It’s Monday afternoon and Joel Nicholson, founder of Youthfully, an academic consulting business in Toronto, has several clients on the books – all high school students. He’ll spend hours coaching them through interviews, personality tests and a litany of skills needed to tackle the requirements now asked of students applying to professional programs, such as law, engineering or nursing, at Canadian universities.
Mr. Nicholson says it’s grade inflation in Canada’s high schools that keeps his phone ringing.
“Twenty years ago, you could get into almost any program just based on your grades,” he says. “But who would be getting in? The students with the highest grades.”
He says that system prompted some schools to give out higher grades so students from those schools would get into better programs.
He’s not wrong about the grades. A 2022 investigation by the Toronto Star revealed that Grade 12 averages are on the rise and students entering university with 95+ averages have ballooned in recent years.
“But universities still need to evaluate strong candidates,” Mr. Nicholson says. “The only way that they’re able to do that with this grade-inflation environment is through this holistic admissions concept.”
Today, top marks, community leadership, supplemental exams, video interviews and personal essays are the reality for most students looking to pursue professional degrees at Canadian universities. Admissions officers and other experts in the field say the more holistic approach results in a more diverse student population, who will be able to go on to successful careers because they have the soft skills that are in demand by many employers. In essence, the admissions process is evolving to meet the changing needs of the working world.
Queen’s University was one of the first academic institutions in Canada to introduce a personal statement as an admissions requirement to its undergraduate programs.
University of Waterloo’s architecture program has the “précis test,” which requires its applicants to summarize a long piece of text into a more concise and clear version – about half to one-third of the size. This is in addition to an interview and essay.
All applicants to Dalhousie University’s bachelor of science (nursing) program are required to complete a 90-minute computer-based online assessment (CASPer Test) before their application will be reviewed for admission.
The result is that today’s applicants need to jump through a lot more hoops to get into professional programs than they did 20 years ago, which raises the question: Is this rigorous process better preparing students for the future?
For years, employers have demanded more soft skills from candidates. A 2022 report from ZipRecruiter highlighted that 93 per cent of employers are looking for soft skills, such as time management and communication – the same skills these universities want.
“I don’t think that the [application] process is necessarily more difficult, it just requires the students to be more reflective,” says Teo Salgado, founder of VerveSmith academic consultants. “To take a little bit of time to really think through why they are applying to a program, how the program aligns with their career goals, to really give some thought to that.”
Mr. Salgado adds that there are more Canadian university applicants these days – Statistics Canada reports that in 2020-2021, enrolment was up by almost 29,000 students from the previous year – so the competition is more intense for certain programs. He spent much of his career, prior to his consultant work, in university admissions and says he’s seen the changes happen and can understand why.
“I don’t think that that’s an unfair request of universities,” he says. “In fact, I think it helps them to create classes of more engaged students because every single one of the students that is admitted to the program is more likely to really want to be there.”
Five years ago, the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law introduced its broad-based admissions approach, to allow admissions personnel to look beyond the numbers in some cases.
“If you’re somebody who’s an 86-per-cent student or even a 95-per-cent student and LSAT was like a strong 168, maybe you’re not top of the list, but you’re a very strong applicant, we want to make sure we leave time and space to review those people,” says John Popham, the school’s director of admissions and recruitment.
“In a sense,” he continues, “we’re doing more on a holistic front to give students an opportunity, so it’s not just solely based on their grades, but it is still very heavily based on their grades and their LSAT scores.”
John-Derek Clarke is the executive director of recruitment and admissions at Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario and says that his school also looks beyond the grades of its honours business administration (HBA) applicants to examine their leadership experience because these are the qualities future employers want from business leaders.
“We have, for many years now, looked at both the leadership and the grades,” he says. “I would say what’s changed is, we’ve started to [expand] what we mean by leadership experiences, because individuals that may come from a different socioeconomic background may not have the opportunity to play and be a leader in competitive sports, for instance.”
Mr. Clarke explains that now students can include things like being involved in student government at their high school, and he adds that it’s leading to the school accepting “the balanced student.”
“It can’t just be marks and it just can’t be your leadership experiences, so you’re looking for that balance, and that’s the intention of it,” he says.
Mr. Nicholson agrees that some universities have caught on to how these volunteer requirements may favour those in a higher socio-economic backgrounds and have therefore shifted admission requirements again to look at more personal essays and interviews, which showcase even more of these sought-after soft skills.
But as he points out, “Here’s the gap: High schools don’t train [students] in any of this stuff.”
“The traditional formal academia is focused on content,” he says. “It’s focused on teaching you math, teaching you geography, teaching you English, but they don’t teach you these raw skills, like storytelling … or how to break down and structure a problem, they don’t teach you how to engage with an audience or about interviewing skills.”
So for now, it looks like Mr. Nicholson’s phone will continue to ring.