My Experience in the Canadian Tech School Pipeline
The yearly competition between thousands of teens for hundreds of spots
This is a story about a world many don’t know, and some know very well. American Ivy leagues have been the talk of the town for many years due to their prestige, rankings, and now, controversy. However, there is an area of education swiftly rising in competition and rankings: Canadian technology universities. Universities like the University of Waterloo have been making global headlines for their billion dollar startups and excellent tech programs.
On April 24th, 2020, I was accepted to Waterloo. What would start my education with the university would end a 6 year journey of meticulous planning and hard work.
Each year the University of Waterloo has seen more and more applicants for the same number of spots, producing an increasingly competitive environment. I know for a fact many students are dying for me to tell them the “one true secret” to getting into Waterloo. You don’t have to take my word for it, check out the reddit megathread with hundreds of students posting their averages and asking if they have a chance. But the truth is, there is no secret. But of course, like many things, there is a way to make acceptance far more likely.
I was part of a much larger system I call the “UW pipeline” (I will refer to the University of Waterloo as UW). It’s a system that I think many of its participants don’t even realize they are part of, but it channels a large number of accepted students into the university’s top programs each year without fail. This is a story about my experience in the UW pipeline, and how you might use it to get in.
Step 1: Get Lucky
A factor in success many are not quick to admit is their own luck. I was incredibly lucky to be born in Waterloo and have my parents stay here throughout my academic career. My parents, by no mistake, decided to settle in Waterloo. They looked at where the best elementary schools, high schools, and universities were placed around Ontario and settled here. What may have been one choice among many for them changed my life before it had even begun. The number of opportunities I was given simply due to my location (and a little initiative) shaped my path to Waterloo long before top 6 averages and AIFs* were involved. I went to summer camps run by the university when I was in elementary school, and went to night lectures by real professors during high school. The lectures were offered for free by the university’s outreach department, CEMC.
*the AIF (Admission Information Form) is UW’s combination of a college essay and resume all in one. It greatly impacts your application.
Step 2: Start Early
My parents were always very keen to discover my career interests long before I even entered high school. I was lucky to have a dad who exposed me to a multitude of different interests. If I was interested in art, he would buy the art supplies. If I was curious about locks, he would teach me how to pick a lock. Even when I was not interested, he would expose me to a bit of sketch coding on Arduinos. This was all before you could enter your kid into a robotics camp after school. Way to go dad!
My dad took me to 4th year UW student engineering capstones when I was in the 6th grade. The idea was to give me a sense of what the different types of engineering were about, and what I might be interested in. At this point we knew I wanted to go into technology since I enjoyed it so much. Then later on in late elementary school and early highschool my mom would take me to local tech events that her employer Communitech hosted.
I should note that one of the other ways I got lucky was by enjoying technology. Some people just don’t, and that’s that. I just happened to enjoy an extremely lucrative job in high demand at a young age.
Step 3: The Trenches
As my grade 12 physics teacher fondly called it, the struggle to get the highest average during your time at high school.
If possible, knowing what you want to do when you enter high school provides you with a much needed advantage in the increasingly competitive landscape. Many students know where they’re headed: Computer Science or Engineering. The University of Waterloo even encourages this, holding a grade 10 night each year to get information on admissions and get an idea of what is required for which program they want to do. After all, marks start mattering the next year, in grade 11.
Not all schools are created equal
An important thing to know about with UW is that they are aware that not all schools are as academically rigorous as others. This leads to grade inflation, if, say for grade 12 Calculus* you had to do basic derivative rules while other schools were doing integrals and limit proofs. UW accounts for this in what they call an “adjustment factor”. This can be your paradise but also your doom. If your designated public school has a bad adjustment factor, your application average is lowered by whatever that factor may be. If your school is a bit harder, you will be boosted a little bit. With programs as competitive as UW’s, this could be a make or break for your acceptance.
UW is a data driven school. They take Math very seriously, clearly as they boast the largest Math faculty in the world. The way this adjustment factor is calculated is by tracking the matriculated students through the years and which schools they went to. Those students that had a strong correlation between their admission average and their First term average strengthen their school’s adjustment factor. The students that are doing poorly but had high admission averages are hurting their high school's adjustment factor. Thus far, this has proved quite successful for UW, and you can read all about their methodology from the university itself, here.
*Undoubtedly the most important course for Canadian Universities. They use it as a sort of testament to your mathematical aptitude, which is quite important to many of these technical programs.
