Being based in Irvine, CA and working with many high achieving students each year, I’m accustomed to having students (and often parents) pushing for highly selective colleges. After all, these students have earned all As in rigorous Honors and AP courses, 4's and 5's on AP tests, and near perfect ACT or SAT scores. One would think these students would be a shoe in for any school they apply to.
But the reality is that there are often close to 100 students like that for every spot at the most selective schools.
In fact, with test optional policies due to Covid this year, applications skyrocketed at Ivy League colleges:
Harvard up 42%
Columbia up 51%
Dartmouth up 33%
Yale and Penn up 33%
Brown up 27%
Princeton up 15%
And these increases were not just limited to the Ivys. Other selective colleges saw similar upticks:
Duke up 24%
Rice up 26%
Amherst up 43%
Emory up 19%
Colby up 13%
Tufts up 35%
And so on . . .
Since the majority of students who apply have GPAs well over 4.0, are involved in extracurricular activities, have shown leadership, are engaged in meaningful community service, etc., the question becomes:
WHO GETS IN?
The ANSWER is that students who are competitive for these schools typically have all that is listed above AND have some HOOK that makes them stand out. It could be any of the following:
*Talent (music, performing arts, visual arts, etc.) Selective schools often accept an optional arts supplement for students to showcase a talent. These supplements are typically sent to the faculty of that arts department for review, and colleges caution that students must be exceptional for this supplement to have an impact.
*National/International Award Winner (Robotics, Debate, Poetry, Foreign Language, Math, etc.)
Created something that has produced results and elevated the community or a particular group within the community. The student has started a foundation or company, created a product, jump started a social justice movement, etc.
Student has filed and received a patent, created an original code, designed a successful app, written an and published an award-winning book, etc.
*Endured Tremendous Hardship & Persevered
Student experienced homelessness, suffered the loss of parents, faced an extraordinary medical challenge, came from a war-torn country, etc. Most important for this to have an impact is that the student experienced this hardship and overcame it with success.
*First Generation Student:
Student is the first in their family to go to college
Legacy, Large Donor, Child of Politician/Celebrity, etc.
WITHOUT one or more of these hooks, the chances are slim to none. That is just the reality, and I seek to be transparent with my clients.
I have these conversations every year, and I spend a great deal of time encouraging students/parents to be open to and excited about the favorable and target schools on their list. After all, those are the colleges they are most likely to get into. Applying to more reach schools doesn't make their chances better.
Since most of my students intend to pursue graduate school, I believe that finding the school where they can be a big fish will ultimately make them most competitive for those grad schools. Grad schools look for students who engage in undergraduate research, pursue internships, create meaningful relationships with professors. Highly motivated students can seek and capitalize on those opportunities in a less competitive environment.
Malcolm Gladwell addresses this very point in a Google talk he gave back in 2013:
I know how disheartening this reality can be. After all, these students applying to selective schools have done everything right. They have earned excellent grades, taken rigorous classes, got involved in meaningful activities, shown leadership, and on and on.
I also know from experience that regardless of the odds, students will still pursue these selective schools and will most likely receive much rejection. And for many, this will be the first time they have experienced rejection.
Given that, it's important to note that how students and parents react to this rejection can ultimately shape how successful that student's college experience will be.
Lori Gottleib’s 2019 article in The Atlantic offers some excellent insight and suggestions as to how parents should react when their child doesn’t get into their dream school.
It is well worth the read, as she offers guidance for parents to give their kids key messages that have "the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back.”
SAT and ACT Update
UC will not consider SAT or ACT test scores when making admissions decisions or awarding Regents and Chancellor’s scholarships. If students choose to submit test scores as part of their application, they may be used to determine eligibility for the California statewide admissions guarantee, as an alternative method of fulfilling minimum requirements for eligibility or for course placement after they enroll.
UC's Encourage Students To . . .
Want To Learn More About a Particular UC Campus?
Each UC campus provides an array of opportunities and methods for students and counselors to engage with admissions staff and with the campus. Below are links to each campus webpage providing information on virtual events and programs.
UC San Diego
UC Santa Barbara
UC Santa Cruz
Jeffrey Selingo’s newly released college admission book Who Gets in and Why is a must read for anyone wanting the inside scoop on SELECTIVE college admissions. Selective colleges are the ones that many students and parents, especially in higher income areas, tend to focus on. While these selective colleges often get the majority of attention, they actually make up less than 10% of all universities. That means that about 90% of colleges are relatively accessible, especially for a high achieving student.
Selingo puts colleges into two categories, which he calls Buyers and Sellers. Sellers are the selective schools. They are the “name brand” schools. Students come to them. They don’t have to advertise or offer scholarships/discounts to entice students. They are the schools with the single and teen digit admissions rates, the ones many parents are willing to borrow loads of money to pay for, and the ones that leave many high achieving students heartbroken every year.
Buyers, on the other hand, often offer incentives for students to apply including tuition discounts, special programs, unique mentorship and research opportunities, free application fees and more. Students should always have some buyers on their list to increase their options. And if students are planning to only apply to buyers, they don’t need to read Selingo’s book.
But for strong students--those who have taken rigorous courses, have a GPA over a 4.0, earned strong test scores, and have engaged in exceptional extracurricular activities that show leadership, innovation and/or a talent, then Selingo’s book gives them (and their parents) unique insight into a world that is often so secretive: the inside of an admissions office during application season.
