College Confidential

There are proven ways to navigate the college admissions process without cheating the system

Back Longreads Sep 10, 2019 By Laurie Lauletta-Boshart

The sweeping college admissions scandal that broke in March 2019 exposed an intricate web of pay-to-play and bribery schemes by wealthy parents, college coaches and administrators for select students to gain entry into some of the country’s most elite universities. Federal prosecutors charged 50 of these people from across the United States with paying millions in bribes to college consultant and former Carmichael resident William “Rick” Singer — through his nonprofit Key Worldwide Foundation — and accepting entitlements to get children into top colleges by cheating on entrance exams and bribing athletic coaches and administrators for admission spots. 

“The news of the scandal was certainly disappointing for (University of California) and nationwide,” says Darlene Hunter, senior director for UC Davis undergraduate admissions. “UC continues to be committed to a fair and transparent admissions process that is based on student merit and achievement and represents a level playing field.”

With educational opportunity and access growing, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 20.5 million students will attend U.S. colleges and universities by 2027, up from 15.3 million in 2000. Students with competitive grades, high test scores and a long list of extracurriculars are being turned away from four-year colleges that statistically would have offered admission a decade ago.

Declan DeGeorge, a 2018 graduate of California High School in San Ramon, applied to 10 colleges for engineering and biology with a 4.3 grade point average (which included five Advanced Placement classes and three honors classes), a 1,540 score on the SAT (out of a possible 1,600), participation in two sports, and community service and work experience. He confidently expected to get into several colleges.

Instead, he was rejected by San Diego State University and four University of California campuses, waitlisted at three other colleges, and admitted to UC Santa Barbara and his safety school, University of Washington. “I questioned why I had tried so hard if it wasn’t going to pay off for me,” DeGeorge says. He selected UC Santa Barbara.

Parents and students are understandably anxious about their college prospects, and the recent bribery and cheating scandal demonstrates just how far some will go. So, what do college admissions officers look for in undergraduate applicants, and are there elements that can boost a student’s chances? Programs such as AP and International Baccalaureate may be differentiators in the admissions and readiness process, as can alternative pathways like transferring from community college or taking a gap year. 

Special Programs, Other Options

With tens of thousands of undergrads applying each year for limited spots, the UC and California State University systems have approved admission criteria for assessing incoming freshmen. While the strength of a student’s academic record is one of its top considerations, the UC system has established 14 factors — both academic and nonacademic — for undergraduate admissions.

“Every single UC campus does something a little bit differently, but the criteria never change,” says Hunter. “Some campuses use qualitative and quantitative measures, and some use a holistic review methodology of assessment. That’s what the Davis campus uses.”

A holistic review includes assessing an applicant’s unique experiences alongside traditional measures of academic achievement, such as grades and test scores. Hunter points to some of the nonacademic criteria that add value, such as special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership; and accomplishments in spite of life experiences and special circumstances. “We’re looking for students that challenge themselves within the curriculum of the educational opportunities for their respective high school,” Hunter says, “but we’re also looking for students who tell their story.”

The CSU system is a little more straightforward, with three criteria: earn a high school diploma or equivalent, complete 15 required high school courses with a grade of C or better, submit SAT or ACT scores, and meet or exceed the CSU minimum eligibility index. But with impacted and competitive campuses such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and San Diego State — where there are more qualified applicants than available spaces — admissions officers review additional factors, such as space availability in a program or major, going beyond the minimum eligibility requirements, activity inside and outside the classroom and indications of exceptional talents or overcoming obstacles.

The most widely known academic program, AP, is offered at more than 20,500 U.S. high schools and gives students the opportunity to take college-level courses and exams for college credit. In May 2018, approximately 1.24 million U.S. public high school graduates, or 38.9 percent of the class, took at least one AP exam. During the same period, 23.5 percent of the class scored a 3 (considered passing) or higher on an exam.

International Baccalaureate is offered at nearly 1,000 U.S. high schools, including 13 public schools in the Capital Region. Of the 13 programs, nine have launched in the last 10 years. The IB Diploma Programme consists of six subject groups (classes vary per school) and the Diploma Programme core, which includes the theory of knowledge, community service (typically 150 hours) and a 4,000-word essay. 

Emily St. Denis and twin sisters Anjali and Alyssa Desai, the 2019 salutatorians at Oakmont High School in Roseville, give the IB Diploma Programme high marks for teaching them time management and independent learning skills. 

“One of the really good things about IB is that I felt like I really taught myself how to study and how to learn,” says St. Denis. “I now have the work ethic and skill set to succeed wherever I go because I’ve faced so many academic challenges that seemed really daunting, but I was able to get through it.”

All three students were admitted into several of their top choices for college, and they credit the IB Diploma Programme as one reason but recognize that it was not the only factor. “I think the academics will only take you so far,” says Alyssa. “They are a great foundation to ensure that you’re going to get into a good school somewhere, but the extracurriculars are what boosted me for sure.” Alyssa, for example, taught piano, played tennis and was actively involved in a number of clubs on campus. 

