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Selecting the Freshman Class
The New Admissions Process is Balanced, Comprehensive, Thorough and Flexible

by Gretchen Kell and Jesus Mena, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 4, 1998

The product of nearly a decade of planning, a new admissions process developed by a Berkeley faculty committee is underway this spring to select next year’s freshman class.

Berkeley’s new process focuses on both the academic and non-academic achievements of each applicant and involves the awesome task of carefully reviewing each of the 30,000 applications the campus has received. The campus will admit 8,250 applicants for a freshman class of nearly 3,500 students.

“We have developed an admissions process that evaluates each student, judging all of their accomplishments and the context in which these were achieved,” said Associate Professor Jenny Franchot, head of the nine-member Academic Senate Committee on Admissions, Enrollment and Preparatory Education (AE&PE) that crafted the new criteria.

Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Affairs Genaro Padilla said the process is advantageous to all applicants.

“What we now have is a process that is more balanced, comprehensive, thorough and flexible than any previous review of applicants to Berkeley,” said Padilla.

The plans of the AE&PE committee had not included ending consideration of an applicant’s race and ethnicity. But in accordance with the UC Regents’ SP-1 policy adopted in 1995 and with Proposition 209, those criteria no longer are used in admissions.

A Process Responding to Stiff Competition for Admissions

The revamped process emerged from a growing competition for admission to Berkeley. For years now, admissions officers have noticed not only rising numbers of applicants each spring, but how academically outstanding the applicants are.

“These days, almost half the applicant pool has a 4.0 or higher grade point average,” said Patrick S. Hayashi, associate vice chancellor for enrollment and admissions. “The competition is severe, and it does take really outstanding achievement to gain admission to Berkeley.”

The campus realized that it needed a better way to distinguish one bright applicant from the next, and the decision was made to read applicants’ files more thoroughly. Last year, 23,000 of the 27,000 applications that Berkeley received were read, but not as extensively as files are being read this year.

All of the nearly 30,000 applications, with the exception of applications to the College of Engineering, will be reviewed by the end of March by a team of 52 readers trained to better spot the best candidates for Berkeley’s next freshman class and identify the nuances between applicants. At the College of Engineering, applications traditionally are reviewed by college faculty and staff.

But Franchot stressed that outstanding achievement “can be demonstrated in ways beyond coursework, grades and test scores, which remain the most important factors. A high level of achievement in non-academic areas also can help an applicant earn admission to Berkeley.”

The main components of the new admissions policy include:

  • At least two thorough readings – each by a different person – of an individual’s application for admission.
  • Replacement of specified weights for particular criteria, such as test scores or grades, in favor of a comprehensive assessment of each applicant’s accomplishments and the context in which those were achieved.
  • No longer using the Academic Index Score as the primary measure of academic achievement. The index was a mathematical formula that factored together an applicant’s grade point average and scores from Scholastic Assessment Tests I and II.
  • No longer “capping” an applicant’s grade point average. Previously, all students with 4.0 GPAs and above – by taking accelerated or advanced placement courses, students can earn up to a 5.0 – were treated the same, regardless of how challenging their high school courses were.
  • Reviewing applicants by high school. Applicants from the same school will be compared with each other to determine which students have most challenged themselves and achieved the most against a common curriculum.

Academic Scores and Comprehensive Scores

On Jan. 6, the reader group began its task of reviewing the voluminous number of applications. They will be finished March 31. Under the new process, two readers review each application, each assigning the applicant an Academic Score and a Comprehensive Score.

The Academic Score is based primarily on an assessment of the courses the applicants have taken, their grades in those courses and their scores on the SAT I and SAT II. The rising or falling pattern of one’s grades and the rigor of one’s courses also can factor into the score. The scoring scale is 1 to 7, with 1 being the highest.

Half of the admit spaces in each college are being filled on the basis of the Academic Score. This is in compliance with SP-1, which requires that each campus select 50 to 75 percent of its incoming freshmen on the basis of academic criteria alone.

The other 50 percent of the admit spaces are filled based on the Comprehensive Score. This score, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the highest, takes into account everything in an applicant’s file. In addition to academic achievement, this would include accomplishments in high school; employment or community service; demonstrated leadership qualities and concern for others and for society; and likely contributions to the intellectual and cultural vitality of the campus.

