Beyond grades: university entrance essays, tests and portfolios

Many schools now ask for essays, portfolios and quizzes. Here is how to ace them
Kat Tancock
(Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)
(Illustration by Leeandra Cianci)

For most Canadian schools, your grades are the only thing that matter when you’re considered for entry. “Many universities put a huge emphasis on marks,” says Robert Astroff of Toronto-based Astroff Consultants. But increasingly, he adds, especially in elite or exclusive programs and schools, there is a trend toward considering extracurricular activities as well as video recordings, essays and quizzes as part of the admission process. “We’re seeing an emerging trend to use this type of application in place of traditional essays,” says Astroff.

MORE: The Maclean’s Guide to Getting In to University or College

In some cases, additional application materials might even compensate for marks on the low end of the admissions scale. “If applicants have a really amazing supplemental, [with grades] a little bit lower than the cut-off, we would have another look at them and discuss them,” says Jeffery Trapp, associate director of recruitment and admissions at Rotman Commerce. “Conversely, we could have students with a really high average and not good supplementals, and refuse them. Students have to have both.”

For all programs, it’s important to have a clear understanding of admission requirements well before everything is due. Gather information on average entry GPAs, program prerequisites, application deadlines and additional application requirements. Find out what has to be submitted when, and how. These details often vary depending on your home province or territory and the province you’re applying to. Most schools have clear instructions on their websites; if they don’t, ask. And if you need to create an account on a school’s website or application software, do it early, and be sure you know how to use the system ahead of time. The Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, for instance, uses a tool called SlideRoom to gather portfolios, which admissions associate Joni Taylor recommends students start playing with early in the process. “Too often we have students who open it up at the last minute and realize they’ve left it too late to apply.”

Another wrinkle students could face is random questions doled out by an online system. (In some cases, a limited response time creates an additional layer of challenge.) “The schools are trying to test your communication and critical-thinking skills under pressure,” says Astroff, whose company’s services include courses and simulated tests to help students prepare. Waterloo Engineering, for example, asks a variety of questions related to students’ motivation, work experience, career goals, extracurricular activities and why they want to attend this particular university. Not only does this process give reviewers a broader understanding of individual students, but it pushes applicants to think more deeply about whether Waterloo is the best fit for them, notes Bill Anderson, director of engineering admissions. “It’s important to find out about the environment you’re getting into,” he says. “Waterloo isn’t good for everyone.”