I recently ran across a blog posting with suggestions for home-schooled applicants to Waterloo. Overall, it was quite informative and had good information, with one exception. That’s where it propagates the myth that Waterloo expects to be the applicant’s #1 choice, implying that if Waterloo is not #1 it will somehow insult us or affect the application.
We do not expect or demand to be ranked as your first choice application on the OUAC application system, and the ranking makes no difference to the individual admission decision. Really, our feelings will not be hurt if we’re ranked number 2, or 3, or 33 by an applicant. We do expect that the ranking will be a personal choice, reflecting the applicant’s situation and true preferences.
So what is the ranking for? We use it for statistical purposes, to predict how likely it is that an applicant will accept an admission offer. Like airlines, we overbook our seats (i.e. give out more offers than we have actual spaces) and rely on the fact that not everyone who receives an offer will accept it. We use this ranking information in a simple probability model to predict how many new students we will have in September. Once in a while it goes awry and we get a few too many students, but generally the predictions are pretty good.
All the competitive university programs do this, so it’s in everyone’s interests that applicants rank their choices as honestly as possible, so that our predictions will be reasonably correct and we can send out the right number of offers. So, applicants shouldn’t worry about insulting universities with their ranking choices; we’re not that emotionally fragile. Just use the rankings to indicate which way you’re leaning and don’t worry about it.