This non-academic information about a student often is contained in the two-page personal statement within the application. The applicant is to write about attributes and experiences that may not be evident through a review of his or her academic record.

“Students in California come from a wide range of circumstances and backgrounds,” said Hayashi, “and it’s important for us to understand these in order to make informed and fair judgments about our applicants and their achievements.

“We are interested in students who have accomplished remarkable things. Students who have done so under unusual or challenging circumstances may be even more engaging to us.”

Expanded Academic Criteria

In determining the Academic Score, this year, for the first time, it’s not only an applicant’s grades, scores and high school course load that are examined, but the context in which the grades and scores were earned and the school in which the classes were taken.

Other factors that help readers decide this score include:

  • The number of college preparatory courses and the number of honors courses taken, both in relation to the UC minimum and in relation to what was offered in the student’s high school.
  • The actual grades earned in courses and the number of honors grade points added to the student’s GPA.
  • Participation in rigorous academic enrichment programs, college-level work completed, honors and awards in academic areas and demonstrated intellectual vitality, which may be reflected in specific achievements.

The uncapping of an applicant’s grade point average also helps readers make a more informed decision.

“We can compare the actual grades earned by a student against the GPA enriched by the honors grade point policy,” said Bob Laird, director of undergraduate admission. “We can distinguish among 4.0 GPA’s, rewarding the student who has earned such an average while taking more than the minimum UC required courses and while taking as many challenging courses as possible.”

Rather than using standardized test scores, such as the SAT, as a decisive factor for admission, readers are using these scores to supplement other information in a student’s file.

Readers note the level of achievement on the individual sections of the SAT and on each of the SAT II tests and compare these scores to the academic record, to other academic achievements listed or described in the application, and to all of the other information presented by the applicant.

An Experienced Team of Readers

The readers this year are comprised of 31 professional admissions or outreach officers in the Office of Undergraduate Admission and Relations With Schools (OUARS), 10 part-time readers, six volunteers from other units on the campus, and five Bay Area high school counselors who read applications as paid interns.

Four of the five Bay Area high school counselors have read for Berkeley for several years. The fifth began reading last year. Reader-counselors are asked for a three-year commitment and come from a wide range of schools in the Bay Area.

All of the high school counselors, half of the campus volunteers and four of the part-time readers have read for Berkeley for at least one prior admissions cycle; most of these people have been readers for several years.

Each year, all readers are required to complete a rigorous training and norming program conducted by OUARS. The training includes a thorough review of Berkeley’s admissions policies and process and a careful examination of the campus’s applicant pool. They read, score and discuss a large number of applications to build validity and reliability into the reading process.

If the two readers reviewing a particular application each assign it a different Academic Score or Comprehensive Score and the scores are more than a single point apart, then the file goes to a third reader for the determining score.

“Our scoring process is highly reliable,” said Laird, “in that different readers tend to assign very similar scores to the same file. Of the applications read in the fall 1997 reading process, only 7 percent required a third read.”

Once actual reading of the files has begun, mandatory “norming” sessions each week help readers remember the common criteria they all must use to score and rank applicants. Many readers read files at home. These sessions provide an opportunity to hear other readers’ experiences and perspectives.

Readers jointly review and score a set of applications picked by the reader group’s team leaders that pose compelling issues that make assigning a score complicated. The scores are tallied on a grid for the entire reader group to see, and a discussion follows about individual applicants.

Seeing the scores and listening to the readers’ comments allows admissions officers to “see who’s within the norming bounds,” said Franchot.

She considers the new admissions policy a boon for all applicants.

“We now have the maximum degree of flexibility permitted under the law to review and consider the full range of accomplishments and contributions each applicant has to offer,” said Franchot.

Admissions officers and faculty agree that the new policy is certain to be improved upon. But they added that this year’s process, with its new focus on an applicant’s academic and non-academic accomplishments, signals an important break from the past.

“The context for admissions keeps changing, it’s always evolving,” said Franchot. “But I feel we’re close to a really great process.”

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