Once again going back to my personal luck, I was lucky enough to have one of the top feeder schools for UW built just 1km from my house. This school is Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School. Its graduates are noteworthy, some winning $80,000 national scholarships, going to international science fairs, or attending American Universities like Harvard. This is just to name a few of the accomplishments of its graduates. SJAM, as its students call it, is no ordinary public school. It is one of the few that has run an AP program for many years, allowing students to enrich their learning and surround themselves with like minded peers.
AP Math at SJAM was serious business. It started in grade 9 and 10. Once in grade 11 it was a non stop sequence of back to back university level Math courses. The final course, AP Calculus, was notorious for being the hardest and a bit of a gamble. According to the university, they did not factor AP classes into your average. However, this was up to speculation and many students believed following through the Math program at SJAM was the right thing for them. This is not without reason. The teachers of the AP Math program (and other AP courses at SJAM) are extremely qualified and in touch with UW. The head of the Math department taught grade 11 and 12 AP in your grade 11 year, and the final grade 12 AP course was taught by another founding member of the AP program, who got her PhD from Waterloo and even did lecturing at the university. Both of these teachers adjusted their curriculum and course content to better fit the university’s requirements, and this is clearly seen in the good adjustment factor SJAM boasts.
AP Calculus, or AP Calc as it was colloquially called, was like a private group. Each year most of the grads knew who came before them and who was coming after them in the class. It was a tight knit group taking a risk on their grade 12 marks to remain in the group. This showed just how much kids valued this peer group. I personally found the support tremendously useful. You could’ve asked any one of the kids in that class a question and they would give you a beautiful explanation in full. Graduates at UW were happy to answer the questions of current students, and it was even turned into a tradition of grads coming back to SJAM during their first reading week. This reciprocity and like minded atmosphere fostered a bond between students like I have never experienced before in my education. It’s something I truly value, and will never forget.
Now, I know you must be wondering why I am droning on and on about some grade 12 AP calculus class for so long, but trust me, it matters. What I have left to the end to tell you is that 90% of my AP Calc class would go on to be admitted to UW this past year. 50% of those students would be going into the highly sought after Computer Science program, 30% to the highly demanding engineering programs, and the rest to other equally competitive programs of their own. This is no accident, and is certainly the allure of the families moving to be in the SJAM district.
AP isn’t the only program at SJAM with a strong community and constant stream of UW grads. SJAM is also known for its tech program. A huge portion of the school is filled with machines, soldering irons and computers that are 3d design ready. I personally took all 4 computer engineering courses, which ended with me programming a firefighter robot on a PIC chip. The year before that, we built autonomous sumo bots that fought each other to push their opponents out of the ring. In speaking with other students from around Ontario, their experience with highschool technology courses was nothing close to this. The head of the program even said some university students had not gotten to this level of hardware in their first and second years.
Speaking of the families moving to be in the SJAM district, let’s talk briefly about SJAM’s privilege. Although SJAM is a public school on paper, each year it begins to look more and more like a prep school. There may technically be no cost to joining the school, but property values have increased over 300% in the last 20 years, and a moderately sized house even 2 kilometers away from the school costs around $1 M. That is your buy in if you want to go to one of the top feeder schools of UW in 2020, and that is a price many affluent families from outside of Waterloo are willing to pay. Now I understand that not all families are living in detached homes in the SJAM district, but the increasing housing prices are only one of many monuments of the increasing price of living around the top schools in Waterloo. On top of this, my parents must have paid hundreds of dollars to fund the various robotics courses I took or sports teams I was on. These fees were outside of the school, and were considered to enhance your learning. All of this is part of the big machine that keeps students going to UW.
To some, this may seem standard. But to me, it is totally new. When I was growing up in Waterloo, there weren’t sky scrapers and loads of bubble tea shops. It was actually a rather small place, at least from my 6 year old perspective. To me, Waterloo is a monument to changing times. I know many students graduating UW who decided to apply last minute, or only decided to go to UW in grade 12. That was 5 years ago, and the landscape has drastically changed since then. Waterloo is just a case study in a larger trend of increasing competition in today’s economy. The competition to defend your value in society and to be what most call “successful”. Each generation it seems it takes more and more effort to have what past generations have viewed as essential: a good education, a house, a retirement. Now, in 2021, this is what it takes to get into the best schools in Canada.