Admission to our Engineering programs requires the completion of certain Grade 12 courses (or equivalents in various other school systems), specifically Functions, Calculus, English, Chemistry and Physics in Ontario. For many years we have discouraged the idea of re-taking any of these required courses to boost marks and get a competitive edge for admission. In recent years, this has taken the form of a penalty of around 5% points off the overall average of the required courses if one or more are repeated (the higher grade is used). The net effect is that unless the repeated course(s) add at least another 30 percentage points to the total, repeating a course is not worthwhile for competitive advantage in admissions. In many cases, repeating course(s) will knock the application out of the competition completely. Other universities seem to have a range of approaches, from accepting repeats without question to ignoring the improved grade completely. So, we’re somewhere in between. But why use this penalty approach?
It’s not that we are mean and like to punish people for some perceived flaws. Instead, we try hard to make admission decisions using an evidence-based quantitative approach (after all, we are engineers!). As part of this approach, each year we analyze the performance of students that were admitted in the previous few years. One analysis compares students with repeated required courses versus those who did not repeat any. Consistently over the years, this analysis has indicated that those students who repeated a course have a lower final average in our first year engineering program. It is usually lower by somewhere between 5 and 8 percentage points. We run statistical tests to ensure that the differences between the two groups are “real” and not some random fluctuations, and invariably these are real differences. We also see a higher failure rate in the group with repeat courses.
Of course, this analysis tells us nothing about the reasons their university averages are lower, and one could speculate on a variety of factors. The fact remains however, that if we admit someone on the basis of an average that includes repeated courses, they are likely to do less well than the others. Therefore, the penalty factor takes this into account during the competitive selection process. Essentially, we are trying to forecast what the applicant’s grade in engineering will be, and to only admit people that we think will be successful. Clearly, students with repeated courses can be successful so we don’t want to exclude them from admission completely.
Of course each applicant’s situation is somewhat unique, so there is a place in the application process to explain why courses are being repeated. We look at each case and decide whether to apply the factor, or to use some other modified approach. As I noted at the start, we try to find some reasonable path between blindly accepting repeats and disallowing them completely, since that’s where our analysis seems to lead.
This can be a complex and confusing topic, so comments and questions are welcomed!