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.


Holiday Closure

The University of Waterloo is officially closed for the holidays until January 2nd.  During the holiday closure, most university buildings are locked and inaccessible.  Building temperatures are set to normal nighttime settings to conserve energy.  The only buildings remaining open during the annual shutdown are a few university residences that remain open for students who are unable to go home for the holidays.

The Engineering Admissions Office will not be able to return calls or e-mails until the university reopens on January 2nd.  We will likely need a few days to deal with all of the inquiries we receive over the holiday season.  Please be assured that we will do our best to respond to your inquiries as soon as we can.

On behalf of the Engineering Admissions Office, we wish you a very happy holiday season and a great start to the new year!

2018 Nobel Prize in Physics

Today is a great day in the history of the University of WaterlooDonna Strickland, a professor in the Physics Department will receive her Nobel Prize in Physics for her work in developing chirped pulse amplification with her Ph.D. supervisor, Gérard Mourou.  Our university is hosting a viewing party in our Board and Senate Chambers in Needles Hall today at 10:30 am.  For those who cannot attend the viewing party, the ceremony is being streamed on YouTube in approximately 15 minutes.  You can view the livestream here.

To the best of my knowledge, Donna is the first University of Waterloo professor to receive a Nobel Prize.  It is an incredible achievement and one that will have a lasting positive impact upon our institution for many years to come.  In recognition of Donna’s achievement, our university has posted three large signs on the side of our Physics Building on campus as shown in the image below:


Our engineering applicants might be surprised to learn that Donna has frequently taught our first-year engineering students the fundamentals of physics.  I have had the opportunity to work alongside Donna at first year divisional meetings and I can honestly say that she is an excellent teacher that deeply cares for her students.  Her students clearly respect her and value her teachings.  Our Faculty of Engineering is very lucky to have Donna as one of the many excellent Physics professors teaching our first year students.

I encourage everyone to check out the 2018 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony on YouTube and wish Donna all the best using the hashtag #nobelprize.

Exam Season Has Begun

Classes have now ended for the Fall term at the University of Waterloo.  Students are currently preparing for their final exams.  For some students, this means finally getting a day of rest to prepare for long hours of studying and exam writing.  For other students, the studying process has already begun.  For our first year students, this is a scary time of the year.  Most of our first year students have never written a final exam in university.  The study areas on campus are busy with students reviewing lecture materials and old exams in hopes of learning all the things that they didn’t have time to learn throughout the term.

The co-op program that is a required part of Waterloo Engineering has pros and cons.  The program is known for training highly qualified engineers.  Students get real-world experience working on engineering problems that matter.  The lessons taught by real-world experience are often superior to those taught in a classroom setting.  Employers have access to state-of-the-art tools and equipment that universities sometimes lack.  For example, our co-op students working at Apple are working on products that will come to market in the next two years using internal tools that are likely better than those available on any university campus.  No university, regardless of budget, can compete on an equal playing field with private sector research and development.

However, one of the downsides of the co-op program is the substantial investment of time that students must make during their academic terms to secure great co-op placements.  Writing résumés and cover letters is time-consuming.  While we have a great system in place to help students find a job, it sometimes requires a fair amount of work on the part of a student during an academic term.  This coupled with employment trends where companies require applicants to complete assignments and tests prior to an interview can really make studying during the term a difficult proposition.  At this time of the year, I often recommend to students still looking for a co-op placement that they put the job search on a temporary hold.

For our students, it is now time to focus on studying for exams.

Like students, academic terms are busy for most faculty members.  My last few days have been spent catching up on things that had to be postponed until classes ended.  Writing a final exam for my course was at the top of my to-do list.  I can happily say that my exam has been submitted for printing.

Students and parents might be surprised to learn how long it takes faculty members to write a good exam.  I usually budget about 30 hours for final exam writing.  Sometimes, it takes more than 30 hours to typeset an exam.  It depends upon the complexity of the exam and the number of figures and tables required.  It is a bit like writing a chapter of a textbook or writing a journal paper.  The task requires great attention to detail and a fair amount of hard work.  I try to anticipate how students will interpret my questions and I try to figure out how the questions can be graded fairly and efficiently.  My final exams tend to be somewhere between 20 pages and 24 pages long.  For a brief glimpse into the end product, you can see an image of the front page of my final exam for my course this term.


