The Ultimate Guide to University

The following article is Guidance Counsellor Approved!

Applying to University is one of the most stressful and overwhelming situations in High School. Many students are unsure what they are passionate about, and some are unsure if University is for them.

Most Canadian Universities base their admission decisions on marks, however, some programs take a look at you more holistically. This means they care about your extracurricular involvement, leadership potential, character, communication and writing skills and more. Many art-based programs also require you submit a portfolio, so keep that in mind when you are choosing your programs.

Getting Started

You need to learn about yourself when you are applying to University. What your short-term and long-term goals are, how you are academically, what motivates you and more. You should understand what you want to do for the next 3-5 years, and possibly more. Do you like science, math, geography, history? You need to explore your passions and learn what University is right for you. If you have a specific occupation in mind, which program(s) will get you there? If you are unsure what you want to be, which program(s) will help you decide? These are some of the questions you should be asking yourself before you begin this process. Don’t just apply to a program because you heard it is good. Research!

You should be thinking about…

  • College or University?
  • How much money do I have access to? How much does this program cost? Scholarships or bursaries?
  • What do I want to study for the next 5 years?
  • Where do I see myself in the next 10 years?
  • What factors are important to me in a University?
  • What subject(s) do I like in high school, what careers are there in those subjects?
  • Do I think I can achieve the academics in the programs I am considering?

Universities in Ontario and Canada

If you are planning on applying to an Ontario university, you will use OUAC to submit your application. If you are applying to a university outside of Ontario (McGill, UBC, etc.) then you will use their own system to apply. Research the deadlines for applications outside of Ontario on their specific website to ensure you don’t miss the due date.

What is OUAC?

The Ontario Universities’ Application Centre is a non-profit organization based in Guelph that processes online applications for admission to universities in Ontario, Canada.


Marks… and More

The minimum entrance grade for Universities varies depending on the type of programs you are applying to. In general, business and engineering programs require more competitive averages than science and arts. Several undergraduate business programs require more than just marks to get in. For example, U of T Rotman Commerce, Queens Commerce, York Schulich and others require a supplementary application to be completed. These additional applications are sometimes time-consuming and stressful. Make sure you research which programs you apply to have additional applications so that you are ahead of the game.

“We’re seeing an emerging trend to use this type of application in place of traditional essays,” – Robert Astroff of Toronto-based Astroff Consultants

Many students think that if they have a very high average they are guaranteed into the most competitive programs and they do not try very hard on the additional applications. One of the biggest mistake recruitment/admission officers say is that students with exceptionally high marks do not try as hard on their supplementary application because they think they can get in due to their marks. McMaster’s Health Science program is one of the most challenging programs to be accepted to. Many students with 98 and 99 percent are denied because their supplementary applications were not good enough.

University Min. Grade in Arts* Min. Grade in Science* Min. Grade in Commerce* Min. Grade in Engineering*
Algoma 65% 65% 65% 65%
Brock 70% 70% 84%
Carleton 78% 78-80% 80% 76-86%
Guelph 78-84% 80-85% 78-84% 83-85%
Lakehead 70% 70% 70% 70%
Laurentian 72% 72% 72% 72-80%
McMaster 75% 85-90% 82.5% 89%
Nipissing 70% 70% 70%
OCAD U 70%, plus portfolio  –  –  –
UOIT 70-75% 70-80% 75-80% 80-85%
Ottawa 73-78% 75-84% 75-85% 80-85%
Queen’s 80% 84% 87% 90%
RMC 75% 75% 75% 75%
Ryerson 73-88% 72-90% 72-85% 88-90%
Toronto 75-84% 75-91% 83-88% 85-93%
Trent 70% 70% 70%
Waterloo 80% 80% 80-92% 88%
Western 83.5% 83.5% 87.5% 87%
Wilfrid Laurier 70-86% 74-91% 89-93.5%
Windsor 70-80% 70% 73-78% 74%
York 75% 80% 90% 80%
 * provided by eInfo

Do Marks Matter?

