Today, UC Berkeley’s application for fall 2013 admission will become available online. Nervous high school seniors around the world will finally be able to begin the rather unpleasant process of compiling grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities and essays and entering them into the university’s sleek, blue application portal.
Unfortunately, UC Berkeley’s admissions office — like those of many other colleges and universities — represents its applicant evaluation process to these students in a way that is both implausible and unhealthy by suggesting that it is qualified to determine not only an applicant’s academic promise, but whether he or she is a good person.
Consider the Office of Undergraduate Admissions’ freshman selection criteria. They include a list of personal qualities, like “character,” “responsibility,” “insight,” “maturity” and “concern for others and for the community.”
Or watch the video put out by the undergraduate admissions office, which has more than 167,000 views on YouTube, called “Mythbusting the Application Process.” An admissions officer says Berkeley looks at the “whole person” when making admissions decisions. Students suggest that admissions decisions are based on “who you really are,” and one student claims that “what Berkeley was looking for was not necessarily what was in my GPA or in my test scores, per se, but … what I did for my community.”
Other universities also seem determined to portray their admissions processes as evaluations of applicants’ quality as people rather than assessments of their quality as students. A blog post on the MIT admissions website says “the application process is about people, about you, not about your numbers.” UCLA lists many of the same admissions criteria on its website as Berkeley does. Yale University claims to look for “applicants with a concern for something larger than themselves.” The University of Chicago’s admissions dean says his office undertakes “a truly holistic process, not just test scores and GPA. We are hoping to find out who you are, as a whole person.”
There are two serious problems with this portrayal of college admissions. The first is that it is dishonest — and arrogant in the extreme — for admissions offices to claim that they are entitled to pass judgment on the character of each of the tens of thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds whose applications they read each year. Berkeley’s admissions officers have at their disposal a transcript, test scores, a list of extracurricular activities and two short essays. On the basis of this information, colleges can make some inferences about an applicant’s academic ability. They cannot possibly rate the quality of applicants’ personalities.
Second, it is unhealthy for anxious high school students applying to college to be under the impression that they are facing a type of comprehensive judgment — not just of their academic and extracurricular performance but of their quality as human beings and their value to their communities. Students who are accepted are effectively told that they are not only academically superior, but morally superior, to the applicants who were rejected. And students who don’t get in may feel they were rejected because of some personal deficiency.
Why do admissions offices go to such great lengths to present their selection processes in this dishonest, harmful way? I think, unfortunately, that part of the answer has to do with the college rankings frenzy that has become so influential in the admissions process. Colleges are desperate to maximize the number of applications they receive so they can reduce their acceptance rates and boost their rankings. Admissions offices therefore encourage unqualified students to apply by suggesting that, even if their test scores and grades aren’t good enough, they might get in if only they can show that they are sufficiently mature, kind and responsible.
Another possibility is that admissions offices want to insulate themselves against charges that the admissions process for elite colleges has become utterly random. Some higher education experts have even suggested, rather compellingly, that it would be more honest and fair for colleges to merely identify all reasonably qualified applicants and perform a lottery to determine which ones get in. In the face of these types of radical proposals, admissions offices understandably want to defend their relevance and value, so they assert that they are there to ensure that admitted students are not only smart but also virtuous.
None of this is to say that colleges shouldn’t consider the context in which an applicant achieved. But admissions offices should acknowledge their limits — they do everyone a disservice when they pretend they have special powers to see into teenagers’ souls.
Contact Jason Willick at [email protected] or on Twitter: @jawillick.
(Image: Polka Dot/Thinkstock)
Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.
Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.
Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:
1. Be yourself
The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.
Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.
2. Show diversity
Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.
“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”
Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.
He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.
“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly
Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.
“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”
4. Be concise and follow directions
Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.
Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.
5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores
Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.
For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.
6. Tell a story
“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.
With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!
Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.
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