Mira Loma High School in Sacramento has one of the region’s largest and oldest IB programs, which started in 1989 and has grown from 34 students to 338 (out of a total student population of about 1,800). Mira Loma holds an annual celebration in December for the previous year’s graduates to receive their IB diplomas, which arrive in July.

“Each year my former students, now one semester into their college careers, tell stories about crazy roommates and terrible dorm food, but they also tell me that they are well-prepared to succeed in their college classes,” says Mira Loma IB coordinator David Mathews. “They know how to speak up in class, how to plan their time and how to think independently. The real value of IB is that it prepares our students for college.”

UC Berkeley senior T.G. Roberts, who graduated from Stockton’s Franklin High School in 2016 with her IB diploma, agrees. “Having teachers who have very high expectations for you to do your homework, and do it well, really pushed me to sit down and focus,” she says. “And then in college, it was a very beneficial relationship with professors because they could see that I cared about my education, so they cared. It was good training in the IB program.”

The IB program appears to have a statistical advantage for college admissions. A 2011 survey by i-graduate that profiled 4,171 graduating high school seniors found that for selective California schools like UC Berkeley and UCLA and several Ivy League schools, the IB program candidate acceptance rate was more than double the total population acceptance rate.

“One of the really good things about (International Baccalaureate) is that I felt like I really taught myself how to study and how to learn. I now have the work ethic and skill set to succeed wherever I go.” Emily St. Denis, 2019 salutatorian, Oakmont High School

Alternative pathways, such as transferring from community college or taking a gap year to work or travel, are gaining in popularity and have their own advantages. California’s community colleges offer an Associate Degree for Transfer where specific two-year associate degrees are transferable to a California State University campus with guaranteed priority admission for eligible students. The UC system has a similar Transfer Pathways program, but with no guarantee. UC accepted a record number of transfer students for admission for the 2019-20 academic year, including a 76 percent acceptance rate for transfers from California community colleges, compared to a 62 percent acceptance rate for California freshmen.    

A gap year alone isn’t enough to boost admission chances, but a year spent volunteering, traveling or interning is something that can broaden a student’s experiences and expand their story, according to the Gap Year Association, a national nonprofit working to extol the benefits of taking a year off before starting college. 

Picking a Major Matters Too

Another factor that affects college admission is how many applicants apply to each academic area and the enrollment space available in that area, which can vary from year to year. Last fall, UC Davis had more than 78,000 freshman applicants for slightly more than 6,100 spots. On average, incoming freshman students apply to 4.5 UC campuses and 8-12 schools overall. And they tend to apply in the most popular majors. 

“I’ve watched this happen cyclically over the years,” says Hunter, who has been with UC Davis admissions since 1972. In popular majors such as the biological sciences and computer science, there are fewer enrollment spots.

For example, the College of Engineering received more than 5,100 applications for computer science and engineering and computer engineering for fall 2019; freshmen enrollment targets for these two engineering majors was fewer than 200. “When students wonder why their friend got admitted and they didn’t, it is most likely that even though they may have similar academics, their friend may have applied in a different field of study, or they may have more fully provided information and told their story in the application,” says Hunter. 

Hunter encourages students to consider all majors and points out, for example, that nearly half of UC Davis pre-med students are majoring in communications, psychology, human development, English and languages. “There are a lot of majors outside the ‘in’ ones that will get students where they want to go,” she says. “And they may not have as many applicants. We tell students to go for a major they have a passion for, and they will excel. They can also get minors.”

If unsure of their field of study, students also can apply to one of six undeclared and exploratory programs, but not as a loophole; applying undeclared or to a major that is less selective in the hopes of easily transferring to a selective major once on campus is not simple. There are academic policies and criteria that applicants must meet in order to be eligible to apply for an on-campus change of major. “We encourage applicants to apply to a major in which they would be satisfied in achieving their degree,” Hunter says.

Brian Henley, Sacramento State’s admissions and outreach director, also has practical advice for prospective students and parents. “I think too frequently people see the status of being admitted to elite institutions as the goal,” he says. “Our goal here is to admit students who are going to be successful and ensure those students have the resources they need to graduate. And I think that should be the end goal of any of this process.”

Now in his second year at UC Santa Barbara, DeGeorge has a different perspective on the college admission process. Even though UCSB wasn’t originally high on his radar, it turned out to be a good fit. “I definitely believe people end up where they’re supposed to be because it’s been so perfect for me,” he says. “I wound up seeing the results that I wanted to, and I could not be happier.”

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J. Wallner (not verified)September 28, 2019 - 10:35am

As someone who counsels high-schoolers and their parents on college admissions and college preparation, this is a good wake up call for everyone that college is competitive. Getting in is hard work and nothing can substitute for that. But there are thousands of colleges and focusing just on a few often ends up in disappointment. I tell kids they have a chance to shine when they go to a college that really works for their readiness and intellectual level, and fits their other more important criteria (size, location, cost, etc.). Bottom line - cast a wide net and don't rule any options out. Thanks for the good read.