School's still out, but high school seniors are thinking about where they'll apply to college and how they'll get in.
What will it take?
For that, It's Only Money turns to Michele Larkrith, associate director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Berkeley. She spoke Monday in San Jose, Calif., to members of the National College Advocacy Group, a group of advisers, CPAs and others that help families plan to get into college.
Cal cost $32,000 last year to attend for on-campus, in-state students, the school says. Out-of-state students paid an additional $23,000. Only 17 percent of students hail from outside California, Larkrith said.
First, the basic numbers still matter, Larkrith said. Your grades in core high school courses, strength of curriculum, overall GPA and standardized test scores remain top factors at Berkeley, and probably most traditional colleges and universities.
Next most important will be the student's essays, demonstrated interest, class rank, recommendations from others and extracurricular activities, Larkrith said.
Put an emphasis on written sections. That's what Larkrith spent the most time discussing Monday. Here's why.
College might be getting harder to afford. But it's easier to apply. Increasingly, more schools are taking applications entirely online, which makes submitting them easier for applicants. That means it's even more important to submit an application that stands out.
“There's no single academic indicator that's going to make or break your ability to get in,” Larkrith said. “We're looking at the whole person.”
Cal-Berkeley got 63,000 freshman applications last year; 15,000 applications for transfers. Amazingly, Larkrith said, all got read. Twice.
“We read each and every one of them,” Larkrith said. “We figure the student invested that ($70) $65, they deserve to have it read.”
Cal hires 30 to 60 outside readers annually to review applications. Reviewers have about eight minutes to read each one.
But the personal statements – there are two, plus two “Additional Comments” sections students can use to add anything else they think Cal should know – are the places that can set a student apart from others with similar test scores and grades. Writing can also elevate a student with weaker scores or grades.
The 250 to 1,000-word essays are the places student can talk about their goals, achievements and special talents, she said. They need to focus on themselves, specifically, and how they've manifested their sense of self in the things they've done.
Certainly the essay should be well written and free of sloppy errors. But students still need to ensure their sense of self comes through. Have others read it over before submitting it. But anyone who edits it and, in the process, scrubs out your voice will make the essay less effective, she said.
“They should be more concerned that their message and their voice should be coming through than if it's grammatically correct,” Larkrith said. “Not always is it necessary for the student to take their essay to their English teacher and correct it because that's when the student's voice might leave.”
None of this means you should mimic someone else's essay online who claims it “got me into Cal-Berkeley!” It will become painfully apparent to Berkley's readers combing through 1,000 applications.
Last year, she said, “I saw so many students who said 'I was like a butterfly.' ... I started zoning out a little bit. It really needs to be something that engages me and is compelling.”
Cal looks at your extracurricular activities not for how many you have but for signs of leadership, Larkrith said. She wants to see students who've focused on few things where they've risen to be a leader. It's “anything that shows a student's ability to think independently and to lead others,” she said.
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Note: There is only one application for all the UC schools. Therefore, your responses will be sent to every single University of California school that you apply to. Hence, avoid making essays school-specific (unless you are applying to only one school).
To choose which questions to answer, first browse the eight prompts as a list, and sort them into one of three categories: “definites,”“possibilities,” and “avoid at all costs.” With “definites,” after reading the prompt, you immediately know what you will say and how you will say it. With “possibilities,” a few vague ideas swirl in your head, which you think can be sorted out and possibly develop into a great essay. With “avoid at all costs,” you want to have nothing to do with these essays.
Afterwards, jot down bullet point ideas for the questions you for sure want to write about. Then, select out of the “possibility” questions that would, in combination with your “definites,” produce the most well-rounded essay profile, which would both highlight your few key strengths as well as reveal your complexities and breadth of character. While doing so, it is important to base your decision on not only your immediate liking for the topic, but also on the available substance (anecdotes). Repeat this process until you are faced with only four questions.
This is just one way to approach choosing prompts. Since for some, the process happens organically, do not feel constrained to the method above. Just remember:
- Do not rush into prompts at first glance. Make sure that you have jotted down potential ideas for all but the ones you want to avoid, and ultimately write about the one with the most substance.
- Your answers should be able to highlight what is most important to you.