An admissions briefing for the media
| 20 November 2003
An invitation to faculty
Lead readers from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions did their thinking out loud last Wednesday, evaluating applications from six high-school seniors while members of the media looked on. The exercise came during a six-hour event at which campus officials sought to illuminate for journalists, and ultimately the public, the complex and difficult-to-understand process by which the campus selects a freshman class from among 37,000 applications.
Invited higher-education reporters from a dozen news organizations attended the Nov. 12 briefing at the Faculty Club, among them the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Sacramento Bee. Early in the day, campus representatives set the stage for the norming session, providing detailed background on admissions policy and procedures, how readers are trained, and what factors they take into account when evaluating a student’s application.
Professor of Education David Stern, chair of the Academic Senate committee that determines campus undergraduate admissions policy and oversees its implementation, drew particular attention to the directive on selection criteria reaffirmed unanimously by the regents in May 2001: “The University shall seek out and enroll, on each of its campuses, a student body that demonstrates high academic achievement or exceptional personal talent, and that encompasses the broad diversity of backgrounds characteristic of California.” Crafting and implementing a policy to fulfill these three criteria, he said, is “inherently controversial” at a public institution, such as Berkeley, which can admit just one in four high-achieving students. The policy itself “calls for some balancing,” he said.
“People want to know what is that number that’s going to get me into Berkeley,” added Richard Black, assistant vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about looking at every student as an individual.”
Reporters sought details behind what it means, in practice, to “look at every student as an individual.” Questions ran to whether an applicant’s name appears on the application that readers see (yes); why applicants aren’t asked to provide letters of recommendation (they haven’t proved enlightening, and overworked high- school counselors generally oppose the idea); the pay rate for those hired to assist career staff in giving each application at least two independent evaluations ($18 per hour); and which applications are the hardest to score (those where the indicators diverge — for example, where grades are low and test scores high, or vice versa).
Others spoke directly to public interest in whether the process is fair and why the campus can’t offer more certainty to those seeking admission. “Students want to know ABC: if I jump over these barrels, I can go to Berkeley,” noted one journalist.
The scoring session offered a peek at why campus faculty have eschewed using an inflexible numeric formula based on GPAs and standardized test scores to select the freshman class. Using actual application packets — with names and identifying information carefully deleted — admissions staff teased out insights that went beyond the numbers.
“Academic achievement is fundamental,” explained admissions director Pam Burnett. But “no one item is given a fixed weight,” she said; any one factor alone “might not do justice to the combination of indicators.” Someone with a 4.2 GPA (including advanced-placement and honors classes), a heavy course load, and a combined SAT I score of 1300 would look “pretty strong,” she said. If the student had also started a tutoring program in the community and worked 20 hours a week, “that academic record looks even stronger in that context….When you see the whole picture, you get a better idea of just how exceptional that person is,” Burnett said.
As they reviewed the applications, readers noted not only GPA but grade trends (up, down, or inconsistent, and in which subjects) and the difficulty of courses taken. In other sections of the packet, they looked at whether the student was a participant or a leader in extracurricular activities, whether awards were school-wide or regional, how many hours he or she worked outside of school, what opportunities the high school offered and whether the student took advantage of them, and what the individual’s personal statement revealed about her or him.
In one statement, a student described how his vocabulary and social skills had improved through his participation in a community organization. “A lot of students say ‘I’ve been a role model,’ but he breaks it down,” a reader noted. Another applicant reported few school extracurricular activities and a SAT I combined score of only 910, but had earned a 3.88 GPA while working 27 hours a week for nine years in her parents’ store — an experience she described in her essay.
“Some people say that the way to get into Berkeley is a sob-story essay,” said Mary Dubitzky, associate admissions director, who oversees the application-review process. “I don’t consider this a sob story. It’s not the fact that she experienced hardship, but that she overcame it.” Readers thought the applicant demonstrated leadership, maturity, and responsibility to family and community, and gave her a 2.5 (“strongly recommend”) score for fall admission.
The special session was held, in part, in response to controversy stirred by UC Regent John Moores’ recent report that Berkeley last year admitted a few hundred students with SAT I scores below 1,000, while rejecting many others who scored over 1,400. The campus has called the report misleading, noting that its rejection numbers include students who withdrew their applications, applied to highly competitive engineering majors, had below-average GPAs for Berkeley, or were non-residents, a class of applicant for whom admission standards are higher.
After witnessing the scoring session, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter ventured that there was not, as the flap suggested, “something screwy about the admissions process. The regents themselves set out the policy,” he said.
Professor Stern agreed: “If students were ranked by SAT scores and admitted on that basis,” he said, “we wouldn’t be in compliance with regental policy.”
For recent information on undergraduate admissions, including profiles of 41 high-achieving undergrads with SAT I scores of 1000 or below, visit the campus NewsCenter (newscenter.berkeley.edu) and select “Inside Admissions” from the left-hand column.