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.
Rae Lee Siporin is director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA.
Q: What advice do you have for parents who want their son or daughter to attend UCLA?
A: The funny thing is most of the complaints we get are not from the kids who have been turned down, it's from the moms and dads. They're the ones who have had their hearts set on UCLA. The kids say 'UC Santa Barbara looks good or I could go to Davis.'
The best advice I could give is not to drop out of their kids' educational life. In junior high, when kids are beginning to grow up, they don't want mom and dad to be involved. They say 'Stay away, don't come talk to my teacher, I don't want you coming to the school.'
Well, don't leave them alone. Make sure they're taking a good, strong program. Don't wait until it's their senior year in high school to suddenly get involved. Find time for them to study, make sure they're doing homework. If they're not doing homework, call the school and find out why. Take an interest in the schools and make sure your kid is getting the best your school has to offer.
Q: What kinds of students is UCLA looking for?
A: The regents have established a policy that says we should select students who are academically the most talented and who broadly represent the state's population--its geographic, cultural and ethnic diversity. And the state's master plan for higher education says the UC (system) should serve (only) the top 12 1/2% (academically) of high school graduates.
Will this mean if you get a 4.0 (grade point average) you're the best student? Not necessarily. If you haven't taken courses like calculus or a foreign language, another student with a lower GPA and a tougher curriculum might look better to us. We don't limit ourselves to any one specific element of a student's record. The students we accept have taken the most number of college preparatory courses, they've gotten the highest grades in the most courses, they've done as much as their high school allows and they haven't slacked off in their senior year.
Q: What role do extracurricular activities play in admission decisions?
A: Very little.
Most kids who do not have to work are involved in some kind of extracurricular activity. So it would have to be something really spectacular to make a difference. One student from last year had a 3.5 or 3.6 grade point average, but we found out he had almost single-handedly put together this national conference on ecology. That's the kind of kid we don't want to lose.
Q: How do you spot that truly spectacular kid? What process do applications go through?
A: For 3,500 to 3,600 places (in the freshman class), we get over 22,000 applications. Each one gets two academic reviews and what the readers are looking for are how many courses and how challenging they were, how strong a senior program, did the student go beyond the minimum requirements, how did he or she do on college achievement tests. There are two individual reviews by two different people, and if they don't agree, we'll bring in a third person.
Then we try to divide the applicants into different ranks--the absolute yeses, the absolute nos, the 'yes, if we have room,' the maybe, and so on. When we're finished with all the reviews, everybody in the absolute yeses is in, and on down the line until we run out of space.
Q: How important is the student's application essay?
A: We don't read all 22,000 essays, but we read about 4,500 and those essays are the students' opportunity to give more information about themselves, about their aspirations, their values, their goals, what they want to do with their lives.
For the very top students, it doesn't matter what they say on the essay, we're going to take them. The essay becomes more important for those students in the 'maybe' category or further down--the bottom third of this top 12 1/2% of students. That's when we say 'Let's take a look at these essays and see if there's something that says "Let's give them a chance, let's take them." '
Q: What should students try to convey in their essays to help them stand out?
A: Here's the chance to say 'I'm different from the 22,000 other students applying. I come from a family of five children or my great grandmother came out here on a covered wagon or I'm a first generation American' . . . whatever makes you special.