What universities really think about your application

We asked admissions officers from three top schools to talk about how they’re choosing this year’s class of students 

University admissions roundtable
University admissions roundtable
“The advice I always give to students is to get as much information as possible  and be open-minded, because maybe you haven’t had that eureka moment to decide on your path in the world yet,” says Mount Allison Unversity’s Kutay Ulkuer (Illustration by Amanda Lanzone)

This story appears in the Maclean’s University Guidebook 2023, available now for just $19.99. Order your copy here.

Applying to university was already a nerve-wracking ordeal—and then, like with every other aspect of our lives, the pandemic changed everything. More students than ever before are now applying. They’re also asking university admissions and registration offices questions about life on campus, the affordability of higher ed and, most urgently of all, how they can make themselves stand out in a crowded field and get accepted. 

READ: The Maclean’s University Guidebook is here to help

Sarah Fulford, the editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, met with three administrators to find out how they evaluate applications. Here’s what they said.

Sarah Fulford: The pandemic threw a curveball at students. How did it change the admissions process?

Gillian Nycum, McGill University, Registrar and Executive Director, Enrolment Services: It’s led to a lot of volatility. In the fall of 2021, we had 12,000 more applications than we got the previous year—an increase of 18 per cent. There’s been a change in student behaviour through that time, too, with students who’ve been accepted in the earlier admissions rounds putting off making decisions until later. Sometimes they’ve been accepted by multiple schools, but they haven’t been able to visit campuses to rule them out—so they ask for an extension of the confirmation deadline. For us in admissions, we’ve had to manage on the fly, because we couldn’t plan for this. At the same time, our school’s teaching capacity is the same, and we’re maintaining stable enrolment in our undergraduate programs, so we’re looking for the same number of students even though we have many more applications. This means that, in certain programs, the students who are getting offers have higher grades compared to previous cohorts.

Fulford: Are we getting back to something approaching normalcy?

Angelique Saweczko, University of Toronto, Registrar: We don’t know yet. We’re in the applications process for 2023 right now, so the students who applied this year were completing high school during the pandemic. There’ll still be a few more application cycles until we figure this out. There’s still a backlog as a result of the pandemic, especially with international students and study permit processing.

Nycum: Students and guidance counsellors are always very interested in the minimum grade required to get into a program—what we call historical cut-offs. And while we don’t want students who aren’t qualified to apply, because it leads to unhappy people, the continued pandemic volatility is leading some students to decide they’re not qualified. So while we have more students applying than ever before, we also have very large gaps in our application numbers for some programs.

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It’s my job to help applicants see how, if they don’t have the grades to get into one program, there might be another program that might be right for them: things that aren’t necessarily hitting their radar. They might not have the grades for a specific science program, but they could get into an agricultural science program, or arts that cross over into science. We encourage them to dig a little deeper, rather than decide that McGill isn’t for them.

Fulford: Imagine you’re a high school student looking at your academic future. How much should you be laser-focused on your grades versus other aspects of your application?

Kutay Ulkuer, Mount Allison University, Director of Recruitment, Admissions and Awards: Mount Allison is a smaller school, so we have the luxury of getting to know our applicants. Along with their academic achievements, we ask about leadership skills, volunteer work, work experience and sports, and we take it all into consideration during both the application and scholarship decisions. So if a student isn’t super strong in academics but they did a lot of volunteer work, we’ll take that into account. The minimum requirements aren’t there to keep students out. They’re there to make sure that the students who do get admitted have a fair chance of success, so they’ll stay in their program, they’ll finish it, and they’ll get a job. Their success becomes our success. 

Saweczko: Even before the pandemic we were looking at both their final year and Grade 11 grades. We find that the Grade 11s are a good indicator, especially for the early rounds of admission offers, where we don’t have a complete picture of what their Grade 12 might look like.

The general rule is, pay equal attention if the program is asking for a personal statement, or asking questions about something related to the discipline, or a portfolio or references. This is especially true in our highly selective programs, like the pure sciences, our Rotman commerce programs and music, where you’re required to audition.

Fulford: Has the high demand from international students made it harder for Canadian students to get in, or do you have quotas for Canadian students?

Saweczko: Different provinces and institutions have their own regulations about these things. At U of T, we have targets and we treat the different cohorts accordingly. We try to align the admissions requirements as best as we can, but you have students coming from different education systems, so it’s never a perfect alignment.

