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 the right to keep up to date on admission developments and information.  Comments are welcomed, but I can’t give opinions on specific applications or circumstances.
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Innovation Track Record

There was a recent article in the New York Times about the panic and anxiety surrounding applicants trying to get into the “elite” U.S. schools like Stanford and Harvard.  It contains this interesting little comment:

I also spoke with Sam Altman, the president of Y Combinator, one of the best-known providers of first-step seed money for tech start-ups. I asked him if any one school stood out in terms of students and graduates whose ideas took off. “Yes,” he responded, and I was sure of the name I’d hear next: Stanford. It’s his alma mater, though he left before he graduated, and it’s famous as a feeder of Silicon Valley success.

But this is what he said: “The University of Waterloo.” It’s a public school in the Canadian province of Ontario, and as of last summer, it was the source of eight proud ventures that Y Combinator had helped along. “To my chagrin,” Altman told me, “Stanford has not had a really great track record.”

Here is the link to the full article.

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Capstone Design Projects

March is the season for “Capstone Design Project” presentations at Waterloo Engineering.  These are events where groups of graduating students present and explain the design projects they have been working on for the past 8 to 12 months.  Working on a significant, open-ended design project is a feature in all engineering programs in Waterloo and across Canada, to my knowledge.  These “Design Symposia” are open to the public.

Where do the topics for these design projects come from?  There are 3 typical sources:  1) some professors provide an idea, likely related to their ongoing research projects; 2) companies approach us with ideas that they would like someone to work on; 3) the student groups come up with their own ideas.

For companies, this is an opportunity to have some ideas explored in more detail and for free (other than some time spent).  Many companies have some new ideas or side-projects that would be nice to do, but they don’t have the time or resources to follow-up on them right away.  Having a student group work on it can help them scope-out the idea and see if it is worthwhile to pursue more aggressively in the future.  For the students, they get more experience working on a real-world problem, possibly in an industry sector they want to learn more about.  This can be a nice addition to the experience they already gained during their co-op work terms.

Student groups that come up with their own idea are often the source of new innovations and start-up companies that they build after graduation.  At Waterloo, any novel idea that a student creates is owned by them.  The university supports innovation and entrepreneurship, but doesn’t attempt to take it over in any way.

For high school students who are thinking about pursuing engineering, these projects are a good way to get a feeling for what you can do in the different disciplines.  So check out these links for project titles or descriptions:

Management Engineering
Nanotechnology Engineering
Software Engineering
Civil, Environmental, Geological Engineering
Electrical & Computer Engineering
Mechatronics Engineering
Mechanical Engineering
Chemical Engineering
Systems Design Engineering

A couple of programs are missing their project lists, but will probably be updated in the coming days.  See this link.

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First Rounds of Offers for 2015

We just finished processing our first round of offers for applicants who are Ontario high school students. These should be appearing via Quest, OUAC and email.  As usual, we made enough offers to fill up to 1/3 of our available spaces in each program (more specifically, those spaces reserved for Canadians and Permanent Residents).  These are applications where we have enough data and it’s clear that they are competitive, based on previous experience.  We’ll be processing some non-Ontario applicant offers in the next few weeks (these take a lot more effort to analyze and sort through).

Some universities give out a lot more earlier offers for Engineering, but that’s simply because they have a lot less competition for spaces and can just go ahead with whatever they have. Continue reading

Posted in Application Insights, Information | Tagged | 80 Comments

Update February 2015

Things are moving along nicely for our Engineering admissions.  The Ontario high school applications are submitted (a few continue to trickle in), and the out-of-province applications will be winding up and closing at the end of February.  Here are a few observations and comments:

  1. Overall application numbers look similar to last year, possibly a few percent higher.  I would anticipate competition levels for most programs to be similar to last year.
  2. Applications to our new Biomedical Engineering program jumped significantly to around 900.  Since there are only 50 spots available, we’re going to have a tough time deciding.  Interesting observation:  according to OUAC statistics, there are about 6.9 applicants per available space for medical schools in Ontario.  We have 18 applicants per available space for Biomedical Engineering!
  3. Our AIF readers are busy evaluating what has been submitted to date (some 6,000+).  AIFs not submitted by now may not get read in time to be considered for the first round of offers.  However, as long as it’s submitted by mid-March it will be OK for the final round of offers in May.
  4. We’re waiting for the Ontario school grades to be available and downloaded, and then we will do some offers in late February.  As usual, we generally aim to give away less than about 30% of the available spaces at that time.  The rest are held until May when the second semester grades are available.
  5. The applications from outside Ontario are being analyzed as fast as we can (it’s all “manual” work).  In early March we will take what information we have and do a few offers, but again most will come in May.
  6. We’re making plans for our March Break Open House.  A very worthwhile event, especially if you’ve never visited the Waterloo campus before.
Posted in Application Insights, Early Offers | 57 Comments

More senior thesis pet peeves


This is a very nice post about mistakes commonly found in engineering student writing, and I see the same issues described here. The inability to write clearly can be a career-limiting problem when they graduate.

