Thousands of applications from high school seniors pass through the admissions offices at universities each year, but only a fraction of those students are accepted by their first choices.
Admissions officers evaluate applicants' high school grades, test scores and outside activities and select the students they believe are most likely to flourish at their universities.
The Times talked with admissions directors at two of the area's best-known institutions--one public and one private--about what they look for in prospective students.
Cliff Sjogren is dean of admissions and financial aid at USC.
Q: What advice would you have for students who know they want to go to USC, or parents who know they want their children to be Trojans.
A: We would first and foremost say take a good challenging set of courses in high school and make sure you have competency in the five academic areas (English, science, social science, mathematics and foreign languages). . . . If they do that, the other things are probably going to take care of themselves.
They should pursue areas of interest and not get into things to impress someone. Join clubs or work or volunteer in a hospital . . . whatever interests them. We like students who keep their minds active with different things.
The greatest skill a person can bring to USC is the ability to communicate, and parents can contribute to that. If a youngster has a reading problem, they should start working on that very early. Help them enlarge their vocabularies, stretch their verbal skills. Engage them in conversations that require them to think. The abstract thinking skills students get in mathematics are very important--problem solving, time management . . . all that should be learned in youth. Those are the kinds of things that will help a student not just get admitted, but succeed here at USC and in life.
Q: What kind of student are you looking for--the 4.0 class president, the scholar-athlete, the exceptionally talented? Do the students you accept basically fit the same mold?
A: We don't believe in the concept of a well-rounded student. But we do want a well-rounded student population at USC.
What we're really looking for is students who will be academically successful, who have demonstrated excellent high school records and satisfactory (standardized) test scores. Then we like to look at students who can lend something to the university community. And that's probably the area where we depart somewhat from a lot of the public institutions, where standards are much more rigid.
We look for students with leadership skills, with creativity. We like students who have demonstrated a high level of educational inquisitiveness, educational maturity. We're interested in students who may have overcome some kind of hardship to be successful, students who have faced incredible odds and somehow persisted. . . . These students tend to impress us, and they're not always the (straight A) students.
Q: How do you gauge a quality like persistence in an applicant? And how important is that in admissions decisions, compared to more objective measures like grades and SAT scores?
A: High school records and test scores help us to predict bottom line academic success, but as we go about trying to predict success in life and contributions in life, you look at what a student has done with his or her life. We get that kind of thing through the essay and the recommendations, and the other activities a student is involved in.
If a student comes to us with excellent grades from a challenging school and has demonstrated the ability to do the work, test scores are of very little importance. Test scores become more important as the academic record demonstrates flaws, as do essays and recommendations. If a student has a mediocre academic record, first we want to know why.
Q: How much attention can you devote to finding out those 'whys' at a school the size of USC? How many applications do you generally get for the freshman class and how do you decide which students to admit?
A: We get about 11,500 applications for the freshman class and have a target for the freshmen class of about 2,800. (USC also has a target of about 1,500 transfer students each year.) We do a lot of personalizing during the admissions process.
Each admissions counselor is assigned a geographic region, so they know the high schools and the counselors. USC recomputes each applicant's (high school) grade point average, based on the counselors' knowledge of the quality of the schools--how competitive, how challenging the courses are, what percentage of students go on to college--and taking into consideration the curriculum and whether the student took the toughest courses available. In recomputing, we only look at the basic five academic subjects.
Then we look at the SAT scores and take the best individual scores. The grade point average and SAT scores are placed on a grid and students (who place highly enough) can be admitted on those alone.