Selecting the Right Engineering Program

With the January 16th application deadline approaching quickly, I have received many comments from potential applicants on which engineering program to select.  If you are an applicant reading this blog post, you have probably already read my blog post on your Chances of Admission for Fall 2019.  To some applicants, this blog post offers hope.  The data shows that applicants with lower averages sometimes receive offers of admission over students with higher averages.  It is proof that grades are not the only factor in our admission decisions.

We have been very successful in finding the right students for our programs.  After all, no one would have thought back in 1957 that a small university founded on farm land would within 61 years become one of the top universities in Canada with over 33,000 undergraduate students.  The image below is a photo collage that is located in our new Engineering 7 building.  The photos summarize the history of our Faculty of Engineering.

From the Mud
A photo collage depicting the history of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Waterloo.

However, to a high average applicant, the same blog post can be depressing.  An applicant with a 95% average often has a very difficult time dealing with the thought of possibly being rejected.  Not being granted admission seems too much like failing.  Most applicants with a 95% average have not had to endure failing.  For the few that have suffered failures, they have learned that failing is clearly something to avoid.  In some select cases, applicants fear rejection so much that they start to consider programs for which they are more likely to receive an offer of admission.  This is a very bad idea for a number of reasons that I will try to explain further.

Motivation Can Lead to Success

If you are motivated to succeed, you are more likely to be successful in a challenging engineering program.  This is not to say that you must love every minute of your engineering studies.  Like a full-time job, studying engineering requires hard work.  There will be rewarding moments but there will also be times that test your motivation to succeed.

For some students, graduating from a Waterloo Engineering program is reward enough to justify five years of hard work.  For other students, the prospect of a decent career after graduation is a strong motivation.  One thing that is clear is that five years is a big commitment of time.  The average student studying engineering at the University of Waterloo has spent over one fifth of their entire life studying engineering by the time they graduate!

If you like what you are doing, it will be much easier to justify the hard work.  When I work on rewarding projects, I rarely keep track of the time I have spent on them.  I only watch the clock when I am doing something I dislike.  I am sure that I am not alone in this behavior.

You Cannot Control the Admission Process

You might think selecting an engineering program that typically has a higher probability of admission for a particular average will always produce a better result but this is not always true.   There are simply too many variables to control.  Changing one variable may not be enough to get the result you desire.

This year, for example, early application demand for Mechatronics Engineering and Mechanical Engineering are approximately equal.  If this trend continues, it is quite possible that the admission averages will drop slightly for Mechatronics Engineering and rise slightly for Mechanical Engineering.  It is not clear how much the entrance averages will change but it demonstrates the challenge of trying to control the admission process.  If too many applicants try to control the admission process, the rules of the game effectively change.

The only variables you can reasonably control are the grades you receive and the quality of your application materials.  Everything else is largely beyond your scope of control.  You cannot optimize the admission process if you cannot control all of the independent variables.  If you try too hard to choose an easier path, it might even affect your motivation for completing your application materials which can have a negative impact upon the quality of your application materials.

You Might Be Special

There are some genuinely interesting applicants who get into Waterloo Engineering with lower averages and great extra-curricular activities.  These applicants are often highly successful in our programs.  There is very little harm in applying to our engineering programs.  At worst, you will spend one application fee and a few hours applying to find out that you, like many exceptional students, were rejected.  At best, you will get into a rewarding program that you may really enjoy.

Many people, including myself, play the lottery in the hope of winning a big prize.  I never expect to win.  I know the odds are against me when I play.  However, if I can spare a few dollars to have the chance of winning the lottery, it is a chance I am willing to take.  Imagine all the good I could do if I suddenly won $60 million dollars.

As a potential applicant, imagine all the good you could do if you get an opportunity to study engineering at the University of Waterloo.  Is it worth applying?  I would say yes.

So How Do I Select the Right Program?

Choose a program that interests you.  Do your research into the program.  Talk to students about the program.  Find out what they like and what they don’t like.  Make sure you are reasonably well-prepared for the program.  Be realistic but also be willing to take a few calculated risks.  Be fearless.  Fortune favors the bold.


4 thoughts on “Selecting the Right Engineering Program”

  1. What should I do if, originally, I did not plan on applying to engineering and have already submitted my AIF but now wish to apply? Should I add an amendment for the first question (“Reasons for choosing your program”), and will this affect my admissions chances?


    1. I haven’t actually tested out the submission process so I asked a colleague how this should work. We believe that when you switch your application to engineering, you will have an additional tab appear with a few engineering specific questions. You should also be able to amend the rest of your AIF data if you choose to do so. However, even if you cannot amend your reason for choosing your program, it will not be held against you. I spoke directly with the person evaluating the AIFs.


  2. Hello, I have been looking at information about the software engineering program on the UWaterloo website. On the website it recommends students to take grade 11 and 12 level computer science courses, if possible, for this program. If an applicant doesn’t take these CTS computer science courses, or only takes them up to the grade 11 level, would this hinder their chances of admission into the software engineering program? Would taking these courses give the applicant a higher chance of being admitted?


    1. Software Engineering is a popular program among our applicants. The competition to get into the program is steep. The minimum admission requirement for acceptance is demonstration of programming experience either through completion of at least one computer science course or through providing evidence of significant programming experience on your Admission Information Form. Programming experience is a significant consideration in our assessments of applicants for the Software Engineering program.


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