submitting their AIF during this period.  (also, when finished with your AIF don’t forget to click on “submit”.  “Save” is not sufficient, and we won’t be able to review it.)

As far as application trends go, the numbers are up again this year to just over 13,000 for about 1,675 spaces in Engineering.  An increase of about 1,500.

Applications for the Canadian spaces (about 1,450 available) are up about 10% overall to around 8,700.  Some programs have a bit stronger increases, like Biomedical, Computer, and Systems Design.  Nothing too unexpected however, just the normal fluctuations we get from year to year.  I can’t go into details about specific program numbers, but generally there are 5 to 10 applicants per available space.

The bigger surprise is the applications for our non-Canadian spaces (about 220 available).  These are up around 25% to well over 4,000.  This seems to be the case across the whole university as well as many other Ontario universities.  The theory among admissions and recruiting people is that recent political turmoil in the U.S. and U.K. have driven applicants to seek education in other English-speaking countries like Canada.  I’ve seen articles about dramatic drops in foreign student applications to U.S. colleges, so the theory seems to make some sense.

We’ve added extra staff to handle the additional volume.  It will definitely be challenging again this year to select the few applicants from among so many good ones.

Applying Strategically

Our applications continue to flow in at this time of year.  I haven’t seen any detailed information yet, but there are indications that our applicant numbers from outside Ontario are up significantly.  We’ll probably know more in a few weeks, but it seems likely that this year certainly won’t be any less competitive than last.  With competition for limited spaces, it pays to be strategic about your applications. Continue reading

The New Year Starts

Another year started with new classes and courses on January 3 (our Christmas break is shorter than high schools).  And our admissions season is ramping up quickly now too, with lots of applications flowing in.  Our new Architectural Engineering program seems to be attracting a reasonable number of applications so far, so I guess the word is getting out.

AIFs and interviews are starting to be submitted in increasing volumes and we are starting to review them.  Some people are asking when the AIF should be submitted by to be considered for the early round.  There isn’t really a good answer for that, because it depends on volumes and timelines that we can’t predict.  My suggestion is to get it submitted as soon as you can.  Putting it off doesn’t really gain anything, and every year some people forget to submit it and don’t get seriously considered.