Who should read this post: anybody who is now or will be in the near future applying to any University of California campus; any parent of anybody applying to the U.C. anytime soon; anybody interested in what is going on in higher education.
Our major topics: The U.C. Application Essays for 2016-2017; Some Current Data on U.C. Applications, From Admit Rates to G.P.A.’s; A Brief History of U.C. Admissions
Our friends at the University of California have finally made their break from the Common Application.
But wait, you say—they never were in the Common App system. And you’d be right.
But the old, two-essay format for the U.C. pretty much guaranteed that a majority of applicants reused their Common App essay; with one thousand words total, you’d upload your very polished Common App essay, then write (or reuse from somewhere else) a shorter essay of about 350 words, after which you could click on as many U.C. campuses as you liked and call it a day. For the last few years, the U.C. has been like a satellite orbiting the Death Star known as The Common Application.
So much for that.
What exactly they want now is four essays, each of 350 words (maximum) and you are to choose from eight prompts to do so. If you are a junior college/transfer applicant, you are required to write about your major, then to choose three of seven remaining prompts. I link the new U.C. prompts for everybody here.
This is the biggest change in years at the U.C. and the biggest change I have seen yet this year in any of the major applications—so why are they doing this, now? And why should you care? Isn’t it enough that you have to write the bloody things?
Well, yes it is, but knowing why can help you understand what they want. And the why has three reasons.
Reason number one: The U.C. is having trouble figuring out who the best applicants are. More on that below.
Reason number two: The U.C. has too many people applying. To a large extent this is due to the fact that it’s easy to apply to all the U.C.’s once you’ve done the app for one: you write the essays, fill in the rest of the application, and then just start clicking to send it to as many U.C.’s as you want. Sure, you pay for each campus you target, but the fee is relatively small against the upside benefit of a seat at a U.C. campus. But you already knew that.
Reason number three: Essay recycling. Clearly this is tied in to the large number or apps, partly because the U.C. was a default backup to a range of super-selective Common App colleges (the Ivies, etc); most U.C. applicants were (and still are) applying to a selection of Common App schools as well—and being able to reuse the Common App essay made it all the more easy to add a set of U.C.’s to your average HYPSM application.
I know I already mentioned that, but it’s an important point because, well, they don’t want to feel like your fallback date for the big dance if your true love turns you down, and you can see how the new application is a direct response to essay recycling when you look at the length and at the number of essays now required for the U.C.: very few universities have a 350-word limit for their essays, and very few require this many essays written specifically for them. Of course, the number and range of questions also require you to do a lot more writing about yourself, and they hope that this will help them do a better job figuring out who to admit.
Think about it: if you are at a typical suburban high school, you probably need two hands and both feet to count the number of people at your school who have a 3.8 or above GPA and a 2100 SAT (or 32 ACT). But would you want to share a dorm with all of them? Are some of them not indistinguishable from robots? U.C. truly believes in building a “learning community” and, like all schools, want people who themselves really want to attend, and who have more experiences in their lives than were defined by ten years at Kumon and four years of college counseling. Therefore, the essays, which make it harder to fake it as you show who you are. Though not impossible.
The takeaway is that it’s become much more difficult to reuse another essay directly on the U.C. application—or to use their essays directly on somebody else’s. Stanford, for example: they want 250-word supplemental essays, and while some clever editing might allow some crossover, a 350 word essay cut down to 250 words is a whole new essay.
On the other hand, a school like Harvard has some overlap through their “optional” extra essay (which is not really optional for most students) because it is so open-ended. And there is a degree of overlap between select UC prompts and prompts for a number of U.C. analogs as well as for some excellent, lesser-known choices across the country. So I will address the opportunities for multi-use essays directly in my next post.
For now let’s leave the essay prompts behind and turn to the details on how this came to pass, and on some current data for the U.C. admissions (3.91 average GPA at the two most popular U.C. campuses, for example) read on.
