Youth Canada

What? You need a 98 average to get into McMaster Health Sciences?

17-10-2008 by Joshua Liu

What? You need a 98 average to get into McMaster Health Sciences?

The following article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

Last night, Eden, a good friend of mine, asked me whether you needed a 98+ average to get into McMaster Health Sciences.

At first, I was like: “lol what? No way!

So she told me that a friend of hers found this article that suggested it, and that this friend was starting to worry a bit because she wanted to apply to McMaster’s Health Sciences program but didn’t have a 98+ average.

You can find the article, published in the Toronto Star, here.

For those of you who haven’t heard of McMaster’s Health Sciences program, it is a highly competitive undergraduate program for students interested in health, wellness, and illnesses. As the article and the program’s website mention, it is pretty unique, in that they focus more on collaborative, self-directed, and problem-based learning, unlike traditional undergraduate programs in similar fields. It sounds pretty cool, and I actually got accepted into this program back in Grade 12, but I decided not to go for a variety of reasons.

Now, for the most part, nothing the article says is technically wrong or untrue. However, the problem I have is that the article presents the facts in such a manner that it implies several ideas that I believe are highly unlikely to be correct.

This is one of the reasons why the general news media irritates me sometimes - they can take a few facts, and either intentionally or misguidedly, present them in a way to stir up reactions and create controversy, often misleading the readers. That isn’t reporting the truth (which is what the news should be doing in my opinion), it’s taking the truth and presenting it in a way that sells.

To be fair, the middle chunk of the article is fine, in my opinion. It’s pretty much the first few paragraphs, and the last line, that imply things that are probably wrong. So I’d like to go through these parts of the article, and debunk some of the implicit ideas I feel are very misleading, and should definitely be cleared up for any students interested in this program.

She had a 96-per-cent average in Grade 12 and was the top student in her entire school board.
But she still didn’t make the cut for McMaster’s Health Sciences program.
What began as a degree with a unique way of teaching undergraduate students eight years ago has turned into the hottest program around, with 3,500 applications for 160 spots each year.
It’s also a program that’s unique to North America, with an approach to learning that’s quite unusual for undergraduate students.
“We have a very difficult time selecting students to begin with,” acknowledges Delsworth Harnish, assistant dean of the honours Bachelor of Health Sciences program.
“By the time is all said and done, we have rejected students with 96 and 95 (averages).”
Several of the top students in Greater Toronto boards were accepted to the program for this fall, with averages of 98 or 99 per cent.

After reading this introduction, I could see why Eden’s friend was concerned that you needed a 98+ average to get into this program. I mean, look at the way things are phrased. The author starts off by saying that the top student in a certain school board with a 96 average couldn’t get in, and ends off this section implying that the only students he/she knows of that got in from the Toronto boards were the top students with a 98+ average. Also, look at the neatly thrown in line about how McMaster’s program admits that they have rejected students with 95-96 averages.

With phrasing like this, how could a lot of younger high school students not believe that you need a 98+ average to get in?

One of the important things everyone needs to learn is to examine what you read carefully, and be cautious about who you get your information from. The article never said that students with lower than 98 averages don’t get in - they had a sample size of one student with a 96 average that didn’t get in. Sorry, but a sample size of one is not and should not be convincing.

If you read even closer, you’ll notice that McMaster’s representative did not say that all students with 95-95 averages got rejected - he or she simply said that there were such students who were rejected. And I’m sure that there were also students with 91 averages or 99 averages that didn’t get in either - of course, the article fails to mention this obvious possibility - I wonder why…?

What I find pretty funny is that after this really sensationalist opening, they mention just a tiny paragraph about the supplementary application that is also required to apply to this program - which is kind of ironic, considering that several Health Science students I’ve met have stated that the supplementary application plays a much more significant role than the marks, once you meet the cutoff of about ~90.

And even if you don’t believe this is true, here are some reasons why it is extremely unlikely that you would need a 98+ average to get into McMaster Health Sciences:

1.The class would not be filled. Think about it. How many graduating high school students across Canada are there who have 98+ averages AND have McMaster Health Sciences as their first choice? The number of students who satisfy both criteria are extremely low, to the point where having the supplementary application would likely not be necessary - yet the comprehensive supplementary application still exists.

2.High school averages vary widely across Canada. I am pretty sure that if I had attended every single high school in Canada, my graduating marks would vary pretty widely. I think that depending on my the school, my high school graduating average would vary anywhere from 90-100. It is a simple fact that some high schools are probably easier than others. This is why major scholarships only require a 90+ average - universities and private organizations understand that high school marks come with a lot of variance, and so using higher academic standards would be pretty unfair. I am sure McMaster realizes the same thing, which is why they state the cutoff for their Health Sciences program every year to be around a 90 average, depending on the applicant pool for that year.

Finally, I have beef with the final line of the article, and in particular, with the bolded part:

Medical schools do like the Mac graduates: about 60 to 65 per cent of them get into a medical school, and of the roughly 35 per cent who don’t, they often go into law, psychology or health policy.

There are lots of parents and students who believe this same idea, that going to McMaster Health Sciences gives you a significant advantage in getting into medical school. They have this idea that medical schools give preference to McMaster Health Science students.

The problem here is a concept that I like to call screening bias (there is probably a scientific term for this, but I’ve never actually looked it up). Whenever a highly selective university or extracurricular program boasts about the success and accomplishments of their students after leaving the program, one important question you must ask is: Did the program really give the students tools for success, or would the students have been just as successful anyways - considering they were already the “cream of the crop”?

I mean, think about it. The students who get into McMaster Health Sciences, have competitive enough marks, and write essay answers well enough to have been able to beat out 3000+ other students to get in. Are they not likely to be significantly better than the average student in the medical school application process? They are more likely to be better students (grades-wise), are more likely to be actively involved outside of academics, and are more likely to be able to present themselves better on essays. Regardless of how good the Health Sciences program is, statistically, their students should do significantly better than average than the typical medical school applicant anyways.

Now, that’s not to say that the Health Sciences program itself does not improve your chances of getting into medical school - I personally think it does a bit, but not for the reason of the school’s reputation (hint: medical schools openly declare they do not care which undergraduate institution or program you attended). I think that the Health Sciences use of problem-based learning, collaborative learning, and self-directed learning helps the students learn certain skills that are attractive to medical schools (which often use these same skills). At the same time, I doubt this icing on the cake plays a significant role in the medical school admissions process, if at all.

So the next time you read some really sensationalist thing in the media, that sounds crazy, you might want to look at it a bit closer, and do your own research and thinking. Or better yet, contact the people who are actually experts in the material being discussed. Go straight to the source.

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at