College Admissions

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Ticket to UCLA Rides on Bigger Picture

A rare peek into the new 'holistic' admissions process shows that personal factors are no longer reviewed separately from academics.
By Rebecca Trounson, Times Staff WriterMarch 27, 2007

Bruin applicant No. 1 had an A-minus average at a good high school. His transcript showed numerous honors and accelerated classes, and his SAT score was 2040 of 2400. He was an athlete and clearly engaged at his high school and his church. In his essays, he wrote movingly about his family and its influence on his life and choices.But did he have what it took to become a UCLA freshman?A group of admissions readers was asked to answer that question in December, when it met to be trained for a difficult task: choosing about 11,800 students for admission to the fall freshman class from the nearly 51,000 who applied.

Many high school students across the country are awaiting decisions from UCLA this week and are more uncertain than ever of what to expect. The university announced in September that it was making a major shift in the way it accepted freshmen, switching to a more "holistic" approach in which all available information about a student could be considered at the same time by admissions readers. Previously, UCLA applicants' files were divided by academic and personal areas and read by separate reviewers. UCLA officials said the change, which takes effect for the fall entering class, would be fairer to all applicants, helping readers see them and their achievements in context. And it would make admission to UCLA more like that of other elite schools, including UC Berkeley and much of the Ivy League.The change was made after figures, released last summer, showed that only about 100 African American students, or about 2% of the freshman class, would enroll at UCLA for the current academic year. The number, the lowest in more than 30 years, prompted UCLA leaders to declare an admissions crisis and push for the new system. But under Proposition 209, the state's 1996 voter-approved ban on affirmative action, the university cannot consider race in its admissions decisions.