Marks are a very important factor for almost all programs in Canada. Many schools have very competetive averages in order to get in. You should try to achieve at least 5 percent over mark-based programs in order to have a good chance of getting in. 

Average Acceptance Average By University

Waterloo 90.4
McGill 90.3
Western 90.0
Manitoba 89.2
Queen’s 89.0
UBC 88.6
Montréal 88.1
Acadia 87.9
Saskatchewan 87.9
Dalhousie 87.6
McMaster 87.6
Simon Fraser 87.5
Alberta 87.4
UPEI 86.9
Toronto 86.5
St. Francis Xavier 86.4
Cape Breton 86.3
Victoria 86.3
UQAM 86.2
UNBC 86.1
Sherbrooke 86.0
Mount Allison 85.9
New Brunswick 85.9
Calgary 85.7
Regina 85.4
Laval 85.3
St. Thomas 84.8
Moncton 84.7
Mount Saint Vincent 84.7
Ottawa 84.7
Ryerson 84.4
Guelph 83.8
Wilfrid Laurier 83.8
Brock 83.3
Carleton 83.2
Concordia 83.2
Brandon 83.1
Bishop’s 82.6
Laurentian 82.5
Nipissing 82.5
Memorial 82.4
Saint Mary’s 81.8
Winnipeg 81.8
York 81.7
Trent 81.4
Windsor 81.4
Lethbridge 81.2
Lakehead 80.1
UOIT 80.0

A big misconception among high school students is that you need to go to the best program and University in order to succeed in life. However, every student works best at different Universities. Just because you heard that Queens is the best for science does not mean it will lead to you being the most successful student or individual. You should always research which program aligns with your goals and skills.

If you are the type of student who likes academic reputation and research, then you should consider the Universities reputation. Although it is not the most important factor, if you plan on pursuing graduate school in another country, it may be important.

University Rankings by National Reputation

  1. Toronto
  2. Waterloo
  3. UBC
  4. McGill
  5. Alberta
  6. McMaster
  7. Western
  8. Queen’s
  9. Simon Fraser
  10. Calgary
  11. Guelph
  12. Montréal
  13. Ryerson
  14. Dalhousie
  15. Concordia
  16. Ottawa
  17. Victoria

Data provided by Macleans

Keep in mind that this is a general overview of the reputation of the universities, and rankings by program differ.

Hardest Programs in Canada to Get Into

According to Yahoo

5. Mechanical Engineering, McGill University

4. Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) | Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

3. Engineering Science, University of Toronto

2. Software Engineering, University of Waterloo

1. Bachelor of Health Sciences, McMaster University

General Types of Programs

  1. Engineering
  2. Science
  3. Architecture
  4. Business
  5. Arts

Programs With a Supplementary Application

Many programs require more than just marks. U of T Engineering, Queens Commerce and McMaster Engineering are just a few of the many programs that make students complete a mandatory application with various components to get in. For arts programs like journalism and visual arts, you are generally required to submit a portfolio of your work.

Let’s take a look at what U of T Engineering requires on top of marks…
  1. A full list of extracurricular activities and description
  2. Video interview
  3. Academic portfolio
What is this video interview?

The video interview is used to allow the admission committee to get to know you. For U of T, they ask two short video responses and one 250 word written component. Each of the questions is timed and there is no one on the other end (it is not live). You are only allowed to do the interview once. Check out their website for more details.

Universities want to see that you are more than just marks. They want to admit students who have experience with leadership and know how to take initiative. Many programs will state what characteristics and students they are looking for. When you are completing your additional applications, make sure to check out the program’s website so you can get a glimpse of what makes a student successful in their programs. This will increase your chances of getting in.

