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).

Good Reasons to Pick ____ Engineering:

  • You’ve spent some time searching websites and finding out all you can about various engineering disciplines (e.g. mechanical, chemical, electrical,…).  You’ve read all about them, found out about typical jobs, career paths, common industries and locations of jobs, typical responsibilities, etc., and there are one or two that make you think “that looks interesting”, or “I would like to do something like that”.
  • You’ve looked at university calendars and course descriptions for the program(s) you seem most interested in.  Many of the courses in that program look interesting, or make you curious about the content (especially the 3rd and 4th year courses, which are typically the more “practical/applied” ones).  You feel like you would like to take those courses.  Recognizing that university calendars are somewhat difficult to navigate if you haven’t had much experience with them, let me provide links to Waterloo’s:
  • You’ve met or discussed engineering with a relative, family friend, or other contact who is an engineer or knows a lot about it.  Or you’ve connected with one of our current students through our Shadow Day/Ambassadors program or at one of our open house events.  Based on these discussions, you feel good and excited about your selection.

Bad Reasons for Choosing _____ Engineering:

These are based on conversations with students who end up wanting to switch programs.  Sometimes they are disappointed to discover that switching is not an option because of space constraints.

  • You didn’t really look into it all that much, and just quickly picked one at random to meet the deadline.  (Really, if you’re in this situation please pick another university with a general first year.)
  • You heard from (family, friends, etc.) that this is the “best” engineering to go into, for various reasons, so you just follow their advice.  (You won’t think it’s the “best” if you discover you don’t have much interest in it!)
  • You heard that this is the hardest/most challenging engineering, so it must be the best.  (I don’t agree that any particular engineering discipline is “harder” than another; it all comes down to interest and aptitude of the individual.)
  • You heard that this is the easiest engineering.  (If you’re looking for an easy degree, perhaps consider choosing another path, since you’re likely going to be disappointed.)
  • This program was the most competitive/selective to get into.  (Competition for admission all comes down to supply and demand, and has nothing to do with quality or career prospects.  If a competitive program suddenly had a lot more spaces, or a lot fewer applicants, it wouldn’t be very competitive any more.)
  • You didn’t realize that you would be required to take courses in _____ (various subjects) and you hate that stuff.  (That’s why you should look at the program courses in the university calendar.)

That’s about it, so before you make that application decision think about your rationale for the program choice.  Hopefully it falls into the “Good Reasons” category somewhere.

15 thoughts on “Picking the Perfect Program

  1. Hi Professor,

    I know that in your earlier post it says that you compete on an equal basis for your #2 and #3 choice if you do not receive an offer to your #1 choice. However, on Waterloo’s website, it says that priority may be given to those students who select it as their first choice, as per this website: https://uwaterloo.ca/engineering/future-undergraduate-students/application-process/admission-information-form

    The sentence I am talking about is the last sentence in the paragraph below the title “Alternative Program Choices” on that website I linked above.

    Could you please clarify this? Thank you.

  2. What would you recommend someone who has absolutely no relations/connections to anyone in an engineering discipline do to learn a bit more about the field? I ask this because, while I really do think I’d enjoy studying engineering, I must admit that I’m not too knowledgable of what exactly the profession involves.

    • Reading stuff on the web, or looking at videos, is a good start. There is a massive amount of information on most of the common disciplines on lots of different websites. Going to university open houses is a good place to meet some current students and profs too.

  3. Hi, I’m a prospective Undergrad looking at U of Waterloo’s Systems Design Engineering, I really like the program and I find that it suits me but I’m not sure about the actually University. I’ve applied for UBC’s Eng. Physics, and McGill’s General Engineering Studies because of their good programs, but also because of their University atmosphere.
    You’re from the university, I’m sure you know it well, so how well does it feel and stand from a student’s standpoint? I’d like to get my B.A.Sc. degree along with have some fun in university. Waterloo is extremely attractive with their program, but in comparison with student life it doesn’t look to me as attractive as UBC’s or McGill’s. I’ve done research on all three, coming up with Elon Musk’s reason for picking Queen’s over Waterloo and some other comments comparing the campuses and generalized features of the student body.
    I’m from BC so UBC is the most attractive in terms to being close to home, but the Systems Design Engineering Program is a hard choice for me to turn down.
    Thank you so much, it’s appreciated you having a blog to help out future students.
    Davin B.

    • I haven’t been a student for a long time, so anything I say is based on observation. Our students don’t appear to be bored, and there seem to be lots of things going on. The Engineering Society (EngSoc, http://engsocwp.uwaterloo.ca/) is very active in arranging activities of various sorts, plus the larger overall campus societies and clubs. Waterloo is obviously a much smaller city than Montreal, Vancouver or Toronto so the atmosphere is different (better in my personal opinion, easier to get around and less crowded). Elon Musk’s comments are irrelevant, being observations from two decades ago.

      Student views can also be obtained from our Ambassadors (https://uwaterloo.ca/engineering-student-ambassadors/our-ambassadors-0)

  4. Are any separate applications needed to be considered for any scholarships at UW (from the school at large or the Faculty of Engineering specifically)? Or is it just based on the AIF?

  5. Hi, first of all I want to appreciate you for all the helpful information on here! It has really cleared up many of my confusions of applying to Waterloo, especially since I am an international student. I just have a few questions that I was hoping you wouldn’t mind answering.

    First of all, around how many people apply to and are accepted to programs like Software Engineering and Computer Engineering? Is Computer Science any more or less competitive than its engineering counterparts?

    Second of all, how are SAT scores and ACT scores factored into the admission of applicants from the United States? From your other articles, it seems that only marks (GPA) and AIF scores are factored into the application process.

    Lastly, is there a quota on how many International applicants you accept?

    Thank you in advance!

    • There are around 5 to 7 applicants per available space in most engineering programs. I’m not sure about Computer Science.
      SAT and ACT scores are used to “calibrate” the marks. We would normally expect SAT and ACT to be in the top 20% of test-takers (especially in math and science areas).

      Yes, we only have about 200 spaces available for international applicants (“international” meaning not a Canadian citizen or Permanent Resident of Canada).

  6. Hi,
    I selected Electrical Engineering as my first choice, but I feel as though Civil might have been a better choice. Is there any way to change it at this point (I’ve already gotten on Quest), or do I just hope that I receive an offer for my second choice instead of my first?


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