Ulkuer: Mount Allison is a unique university in that we attract most of our students from outside New Brunswick. But what we saw during the pandemic was that more students wanted to stay closer to home, plus there was a drop in international students applying because of geopolitical situations around the world. Now I’m seeing that the factors that influence a student to apply to our school have shifted, too. They’re interested in academic programs, but they’re also now asking about residences, access to resources and cost of living.

Fulford: With runaway inflation, how much are your applicants concerned about the cost of living on campus?

Ulkuer: Parents always ask, “Where is my kid going to live, what are they going to eat?” Because of the economy, we’re seeing a lot more concern about this. We’re also seeing students apply to live in residence much earlier and in much greater numbers, so they don’t have to live in possibly more expensive off-campus housing.

Saweczko: Toronto is an especially pricey place to live. I’ve noticed a lot of anxiety about cost of living from the students during recruitment visits. Many students ask about support for finding places to live. Our school offers a bursary to Canadian students to help supplement money they might be getting from Ontario’s student aid program, since that program looks at the average cost of living across the province, which doesn’t reflect the reality of living in Toronto specifically. 

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Fulford: The pandemic has also been blamed for a surge in grade inflation at secondary schools.
As an institution, how do you cope with so many applicants with high grades?

Nycum: We’ve heard from counsellors that some high school students, not being able to do much else with their time, have been very focused and have thrived. We’ve also noticed that there are academic accommodations, where students are getting pass-fail grades in certain courses, which inevitably increases averages. It does put us in a difficult position as we assess applications, but there isn’t enough data to make any changes yet.

Saweczko: For the last couple of years, some high school students did really well in an online environment; others, not so well. There’s going to be a ripple effect, because it’ll also have an impact on the students who, during the pandemic, were completing Grades 9 and 10. 

Ulkuer: Because of online learning, a lot of students are showing up here with high grades but without the skills and experience they would have picked up through in-person learning. So we’ve been trying to help the students as they transition to university, to make sure they don’t have a shock in their first year. We’ve introduced lab help centres, writing resources and research help centres. Our faculty are also working to spot students who are struggling, so even if a student achieves a high grade in secondary school in calculus, they can get the lab help they need.

Fulford: Does it matter what kind of school a student attends? Do you assess students coming from a competitive, academically driven high school differently than if they attended a more average public school?

Saweczko: We don’t look at the individual schools—that would be very difficult. But we do look at regional or provincial curricula, and assess those curricula. The common questions we get from students are about the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses. Students will ask if it’s better to do IB, because their school offers both streams. And the answer is no: we look at each program differently. Where the advantage comes in is if the student received advanced standing or advanced credits, depending on the grades they received in those courses. Some of those programs also really do prepare you for university studies.

Fulford: Do you find there’s greater concern now about how a degree will help a student’s job prospects?

Nycum: Students always want to see the value of their investment. A degree doesn’t necessarily mean a career, but we try to help them to identify the opportunities, to leverage the momentum of their time at university.

Ulkuer: The advice I always give is to get as much information as possible, and to be open-minded about different programs and majors, because maybe you haven’t had that eureka moment to decide on your path in the world yet. The university needs to educate students to think about a career by deciding what kind of lifestyle they see for themselves down the road, and work back from there.

Fulford: What’s the one piece of advice you want every applicant to follow?

Nycum: From a practical perspective, students need to closely read our website and make sure they’ve completed the entire application. Every institution has a slightly different process, and applicants need to pay attention to that. We see a number of incomplete applications, simply because people sometimes miss something; and those applications get rejected, which is heartbreaking. 

Saweczko: Students should also read all the emails we send out. Many of our institutions use customer relationship management software, which allows us to see how many emails are read—and a surprising number of messages go unread. We send information that’s especially important during the admissions process, whether it’s about important updates, reminders to do something by a certain date—it’s all very important. It’s designed to help applicants through the process.

Ulkuer: One of the phenomena that I’ve been seeing is that we have transfer students coming from other institutions who maybe chose another school first, maybe because that was the school their friends chose, but then realized they’d rather be at our school. For that reason, I always tell students who are applying that this could be a life-altering decision. Think about your interests and study habits. Are you a person who thrives in a big city or are you someone who needs a little bit of calm in your life to be able to succeed? Are you a person who wants to be part of a close-knit community? You need to visit the campuses, if you can, and you’ll probably know right away that it’s the right place for you. You need to be truthful to what you are, instead of following trends or your friends to the school they want to go to. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 



This story appears in the Maclean’s University Guidebook 2023, available now for just $19.99. Order your copy here.