Early Acceptance

Another myth is that you can apply for early acceptance at universities. Early acceptance is simply just a term that describes getting into University early. You do not have to submit another application or apply for early acceptance. If you apply early, you can get accepted early if your marks are quite competitive. Early acceptance is generally based on grade 11 marks. Some schools base their decision on grade 11 marks and can accept you as early as December or January. However, many programs do not offer acceptance in those months and have set times when they give out their acceptances. Just because you did not get accepted in the very early months does not mean you are not as good as the other applicants, but rather they are waiting for other information from you. McMaster University states they start giving out acceptances in March (or mid-late February), as opposed to Queen’s University which can send out acceptances as early as December. Some programs like McMaster’s Health Science program does not give out acceptances until May. Generally, programs that have supplementary applications take longer.

Need help deciding on a program? Take the quiz below:


Do Grade 11 Marks Matter?

Yes, and no. Universities do see your grade 11 final marks. They do not see your grade 12 final and midterm semester 1 marks until early February. This means all admission decisions before February will be based on your grade 11 marks. Grade 12 marks are more important than grade 11 marks. When a grade 12 prerequisite mark is not available (you haven’t finished it yet), then Universities will look at your corresponding grade 11 mark as a prediction of what you will get in grade 12. I would say it is a good idea to get your marks as high as possible in grade 11. It won’t hurt.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many universities and programs can I choose to apply to on my application?

You may apply to as many Ontario universities/programs as you wish; however, you are limited to a maximum of 3 program choices at any 1 university (including affiliates).

Some universities may further limit the number of programs you may apply to. Make sure that you carefully read the details and instructions offered by each institution.

I am taking a summer school course. How will the universities get my marks?

Grades from summer school courses are submitted to the OUAC by the summer school or the district school board. Verify with your summer school that either the summer school or the district school board will be sending the marks directly to the OUAC on your behalf. If this is not the case, you must arrange for original, official final grades to be sent to the OUAC and for photocopies of these grades to be sent to each of the universities to which you have applied, if required. Indicate on the photocopies that the original was sent to the OUAC.

Extracurriculars, do they matter?

For most programs in Canada, marks are the primary method of acceptance. Some more competitive programs will also analyze your extracurricular involvement inside and outside of school. It is important you understand what extracurricular activities they are looking for. Students think if they write their name down for various clubs they are set. Universities care more about what you learned from your activities rather than how many activities you are on. If you signed up for a club and only attended one meeting, you should definitely not write that on your application. Universities know when a student actually contributes to that club/organization. 

Leadership roles are important… but aren’t as important as you may think

Yes, it is amazing that you are president of a club, but you can also get just as much out of the club if you contribute enough. Universities want to see you taking initiative and working towards change. If you changed the focus of the club, amazing! If you got new members, even better! If you started a new initiative or fundraised for a good cause, wow! If the university you are applying to asks for a description of the activity, talk about your role and responsibilities, but also talk about what you learned and how you grew as an individual. Nothing is better than acknowledging your growth from a school activity.


Activities that Universities care about are generally ones where you show dedication, initiative and leadership. Activities that you have been involved in for a longer period of time are better than ones that you just joined.

I would say that you should care about the quality of your activities more than the quantity of them.

Top Schools With the Highest Graduation Rates (%)

The graduation rate tracks undergraduate students to determine if they received a degree within seven years. Below are the percentage of full-time, first-year students in fall 2007 who graduated by 2014. (Not part of ranking calculations.) – Macleans

Queen’s 89.5
Western 86.6
McGill 85.0
Laval 83.7
Sherbrooke 82.7
Montréal 81.3
Waterloo 79.6
Lakehead 79.5
Toronto 79.4
McMaster 79.3
Alberta 79.2
Guelph 78.6
Calgary 78.4
New Brunswick 78.0
Wilfrid Laurier 77.7
Ottawa 76.8
St. Francis Xavier 76.6

The Takeaway

Yes, this process is not the most fun, but it is not as bad as you might think. Apply to programs that you love and just work your hardest this year. Don’t stress too much and you will do just fine.


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