In a relatively rare window into University of California admissions, a process that students, parents and even some UC leaders have called opaque and confusing, UCLA granted a reporter permission to sit in on two training sessions for admissions readers in December. Because much of the process was new this year, all UCLA readers, including veterans, underwent 12 hours of training, divided into a full-day session and an afternoon follow-up. After the training, readers were asked to rate several sets of sample applications, which were then checked against pre-scored controls. Officials said 156 readers were certified. Admissions Director Vu Tran told readers they would be ranking applications on a 6-point scale, from those that would merit 1 — "emphatically recommend for admission" — to 5 — "recommend deny." There is also a score of 2.5, because the distinction between 2 and 3 is often the toughest for readers to make.Each application would be scored by two readers. If the scores were more than a point apart, the application would be assessed again, this time by a senior staff member.Applicants would be admitted in rank order, 1s, then 2s and so on, up to UCLA's admissions target of 11,800, which officials say will ultimately yield a class of about 4,700."You shouldn't feel the pressure," said Rosa M. Pimentel, an assistant admissions director who has been part of the process at UCLA since 1983, when she was a student staffer. "By yourself, you're not going to be the one that actually gets that student in or denies that person."Readers would be balancing many more factors than before, however. Grades, test scores and other academic measures should still be given the greatest weight, but reviewers also were asked to keep in mind the overall picture of the student's background, using information from all parts of the file.For instance, if there were a stretch of poor grades in an otherwise stellar record, was there an explanation? Maybe it's because of a family crisis or even "senioritis"? Or were there circumstances, such as a need to work or baby-sit younger siblings, that could have kept an applicant from achieving the grades and extracurricular activities that impress admissions officers?Or maybe a student was very focused on a single area — music or sports, for example — and although terrific at that, the student might not have the variety of activities typical of most who apply.Any of these applicants, at least in theory, might be worthy of admission. "We're looking for all kinds of students at UCLA," Pimentel said. "We really want students who are likely to contribute to the intellectual and cultural vitality of the campus."What about diversity, a reader asked? Pimentel answered without hesitation. UCLA, like other top schools, was looking for a range of personal backgrounds and experiences in each freshman class, she said. Socioeconomic diversity was a plus. But, she cautioned, race could not be part of the equation.
In addition, she said, readers should never make up their minds about a student until they had read the entire file. "You can say, 'I don't see the spark. I don't see the spunk,' and then you get to the essay and you say, 'Wow!' " she said.Pimentel then turned to the half a dozen sample cases, including Bruin No. 1, that the readers had been asked to score. These were applications by real students, though not from the current year and with their names blocked out. Readers around the table discussed Bruin No. 1, with most saying they had given this student a score of 3: "acceptable" for admission but not exceptional.The student's grades had dipped in his junior year — not a good thing. He seemed like a good, steady kid, a reader said, but had focused his essays too much on his parents and not enough on who he was and what he cared about.Pimentel and a second admissions staffer, Annie Huerta, said the group was on target. When the application was taken in context, Bruin No 1 was a 3, acceptable but barely.Bruin No. 2 had a B-plus average, low test scores and fewer honors and Advanced Placement classes than most UCLA applicants. And nothing else in her record seemed to grab anyone. She would be a 4, most readers agreed, "qualified" but not recommended for admission.Bruin No. 3 had extraordinary grades in a very tough program and a 2360 SAT score. She was bilingual, had taken community college courses her senior year and appeared to have led most groups she was involved in, including a political club and an academic team. She had a history of community service, and for her application, she wrote eloquent essays that gave additional detail about her life and activities."This just seems like a phenomenal applicant, very distinctive," said Esther Walling, who is a veteran college counselor at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles and is in her second year as a UCLA reader. Nearly everyone agreed: This one was a 1. As the session wore on, thorny questions arose. What about a student who had a competitive, though not extraordinary, academic and leadership record but had multiple disadvantages compared with most kids? One parent was dead, the other was unemployed and the family lived far from his school, making it tough for him to take part in many extracurricular activities. Given his record and his family circumstances — and under the holistic approach — he was a 2, most agreed. He would also be a candidate for a new procedure this year called supplemental review, the admissions officials said. This extra step is for students on the edge of admission, but whose applications are missing some key information or show very challenging circumstances.In such cases, the applicant would be sent a questionnaire that requests more information. And what about cases in which the essays were so sophisticated that they raise questions about who had written them? Readers should look at the grades and scores in English and writing and consider any obvious discrepancy. But in most cases, the student should be given the benefit of the doubt, the trainers said.There were more cases and more tips. Be wary of sob stories, but try to recognize when a student has genuine difficulties. Look for "passion" in an applicant's file, as well as evidence of values and ethics. Look for leadership, but know that not every student could be first in everything. Overall, the trainers said, readers should search for those students who could succeed at UCLA and would bring something special, perhaps indefinable, to the campus. By the end of the sessions, that seemed easier to spot.UCLA officials say they can't yet predict what effect the admissions changes are likely to have on the fall freshman class but believe the process will be fairer for all concerned. Many in the community and on campus will be scrutinizing and dissecting the outcome.Several readers interviewed during and after the training said they thought the changes were positive, although a few said they thought too much emphasis was still placed on grades and test scores."I'd like to see it equally weighted with the academics, and the activities and community involvement," said Walling, of Jefferson High. "But it's much better this year. You know much more about where the kids are coming from."

Grading scale:
Admissions readers were instructed to rank applicants from 1 to 5. They also had the option of giving a score of 2.5, because choosing between 2 and 3 can be difficult. Here are what the scores mean:

1: Emphatically recommend for admission. This score should be given to truly outstanding applicants the reader would emphatically endorse. About 5% of the total applicant pool should receive this score.

2: Strongly recommend for admission. About 10% of applicants should get this score. 2.5: Recommend for admission. About 10% of the pool should receive this.

3: Acceptable for admission. About 15% should get this.

4: Qualified. About 50% should receive this.

5: Recommend deny. These are applicants the reader cannot say with confidence could succeed at UCLA. About 10% of all applicants should receive this score. --

Applying to College: No Easy Task

By: Jeannie Borin, M.Ed., President

Examine an application – Just see what is required to click that submit button. I understand universities need the information to make distinctions and decisions. However, the complexity of the application is often difficult if not impossible for students to complete without the proper guidance.

Realize that well meaning school counselors are often spread too thin and universities recommending the students’ independence want them to do it alone. Some colleges do suggest support and guidance, but from whom and how? The fact is that many students do not know all the current application requirements, options, statistics or what universities want to know. Reading any university website on what the school wants, clearly demonstrates the vague nature of how admission officials make their decisions. There are factors in admission that change from year to year. What are the different ways to apply? Early Decision, Early Action, Restrictive First Choice Early Action? Rolling Admissions? Who is explaining this in the high schools? Most recently Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia eliminated their Early Plans for the Class of 2012. How do students become aware of such news?

