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The New “X” Factor for Getting into Top Colleges

post by Dr. Michele Hernandez

Twenty years ago, admissions to top colleges was much more formulaic. Applicant pools were smaller, more homogeneous, and more self-selecting. Each college had its own application that students filled out by hand. Most high schools calculated and reported class rank. “Merit” was pretty much defined as high class rank and high test scores, with some traditional school leadership positions for good measure.

BREAKING THE MOLD

As I explained in my behind-the-scenes admissions book A is for Admission in 1997, despite their protestations, colleges indeed used a numerical scale to rank students on academic and extracurricular achievements and to guide the selection process. In addition to the “secret formula” (the “Academic Index” which combined SAT scores, SAT subject test scores and class rank/grades), colleges developed their own rating system using a 1-9, 1-6 or 1-4 scale as admissions shorthand. At Dartmouth, we used a 1-9 scale with 9 as the highest academic ranking. Students who achieved this top designation were class valedictorians (typically of large high schools) with SAT scores and three achievement tests (now called subject tests) in the 750-800 range. Twenty years back, academic 9s comprised two percent of applicants and nearly all (94 percent) were admitted. Students who were rated as academic 8s (just under three percent of the pool) had a rate of admission of 92 percent. Three-quarters of the academic 7s—students in the top ten percent of their class with scores in the 720-750 range—were admitted, yet they made less than 5% of the applicant pool. Admission to a top tier college or university was clearly much more predictable.

HOW THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS WORLD HAS CHANGED

What has changed in the last 20 years? Lots. For starters, the adoption of the Common Application as the predominant application provider and its transition to an online platform led to explosive growth in applicant pools. Concurrently, the arms race amongst colleges (fueled by the likes of US News and World Report) led to increased student recruitment efforts to become more selective in order to climb up the rankings. Test preparation has become a global, multi-billion dollar business. Top private colleges and universities themselves, responding to critical national conversations about access to higher education, moved aggressively to encourage more low income and first-generation college students to apply. The metrics that once anchored the selection process are not applied as rigidly as they once were. Reams of national research showed clearly that test scores correlate with income; differences in scores by gender, race, and ethnicity are well-documented. Growing numbers of colleges and universities are test-optional; many of those that still require the SAT or ACT no longer require subject tests (though they still count them and expect them from students without financial hardships). High schools, for their part, have moved away from class ranks. “Hooked” applicants—athletic recruits, legacies, underrepresented minority students—have a leg up in the process, often admitted at much higher rates than the overall rate of admission.

No one can argue that broadening access to higher education is inherently a bad thing. As a consequence of all these factors, admissions rates at all the top 25-30 colleges have declined pretty much every year for 20 years. That’s a tough thing to wrap your head around. Applicant pools have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled since the parents of today’s high school students applied to college. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, and Yale boast acceptance rates of 4 to 5 percent. Last year, 18 top colleges and universities posted acceptance rates below 10 percent (Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, Caltech, MIT, Pomona, Chicago, Brown, Duke, U Penn, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Claremont McKenna, Vanderbilt, Swarthmore, and Johns Hopkins), a new record.

The bottom line is that it is much much harder for top students today to get accepted to top colleges than it was 20 years ago. Students today face much steeper competition. Without a hook, what differentiates bright and high-achieving students from amongst thousands and thousands of similarly high-achieving students?

top colleges core values

CORE VALUES MATTER

Increasingly, admissions officers are looking towards indicators of character, integrity and civic involvement. In admissions, character matters. Admissions officers at top colleges are not looking for students who rarely venture beyond the high school bubble and who lack awareness of the world around them. Need an example? David Hogg, the Parkland activist, was just admitted to Harvard despite a slightly lower academic profile than the norm. Why? Because he showed America that one student could ignite an important debate on gun control after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Sure, not everyone will reach that national level of impact, but Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and their classmates demonstrated how to make their voices heard.

What are ways students can show integrity and moral character? Through serving on honor councils and community boards, heading efforts to address local problems from water pollution to environmental disasters (one of our students worked for several years to pass a “no idling” law in his state) to working for politicians who are striving to address major policy issues, students can show that they are aware of the world beyond high school. Activism and impact take many forms—well beyond the somewhat old-fashioned menu of high school extracurricular options—and increasingly, make the difference in the selection process. Fancy internships or expensive global “service” programs don’t cut it. Instead, long-term dedication to causes and efforts you believe in, from your local humane society or homeless shelter to youth mentoring programs or community gardens, and more, the opportunities for students to make a difference are plentiful.

MEASURING THE “X” FACTOR

How do colleges measure this “X” factor? Character references from teachers, guidance counselors, and mentors help illuminate students’ impact. Students themselves need to think about how they tell their own story, from the essays they write and the activities they lay out in their application. I recently spoke to one of my sophomore students who had very little engagement in her school or community. I tried to jolt her into action by saying “from an admissions standpoint, it looks like you go right home at 3pm and do homework and nothing else.” That turned out to be true. Straight A, low-impact students are not going to have as many college options as high-impact ones, period.