There are no spoilers in this image as I provide the front page to all of my students through our online learning system.  The front page provides students with an idea of what they can expect during their final exam.  While it doesn’t really say much, students like knowing the mark breakdown.  During the last class of the term, I also provide titles for each exam question.  As an example, Question 1 on this final exam is a question on Serial Interfacing.

Contrary to what happens in the movies, my final exams do not reuse questions verbatim from previous years.  While individual questions may be similar to old questions in structure, I always change the question wording and the numeric values to provide a new take on old questions.  A slight change in wording can substantially change the meaning of some questions.  I also strive to introduce several new questions on every exam that I write.  This can be a challenge when you have taught a variation of the same course for 15+ years.  This being said, I love the course that I teach and I am happy to face this challenge at the end of an academic term.

Students and parents might also be surprised to learn that most faculty members, including myself, do not want to fail students.  I prefer students passing my final exams.  Passing is a sign that students have learned something that I feel is important.  When students fail my exams, I always wonder if there is something I could have done better to help motivate the student to learn the material.  There might have been a better way to explain a particular concept to my students.  A few more examples might have helped.  Given more class time, things could always have been better.

At the end of the academic term, we do have course evaluations that are conducted to provide feedback to instructors.  This information is incredibly valuable to instructors in some cases.  Using feedback provided by students, I have found ways to improve my course notes that I might not otherwise have figured out.  While there are still improvements to be made, my course notes are much better than the ones I used 15 years ago.  The only students (sadly) who get to see the improvements are those who repeat my course.  This term, I hope none of my students get to see the next version of my course notes.

Good luck to all of our engineering students on their final exams!


Enrolment Trends

Recently, I was asked by a prospective applicant about the subject of expansion.  There are many dimensions to the question of expansion but I would like to focus this blog post on the subject of enrolment trends.

Over the past 15 years, Waterloo Engineering has steadily grown the size of its undergraduate program offerings.  We have added new programs such as Mechatronics Engineering, Nanotechnology Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Architectural Engineering.  We have also slightly increased the number of students entering our programs in first year in some of our other engineering programs.  Overall, this has resulted in a steady increase to our first year Waterloo Engineering enrolment as shown in the graph provided below:

First Year Enrolment Graph

We understand that we are a very popular destination for students wishing to study engineering.  Over the past decade, we have seen an increase in the number of applicants to our engineering programs and we have also seen a (slight) increase in the quality of our applicants.  To meet perceived demand, we have increased our supply of available spaces where practical to do so.

Our co-op program is the primary reason for our growth.  Many engineering applicants realize the value of practical engineering experience.  While other universities offer co-op placements and internships, Waterloo Engineering is known for having a highly successful co-op program with strong ties to companies worldwide.

However, the enrolment trends in the Province of Ontario have been moving in the opposite direction in recent years.  The number of students in Grade 12 has been decreasing since 2009-10.  According to the Ministry of Education – Education Facts webpage (, Grade 12 enrolment has dropped by 18.2% since 2009.  The Grade 12 enrolment numbers are shown in the graph provided below:

Grade 12 Enrolment Graph

Looking at the enrolment numbers for earlier grades, our current projections suggest that the downward trend is likely to continue for at least another decade unless high school age students move in large numbers to the Province of Ontario.  The downward trend in Grade 12 enrolment cannot be ignored easily.  It is a significant consideration when proposing plans for expansion.

Some people might argue that a particular university should educate all engineers in the Province of Ontario.  If every student wants to study at Waterloo, why not?  I personally believe there is value to having choice.  Some students want co-op while others do not.  Some students want to study in a big city while others prefer a small town.  Some students want small class sizes while others want larger class sizes to establish a strong network of classmates.  Some students want to study close to their home while others wish to study abroad.  Perhaps this is why selecting a university is such a difficult decision.  There are so many choices to consider.

