It’s Not Just About Your Grades

Sure, grades are the most important piece of data that Canadian universities look at when considering applicants, but in many cases they’re not the only factor. It’s getting more and more common for applicants to be evaluated ‘holistically’, taking into consideration various factors in addition to grades. These might include ‘rigor’ (the degree of difficulty of your high school courses), extracurricular activities, life experiences, and goals for the future.

Holistic applications include space for applicants to list and describe five or more extracurricular activities that are important to them and answer multiple essay questions that ask them to reflect on themselves, their experiences, and their educational goals. Some applications also include interview-style questions that applicants answer by recording their responses on video within a time limit. As a group, these are often called ‘supplemental applications’, but they are named and approached differently depending on the school.

The University of British Columbia (UBC) stands out among Canadian universities, by requiring every high school applicant to complete a ‘Personal Profile’ as part of their online application. At other Canadian schools, it’s usually only the more competitive programs that use supplemental applications and they are submitted separately, after the initial application. For example, Queen’s University has a Personal Statement of Experience (PSE), Waterloo has an Admission Information Form (AIF), and the University of Toronto and McMaster University have supplemental applications for certain programs, such as health sciences, business, and engineering.

Universities that use holistic admissions understand that applicants are more than just their grades. They are looking for students who do well academically and who will also bring enthusiasm for their classes and other activities on campus. By asking applicants about activities, interests, and goals, supplemental questions help application readers choose students who they think will be great additions to their student bodies.

If you have a track record of involvement in extracurricular activities at school and in your community, you’ll have a much easier time preparing supplemental essays. And it doesn’t matter what kind of activities you’re involved in; none ‘count’ more than others. You can spend time in athletics, fine arts, school clubs, community service, part-time jobs, or helping out at home.

The more time you spend focussed on an activity, the more experience and knowledge you’ll gain. So it’s a good idea to focus on one to three activities, rather than merely dabble in a bunch. One good plan is to explore a variety of activities during your early high school years and then choose a smaller number to focus on in Grades 10 to 12. Also, the skills and experience gained from leadership are valuable, so if there’s an opportunity to take on a leadership or organizational role in one or more of your activities, do it!

Of course, getting involved in extracurricular activities isn’t just helpful for supplemental applications. Participating in school clubs and community activities is a great way to make new friends, learn how to relate to people of all ages, and find potential mentors. It can also help with career exploration and scholarship applications. Career exploration is important because applications often ask about future plans.

One of the questions on the University of Waterloo’s AIF is: Please tell us about your educational goals, your interest in your chosen program(s), and your reasons for applying to the University of Waterloo. If you have applied to more than one program please discuss your interest in each program. 

UBC asks: You may wish to use the space below to provide UBC with more information on your academic history to date and/or your future academic plans. For example: How did you choose your courses in secondary school? Are there life circumstances that have affected your academic decisions to date? What have you done to prepare yourself specifically for your intended area of study at UBC?

If you think you might be interested in a competitive program like engineering or business, read relevant books and get involved in related activities. This is a great hands-on way to find out whether you really like it. There are often entrepreneurial, investment, robotics, and other similar clubs at school, in the community, and during the summer that you can try. More and more, there are also activities you can do completely online.

Again, it doesn’t matter which activities you choose. What matters is that you get involved in and try things that seem interesting or meaningful to you. If the universities you end up applying to only look at your grades, you’ll still have gained invaluable experience. If you do find yourself needing to submit one or more supplemental applications, you’ll have good experience to reflect on. We won’t say it will be easy to write the activity descriptions and essays, but it will definitely be easier to come up with interesting content.