University of Toronto (U of T) and University of Waterloo (UW) are the consensus top university picks for top high school students across Canada, especially for STEM disciplines. There are many pros and cons of each school. After gathering some information online, from friends who have attended either university, as well as reflecting upon my own experience after graduating from U of T, I came up with this guide to help everyone better make this decision. Such a decision can often be life-changing, and I don’t want you guys to make the same life-altering mistakes that others have made.
Global university rankings and subject rankings are a flawed way of looking at a university’s reputation, since most of their criteria is based on the quantity and quality of academic research, which has no meaning to most students. Therefore, I am not using any global rankings in this comparison.
In Canada and in the United States to some extent, the brand names of U of T and UW are both highly regarded, although second-tier compared to top Ivy League universities or their equivalent in the U.S.. However, on a worldwide basis, U of T is much more well-known compared to UW (although UW is quickly catching up). This is the main reason why most international students prefer U of T over UW as their degrees would be more recognized in their home countries or abroad.
U of T is a general university, which means its reputation is well-renowned in almost every subject area, whether in STEM, humanities, or the arts. UW, on the other hand, is much more specialized in STEM (similar to MIT and CalTech), where their reputation in some areas (e.g. engineering, computer science, math) are on-par or rival that of U of T, but their arts and humanities are almost nonexistent.
Both U of T and UW are quite competitive in their admissions, requiring lots of supplementary material as well as video interviews for most programs. However, there are some key differences.
All programs at UW are direct entry, meaning the moment students enter first year, they are enrolled in their selected program. This is beneficial for those who want to specialize early, but its downside is that it is less flexible, meaning it’s more difficult to switch between programs. Also, it is more difficult to get admitted to UW from high school since their program spots are limited, and certain programs such as computer science or software engineering, are extremely competitive.
Many programs at U of T, especially in Arts & Science, are not direct entry. This means that high school students enter first year as a general student, and take the necessary prerequisite courses for their desired major/specialization. If they meet the cutoff average in the prerequisite courses, they are then selected into their major/specialization (or POSt, Program of Study). This process can be extremely competitive, especially in programs such as computer science and life sciences (although they have recently been trying to change the admission process). This format has major implications on the students’ mental health, which is discussed later in the blog. Other majors, such as those in engineering, are direct entry.
U of T has a tendency to admit a large number of high school students each year, many of whom are not fit for U of T, before filtering most of them out through POSt or harsh grading policies. I personally believe this was designed to maximize the university’s earnings through tuition paid. Therefore, it is easier to get into U of T from high school compared to UW, but much harder to stay in. It is truly the survival of the fittest, and helps fuel the mental health crisis at U of T today (which is discussed later in the blog). Many U of T programs, including direct-entry ones, have dropout rates that are quite high. Although surviving at UW is not easy by any account, it still seems more reasonable compared to U of T.
Quality of Teaching:
Compared to high school, university students are expected to be more independent in their learning. However, the quality of teaching is still an important factor in university decisions.
At U of T, professors are generally hired for their acumen for research, not for teaching. Therefore, most professors are focused on their academic research and don’t really care about the courses they teach (although there are exceptions). Most of the actual teaching, especially in lower years, is done by teaching assistants or instructors who are graduate students at U of T. As a result, the quality of teaching suffers. This is especially demonstrated by U of T’s response to widespread cheating and plagiarism during the COVID-19 pandemic, where U of T professors simply counter cheating by increasing the difficulty of tests and assignments instead of implementing stricter enforcements, which causes the honest students to suffer even more compared to those that are cheating. From accounts at Waterloo, this was not the case at all.
In addition, since U of T admits a large number of students, class sizes can often be quite large, even in some upper year classes. It is not uncommon for lower year classes to be shared with a thousand other students at Convocation Hall, which is unheard of at UW.
Campus & Off-Campus Life:
This is one of the few areas where U of T is generally more preferred compared to UW.
U of T’s main St. George campus is located in the heart of Toronto, which offers more entertainment and extracurriculars close to downtown Toronto. It also has a historic and cultural feel with numerous buildings dating back to the 1800s, more akin to historic campuses such as Harvard and Oxford. However, the downside is that due to its position in the inner city with easy transit options, most students at U of T are actually commuters from all around the GTA instead of residents near campus, so there is less of a tight-knit student community. The campus also attracts a lot of tourists compared to UW, which can be annoying at times. Furthermore, if you go to U of T’s Scarborough or Mississauga campuses, they are actually quite similar to UW’s campus — modern-looking buildings in a suburban area with little activities outside of the campus. This is similar to other universities such as McMasters, UBC, and York, and resembles a lot of universities located in college towns in the U.S..
UW is rather boring and there isn’t much to do in the town of Waterloo as it is mostly a residential area and tech hub. However, UW appears to have a somewhat stronger student community because almost everyone has to live close to campus or on-campus in order to attend school.
Outside of the immediate campus area, especially at tech hubs such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and New York City, there are communities of U of T and UW students and alumni who intern or work in the industry, although UW has a larger presence in these tech hubs. Students can explore these places while going on internships, and this can really add to the undergraduate experience.
Jobs & Career Prospects:
I may be biased in this aspect since I am from an engineering and technology background, but UW wins in jobs and career prospects compared to U of T.
