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Monday, February 01, 2010

UC Sleuths Seek Proof for Glorious Claims on Admission Applications

Mercury News
January 31,2010

Did you donate the profits from your violin recital to support a homeless shelter? Were you part of a deer rescue squad during a major forest fire? Was that you who donated gallons of blood to the Red Cross?
Well, if you said so on your UC application, you better be ready to prove it.
Like no other higher education system in the nation, the University of California has a quiet team of vigilant auditors that review the accuracy of randomly selected applications — and may yank ones shined up by too much balderdash, big-talk or bull.
"We expect integrity," said Han Mi Yoon-Wu, admissions coordinator for the 10-campus university system. Although falsification is not a major problem, she said, "students need to know that they might be selected, and they should make sure that everything on the application is accurate."
Run out of a modest office park in Concord, the UC investigation team aims to prevent an arms race of fictional accomplishments among those seeking a seat at the most competitive UC campuses, such as Berkeley and Los Angeles. The vast majority of applicants will escape challenge; only 1 percent of its 134,000 applicants are pulled for review. But those who bump up the baloney in claims on their application forms do so at their own peril.
While all American universities seek official verification of grades and test scores, most others rely on the honor system for more personal assertions. "The system in California is quite unique," said David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "Colleges have always kept an eye out for suspicious-looking essays that might have been plagiarized, but few bother to actually check."

Array of evidence
This month UC sent letters to 1,000 applicants for the 2010 freshman class asking them for evidence to support claims made in their "personal statements" and lists of accomplishments. The application cops do not target suspects; rather they employ a vast, random but high-stakes process designed to keep students honest. Their biggest weapon: the fear factor they may pick yours.
So with a deadline on Monday for students to mail back proof, the office gets daily deliveries of a wide and colorful array of evidence from those who have been challenged. There are photos, certificates and DVDs, theater playbills, pay stubs and newspaper articles.
"One young man sent a wood and brass plaque," proving he did indeed win an athletic award, said sleuth Mary Jacobson, a soft-spoken and meticulous woman who leads the four-member team.
Someone sent in a diploma as proof — written in Chinese. A French translator verified another student's claim that he graduated from a Toulouse-based language immersion school.

Not too personal
The verification program was created in 2003 after UC's shift to a so-called "comprehensive review" of students' applications — in which students are measured not just by academic success but out-of-the-classroom accomplishments.
California's top students offer stunning accomplishments, and the vast majority are honest, said Yoon-Wu. "But there was concern that some kids would start to pad their applications to make themselves look better," she said. "Students feared that there are others not telling the truth."
They look for only provable claims. For instance, they don't question insights or inspirations — but they may ask for evidence of participation in the Rose Bowl Parade.
They don't dig into more private disclosures, such as sexual orientation, abuse, pregnancy or parental divorce.
If "prove-it" requests are returned as undeliverable, the UC team tries to find the students before canceling their chances to attend school.
"One student became homeless after submitting his application," said Jacobson. "We eventually contacted his counselor and made the school his temporary address. He was able to verify his accomplishments."
Students acknowledge that applications are embellished, but many insist that outright falsehoods are rare.
"People rarely outright make things up, but lines are definitely blurred," said Kriti Garg, a junior at Cupertino's Monta Vista High School. For instance, the title of "club president" could mean running a prizing-winning organization or hanging out with a handful of friends, she said. "However, at my school, even though there is a strong competition to get into top-tier universities, people try to stay as technically correct as possible — they don't really want to risk anything."

Few outright fibs
For those who err, there is worry. On the popular College Confidential Web site, one anxious student wrote: "I've made a pretty serious mistake on my app. Instead of 2 hours/week I wrote 12 hours/week. Now UC sent me a letter asking to verify. ... It would really suk if I get my app withdrawn."
The lucky ones are given the benefit of the doubt, often after prolonged negotiations.
"A young woman sent a DVD of 200 dancers on stage, and indicated she was one of them. We believed her," said Jacobson. "Another said she worked for her mother, who had recently died. She asked if we wanted a death certificate. Of course, we said no." UC investigators say they find few instances of outright fibbing. More common are instances of vanished course work — typically, a failed class that was later repeated. Some applicants — about 15 each year — fail to respond to repeated requests for proof. For those who are caught, there's always next year and a possible second chance. But the indiscretion is noted in permanent records, said Yoon-Wu. "We keep a record."

by: Lisa M. Krieger

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A Bumper Year for Applications to Top Colleges

The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 31, 2010

Getting into the University of Pennsylvania and other elite private schools in the area could be harder this fall, with applications coming in at record increases.

