Brianna Dollinger was admitted to some top-flight colleges last year, including Vanderbilt University, Vassar College and Cornell University.
Not UC Berkeley, though. The state university campus, which she had considered a "backup" choice, sent her a rejection letter.
"I was surprised," said Dollinger, 18, who figured her SAT score of 1490, A- average and rigorous course load at Harvard-Westlake in Studio City made her a worthy candidate.
Also surprised are many other high school seniors who, despite strong grades and SAT scores above 1400, have been rejected by Berkeley or UCLA, the University of California's top two campuses.
These schools have grown both more selective and more unpredictable in recent years, as applications have surged and factors besides grades and test scores have been given more weight in admissions than before.
The debate over admissions has flared in the past two months, with disclosure of a report by UC Board of Regents Chairman John J. Moores showing that even as thousands were rejected at the high end of the SAT scale at UC Berkeley last year, hundreds with scores of 1000 or below were accepted.
Data subsequently released by the University of California show that UC Berkeley and UCLA in the past two years collectively have rejected more than 10,000 applicants who scored above 1400 (out of a possible 1600) on the SAT. That's nearly half the applicants in that category who applied to Berkeley, and nearly a third of those who applied to UCLA.
Moores and other critics worry that UC is rejecting top students in favor of those far less qualified -- a charge that UC officials strongly deny.
Some counselors, parents and students say that academic achievement apparently has been eclipsed by more subjective factors.
"You think if they work so hard and do so well, they deserve something better," said Kofen Wang of San Marino, whose daughter Melissa was rejected last year by UCLA and UC Berkeley, despite an SAT score of 1450 and an A- average throughout high school.
"What criteria are they basing it on?"
At its core, the controversy is about the role of a top-tier public university and which students are most deserving of its limited resources, especially as demand soars and budgets tighten. A key question is whether top schools should be strict academic meritocracies or should broaden their reach.
UC administrators say they are trying to encourage geographic and socioeconomic diversity, without running afoul of the state's 1996 ban on affirmative action.
To that end, the UC admissions criteria, though still emphasizing academics, are less clear-cut than before, giving additional weight to personal factors such as overcoming hardship or demonstrating leadership. In addition, university officials have de-emphasized the basic SAT entrance exam, contending that it is less reliable than other measures in predicting success in college.
Given the more comprehensive admissions policy, said Tom Lifka, who oversees UCLA admissions, "you're going to deny some kids who academically have stronger credentials than some others."
In any case, UC officials say, nearly all of those with scores above 1400 who are rejected are from out of state, have less stellar grades than other applicants or are applying to highly competitive programs, so are not likely to be in direct competition with low-scoring applicants.
In addition, students from this rejected group almost always are able to attend other good schools -- including other University of California campuses. Dollinger, for instance, opted for a school she actually preferred over Berkeley -- Cornell, where she is a freshman. Other rejected students also reported admission to elite private schools, although the SAT scores of students admitted to the most competitive colleges still tend to be higher than those admitted to UC Berkeley or UCLA, where the average score tops 1330.
Admission elsewhere was little consolation to Diana Hekmat, whose heart was set on UC Berkeley.
"I had the scores, I had the qualifications," said Hekmat, a 2002 graduate of the private Milken Community High School in Bel-Air, of her rejection. "A lot of people I knew who had gone there earlier, I felt I had as much as they had to offer Berkeley."
With 1440 on her SAT and top grades, she got into Emory University, where she is now a sophomore. This year, Emory tied for 18th, two notches above UC Berkeley, in the widely cited assessment of colleges by U.S. News & World Report.
Hekmat and her parents, like many of those who were rejected, can only speculate on the reasons.
Hekmat's father, Farshid, an orthopedic surgeon in Beverly Hills, suspects that the family's affluence hurt his daughter's chances at UC Berkeley. Both he and his wife, Farah, are physicians.
Although he says that UC schools are justified in taking the socioeconomic status of applicants into account, he thinks they are going too far.