University of Toronto vs University of Waterloo Engineering: a Detailed Comparison.

Adam Wei
13 min readAug 6, 2023
Trinity College at the University of Toronto. Image Source: https://www.trinity.utoronto.ca/

TLDR: If you are interested in industry, Waterloo is better. If you are interested in research or academia, UofT is better. If you are still unsure or want to hear a more detailed comparison, read the full article.

Deciding on a university program can be difficult. For many Canadian students in STEM, this decision often boils down to the University of Toronto (UofT) vs the University of Waterloo (Waterloo). I graduated from UofT in 2023 with a degree in electrical engineering while most of my friends went to Waterloo. In this article, I hope to share my thoughts and opinions on the UofT vs Waterloo dilemma.

Disclaimer: I did not attend Waterloo, but some Waterloo students have proofread this article to ensure its accuracy. Please note that the content is based on the personal experiences of my friends and I. Individual opinions may vary. This article focuses on electrical (EE) and computer engineering (CE). Nonetheless, the overarching themes likely apply to the other programs at these schools as well.

Image Source: https://its.utoronto.ca/about/resources/
Image Source: https://www.transitionresourceguide.ca/research-schools/universities/university-waterloo

Curriculum

Both schools offer good engineering curriculums. In my opinion, the UofT curriculum places a stronger emphasis on theory and rigor, whereas the Waterloo curriculum focuses more on practical elements. This is consistent with each school's strengths: UofT is known for its research while Waterloo is known for its co-op program.

UofT

Quality of Teaching: I found the quality of the instructors at UofT to be very high. Since UofT is a research institution, its professors are leading experts with tons of insight to share. Nearly all of them were able to highlight subtle connections and deeper intuitions in the course material. They were also open to questions and accessible after class. While my experience was overwhelmingly positive, other UofT alumni have had opposing experiences. You can refer to this blog post for another opinion.

Course Content: UofT lectures emphasize theory and fundamentals. While some of this knowledge is not useful in industry, it certainly deepened my understanding of the course material and expanded my ability to reason through different problems. The focus on theory is also helpful if you are considering a career in research.

Difficulty: UofT takes pride in its “rigorous” curriculum. This means that the exams can be unnecessarily difficult. Fortunately, labs and problem sets are essentially free marks. Although the curriculum is difficult, it is entirely conquerable. I know many people that graduated with perfect or near-perfect GPAs.

ECE Curriculum Structure: A full description of the UofT ECE curriculum can be found here.

At UofT, EE students and CE students are lumped together as “ECE”. At the end of the degree, students obtain either an EE or a CE degree depending on the courses they took. This removes artificial barriers in course selection that are found at other institutions. It also allows students to switch freely between EE and CE, which would be more difficult at Waterloo.

The curriculum for the first 3 terms of ECE is fixed. In the 4th term, students choose between a software or a hardware design course. In the last 4 terms, students build their own curriculum. As long as your courses meet the requirements specified by the Canadian Engineering Accredibility Board (CEAB) and a few requirements from UofT, you will earn your degree!

You have a ton of flexibility within this structure. For example, I have an EE degree, but I designed my curriculum to focus on applied math. This would not have been possible at Waterloo. Every engineering degree will also require a few humanities courses. UofT is a large school with strong humanities programs, so it offers many pre-approved options that are also well-taught. Overall, I believe UofT has a very complete and flexible curriculum with high-quality instructors.

Waterloo

Quality of Teaching: According to my friends, the overall quality of the instructors at Waterloo is good. The professors are knowledgeable, open to questions, and accessible after class. As a small caveat, I have heard more horror stories about disorganized professors at Waterloo, but I am unsure how pervasive this trend actually is.

Course Content: I found that Waterloo courses have a stronger emphasis on practice than theory. My personal opinion is that their curriculum and culture are more results-focused while UofT’s is more learning-focused. The advantage of Waterloo’s approach is that it prepares students for co-op and job search.

Difficulty: The consensus is that coursework at Waterloo is not as difficult as UofT. The course averages and curves also tend to be higher. Nonetheless, Waterloo presents its own challenges: students must balance their time between school and job search (which is equally stressful).

ECE Curriculum Structure: A full description of the Waterloo ECE curriculum can be found here: EE curriculum, CE curriculum.

Both EE and CE students share a curriculum for the first 3 terms and branch off in the 4th term. Unlike at UofT, EE and CE at Waterloo are two separate programs: they have their own courses and requirements. Switching between the two is non-trivial.

Students can design their own curriculums in their last 4 terms; however, Waterloo offers substantially less flexibility than UofT. For example, UofT requires students to fulfill the Natural Science requirements outlined by the CEAB, whereas Waterloo requires 2 Natural Science electives (more than the CEAB requires). Since Waterloo is a smaller school, the breadth of electives is also more limited. Generally speaking, Waterloo’s curriculum imposes significantly more structure and offers fewer electives.

Overall, the Waterloo curriculum is still good and the course selection is sufficient for most students. The only notable drawback is its limited flexibility.