If 61 years ago people did not believe it was important to have choice, the University of Waterloo might not have existed at all.  The University of Waterloo was founded not only to meet a need for more highly trained individuals but also to offer a unique choice to applicants.  Co-op education was an essential part of our education from the first day that we opened.  This innovation has had a lasting impact upon our university and universities around the world.

Early Admission Offers

This Fall, we have received quite a few inquiries regarding early admission.  We attempted to answer many of these questions at the Fall Break Open House (shown below) but for those who missed the event, I will try to answer a few of the most common questions on early admission that I have received.



Does Waterloo Engineering do an early round of admission offers?

Yes.  Our plan is to select a small number of applicants to fill a small percentage of the available spaces in each program prior to our main round of admission in May.  The early round of admission is expected to happen sometime in the middle of March.  We wait for first semester grades to arrive prior to making any early admission offer decisions.  We do not expect to receive first semester grades until the first week in March.  This is why we cannot make informed decisions earlier in the admission process.

Why does Waterloo Engineering only accept a small number of applicants in the first round of admission offers?

We have a duty to applicants, their families, members of the university community, and the government to ensure to the best of our abilities that we only accept applicants who are likely to be highly successful in our programs.  Grades in high school courses are an important part of our assessment process.  At the end of the first semester, some students have completed most, if not all, of the required courses for admission to our program.  These students are considered for early admission.  Students taking several required courses for admission in their 2nd semester will not typically be considered for early admission, regardless of how exceptional their grades may have been in previous years.

Does completing my application early improve my chances of being given early admission to my program of choice?

Certainly, you will not receive an offer if your application is incomplete.  However, the exact date that you complete your application is not a factor in our decisions.  As long as your application is complete prior to our early round assessments, you will automatically be considered for early admission.  For engineering, the deadline for completing applications is February 1, 2019.

Is there any advantage to being selected early?

There is no advantage to being selected early.  While it might be comforting to know that you have an offer, being selected early does not factor into scholarship decisions, residence decisions, or program decisions.  We do not allow students with early offers to ask to be considered for another program while holding on to their early admission offer.  For example, a student accepted into Computer Engineering early could not ask to be considered for Software Engineering without giving up the offer for Computer Engineering.  You may not use an early admission offer as a “safety net”.

Is there any disadvantage to being selected early?

There is no disadvantage to being selected early.  Some students worry that they might miss out on a scholarship awarded in the main round of admission.  This is not the case.  We consider all accepted students when awarding entrance scholarships.  Receiving an early offer of admission does not increase or decrease your chances of being awarded an entrance scholarship.

How can I ensure that I will get an early admission offer?

If you are applying this year, there is no way to guarantee receiving an early offer of admission.  Do well in your courses, ensure your application is well written, and make sure you application is complete by the application deadline.  If you are in Grade 11 or earlier, you might be able to take a few of the required courses early.  Doing so might allow you to complete the rest of your required courses in the first semester of your final year of high school.

If I already have an offer from another university with an early acceptance deadline, what can I do?

If you find yourself in a situation where you would prefer to attend Waterloo Engineering but another university (or college) is asking for a firm commitment prior to May, let our Engineering Admissions Office know.  You can do so by e-mailing  While we cannot guarantee that we will consider your application early, it may be possible in certain cases.  If you ask for early consideration of your application, you will be required to provide proof of your acceptance to another university (or college).

Some final thoughts…

Remember, there is no advantage to being selected early.  An applicant receiving an early offer is not necessarily more qualified than an applicant receiving an offer in the main admission round.  As an applicant, your goal should be to gain acceptance into your first choice program.  Hopefully, you will receive a letter of acceptance during one of our two rounds of admission.

Fall Break Open House

The Fall Break Open House has begun at the University of Waterloo. This year, a record number of prospective students registered to attend. We have over 6,000 prospective students expected to visit our brand new building and attend presentations on our engineering programs. Here is a view of our atrium in Engineering 7 where students are gathering to go on tours with current students.

If you would like to check out our new building today, feel free to drop by our campus for a visit. We would be happy to give you a tour!