How We Got Here (And Where We Are)
To get a broader picture of where we are, let’s start with a quick look at the ancient past: By the middle of the 20th Century, the U.C.’s stated mission was to provide higher education to all California students who qualified. For some perspective on what that meant, prior to 1960, the top 15% of all California students were admitted to the U.C. system, and until 1964 the system admitted all students who met its requirements. And this without needing an SAT test. Then, in 1968, a paradigm shift began as Ronald Reagan, governor of California, defined higher education as a privilege that should be defined by the practical and limited to the “deserving” (have a look here for a quick summary of Ronald Reagan’s role in changing the postwar educational paradigm: The Day the Purpose of College Changed).
Flash forward to the early 1980’s and Berkeley was denying admissions to roughly 50% of applicants; by 1990, that number had grown to around 2/3.
Some Current Admissions Data for the University of California
That seemed like tough news in 1990, but it seems fantastic compared to last year’s Berkeley admissions: for the incoming class of 2020: 14.8% of all freshman applicants were admitted to U.C. Berkeley, this coming out of 82,558 freshman applicants. And, oh yes, that average Berkeley SAT of 2093 and ACT of 31 for this year’s incoming freshmen, in addition to that 3.91 average GPA (Which was 3.94 for out-of-state and international students—though there are seats set aside for them which might still result in you getting bumped by an out-of-state student, Oh 3.9 GPA Californian).
Of course, you already knew that U.C. Berkeley and U.C.L.A. were both a bear to get into (No, I could not pass up the chance for a bad pun).
But now, even the so-called second tier campuses appear increasingly difficult for admissions, partly because the ease of spamming applications to all campuses, noted above, but also for the very good reason that the education is superb, and the chances of getting into other big-name university brands is even more brutal—just under 5% last year for Stanford, for example, and 6% admit rate for the tougher Ivies—and, well, Mr. Reagan, who attached the idea that education was special and argued that education should take cuts like everybody else when the budget needed to be balanced, and since the early 1970’s, it’s been about balancing budgets more than addign seats—I add only that this is a short summary but fully factual. You can add whatever politics you like to the facts.
But it could be worse–and there is plenty of room for the top 10% of students in California, at the least, if you are flexible in your U.C. target list. So before you panic, consider a wider field, starting with my favorite dark horse, Santa Cruz, which had an average admit GPA of 3.85 and an overall admit rate of 56.9% last year (with a California admit rate close to 80%). This from a university that the Times International survey has ranked in the top two in the world for research influence over the last couple of years (measured by how often U.C. Santa Cruz researchers were cited by others). Yep, U.C. Santa Cruz, at the top of world rankings for research citations.
As for prestige, in ten years, having a degree from U.C. Merced will be gold to a U.C. Berkeley or U.C.L.A. platinum.
It’s true that the pressure is not going to go away, but the new four-essay admissions strategy is likely to have a dampening effect on the total number of applications, and the additional 5,000 or so California students that the U.C. has agreed to add over the next two years will also have an effect on the chances that a California student will be admitted, as well as on the average GPA and test scores. And let’s look past my Dark Horse to a couple of other options.
In fact, let’s look in the San Jouquin Valley, where Merced’s middle-range GPA’s for students arriving this fall ranged from 3.37 (25th percentile admitted) to 3.88 (75th percentile). Which means that Merced looks like Berkeley did when Reagan was governor, in terms of getting in (Historical fact: 1967 was the first year that the SAT was required for U.C. admissions)—though I hasten to add that Merced will also be a large construction site for the next 4-5 years as they build it out into a truly world-class campus.
If construction dust (and valley fever) sound like bad news, have a look further south at U.C. Riverside, which for students enrolling this fall, had a mid-range GPA of 3.52-4.0, a mid-range ACT composite of 27-29 and a mid-range SAT composite of 1490-1915.
And Finally, Back To Those Pesky Application Essays
So what should you do as you begin your U.C. application? Let’s start with Reason 1 for the change in the application: at the most selective U.C.’s, they are having a tough time figuring out who is a robot as they sort through reams of applications containing the life accomplishments of kids who have had fully programmed lives, going to Kumon since age four and starting college activities in 8th grade. So view the essay as a chance to show them why you are unique and would be a real addition to whatever campus(es) you are applying to. But before you do that, compare the U.C. prompts to those used by the other schools you are applying to. Or better yet, wait until next week, when I do some of that for you, as well as analyzing prompts.
See you soon.