The only thing U of T is good for is its proximity to prospective employers located in downtown Toronto. However, most employers attend career fairs and recruiting events at U of T and UW anyway, which equalizes the playing field. Yet, UW is able to place many more students at reputable firms in software and technology compared to U of T due to the reputation of its co-op program. As detailed in my other blog post, UW’s co-op program structure works better for most engineering and tech employers, especially those in the U.S., and enables students to gain a multitude of experiences as opposed to one at U of T’s co-op, which makes UW stronger candidates when recruiting for full-time employment in most engineering/technology fields. As a result, UW has a much larger presence in tech and Silicon Valley relative to U of T. Furthermore, the co-op culture at UW promotes a general atmosphere that is conducive for job preparation — students tend to spend their spare time working on relevant side projects and extracurriculars related to their fields, résumé development, and interview preparation. At U of T, this culture is much less apparent, especially in lower years, where most students simply focus on their academics.
In other industries such as finance, healthcare, and law, the gap is not as significant, but for most students focused on working in the industry, UW’s unique co-op structure is still preferred over other universities as it gives students opportunities to try different experiences. U of T mostly relies on its traditional reputation or legacy, which is waning by the year, and other Canadian universities are quickly closing the gap. Therefore, if your goal is to seek employment at prestigious companies after graduating, your best choice is to go to UW and pursue their co-op programs.
Research & Graduate Studies:
U of T is a heavily academics-focused school, and its global reputation comes from its strength in academia. It puts a significant amount of its resources and staff into academic research, and thus offers many more prospects for graduate studies and academia. U of T has a very large worldwide presence in academia in various subjects as a result. UW, on the other hand, is mostly an undergraduate school, and is not known for its research and graduate studies, although some successful people in academia and research still come from there.
However, if your eventual goal is to attend grad school, your best choice for undergrad may not be either U of T or UW. Both schools grade harshly in undergraduate programs, which can negatively impact grad school applications unless you are an elite student. Your best choice may be to go to a somewhat reputable university that grades less harshly (e.g. McMasters or Western) and try to get a high GPA. However, U of T has a slight edge over UW and other schools since students gain easier access to research opportunities at various labs and professors on campus. Yet, UW provides equally good, if not better connections to industry research partners, particularly in engineering and technology sectors. But in most cases, these types of opportunities are only open to the top students at U of T and UW anyway, so you might be better off attending undergrad somewhere else, while doing relevant research work in the summer with a U of T professor or industry partner to get your foot in the door.
People and Alumni:
Due to their reputations in different subject areas, U of T and UW alumni are represented in different fields. UW, as you would expect, has a much larger presence in the engineering and technology industry, mainly in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Seattle, and New York City. U of T alumni is spread out across many professions, including engineering, healthcare, politics, and finance, although the focus is more on traditional fields such as law, medicine, and academics. For the area or profession that you are interested in, take a look at LinkedIn and search up people who currently work at various positions in your area of interest, and look at where they attended university, so you have a better idea of which school is better for your career prospects.
Furthermore, as a result of U of T’s international reputation, it has a much more racially diverse student population compared to UW. However, this also means that there are large amounts of international or immigrant students at U of T, who hang out in their own cultural bubbles and speak their own languages, which I find annoying and uncomfortable as an English-speaking person. This is also true at UW to some extent, although with fewer international students. Also at both schools, especially in STEM programs, a good portion of the students are of East Asian or South Asian background.
Mental health is a serious problem on university campuses in general, and U of T and UW are among the worst in Canada. It is highly evident in the Reddit forums of both universities, and in recent years, there have been multiple instances of student suicides at both universities.
However, from my observations and accounts from others, U of T is the worse of these two schools in terms of mental health. As mentioned earlier, U of T accepts many students who are clearly underqualified and puts them through a rigorous set of “filters” to weed out the weaker students. This process is extremely grueling and demoralizing for most students, and results in a high drop-out rate and poor state of mental health in the student population. UW does not have this problem, but the pressure of getting co-op placements can be equally as crushing, since the student will fail out of a co-op program if they fail to secure more than one co-op placement out of six in undergrad. There is also the peer pressure of succeeding and landing a prestigious co-op placement.
Furthermore, at both U of T and UW, especially in STEM programs such as engineering, math, and computer science, a significant portion of the students are not very social, which contributes to the mental health crisis as these students lack a support system. The tendency for students to hang out in their own cultural groups and speaking their own languages also does not improve the situation.
Finally, as for mental health resources, neither U of T or UW have sufficient resources to deal with it, especially with such a large student population at both universities. Appointments with on-campus mental health counselling can have a wait time of up to several months. From my experience, they did not offer any meaningful help when my mental health struggled during undergrad at U of T. My best help came from my close friends and family.
This is as much as I can say without rambling too much. Before I finish this post, I have some general advice on selecting the right university for you:
- If you don’t get into your preferred undergraduate program, it’s not the end of the world. This is why you want to have a few backup options when applying to universities.
- Other Canadian universities (McMasters, UBC, Western, UOttawa, Queens, etc.) are quickly closing the gap with U of T and UW in terms of all the aspects above. Don’t be fixated on getting into U of T or UW. Consider other options as well and do your research for your subject area.
- If your long term goal is to work in the U.S. or abroad, consider going to a top American (or European) university as it will be much more recognized there compared to a Canadian degree. Considering the amount of competition for top Canadian universities and their limited spots, it might actually be easier to gain entry into a top-tier American (or European) university, despite more preparation (standardized tests, essays, etc.).
- If academia and research is your end goal, then remember that undergraduate education is just the first step in a long path — go with something that will let you explore different labs and research groups. Due to U of T’s more academic culture, it may be the better choice.