Commentary, Opinion

Rethinking the “Harvard of Canada:” McGill must be appreciated on its own terms

Amid the throngs of Frosh shirts and the oceans of newly-purchased McGill merchandise that mark Orientation Week, there is another sight that stands out on campus during the last week of August: A white T-shirt emblazoned with the Harvard University crest and captioned, “Harvard: America’s McGill.” Virtually every McGill student by now has heard its various nicknames, such as the “Harvard of Canada,” the “Harvard of the North,” and “Canada’s Ivy League.” Regardless of when these terms were born, they risk creating a gratifying air of prestige for McGill students and alumni. Equating McGill with Harvard, an elite American college, can hardly be substantiated in facts. This comparison is not merely misleading, but it bases McGill’s reputation on the fame of another university. Praising McGill in terms of anything but itself undermines its independent merits, and how they are appreciated.

Referring to McGill as the “Harvard of Canada” is fundamentally disingenuous for the simple reason that it is untrue. While a distinguished and reputable research university, McGill is simply not on par financially with private, elite American universities. McGill only received C$477.8 million in research funding in 2013-2014—the fourth highest among all Canadian universities. In contrast, Harvard had over US$800 million for research in the same year. Additionally, McGill does not possess the same admissions selectivity that identifies schools like Harvard. McGill’s undergraduate admissions acceptance rate was 46.3 per cent for Fall 2016, which is almost eight times the numbers estimated for Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia for the same year. Furthermore, McGill has fallen in international university rankings for three years consecutively to number 32, according to Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), whereas Harvard and similar schools have comfortably remained in the top 10 in virtually every notable ranking. What is more tragic, though, is that McGill does its own reputation a disservice by framing it solely in comparison to elite American schools.

Representing McGill’s strengths only by international rankings or comparing it to another elite school suggests that it is either not recognizable, or not capable of being appreciated on its own. Yale University has never claimed the seat of the “Oxford of America,” and I have never heard a Stanford student boast about attending the “Harvard of the West.” The prestige of such universities, in areas like recognition, wealth, and research, is so enormously self-evident that analogies are totally unnecessary; these schools exist and are renowned for themselves.

Students must realize that a university’s reputation is based on more than shallow analogies and pretenses of prestige.

McGill has extensive merits that qualify it for its own deserved reputation. To name a few achievements, McGill has produced the most Nobel laureates and Rhodes Scholars out of any Canadian school, it has hosted academics who have made seminal discoveries in the medical sciences, and it currently has the highest admissions grade averages out of any Canadian university. It has renowned researchers engaged in partnerships all over the world, and it is home to an exceedingly intelligent, driven, and diverse student body. McGill is an exceptionally accomplished university, and its students should acknowledge this in and of itself, rather than using Harvard’s name to prove this point.

Moreover, there are advantages in McGill’s not being a Harvard or Princeton. As Stephen Gordon wrote for the National Post, the absence of elite institutions in Canada allows universities like McGill to provide good, accessible education to many capable students, while avoiding the rigid sense of hierarchy prevalent among many American colleges. It also doesn’t hurt that McGill’s tuition is a 10th of Harvard’s.

The sincerest way to appreciate and promote McGill is to accept the university for what it really is—not as Harvard, but as McGill. Learning what makes McGill a great university in itself will not only allow McGill students to foster more pride for their own school, but it naturally leads them to appreciate their place in its community.

McGill University is a first-class research university with the faculty, students, connections, and accomplishments to strongly distinguish it in Canada and on the global stage. Students must realize that a university’s reputation is based on more than shallow analogies and pretenses of prestige. Evaluating McGill on its own terms, with all its strengths and shortcomings considered, is the most meaningful tribute that can be given to the university’s legacy and its unflagging dedication to greatness. So, forget Harvard.



Anthony is a U1 Political Science student. He only reads dead authors.



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  1. Not a bad article. There is truth in saying McGill should stand on its own merits but your information about selectivity is wrong. Harvard receives an inordinate number of applicants every year because American and some International students apply to many schools at the same time. As well the Ivy League schools look at GPA as only one facet of the application. They also look at references, personal accomplishments, connections, geography and race, personal essays and the almighty legacy. So they will most likely also apply to all of the Ivy League schools despite little to no chance of being accepted. It drives up a false high number of applicants. At McGill the high GPA is already known before a student even applies. Extremely high standards ( highest in Canada) and no references or personal information, just excruciatingly high GPA. Therefore every McGill applicant already knows if they have a chance to get accepted. The Ivy League schools leave the impression they could take anybody if the stars are aligned right.

    • Jean Debreault

      I’m coming late to the game here but generally agree with both the article and this point. I’ll just say this: as a McGillian now working in US law firms, it’s kind of (patently) ridiculous to float a phrase like “Harvard of the North” around! Americans certainly don’t get it and it comes across pretty cringe, for all the reasons stated above. And of course, you don’t have to dig very deep to find out that McGill unfortunately just keeps sliding down the rankings, year after year… So if others insist on saying it, that’s fine, but McGill and McGillians should shy away from this moniker. Let the school speak for itself.

  2. The writer of this article just doesn’t understand the acceptance process outside the US. In Canada, like in much of Europe, acceptance is almost exclusively based on grades (and, to a lesser extent, test scores). They don’t care about what clubs you were in or who your daddy is. They only want the best and brightest. As a result, students mostly know if they’re going to get in or not. If your grades aren’t high enough, it’s a waste of your time trying, no matter how brightly you shine in extracurriculars. Therefore, the +50% who get rejected form McGill are merely on the borderline. How can he not know this? Take for example, Oxford and Cambridge, both insanely prestigious and considered top 5 in the world: they have acceptance rates of about 20% each. Now, do you really think that UCLA (14% acceptance) is harder to get into than these schools? And do you think Duke (at 7%) is three times harder? Come on, dude. Do some research before you write. You embarrass yourself.

    • Of course your supposition is that grades make you the best/brightest, something I would quarrel with. With full disclosure that I went to Yale (although many years ago now), I am so glad they had people with interests and excellence in many areas that had nothing to do with their grades. It was that richness and diversity in experience that made Yale great, not that everyone there had good grades. The American system is deeply flawed, and schools like Yale or Harvard could fill their classes many times over without a problem. They could do more to increase diversity, eliminate legacy admissions, lower cost etc. But I don’t think relying on grades exclusively would improve them a bit, and would increase the already cutthroat nature of grades in high school. Your argument simply demonstrates the meaningless nature of acceptance rates (or any statistic in isolation). I would also argue, that grades have little to do with success in many fields, or success as a human being contributing to the world.

  3. There are exceptions to the rigid acceptance rules at most universities. I was accepted at McGill based solely on my DDForm 214, a one page record of my military service in the US Army and Vietnam. Class of ’76. Conversely, my status as a Vietnam Vet in the States made me very unwelcome in Grad school. Thanks to the “me, myself and I” journalism (sic) in the USA — which still goes on, unfortunately.

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