Co-op Programs

UofT

After 3rd year, UofT students may enroll in a Professional Experience Year (PEY). During PEY, students work for 12–16 months at a company before returning to complete their 4th year.

PEY is not mandatory. Some students opt out to graduate a year earlier. Others do 3 or 4 back-to-back internships instead.

UofT students can intern during their first 2 summers as well. UofT provides a job portal for summer internships, but I had more success searching independently.

Pros:

  1. Since PEY occurs after 3rd year, students have the technical skills to do meaningful work during their internships.
  2. A 12–16 month internship allows students to take on larger projects.
  3. Many students receive return offers from their PEY companies.
  4. Access to a PEY job portal

Cons:

  1. PEY is hit or miss. If you don’t like your internship, you will be stuck there for 12–16 months.
  2. You only get 1 PEY opportunity. This gives you fewer options to explore other jobs.
  3. The PEY portal has fewer high-quality job options than the Waterloo co-op portal

Waterloo

In my opinion, Waterloo has a better co-op program. In fact, Waterloo’s co-op program is widely regarded to be one of the best in the world. If your goal is to set yourself up for success in industry, then Waterloo is probably the school for you.

Students complete 6 co-op terms which are intertwined between the school terms. This structure gives students continual opportunities to apply their skills in industry and to improve their resumes. More co-op terms allow students to explore more companies, secure progressively better jobs, and improve their chances of receiving a full-time return offer.

Waterloo likewise offers a co-op portal that contains internship postings from top companies around the world. The quantity and quality of postings on the Waterloo portal far outshines the UofT portal. As a caveat, most of the postings are software jobs. Other jobs are available, but they may be harder to find. All in all, top companies want to hire from Waterloo which is one of the major reasons students choose to attend.

Grad School Opportunities

UofT

If you want to pursue graduate school, then UofT is the better choice. UofT is famous for its research. Students have abundant opportunities to conduct cutting-edge research on campus or at affiliate institutions (ex. the Vector Institute). UofT also provides undergraduate research scholarships, access to funding sources, and research fairs for you to present your work.

Furthermore, many UofT professors are well-respected in their fields. This can help you expand your research network and strengthen your letters of recommendation. The author of your letter is just as important as the letter’s content. As such, a letter of recommendation from UofT can be very powerful.

Some people worry that their GPAs will suffer at UofT. Here’s my opinion. If graduate school is your goal, then you will have to work hard during your undergrad regardless of where you go. You can either work hard at UofT while gaining valuable research experience, or you can work hard elsewhere for a marginally higher GPA. Research experience is more important than GPA for graduate admissions, so the former option is usually better.

Waterloo

Many Waterloo professors are leading experts in their field as well; however, the research culture at Waterloo is weaker than UofT. The department also dedicates less resources to undergraduate research.

If you go to Waterloo, you aren’t closing the door to graduate school, but it may become more difficult. If you only do co-ops in industry, then you cannot expect admission into the top graduate programs. A few of my older brother’s friends from Waterloo tried this; none of them were admitted. If you attend Waterloo but still want to attend graduate school, you will need to find a way to incorporate research into your undergrad.

My personal opinion on research: If you are unsure about attending graduate school, this is perfectly fine! UofT gives you the option to try research and industry (that’s what I did); Waterloo feels like a stronger commitment to industry.

Campus and Social Life

Data from various UofT and Waterloo official websites.

UofT

Campus: All UofT engineering programs are located on the St. George campus which is located in downtown Toronto. Toronto is a big and exciting city with tons of things to do. It is also one of the most multicultural cities in the world, which makes it a great spot for food and community.

The UofT St. George campus is quite compact. Parts of it are very beautiful, especially around the fall time. There are 3 main gyms and over 40 different libraries. There are 3 subway stations close to the campus and public transport is pretty reliable.

Social Life: The social scene at UofT is whatever you make of it; it mostly depends on your social circle. Toronto bars and nightlife are fairly active, especially around the weekends. There are also many student clubs, intramural sports teams, and design teams which are a great way to meet new people. In addition, the Engineering Society (EngSoc) organizes events throughout the year, such as dinner dances, celebrations, and musicals. Attendance at these events is usually quite good. UofT Engineering also hosts an amazing freshman orientation.

UofT has a reputation for being lonely. I think this is slightly exaggerated, but not untrue. Part of this reputation comes from its significant commuter population and its academic demands. Roughly 65–85% of students commute to school. As a result, many students have to commute home after class instead of hanging out or studying with friends. Most students spend the majority of their time studying which doesn’t help the social scene either. All things considered, the engineering community is pretty closely-knit. If you make an effort to put yourself out there, you will meet new people.

Waterloo

Campus: Unsurprisingly, Waterloo is located in a small town called Waterloo which is located next to Kitchener, Ontario. The food options, nightlife, and other activities pale in comparison to Toronto; however, an advantage of living in a boring city is that it feels quite safe! I haven’t personally been on the Waterloo campus, but I have heard from multiple friends that it’s boring and the buildings are run down.

