Los Angeles Times: UC explains admissions decisions in a record application year of much heartbreak, some joy

There is some soul-searching going on now that college admissions decisions have been made at most US universities for the next entering class of students. The LA Times article “UC explains admissions decisions in a record application year of much heartbreak, some joy” by Terese Watanabe published on April 12, 2021 explores reactions, emotions and explanations for the seemingly heightened competitive feel in this round in the University of California system, particularly in the time of Covid-19 and removal of standardized test scores from consideration (among other things, it’s worth making sure we understand).

First, let’s revisit UC’s Statewide Guarantee and Local Guarantee. The Local Guarantee focuses on the top 9 percent of students in a graduating class of participating California high schools based on GPA in UC-approved coursework completed in the 10th and 11th grade. The Statewide Guarantee relies on an admissions index which in the past considered GPA and standardized test scores. However, the Statewide Guarantee was not in effect for the current admissions cycle because of the stoppage of standardized test scores in admissions decisions (yay!). So numerically, admissions decisions were based on GPA, but at the same time, more weight was placed elsewhere – possibly on extracurricular activities or the personal story. The PERSONAL STORY. In the YCISL program, we have been offering workshops that include Your Personal Story assignments and connecting story components to emotional intelligence.

But let’s get back to the LA Times article. There are a few lines of thinking worth exploring for the YCISL platform.

“200,000 students were vying for about 46,000 spots”  First, there were probably fewer spots available for the next academic year because of a significant increase in deferments from the previous admissions year due to virus impact. Remember too that 200,000 students includes out-of-state and international students. This means that about 1 in 4 students potentially would find a spot in a UC. Twists include students who get two or more spots offered, and those who participate in the wait-list. And the factor that does not change is clusters of applicants interested in impacted majors (hence the undeclared strategy – if you just want to be at a UC regardless of major). So let’s say the competitive scale is that you have to position yourself in the top 20% if applicants (remember this is applicants, not all senior high school students). So your personal story has to have a similar uniqueness factor; that is, an admissions officer should not be able to recall another 5 applicants with similar stories. Which brings us to the next item…

“4.3 GPA, eight AP and honors courses and a host of extracurricular activities” How unique is this? Not very if there is not much else to tell. The 4.3 GPA would be competitive if it came with valedictorian or salutatorian status. What if the top student in the school had a 5.0 GPA? Remember to use the Freshman Admit Data as guidelines in deciding whether to apply and not as criteria that would ensure admission. Sure, students did get admitted with the published GPAs and standardized test scores, but the lower cut-offs probably had special circumstances such as athletic ability. AP and honors courses don’t necessarily correlate with college-readiness either. Extracurricular activities? Just how far did these interests grow and affect? Again, these are all details (think like a Chief Detail Officer) that need to be crafted into a personal story. It’s a communication exercise that most college applicants are not very aware about.

“Majors matter, they say.” This is old news in the UC system (and most other universities). Through your personal story, develop a narrative to tell how you will make an impact on society, the future, and the professional field. Design thinking comes in handy here so that you connect worldviews. Apply divergent-convergent thinking to major selection as well as outcome scenarios. Find the one that would make your story stand out.

Another dynamic is in the university rankings. UC Berkeley and UCLA are in their usual top 25 spots according to US News & World Report. But notice how UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Davis are now all ranked top 40…so these have become targets for top applicants. The safety choices of UC Riverside, UC Riverside and UC Merced are all now top 100 (UC Riverside and UC Merced were top 150 just a few years ago, so BIG moves). So the lesson here is that expectations need to change often. If a parent is an alumni from 20 years ago, the admissions demographics have surely changed. With the start of internet applications, the number of schools that a student applies to also has increased. As with good stories, think about adventure. Out-of-state and international students have a natural advantage as their adventure has a far, far away element already built in. For California students, it’s possible for some to tell a far, far away story, but for many, it’s a huge challenge. You’d have to do a lot of prototyping of your personal story.

Yes, Your Personal Story exercises and workshops have a lot of potential to make college applications more aware and accurate (as opposed to precise). Presently, there is no demand for such assistance because the “free” options of college counselors and parents focused on the grades/scores/extracurriculars data make the hard work to develop and tell a personal story only a nice-to-have. That said, there is an element of natural selection in play since many of the raw college applicants are in it for the promise and not the ask.

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