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Application Tips


They say that your time at college is one of exploration, independence, and self-discovery — therefore, it is important that you choose an academic and social environment that allows you not just to survive, but thrive. Applying to university, consequently, becomes a daunting process. What can I do with degree X? Does university Y offer co-op placements? Can I still visit my family from campus Z? As an international student, these decisions come with the additional stress of a new country, culture and, unfortunately for most students, costs. The bad news: getting into a great university isn’t always easy. The good news: we’re here to help!

My name is Aria Panchal, and I am currently a freshman at the University of Toronto. I’m hoping to double major in Human Biology and Physiology, with a minor in Literature and Critical Theory. I applied to four universities in Canada: UofT, UBC, McGill and Western University, and received admission to and scholarships from each. I don’t mean to sound boastful; I just want to provide a step-by-step breakdown of my journey from an IB student to being admitted to colleges as an international student, and hopefully help you do the same.


Before attacking the applications, shortlist universities wherein you can envision your future self. Here are a few things to keep in mind:


1. Don’t rank universities, rate them 

Rather than focusing on the QS ranking system, create your own rating system to determine which universities are best suited to your needs. First, list your priorities: is the program of study your primary factor, or postgraduate affiliations, such as med school? Perhaps, as a language enthusiast, colleges that offer Summer Abroad programs are important to you, or universities with a diverse student body such that you do not feel underrepresented on campus. If you’re a sportsperson, identify which colleges offer the best training programs, or if you’re hoping to work part-time, choose places that will minimize your commute. Remember, many colleges offer similar levels of education, so consider the social and cultural environment offered by each university to shortlist your colleges. 


2. Get a sense of the community at your potential university

Given that COVID has limited international travel, and thus prevented you from visiting different campuses, it is essential that you gain insight about each institution through another approach. Take virtual tours, attend webinars (although seemingly boring, they might offer some valuable information about specific programs or courses), and talk to current students or alumni of the university to understand their perspectives and experiences. Our team at iAscend would be happy to put you in touch with people from various universities to answer any questions you might have. Don’t underestimate the power of social media! I found Reddit to be most helpful - and often brutally honest - about what to expect of specific programs at universities.  


3. Research available scholarships and their requirements
If you, like me, are hoping to ease your parents’ financial burden of sending you to university abroad, you should identify the scholarships offered by the colleges on your list. Make an Excel sheet detailing the amount, number of scholarships available, and requirements for each; some require supplemental applications such as a series of short essays, while others ask you to write a basic research paper to gauge your critical thinking and analytic skills. Some universities like UBC and UofT automatically evaluate each applicant for scholarships without any supplementary material. I explore this in more detail in the following newsletter. 


I know it might feel boastful to list all your achievements in a CV, but unfortunately, it is the only way to show universities the kind of person and student you are. While it’s unfair for colleges to expect you to compile years of personal growth and academic achievements into a single page, it might help to think of the CV as a progress checkpoint — a way of reviewing how far you’ve come, and identifying the moments in your life that shaped you into the person you are today. Avoid exaggerating your accomplishments because universities recognize this easily. You shouldn’t feel the need to embellish your application — being yourself is enough! Here are a few things to include, if applicable:


1. Education and Academic Honours

List the board, year of completion and the final / predicted grades over the past four years of schooling. You may also include important academic achievements — for example, securing the highest score in subject A or being awarded distinction in subject B. Be sure to mention the month and year that you achieved these results!


2. Leadership

Colleges love to hear about how and when you took initiative in your life! Whether it be Captain of the girls football team or Secretary General at MUN, briefly explain your role in events and your impact on your school or community. 


3. Volunteer Work

Briefly describe any volunteer work you’ve done over the past few years — from playing piano at an old age home to raising funds as a means of rural empowerment, they all contribute to shaping your persona on paper!

4. Research

Outline any research you may have conducted and its significance in the larger context. Lab work (such as Internal Assessments and Extended Essays) is especially helpful if you hope to pursue the sciences, whereas writing research papers about topics that interest you (for instance, in history or literature) can supplement an application.

5. Work Experience / Internships

Show your reviewer that you have a wide range of skills that expand beyond academia! Summer internships or part-time jobs are evidence of your time-management skills and real world experience in the fields you hope to pursue.

6. Sporting Achievements

Although grades are important, colleges know that you are more than just a number! If you’re a sportsperson and have participated in or won any tournaments, don’t be shy to add them to your resume.