Other factors students must know when applying to college include standardized tests – what tests to take where and when? And how to prepare…About 720 universities in the United States don’t even require tests. What are the differences in the requirements? Who takes the ACT? SATI? Which universities require the SAT Subject Exams and how many of these? Are they optional? required? Students also need to know how to register for the exams. High schools generally do not provide these answers. The counselors can, at times help but with ratios at nearly 500 to 1, their time is extremely limited. Recently, I had one of my seniors request a senior college prep packet at his high school only to hear, “We don’t have one.” I compliment Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application who continually works toward a commonality in this complicated maze. However, look at the number of supplements and additional essays required by schools on the common application. Just how common are these applications anyway?

Then there are those recommendations – how many and for which school? Who should I give them to? What should I include? Should I send the universities supplemental recommendations? When should I submit them? What should I fill out? Do I waive my right to see them? These are just a few of the questions I get from students all the time. There are also Midyear Reports. Many students have never seen this before. What do I do with them?

There’s the Brag Sheet or list of extracurricular activities and honors and awards received in high school. Students need to know how to present those. Students want to know how to best state their activities and who should get this list. One of my students recently gave me a near twenty page extracurricular list answering numerous excellent and specific questions. Unquestionably, this gives any reader a clear sense of this student. However, who would read this at the university level. Students are given approximately seven short lines to list years of experience and accomplishments. They are entitled to know how to maximize this space.

Essay questions are a significant source of concern to students. Just what are these admission officers looking for? Although many universities do give a “topic of your choice” there are those questions that are amazingly specific – quoting legendary philosophers that have students decipher the content and then connect it all on a personal level. To do all this in anywhere from 100 to 600 words depending on the institution is yet an additional skill. We hear too that essays should be in story format, creative and wonderfully intriguing. Most recently, I heard an admission officer state that they often read the 1st and last paragraph and then decide whether or not to read the rest. Students generally do not learn to write 1st person essays like this in high school. Realize too that many applications require 3 to 4 essays…some long, some short – but nevertheless all different.

High school athletes also need guidance regarding NCAA rules and requirements – how and when to contact coaches and where to go for information.

If universities are requesting and requiring all these components, students are entitled to know what to do and what it all means. As long as most schools do not provide the adequate guidance, admissions remains a complicated process. Competition for select spots continues to increase along with the need and demand for private college consultants.

Full Blown College Admissions Frenzy

It becomes instantaneously obvious once anyone starts examing the plethora of requirements necessary to apply to college these days, that it is an amazingly complex and overwhelming process. Combine that fact with the many who are limited English speakers and first generation in their family to attend college that must weed through the requirements of this process with little or no guidance. Add in the mix the over programmed teen who, on top of monumental amounts of homework, extracurricular activities and perhaps a job must now apply to an average of a dozen universities just to assure acceptance into a college during the most competitive admissions cycle in history. Just examining last seasons percentage of admits at selective universities will verify this fact.
There are those who continue to bombard the independent college consultant in their private efforts to guide these students. Their services invariably improve family relations and reduces stress. In addition, nearly all independent counselors take pro bono students. The simple truth is that thousands of students are not getting the guidance they need. Certainly there are countless effective counselors in schools across the country, but the counselor to student ratio is exorbitant. Some school counselors manage as many as 500 students. Add the vast amounts of additional jobs many of these counselors have including but not limited to scheduling, monitoring social behavior and writing recommendations. Many have job titles that include “guidance counselor”. How many times have I heard students say, “My counselor doesn’t know me" and then there are those students who don’t even know if their schools even have a college counselor. Universities have specific requirements for admittance. Yet, thousands get to their senior year without the necessary courses due to lack of guidance. These counselors simply cannot handle the large enrollments and it’s no surprise, as the schools are significantly under budgeted. Yes, there are those independent schools that manage well, whose ratio of counselor to students is 10:1, where students’ curriculums are reviewed and carefully managed. However, so many of these families still seek outside help for their college admission process.
The angst and anxiety of the college admissions process has reached new levels. Words like “admission frenzy” and “gaming the system” are all over the media. As a result, some of the top universities have eliminated early plans to try and quiet the storm. Private college consultants have become as necessary as any psychologist. Yet, how many psychologists do as much pro bono work as college consultants? Educational business is not a dirty word. Other factors driving the admissions intensity are the universities themselves. The business of college admissions is at an all time high. Large budgets are allocated for enrollment management divisions. Thousands of dollars are directed at recruiting students and encouraging more and more applications because it then can make the university look more selective. Just last week on one of my professional online digests was a request from a top admission official for marketing suggestions concerning online banner placements. College websites are huge business and placement of ads equally as important. After all, these are tremendous recruitment tools and yield does increase that U.S. News Ranking. Other factors driving the frenzy are undoubtedly the “helicopter” parent population. Many parents push their kids to the absolute limit to achieve what they didn’t and still hold beliefs that the way to a successful, secure future is through a top tier school – not necessarily so. Many state universities are notorious for having produced some of the most successful and influential people in the world. Peer pressure is added to this mix, creating anxious turmoil. The average number of senior applications is estimated at 12 to 15 schools per students. Last week at a selective independent school in Los Angeles, a nervous 9th grade parent group was encouraged to not think about college plans just yet. Jeannie Borin, M.Ed., President
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Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Cost of Bucking College Rankings

