Merit and admissions at Upper Canada College

By Chantal Kenny

Congratulations! I am delighted to inform you that our Admission Committee was unanimous in its decision to invite Johnny to take his place in the Upper Canada College graduating Class of 2015. “PALMAM QUI MERUIT FERAT,” our school motto, is quite fitting with its message to your son: Let him who has earned it, bear the reward. Starting in September 2013, Johnny has a great future ahead of him…

This is how the good news offer letter begins. Sadly, two other versions exist: the disappointing wait list and denied letters. The latter two outcomes speak to difficult decisions within highly selective candidate pools.

The notion of selectivity into the world’s finest educational institutions has been challenged by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Alfie Kohn. Their findings quietly gnaw at me. Who merits the educational opportunity of a lifetime is a debatable matter. Are the boys whom we deny less able and less talented? Are Old Boys more successful for having been accepted, as opposed to boys whom we denied or others who chose a different educational path? Today, UCC has never been more committed to accessibility and its generous financial assistance program allows us to look further and deeper for the most deserving students who would otherwise not be able to attend. This initiative is as much about efforts to broaden applicant pools as it is about addressing barriers that might otherwise keep families from considering UCC.

Parents often want to know what we seek in prospective students (will my boy have what it takes?) while students typically want to know what we offer (will I find what I want?). Successful applicants present strong academic credentials and character; co-curricular involvement; leadership; and a diversity of backgrounds. And it is fair to say that none of us can predict what a student will be like, and we don’t get it right one hundred percent of the time. Other factors – like social skills and creativity – are just as important. These qualities, like teamwork and engagement, can’t be measured as easily as academic proficiency but boys who show a combination of these characteristics are the most deserving. (Side note: intellectual achievement alone, is not the highest standard of merit we value.)

With or without the need for financial assistance, truth is, we identify far more mission appropriate students than we can accommodate. That’s our challenge. Another challenge will be to continue to identify students whose academic record, on the surface, may not fairly represent the contribution they would make at UCC and beyond given we recognize standardized tests results, for instance, are highly correlated with socioeconomic status. In our current enrolment model, we have room to admit approximately one-third of our applicants, which begs the question: so who deserves to make the cut? Staying true to the purpose of our founder Sir John Colborne in 1829, we continue to aim towards the meritocracy evoked by our motto.

Chantal Kenny is Executive Director of Admission at Upper Canada College. Her son François graduated this past June (UCC class of ’12).

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