The Ivory Tower and the Concrete Basement: Personal observations between Stanford and Waterloo


Image of Stanford campus

When I was at Stanford doing research for Sustain Lab, my experience at the elite private college was a stark contrast from my time at Waterloo. I was broadly aware of some differences when walking through Stanford and Waterloo, but this past month really opened my eyes to nuance of each school. The purpose of this post is to share my most striking observations with my fellow Waterloo friends and to hopefully spark some discussion about the topic.

Disclaimer: My observations are limited only to the situations that I have personally been in, which is a small silver of the entire Stanford and Waterloo (CS and Engineering) experience. They make sense within this context, but I make no tautologies about the expeirence for all students in all school departments.


Private institutions are not a meritocracy. You get accepted for a combination of privilege, luck, and hard work. Admissions mostly care more about your essays than your high school grades. Once you're in, it's really hard to fail out. I was sitting in the CS 148 lecture, and the difference was stark. The professor was very vocal in saying that he understood the pressures of the student schedule, and straight up offered to accept the final project months after the term ended. Students say that Stanford coddles you - if you need an accomodation it will be made for you. I know a friend who actually got the school to make a unique degree just for him - he used it to graduate early with his bio + cs course credits.

This is unheard of in Waterloo! The system is rigid and one-dimensional - you either submit your assignment by 11:59 or you do not and you fail with no exceptions. From start to finish, you are evaluated based on your adherance to very measurable units - you are admitted based on your high school average, and you graduate based on if you perfectly fulfill your course requirement. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, but it's a stark contrast to the private system. The Waterloo education trains you to be a good employee that works within deadlines and restrictions, the Stanford education trains you to expect the world to cater to your needs.


The selection of courses at Stanford is truly quite amazing. There are courses for everything, including meditation, poetry, scuba diving and even a course on how to make the most out of your time at college. I get the feeling that the curriculum is catered to satisfy any intellectual curiosities that someone might have if they had plenty of time and money. My Stanford friend pointed out, for example, that many students learn German even if they don't need it, just for the fun of learning German. This makes sense - the campus does seems feel like a place for the elite to send their children to have a good time.

Image of Stanford campus
There is a curious amount of argot at Stanford: use of exclusive words to establish some kind of pride in an inner group

Waterloo as we know it is mostly a vocational school. Most of the students come to this school with the goal to be work-ready when they graduate. The school's focus on the co-op program (for the uninitiated: every other term is an internship) naturally attracts a demographic where job security and financial stability are top of mind. Even with this curriculum, you can hear a common complaint about the courses that students still have to take - "this is useless, when am I gonna use this on the job?!", or "I'm only here for the co-op program". Overall, I find Waterloo to be a much more intellectually stifling place, albeit a much more grounded environment.

Teaching quality

At Waterloo I've kind of gotten used to not expecting much from my instructors. Some of them are quite engaging, but for most of my classes I get the feeling that the instructor is simply reading the slides, kind of like a worse version of a Coursera video where you can't 2x the speed. The result is that I end up skipping classes and self-studying the slides and textbook on my own. Most casses are large (>100 people) and the focus is on measurables and deliverables, making it feel like I'm the product of an industrial credential factory.

The bar at Stanford is on another level - which kind of makes sense given that you pay 80k a year versus my 15k/yr Waterloo tuition. Some of the classes like Arthist 1B: How to Look at Art and Why truly make you appreciate good teaching. You get the feeling that the lecturers truly care about teaching you their craft, that they enjoy what they do and are very good at it. I was in a few lectures that were so captivating and inspiring that when they ended the class gave a round of applause to the professor. I'm not sure about the specific ratio but a significant chunk of the lecturers are at the top of their field - nobel laureats, Pulitzer prize winners, flagship researchers befitting the Stanford brand. Class sizes range from a dozen people to the hundreds, but the majority of them are small (<50 people). You feel like an actively participating student, where your presence is valued and your questions are welcomed. The result is that I actually look forward to going to class, and I'm not the only one - it's cool to hear about how much my Stanford friends look forward to their favorite classes.


The way an institution treats you reveals the type of person that you are groomed to be. I didn't sense this dimension initially, but over time it became quite apparent that this was one of the biggest differences between the schools. Stanford is unabashedly all about creating what it calls the "leaders of tomorrow". The faculty try to cater to your needs, and constantly refer to the student audience as the best and brightest of the generation. This struck a chord with me because I am sad to see that many Cardinals internalize these pompous validations without really having done much work or leadership to deserve such titles. Students are told that they deserve the world, and are encouraged to seek resources and accomodations. Some parts of this are quite good - I was quite shocked when I saw a student raise her hand during a lecture to state that she disagreed with the claims made by the professor. This is unheard of in loo, where you are taught to know your place and not to question authority. Most people at Stanford seem to be trying to make the most of their time there - actively trying to make friends, join clubs, attend parties, and reach out to professors. The median at Waterloo seems to be trudging through the school term, counting the days until graduation or their next co-op.

Image of Stanford campus

Closing thoughts

I'm really glad I got to experience these two schools for myself! They serve as good foils for each other, bringing to light a lot of areas that my conventional education has been quite good and bad at. I appreciate the ambitious, intellectually engaging and exploratory environment at Stanford but also value the grounded, egalitarian and pragmatic environment at Waterloo. I make no claims about what higher education is like on the whole, but Waterloo and Stanford are good examples of the two extremes of the spectrum.

For their own intents and purposes, the schools do well at what they were made for. High schoool me wanted a recognizable diploma and good work experience at a very affordable price, and Waterloo was perfect for that. As I'm now gravitating towards a more idealistic persuit of learning and growth, I think it makes sense to audit Stanford's courses as a hack to get a world-class education for free.

I wouldn't want to wring my hands too much over which college I should have gone to - though college years are quite formative I think it is more important to develop a value system and identity that is resilient to whichever environment or institution I find myself in.

Thank you Daekun, Nicholas, and Vincent