Some of the rise is because of eye-popping increases in applications from California, where budget cuts have sent shock waves through the state system.

Also fueling the boom are more aggressive recruiting by colleges in the economic downturn, a jump in applications from minority students, and a boost in the number of students filing more applications to find the best financial-aid offers, officials say.

Penn's applications have risen 17 percent, to 26,800 for 2,400 spots - one of its largest jumps ever after two relatively flat years.

"We're going to be more selective, if not the most selective Penn has ever been," admissions dean Eric Furda said.

Admission to other private schools in the region also will be more competitive. Princeton University reports a 19 percent increase in applications, Drexel University 19 percent, Villanova University 10 percent, and Swarthmore College 8 percent.

While many students need look only across the classroom to see competition for coveted freshman slots, increasingly their rivals are hailing from farther away - the left coast in particular.

Penn got 3,350 applications from California, a 22 percent hike. Swarthmore was up 16 percent, Villanova 34 percent, and the University of Delaware 36 percent.

"An increase like we saw in California doesn't just happen," Furda said. "Families in California must be looking at the strain the state system is under and are starting to take a look at some other options outside the state."

California's well-regarded public system has lowered enrollments as money gets tighter and the number of high school graduates peaks.

Applications to private schools are showing some record increases nationally as well, including an unheard of 42 percent at the University of Chicago, said Barmak Nassirian of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers.

"You would have thought that economic conditions in the country would make higher-priced institutions a lot less interesting to families," he said, but "they understand that the recession, no matter how severe it may be, will end fairly soon, whereas the benefits of a college education are spread out over a lifetime."

Princeton plans to increase its financial-aid budget to $113 million next school year, up from $103 million.

"It appears our financial-aid message of affordability is reaching more students than in the past," dean of admissions Janet Rapelye said in a statement.

More applications from minority students also are fueling the spurt in applications locally, college officials said.

The numbers of black and Hispanic applicants to Penn are up 33 percent and 29 percent.

Applications from Asians rose 61 percent at Delaware, along with jumps in black and Hispanic applicants.

Villanova drew 3,200 applications from minority students, its highest total. And Pennsylvania State University had an 8 percent climb.

The increases are coming even as the number of U.S. high school graduates has begun to decline (despite continuing gains in the West and Southwest).

Villanova's applications rose even though its draw from Pennsylvania fell 4 percent.

Several area schools, including Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges, did not respond to requests for application numbers.

Officials also speculated that students were continuing to apply to more schools. In 1990, 9 percent of students applied to seven or more colleges. In 2006, 18 percent did so.

"They perhaps want to be able to have more financial-aid packages to sort through to see where they might be getting the most help," said Claudia Gard, a counselor at Masterman High School, a Philadelphia magnet school.

Masterman counselors recommend that students apply to state schools, if only as a backup to more selective colleges.

Senior Danielle Williams, 18, applied to two Ivies, Penn and Cornell University; two state-related schools, Penn State and Temple University; and East Stroudsburg University, part of the state system.

An honor-roll student with advanced math ability, she recently was named the Philadelphia School District's student of the month. Even so, she knows she faces stiff competition for top schools, and much of her decision will depend on financial aid.

"We kind of go in with the mind-set that we're not going to get in," Williams said of her Ivy applications. "So if we do get in, it's good news. . . . And even if I don't get in, I have really good backups."

Many state and state-related schools also saw application increases.

Rutgers University, New Jersey's flagship, is tracking 5 percent higher, which it attributed in part to the opening of its new visitors center.

Penn State was up 4 percent as of mid-January.

Delaware is ahead 7 percent, bringing in 25,247 applications. At the same time, it will offer admission to a smaller class.

"It's going to be an especially tough year," admissions director Louis Hirsh said.

But at Temple, applications dropped 11 percent, to 15,673, from a year ago. The school's deadline is March 1.

Applications from out-of-state students, who have to pay higher tuition, account for half the decline, said William Black, senior vice provost for enrollment management.

Also, counselors at feeder high schools in Philadelphia, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties told Temple that more students were planning to attend community college their first two years to save money, he said.

Temple figures it still may get applications from students who applied to private schools under early decision and early action and were turned down.

Despite the decline, Black said Temple had a strong candidate pool and expected it would bring in a better class than last year. Four percent more students have submitted deposits, indicating commitment to attend, he added.

"The SAT scores in this year's pool are up significantly - 18 points higher," he said.

At Penn, Furda - like officials at some other schools - also credited more aggressive recruiting. He said Penn's education campaign about its aid must be working, too.

But Furda said the size of the jump in applications surprised him.

"I was thinking a 10 percent increase would have been good," he said.

by: Susan Snyder

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