The Cost of Bucking College Rankings
By Michele Tolela Myers
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Like most college presidents, I have seen many prospective students and their parents show up on campus in recent months, clutching their well-worn copies of U.S. News & World Report's rankings issue. U.S. News has smartly tapped into students' need to sort out colleges and universities in a rational way. Parents, who face increasing college costs, understandably want to know where best to make that expensive investment.U.S. News benefits from our appetite for shortcuts, sound bites and top-10 lists. The magazine has parlayed the appearance of unbiased measurements into a profitable bottom line.The problem is that the U.S. News college rankings are far from reliable.Turns out that some of their numbers are made up. I know that firsthand. Two years ago, we at Sarah Lawrence College decided to stop using SAT scores in our admission process. We didn't make them optional, as some schools do. We simply told our prospective students not to bother sending them. We determined that the best predictors of success at Sarah Lawrence are high school grades in rigorous college-prep courses, teachers' recommendations and extensive writing samples. We are a writing-intensive school, and the information produced by SAT scores added little to our ability to predict how a student would do at our college; it did, however, do much to bias admission in favor of those who could afford expensive coaching sessions.Since we dropped the SAT altogether, we no longer provide SAT information to U.S. News & World Report. Our two years' experience with this practice has been very good. Faculty members report that our students continue to be terrific. Their average high school grades, high school ranks and grades in Advanced Placement courses have not changed.But this principled decision has put us in jeopardy. I was recently informed by the director of data research at U.S. News, the person at the magazine who has a lot to say about how the rankings are computed, that absent students' SAT scores, the magazine will calculate the college's ranking by assuming an arbitrary average SAT score of one standard deviation (roughly 200 points) below the average score of our peer group.In other words, in the absence of real data, they will make up a number. He made clear to me that he believes that schools that do not use SAT scores in their admission process are admitting less capable students and therefore should lose points on their selectivity index. Our experience, of course, tells us otherwise.But the story does not stop here. When I reported this conversation at Sarah Lawrence, several faculty members and deans suggested that perhaps it was time to stop playing ranking roulette and opt out of the survey. A few colleges explore this option each year, but most don't follow through (Reed College is one of the few exceptions I know of), because, like unilateral disarmament, unilateral withdrawal from the U.S. News ranking system is dangerous.We discovered how dangerous it can be through a presentation U.S. News made at the 2006 meeting of the North East Association for Institutional Research. There, the magazine indicated that if a school stops sending data, the default assumption will be that it performs one standard deviation below the mean on numerous factors for which U.S. News can't find published data. Again, making up the numbers it can't get.The message is clear. Unless we are willing to be badly misrepresented, we had better send the information the magazine wants. We haven't yet decided what we will do. But if we don't go along, we understand we will be harmed because many students will assume that Sarah Lawrence is much less selective than it actually is.The reality is that the magazine's rankings issue has a large circulation and that parents and students rely on these rankings to make a college choice that has enormous educational and financial implications. This gives the magazine the power to keep colleges playing the game it sets and controls.Why should we care if we lose our place in their rankings? Because ultimately, so many people take these rankings seriously. I would at least like to let them know how misleading the whole affair is.