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It's never too soon to start planning

Globe and Mail Update

One student mailed a tennis shoe along with her university application to McGill University's admissions office about 15 years ago.

The shoe was painted red with a detailed reproduction of the McGill crest on the side and a note accompanied the package which read, "Well now that I've got my foot in the door, I hope you'll consider my application seriously."

Although the shoe was displayed in the admissions department for years, her effort and creative presentation had no bearing on whether she was accepted, says Kim Bartlett McGill's director of admissions. Indeed, although the story has become an office legend, no one can remember whether she got in.

It's a lesson for students who stray from the simple rules of filling out an application and try to sway admissions offices with over-the-top presentations or essays that seem to never end.

"Creative packaging, family photos, swimming medals or recordings of their latest piano recital really do not make a difference in the admission decision," says Ms. Bartlett, who adds that certain programs may have their own requirements. "Recordings might not be superfluous if you are applying to the faculty of music, but basically read what the university wants from you and stick to that."

University of Toronto registrar Karel Swift agrees: "Don't send in a 100-page book if we're asking for a four-page profile."

Besides, efforts to jazz up your application and attract attention are becoming increasingly redundant as many universities have switched to electronic applications.

But before you even get to that point, university admissions offices across the country say there is work to do.

The research

Start early — years before you even put pen to paper. By Grade 10, students should be considering what they want to study and which prerequisite courses they need to achieve their goals.

"We often talk to students who don't start doing that until halfway through Grade 12," says Helen Samson, University of British Columbia assistant registrar for undergraduate admissions. But Grade 12 is much too late. You could lose a year just catching up on the required classes.

In the meantime, check out the websites of the universities (and their student unions). If time and finances permit, try to visit some of the ones you're interested in.

"If you're going to spend potentially four years in a place you should at least know what it feels like," Ms. Swift says.

Once you've decided which universities would be a good fit for you, talk to your high-school counsellor about getting the applications.

The process

  • Although it varies from province to province, it's likely you're going to pay a fee to process your application. To be safe, check on the university website or meet with your counsellor.
  • In some provinces, you can apply to all the universities on the same application form. For other programs, you may need to mail in a separate package with a portfolio or supplemental information.
  • Start early — as soon as you start filling out the form you may realize that you need a document that it will take time to order. Marks matter but there's room to explain extenuating circumstances, admissions officers say. If there isn't space on the application form itself, students should feel free to write a letter explaining a serious problem such as an illness or death which may have affected their academic career.
  • Reread everything, and spell-check, double-check, triple-check.

    "An application full of typos and spelling mistakes would ultimately have an impact on a student's ability to demonstrate their academic credential," Ms. Samson says.

    Create a check list of what you need to do. Do you have the entire form filled out? Do you have all the supporting documents? Have you signed and dated at all the appropriate places?

  • Always courier or send the package by registered mail. You'll have proof that you sent it if the offices lose the package you slaved over for weeks.
  • Keep tabs on your application even after you press send on your computer, warns Susan Tanner, associate registrar at Dalhousie University. Dalhousie returns a proof of receipt note, but not all universities do, so check that the office has received your package. If you've couriered it, hold on to the receipt. You can track it through the courier company.

    So the die is cast, the application has been sent and all that's left to do is wait.

    The waiting game

  • Conditional offers will start trickling in from February to April. If you maintain your average at the end of the year, the offer stands, they will tell you. It's likely you won't hear from your top choice right away. It stands to reason that the more competitive the program, the longer they will take to decide.
  • As soon as you have a sense of what your final grades are, begin thinking about which offer you will accept. Most universities set the final deadline in June.
  • If you're worried that your top university may retract the original conditional offer because your grades have dropped, it's smart to call the university before rejecting offers from other institutions. (Retracted offers are not very common, admissions officers reassure, because most conditional offers stand as long as students finish their high school diploma and their grades do not plummet drastically.)

    The waiting game is the hardest part of all.

    It's the beginning of your adult life and there are many, many more forms to fill out, several lines to wait in, and numerous paths to follow.

    Your time will come. It helps, of course, to prepare the best possible application package. Listen to the professionals and you'll be on your way.

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