Some Key Takeaways:
My takeaways are just a sliver of the insights and tips Selingo offers. And while he gives readers a good sense of what it takes for students to be successful when applying selective schools, he also emphasizes the unpredictability of college admissions. While a student can check off every box he emphasizes, there are ultimately no guarantees. It’s another reminder for students to have a balanced list of colleges, or as Selingo would say, to include some buyers and not all sellers.
The University of California just announced several changes to admissions requirements due to these extraordinary circumstances. Most notably are that ACT/SAT tests will not be required for the class of 2021 and that grades are not required for this semester (spring semester 2020) to meet A-G requirements. See the full update below.
What's not clear is how they will now evaluate/compare applicants and how students who submit tests will be compared with those who don't. Remember, the selective UC campuses get well over 100k applicants for just 10k or so spots. What's clear to me is for this year's junior class, those AP/rigorous classes and GPA become even more important, and last semester's grades will hold much weight. I don't recommend students take this as an invitation to slack off during online schooling. While students will not be held accountable if their high schools move to pass/fail grading for classes this semester or if their grades slip, students who thrive during this pandemic can only have an advantage in the admissions process. It will showcase their grit and perseverance. Also, the UCs require 4 essays, so those extracurricular activities, leadership, community service, talent, etc. are going to hold more weight now than ever.
Click here to read the official UC Press Release.
Click here to access the UC's FAQ
Official Counselor Update
As measures to combat COVID-19 have closed schools, cancelled standardized tests and upended nearly every aspect of students’ education, students and their families are understandably worried about whether those changes will hurt their college prospects.
The University of California has taken steps to ensure that students can strive for and attain a world-class UC education, despite disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday, March 31, the university announced that it has temporarily relaxed its admissions standards for both newly admitted students and prospective high school and community college students to account for changes in instruction methods, grading and administration of standardized tests.
UC campuses will provide maximum flexibility to students who need more time to meet registration, deposit and transcript deadlines. The university also expects to work with students to adjust financial aid packages if family financial circumstances have suddenly changed.
To serve students and their families during this crisis, UC has enacted the following temporary measures, which are explained in detail in an online FAQ.
For more information, please see the press release and the Undergraduate Admissions COVID-19 page.
UC Berkeley continues to be one of the most selective UCs with a 16.8% admit rate, but it did admit more students off its waitlist than in years past. Notable programs include the 3+2 Engineering program, Management, Entrepreneurship, and Technology degree in the Engineering College, Global Management Program, and a Dual Degree Program with either a Hong Kong or French university.
UC Davis continues to be a go-to university for students interested in the biological and natural sciences. It just received $845 million dollars in research funding and offers some great scholarships for first generation students.
UC Irvine now has four different psychology majors and a new interactive learning building. It also received the most applications from in-state applicants, and its admit rate dropped to 26.5%, making it the 3rd most selective UC school.
UCLA overenrolled the previous year, which contributed to its 12% admit rate this year, the lowest of all the UCs. 965 were admitted off the waitlist, which is a huge increase over previous years.
UC Merced has grown this past year with new buildings including new research labs and housing. With the new space, it was able to increase its admit rate to 72%. Computer science, engineering, and biology are impacted programs. Something to check out is Merced's unique leadership program that takes place in YOSEMITE!
UC Riverside admitted the most CA students of any UC school. Its Entomology department is ranked #2 in the WORLD and is a great major to prepare for medical school. Riverside also has two Nobel Laureates (chemistry and physics) who just joined the faculty.
UC San Diego is opening a new college (Seventh College) focused on changing the planet, and its sports teams will start competing in Division I in 2020.
UC Santa Barbara was the biggest surprise to me last year with an admit rate dropping to 29%. UCSB works to admit from every high school, which could mean those at highly competitive high schools are at a disadvantage. Love their unique first year exploratory programs to help students explore majors where they take mini classes worth less units.
UC Santa Cruz admitted a ton of students off the waitlist. Computer science and computer engineering are the only selective majors, and undecided students can join undeclared advising clusters.
Application News and Insights
New on the Application: Students now have 500 characters to describe activities. That doesn’t mean students have to use every character, but it is a nice change. And activities/awards/work experience are no longer broken up into categories. Students can list up to 20, and the order does not matter.
Personal Insight Questions: A reminder that these are questions and NOT essays. More information is better. Unlike the personal statement on the Common App, it’s less about show and not creative writing.
SAT/ACT Essay: The UCs are one of institutions still requiring the writing portion of the ACT/SAT, although most campuses said that score does not have much weight in the admissions process. The University of CA is currently reviewing that policy. Look for a recommendation to come out at the end of the year.
Verification Process: Just a friendly reminder that each year the UCs take a random sample of applications to confirm accuracy. Students should double check everything this is self reported. Things that could be verified: household income, academic records, roles in extracurricular activities and time spent, awards earned, etc.
Gap Years: The UCs do not approve gap years for exploration. Gap Years are only approved for extenuating circumstances, and it’s usually a semester.
Majors: All campuses allow students to choose an alternate major except Berkeley and UCLA. For those campuses, students should choose a major in a different college to give them the best chance of admission.
General Reminders: Students should NOT send transcripts and ONLY have to send their ACT or SAT score to one campus, and that campus with share with all.