Originally posted on Gas station without pumps:

I previously posted some Senior thesis pet peeves. Here is another list, triggered by another group of first drafts (in no particular order):

  • An abstract is not an introduction. Technically, an abstract isn’t really a part of a document, but a separate piece of writing that summarizes everything important in the document. Usually the abstract is written last, after everything in the thesis has been written, so that the most important stuff can be determined. Most readers will never read anything of a document but the abstract.
  • Every paragraph (in technical writing) should start with a topic sentence, and the remaining sentences in the paragraph should support and expand that topic sentence. If you drift away from the topic, start a new paragraph! The lack of coherent paragraphs is probably the most common writing problem I see in senior theses.
  • I don’t mark every error I see in student…

View original 1,090 more words

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Programs that have many more applicants than available spaces all have one major problem.  How do you “differentiate” between many applicants with similar backgrounds and academic achievements?  To illustrate, here is a histogram of the distribution of grades for Waterloo Engineering in a past year.  ApplicantGradeHistogram(How to read a histogram:  the left bar labelled “80” shows the number of applicants with admission averages of 80 and less.  The next bar shows the number with averages of over 80 to 85, etc.) .  The total number of applicants is about 8,000, but there are only about 1,500 spaces, so how to decide?

Clearly the ones in the “80” group are probably not going to get an offer, and the ones in the “100” bin probably are, but what about the large mass in between?  Most people agree that an applicant with an 93% average is probably not significantly “better” than one with an 89% average, given some randomness in grading practices.  So that’s where our Admission Information Form (AIF) attempts to provide a way to “differentiate” between applicants by providing additional “points” to be added to the admission average.  Some past posts have discussed what’s in the AIF, such as this post, as well as how it is reviewed and scored.

The AIF has helped to give applicants with slightly lower averages a better chance at an offer, but it could be better.  So this year, as described on the Waterloo web page, we’re trying some additional bonus points to help identify applicants who are academically strong but also have qualities that might help them excel in Waterloo’s co-op program.  Specifically, the AIF is still given an overall score (from 0.5 to 5) but additional points may be added for things such as:

  1. Heavier academic load.  Taking more than the usual number of grade 12 academic courses during the academic year shows some ability to handle the significantly increased load in university.  In Ontario, this would translate into taking 8 U/M courses during the current school year (not including summer school, or fast tracking courses in prior years).  Note that taking extra courses but not doing well in them would be a negative factor.
  2. Applicants who show better than average “employability”.  This would typically be prior summer or part-time work experience, or significant unpaid volunteer experience that would be attractive to employers.  Our data indicates that students with better “employability” have an easier time getting their first co-op job, and so we would like to encourage or promote this.
  3. Significant achievements.  These would be national or international level awards or very high results in competitions (say top 10% at a national level).  Sometimes an AIF may be only “average” overall, although there are significant achievements highlighted, so we will flag these as separate items.  This will likely be fairly rare.
  4. Participation in selected enrichment programs.  These would be programs where you have to compete to be selected and are more than just a few days in length.  The Shad Valley program is a prime example, although we will consider others on a case by case basis.
  5. Any other “unique” experience or attributes, such as entrepreneurial experience.  It’s hard to say what this might include, but it’s up to the reviewers to identify people with something unique that would help them be successful at Waterloo.  The large majority of applicants will not have this.

So those are a few new factors that might help some applicants stand out a bit higher in the rankings compared to just using the admission averages alone.

(Note:  comments are welcomed, but I can’t give opinions on specific situations and whether they would get any bonus points.  That’s up to the reviewers, not me.)



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Picking the Perfect Program

The 2015 admission season is getting going, with various deadlines coming up.  First is the Ontario applicant deadline (January 14), followed by the out-of-province deadline (around March 1).  (Just a note, the January 14 deadline is not really a deadline, more like a recommendation as far as we are concerned; if you miss it there is no particular effect.)

When it comes to applying to Waterloo Engineering, this is the first hard part, i.e. picking the program you want to apply to (since we don’t have a general first year).  I’ve posted stuff about this in past years (see here, and here), so this post just contains a few additional ideas.  This is quite important however.  You don’t want to end up in a program you don’t really like.  While it is technically possible to switch programs, in recent years it has often become more difficult because of capacity limits in many programs, and there have been people looking to switch who couldn’t.

Let me summarize my ideas and observations in two categories:  good and bad reasons to pick a certain engineering program (the specific program doesn’t matter, so I’ll leave it blank). Continue reading

Posted in Application Insights, Engineering Education | 15 Comments