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The basics
Canada: Applying to University

Tips on how to apply to university in Canada

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Before you enjoy the benefits of studying abroad, you must first tackle the admissions process. Canada is fast becoming a popular choice for international students to pursue further studies. However, their postsecondary system is somewhat different from other destinations. 


Most people may think that extra-curricular activities and voluntary experience are important things to include in their application. However, in Canada, grades define whether you’re a successful candidate. 


We spoke to Marc-Andre Gougeon, Coordinator of Strategic Initiatives and Market Development and Irene Xia Zhou, Orientation, Integration and Academic Success Coordinator, both from the University of Ottawa to get their thoughts and advice. 


What is the application system like for international students in Canada? Is it similar to the US where you have to write an essay, or is it a bit different?


Marc-André Gougeon: The process is actually quite different in Canada in comparison to what it is in the US, for example. For most institutions in Canada, they don’t require entrance essays for admissions, as it is usually mainly based on grades. There are some programmes that require additional documents, though. For example, if you are applying to a visual arts or architecture course at different universities that will require a portfolio. Or if you apply to a music programme you may be required to do an audition, but for most undergraduates the most important thing required is good grades from school.


Also, universities will be looking at good language proficiency results. So, the application process can also be a little bit different. Some institutions will accept applications directly. But that is not always the case. For example, here in Ottawa we are in the province of Ontario, so the students have to apply through a service called the Ontario Universities Application Centre (OUAC). All the applications are done through that online portal. From there, the applications are spread out to the different universities that students have applied to. 


There are different sections within the application, such as biographical details. Those are things like your name and address, but there is also a section on extra-curricular activities. This will be about what you have done alongside your studies, so have you played sport, have you done any volunteer work, the form will ask for that information, but we don’t always take that into account when we look at the file when doing the application process. It is something that we use to almost ‘fill in the gaps’. So, if someone has gone on a gap year, we want to know what he or she have done in that year – whether they have been volunteering abroad or anything like that. Mostly though it is a generic application form, you have to fill in basic details about yourself, tell us what programme you are interested in, indicate the last school you have attended and that sort of thing. 

What can international students do to help their application stand out?

Irene Xia Zhou:  There is the admissions average rate system, which is important not only for this institution but for most institutions. Undergraduate students need to make sure that their average is good and that they meet the admissions average because there’s a lot of competition. Undergraduates don’t need to provide specific information about their professional background or their voluntary experience, or even letters of recommendation that are needed at a graduate level. 


There is more work for graduate students to apply for the programmes of study than undergraduate students because they need to provide more documentation and more experience they’ve had in the past in order to be considered. In that sense there is more competition for graduate students because they’re not just looking at the grades but also at their background – professional, voluntary and skills. 

Marc:  For most Canadian universities good grades are the best way to stand out. I obviously can’t speak on behalf of all the universities in the country but here at the university of Ottawa, those extra-curricular activities, sport, volunteering won’t necessarily help with your initial application but they will certainly help if you are applying for an international scholarship and bursaries. However, the scholarships usually require a high grade average too. 


What happens if you have an influx of students that all have high grades? Do you then consider other factors?

Irene:  I don’t think they would consider that because let’s say applicants file their applications at different times, they’re evaluated on a case-by-case basis and on a timely basis. If someone applied before another candidate, of course his or her file will be evaluated before the other. If that student got admitted and the following student applied later and the quota for that programme of study was filled, that student would be offered their second choice.


Are there any tips that you could personally give to students filling out their application form from your experience?

Irene:  Essential advice for any student applying to any university would be to familiarise yourself with the equivalences. The education system across the world is very different and the level of studies is different too. So let’s say if you’re coming from another country, and you want to get your degree or the equivalent of that accredited in Canada, you would have to get that evaluated either by the admissions office or a third party depending on the institution you’re applying to. You need to keep that in mind that sometimes students think they’re very qualified in their home country but upon coming to Canada, due to the credentials system and the assessment of the degree, they might not equate to what the level is in their home country. Also understanding how the admission process works and what are the first steps. Most websites detail this so they need to be aware of this and to follow each step properly and not have anything incomplete because then their application can’t be evaluated. 





Do you prioritise applications submitted by agents that fill out applications on behalf of students over actual students that apply themselves?

Irene:  For the students who choose to apply to university through a third-party agent, that will really be up to them because they’re paid agents that provide a service in different countries. There are also a lot of agents in the African region that do the applications for the students who face challenges in understanding how the process works. They are also there to help those who have technical difficulties for example if their wifi or internet connection is not good. Most students don’t go through a third-party agent, most of the time they apply by themselves and then if they have any questions or difficulties then we can help them. 


We have support services and when it comes to admissions requirements we can help international students. 


Do you have a process in place in order to confirm grades that are submitted within international applications?

Irene: International applicants will submit their grades to the Admissions Office in a PDF format, so that they can evaluate the file at the beginning. However, these students are required to submit an official final transcript in a sealed envelope with the stamp of their institution, either in person or by mail. This is how Admissions can verify the authenticity of the grades.


Now that you're all set, start the dream Canadian experience by searching for your ideal course.