7. Cultural Pursuits

Perhaps you’ve had artwork exhibited at a gallery, performed in the school play, or sung in a choir — here’s your chance to portray yourself as more than your marks. From creative writing essay competitions to exchange programs, it all counts!

8. Standardized Tests

If you completed the SAT or ACT for applications to US colleges and believe that your scores contribute to your academic profile, you may include them in your resume. However, keep in mind that Canadian colleges do not pay much attention to the same.

9. Interests / Hobbies

Not everything needs to be validated by a certificate! Feel free to include some of your personal favourites - baking, listening to music, traveling - don’t hesitate to be yourself!


When reviewing scholarship applications, some colleges ask for recommendation letters — this is a chance for the selection committee to gain insight into the kind of person you truly are. These letters might be written by your teachers, mentors, bosses, and sometimes even friends or family! Most universities require up to 2 recommendation letters per applicant. While most students request letters based on the field they hope to pursue, I believe that you should ask someone with whom you have a genuine connection. For instance, although I applied to university for Health Sciences, I asked my Biology and English teachers to write recommendations. This is because I knew that my English teacher recognized my love for the subject, and could include insights regarding my character and commitment to learning as an individual, while my Biology teacher could vouch for my ability to excel in the field of science. It is important to note that most universities require that these letters be sent directly to them through a web portal, so you do not get to read your recommendation letters! Choose wisely.


Applying to Canada as an international student is easy because unlike the United States, most Canadian universities are clear about what they prioritize in an applicant: grades. These include your high school grades, often from Grades 9 to 12 (with emphasis on your final two years, whether it be IB or AP or a local board). Since Canadian universities do not require standardized test scores, I recommend that you spend SAT prep time on maintaining your school grades. Keep in mind that there is no specific minimum score needed to apply to colleges — your scores  do not need to be outstanding to receive admission to an incredible university in Canada, but they must be competitive to be considered for scholarships. 


Scholarships are of two broad types: merit-based and financial aid. Each college has varying conditions for financial aid, so check your eligibility on their websites or email the financial aid office. We’re here to help with the merit-based awards. 


First-year merit-based awards are often entrance scholarships. At UofT and UBC, every applicant is automatically considered for these awards upon admission to the university — they do not offer entrance scholarships that require a supplemental application. (In subsequent years, however, admitted students may apply for further scholarship within their specific faculties.) Approximately a month after I sent in my application to UofT, my scholarship letter came alongside my acceptance letter; I received the International Scholar Award and was recognised as a UofT Scholar in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, together totalling $100,000 over four years. Although I was accepted to UBC in February, I was offered the International Major Entrance Scholarship (IMES) and Outstanding International Student (OIS) Award amounting $80,000 and $25,000 respectively in April. Each of these entrance scholarships were merit-based, with some focus on my extra-curricular contributions, and did not require a separate application. To remain eligible for the following years, however, I had to maintain my predicted grades and a specific minimum GPA. 


For Western University, although they offer smaller automatically-considered admission scholarships, I had to complete a rather time-consuming application for the international scholarship. Western asked me to write a research paper on a topic of global concern, complete with relevant citations. The paper went through two rounds of scrutiny by the National Scholarship Selection Committee (which reviews approximately 800 applications annually). If your application continues to round 2, you are generally offered an interview with committee members before a final decision is made. The International President’s Entrance Scholarship is valued at $50,000 over four years ($20,000 for first year, $10,000 for years 2-4) at Western University, and often places you on the Scholar’s Electives Program list at UWO. Moreover, $10,000 goes toward covering residence costs for the first year and you may choose to live in a single or double room. However, UWO made it clear that the offer was conditional — there is a minimum final grade required to remain eligible for the award, and a minimum average grade (in my year it was 80%) on full course load to renew the scholarship annually. 


McGill University was another story altogether — they offer both major and minor scholarships, the former being more competitive and ranging from $3,000 to $12,000. Applicants are required to complete a series of essays (in my year, we had 2) and this supplemental application is due after the initial application is sent in. The scholarship application in 2019 included the following questions: 


  1. Describe one memorable experience that provided you with a new outlook on life

  2. Write a one-page letter of reference that you have written – for yourself – in the third person. Include experiences, interests, achievements, creative endeavours, strengths & weaknesses, and leadership skills that you possess or are developing.

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