Acceptance rates and difficulty indices

Rising high school seniors, this post is for you. Some of you may be contemplating college applications. With dread for some, with anxiety for others, and, for those who wish to attend non-holistic schools, these schools often have painless admissions processes (vis-à-vis holistic schools, which are, in fact, rather uncommon outside of the arts, healthcare professions and architecture elsewhere in the world).

In the US, undergraduate acceptance rates are commonly reported as an aggregate number, regardless of the program applied to, for the simple reason that many colleges admit students irrespective of the major they indicated on their applications. There are times where a separate program-specific acceptance rate is warranted, e.g. when there is a high-demand unit in a college (accelerated BSc/MD programs, like Case Western, or business schools, like NYU Stern), but these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

In the rest of the world, however, undergraduate acceptance rates are usually program-specific and can vary wildly between programs within a school, much more so than in the US. Take, for example, my undergraduate school. According to the most recent data made available by the registrar’s office, here are a sampling of some acceptance rates (the numbers listed are for fall+winter+summer admissions):

  • Aggregate acceptance rate: 46% (if McGill can be compared to the likes of the “lesser Ivies” or their peer schools, like Duke, UCLA, then my undergrad can be compared to schools just a little below, like Tulane, UIUC, in sheer academic terms)
  • Physics-mathematics acceptance rate: 86% (open-admissions, prerequisites pending; any actual rejections stem from failure to complete prerequisites on time)
  • Law acceptance rate: 30% (it’s a little confusing since there are people who withdrew their applications that, in fact, could have been admitted)
  • Medicine acceptance rate: 17% (the difficulty, here, stems from the fact that there are people rejected prior to the interview, and people rejected because of the interview; the professors responsible for interviews will not tell how many are rejected at each stage)

Speaking of the medical admissions process: what I can say is that, at my undergrad, who gets to do the interview or, should I say, MEMs, or mini-entrevues multiples (multiple mini-interviews), is decided only with grades. If the student did not study at a university before, then the R-score is taken into account, and this is the hands-off part for the admissions committee. What is a lot trickier for them is what to do when the student did some university study. Difficulty determines what is the GPA cutoff for any given program of origin; a history graduate successfully got into that medical school but s/he had to have a 4.1 or better (on 4.3) because the difficulty index assigned to history by the medical admissions committee was rather low. Despite the high difficulty index assigned to physics-mathematics (it’s the same as the one assigned to pure mathematics or physics) I would have to rely on graduate grades to secure an interview myself because I would be borderline on undergraduate grades alone. So, unlike the US, where the difficulty of the major is not taken into account for law or medical admissions (except maybe at the edge of acceptability) and business school uses it a little more, in Quebec, difficulty can offset a lower GPA.

A word of warning if you wish to attend a Quebec school for undergrad as a transfer student (yes, they do exist): pay attention to the desired program and whether the school you wish to attend makes use of difficulty indices. Laval University is notorious for having a single university-wide difficulty chart, which is purported to be designed primarily by the medical admissions committee, while the University of Montreal uses multiple difficulty charts, because the skills required to succeed in any one program of origin are useful to different extents, depending on the destination program; a program whose overlap in skillsets with the grid in use for the new program tends to have a higher difficulty index to the eyes of the new program. Here are the sectorial difficulty charts in use, with the program they see as the average they compare to, if known:

  • Arts and communications
  • Humanities and social sciences
  • Social intervention
  • Pure and applied sciences
  • Healthcare professions (molecular biology)
  • Architecture and design
  • Law (political science)

On a sidenote: the business school (HEC) is run separately, with a separate difficulty chart, while engineering (Polytechnique) uses the pure and applied sciences difficulty chart, by and large. I do not want to sound smug but physics and mathematics top out at least three (and at most seven since physics and mathematics do not top the healthcare professions one, topped only by other healthcare professions) of the eight difficulty charts used on campus: pure and applied sciences, business and law (communications and criminal justice, perhaps surprisingly, have a high difficulty index to the eyes of the legal admissions committee, just below that of mathematics and physics).


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