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What’s up with McGill’s advanced standing policy?

Students face challenges transferring advanced standing credits

Similar to many graduates of CEGEP and the A-Level system, graduating from the International Baccalaureate (IB) program granted me the dubious honour of ‘skipping’ my first year at McGill based on the advanced standing credits I received. I couldn’t believe I was exempt from an entire year of university. When faced with the impending prospect of graduation, the scenario now looks quite different. The lack of a freshman year robbed me of the chance to explore different courses and prospects, as well as the transition period to adjust into a four-year program before tackling more challenging U1 courses.

A closer look at the process, however, has made me further question the impact of the IB on my transition to university academic life.  The summer before commencing my McGill degree, I found out that I was to receive 10 credits per Higher Level subject I did, in which I surpassed a certain grade level. This meant that for my three Higher Level classes — English, History and Film Studies — 30 credits were automatically exempt from my degree in Political Science and International Development.

This is an odd framing of policy considering that Higher Level IB subjects may not even have any relevance to your degree at McGill. This is especially pertinent for students in the Faculty of Arts, since few IB subjects directly overlap with the more challenging content studied in university Arts courses. When it comes to Introductory Biology or Math, course content may be comparable to material covered high school, and thus more easily transferable. Advanced standing also doesn’t take into account the grade students received on their Extended Essay – an in-depth research paper written in the last year of the IB. The latter is arguably the only component of  IB that directly transfers over to the development of the skill of higher education essay writing.

A fellow IB graduate who wished to remain anonymous had a similarly frustrating experience to recount: “Although I received credit for most of the classes that were a prerequisite for a Math major, the material covered in introductory McGill math classes is very different and far more challenging than what I studied in the IB. While I tried registering in one of these fundamental courses, and even spoke with an advisor, I was forced to withdraw halfway through the course, due to the credit I received for Higher Level Math in the IB.”

The McGill system for awarding academic standing, therefore, is lacking in a number of ways. Unlike many schools in the U.S. or the University of Toronto, at McGill we have no choice in whether we wish to transfer credits for registration or not. When it comes to core courses such as Calculus or Intro Biology, this might make sense. It’s ultimately unfair to students who are truly novices in prerequisite material to have to compete with students who have covered similar material in high school. But when it comes to the Arts disciplines, there is very little equivalency between, for example, history at the high school level and political science at the undergraduate level. The exemption of Arts students based on high school curriculae which only vaguely overlap with first year courses at McGill is not only arbitrarily decided, but ultimately creates gaps in our accumulation of base knowledge, which needs to happen early on in our degrees to help students cope with more challenging 300- and 400-level courses.

Understanding the momentum of the semester is an important part in adjusting to university life, but not everyone has had the opportunity to do so prior to entry into their McGill degrees. Both CEGEP and IB students, for instance, can enter McGill with similar amounts of credits transferred forward. Conversely, the IB is a two-year program in which ones studies six different subjects with a comparatively less specialized focus than in CEGEP, where students are already exposed to four-month-long semesters with courses specific to their chosen fields of interest.

It’s clear that academic standing policies are created with the intention of being in the student’s best interest. Allowing students to enroll in classes with material they have already covered and mastered is unfair; it’s both a waste of the students’ and the professor’s time. First year classes are big enough as it is, and so in many ways this is an important policy, but that doesn’t mean the process is unequivocally fair or successful. Furthermore, being pushed into choosing a major early on in your degree, with little to no exposure to both your courses of interest and the courses available, only serves to constrain students’ options.
Criticisms of these academic standing policies are usually expressed by the select groups of students who feel limited by them, not by every student who has received advanced standing in some form; a fair number of students would likely claim that academic standing has improved their experience.

In an ideal situation, though, McGill would allow some degree of student input in determining whether or not the student has a sufficient level of competence in both the skills and knowledge required to complete their degrees. Blanket policies based on the curriculae provided by international high school programs don’t work in the case of every student; having the choice to decide for ourselves, at least to a certain extent, would greatly benefit those who feel they need the flexibility of a four-year program to develop their potential.