Students who are solely chasing the 4.0 or 1600 and don’t show evidence of character, integrity, impact, and leadership will be passed over in favor of others. Think local or think global, but get involved and make a difference. You—and the world—will be better for it.

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Admissions college admissions University of California

UC Admissions

The Golden State is a mecca for prospective college students, attracted to a big and diverse network of colleges and universities that are among the consistently top-ranked institutions in the U.S. and around the world.

The UC or University of California system includes 10 campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. Additionally, it includes five medical centers, three national laboratories, 150 academic disciplines, 238,000 students, 190,000 faculty and staff, and more than 1.7 million living alumni.

UC ADMISSIONS: BY THE NUMBERS

This past year, nearly 137,000 students from around the world were offered spots to at least one of the UC system’s nine undergraduate campuses, out of a total application pool of 221,788. Of that group, a total of 181,419 students applied for first year admission for fall of 2018 and 71,086 were admitted, leading to an overall admit rate of 39%.

This year’s admitted UC class of 71,086 includes a record numbers of California residents, resulting from an intentional shift to admit more in-state students. The UC system projects that the number of incoming California students will increase by 15,000 by next year. Much of the growth has been fueled by increased numbers of transfer students from California community colleges. UC schools have intentionally stepped up efforts to recruit community college transfer students as they have responded to growing pressure from Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature to open access for more California residents.

In order to matriculate more in-state students, UC enacted caps on enrollment of out of state students. Also, as part of UC’s commitment to the California Master Plan for Higher Education, all California residents graduating in the top 9% of their high school or the top 9% of the state are guaranteed freshman admission to a UC campus, though not necessarily to their campus of choice. This is similar to UT Austin’s 6% law, which offers eligible in-state freshman applicants (in the top 6% of their class) auto-admission to Texas public colleges and universities.

A commitment to greater access for in-state residents has driven up application volume at the UCs but out of state students continue to benefit from higher rates of admission, as shown in a snapshot of Class of 2022 admit rates for both California residents and out of state students at a handful of top UC campuses:

Campus

Admit Rate – CA Resident Admit Rate – Out of State

Berkeley

17%

16%

Los Angeles

12%

22%

San Diego

26%

51%

Santa Barbara 29%

47%

University of California admissions

APPLYING TO UC SCHOOLS

Thinking about applying to one or more of the UCs this year? With one application, you can apply to as many of the 9 UC undergraduate campuses as you’d like:

Here are some key deadlines and details to keep in mind:

  • August 1: Application opens for fall 2019
  • November 1-30: Fall 2019 application filing period for all first year applicants (no early admission option at the UCs)
  • March 1: Notification of fall 2019 admissions decisions.

UC ADMISSIONS: ESSAYS

As an applicant to the UC system, you’ll need to answer 4 of 8 personal insight questions. Each response is limited to 350 words, so very doable.

What do you want UC to know about you? Here’s your chance to tell them in your own words. All questions are equal and are given equal consideration in the application review process, which means there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.

This year’s UC essay questions are as follows:

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
  2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

In addition to your personal statement, the UC admissions evaluation process considers the following:

  • Academic grade point average. Residents need a minimum 3.0 GPA; non-residents need a minimum 3.4 GPA with no grade lower than C.
  • The ACT with Writing or the SAT with Essay.
  • Evidence of going above and beyond in required academic courses.
  • Number of and performance in UC-approved honors courses, AP courses, IB Higher Level courses and transferable college courses. UC will grant honors weight to all AP and IB courses on your transcript, but not to other courses your school designates as “honors.”
  • Ranking in the top 9% of CA/your high school class at the end of junior year (in-state).
  • Quality of your senior year program, relative to available opportunities.
  • Outstanding performance in one or more specific area.
  • Special talents, achievements, awards; special interests, special skills; unusual promise for leadership and impact.
  • Location of your secondary school and residence.

Letters of recommendations are not required by the UC schools, so you will not be asked to submit any. Note that some campuses/majors may require letters of recommendation as part of a supplemental application review.

Are you California dreamin’? You’ll find lots more helpful tips and guidance online here.

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Admissions college admissions College Essays University of California

University of California Personal Insight Questions for 2017-2018

The University of California is known as a top-ranked school system with a series of excellent programs, beautiful grounds, and (perhaps most important to current high school seniors) its own unique application. Students applying to any of the University of California’s nine campuses—UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles, UC Merced, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Cruz—must complete and submit UC’s undergraduate application. The essay portion of this application asks students to respond to four of eight personal insight questions, which must be addressed in short responses of no more than 350 words each.

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA’S 2017-2018 PERSONAL INSIGHT QUESTIONS:

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.
  2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

University of California admissions

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA APP AND ESSAY GUIDANCE

Struggling to address these questions? Wondering how to adapt your Common App essays to fit these prompts? We’re here to help!