Social Life: Since the campus and city at Waterloo are pretty boring, social life depends heavily on your social circles. Waterloo has an engineering society that organizes events, but I can’t comment on how active or popular the events are. Since Waterloo is a STEM-focused school, they have many design teams. I have been told that these are a nice way to meet new people. Overall, the experience appears to be whatever you make out of it.

Finances (as of 2023)

Money matters! Let’s talk a bit about the costs associated with the two schools and how students might be able to fund their degrees. I have summarized the tuition and some additional financial factors below.

* Tuition values for Waterloo are approximate. Data from the UofT and Waterloo websites

Cost-of-living: Cost-of-living in Toronto is high. Most of my friends at UofT spend $1,200-$3,000 per month on rent. Waterloo is much cheaper. My friends at Waterloo spend roughly $600–1200 per month on rent.

Scholarships: UofT offers many merit and needs-based scholarships (link). Scholarship opportunities at Waterloo are more limited (link).

Co-op: UofT PEY occurs after Year 3. This gives students an opportunity to pay off student loans or to fund their 4th-year tuition. Waterloo co-ops are intertwined between semesters which gives students the opportunity to continually fund their education.

Part-time Jobs: Many students at UofT work part-time. Teaching assistant roles (which pay handsomely at UofT) or research positions are common. Fewer students work part-time at Waterloo since finding work for the next co-op term is time-consuming.

Mental Health

Mental health is a growing concern at many university campuses. UofT and Waterloo are no exception.

Academics are often the primary source of stress at UofT. While it isn’t the only factor that affects mental health, it compounds the other stressors that students experience. Part of the problem is that many students are unprepared for the workload and rigor that UofT imposes. In addition, UofT engineering heavily regulates grade inflation. As a result, course averages hover between B+ and C+. This can feel extremely demoralizing for some students. Fortunately, UofT transcripts include course averages.

Nonetheless, I want to emphasize that many people survive and thrive at UofT. Good study habits and the right support system are important. A shift in mindset and expectations can also help. For example, acknowledging the difficulty of the program made the degree feel more rewarding for me.

Waterloo is similarly stressful. While academics play a role, the main source of stress is usually job search. Students often feel pressure to find “good” co-ops and the constant demands of interviews and school can be exhausting. Waterloo co-op culture can also be toxic, hyper-competitive, and comparative in an unhealthy way.

As an upside, both schools are accommodating to students with genuine needs or unforeseen circumstances; however, Waterloo is more accommodating to student “complaints”, even if they aren’t always justified. This is great for pushing back deadlines and getting grades curved, but it seems to have created a culture of incessant complaining at Waterloo (especially in SWE and ECE).

I have not used any mental health services provided by UofT or Waterloo, but I have heard that they are overloaded. I can’t comment on other universities, but I wouldn’t expect them to be much better.

All things considered, you have a lot of control over your university experience. School is inherently stressful and mental health issues will arise, but these challenges don’t have to define your experience! I made some of my happiest memories at UofT and my friends at Waterloo seem happy with their decisions as well.

Final Remarks

The process of picking an undergraduate program is highly personalized. Be sure to take your time. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of all your options, be honest about your values, and make your decision with confidence!

If you want to hear a second perspective, please check out this similar article by The Wandering Engineer.

I’ll finish with a few closing thoughts/opinions:

  • Don’t be tunnel-visioned on UofT or Waterloo. There are other amazing engineering programs. You should consider those as well.
  • Be honest with yourself on this one: if you want to take on a challenge and have a passion for learning, then UofT will have a lot to offer. If you feel less academically inspired, then Waterloo might offer less pain and better job prospects.
  • If your goal is to go into research, then UofT may be better. UofT offers more undergraduate research opportunities and a stronger faculty. Its curriculum is also better suited for graduate school and academia.
  • If your goal is to have good job prospects, then Waterloo may be better. In my opinion, their co-op program is unmatched by any school in Canada. Furthermore, the extra academic challenge at UofT might not be worthwhile since industry positions rarely care about the difficulty or rigor of your undergraduate curriculum.

My Personal Decision Process

This section is an optional read.

In Grade 12, I had to decide between UofT and Waterloo as well. I personally chose UofT for the following reasons (ordered from most to least important):

  1. I was more attracted to graduate school than industry. Naturally, UofT was the better option.
  2. I wanted to explore a wide range of topics and challenge myself academically. I knew UofT could accommodate these desires.
  3. I didn’t see the appeal of Waterloo co-op. If I wanted to go into industry, I felt confident that I could land a competitive job without spending an extra year on co-ops. Ultimately, I didn’t have to find a job because I went to grad school, so we’ll never know if this confidence was justified 😉.
  4. I was drawn to the hustle and bustle in Toronto.
  5. Most of my friends went to Waterloo. Oddly enough, this turned me away from Waterloo. Although I valued my friendships, I wanted to be in a new environment that would encourage me to be more outgoing.

I want to elaborate on my first reason. By the end of high school, most students do not have enough exposure to industry or research to use this as a basis for their university decisions. Luckily for me, my older brother was pursuing his PhD while I was in high school. His experience gave me a better understanding of what graduate school would entail and helped inform my university decision.

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