Anthony Mercado and Trent Wiley graduated from Carson High School last month with premier resumes boasting 4.0 GPAs, high school sports and a slew of leadership and volunteer activities.
Mercado won admission to UCLA. Wiley did not.
The two students vied for seats in the most competitive year ever at UCLA, which became the first university in the nation to receive more than 100,000 applications from prospective freshmen — with room for only 5,950 of them.
To fill that class, the Westwood campus admitted 16,494 applicants — down from 17,522 last year, according to University of California data released Thursday. Offers of admission to California residents fell by 10.8% over last year to 9,292.
The new admissions data underscored just how tough it remains to win acceptance to the most popular campuses in the most prestigious public university in the nation. It also is a reminder of how mystifying the admissions process can be, with students with similar grades, test scores and activities finding different outcomes.
UC announced it is on track to enroll 2,500 more California undergraduates this fall, a target pledged to state lawmakers who have pushed to limit students from other states and countries in favor of additional local residents.
But admission offers from the system's nine undergraduate campuses to California high school seniors this year declined from last year's near-historic highs, when UC accepted more than 71,000 and enrolled 7,500 new California undergraduates — the largest single-year increase since World War II.
Overall, UC offered admission this year to 106,011 prospective freshmen and 24,685 transfer students. Among them, 69,972 were California high school students, a decline of 1.7% from last year but an increase from 61,834 in 2015-16, the base year in an agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to expand enrollment of Californians by 10,000 over three years. Offers to out-of-state and international freshman applicants continued to rise to 36,039.
The students were selected from the largest number of applicants in UC history — nearly 210,000 freshmen and transfer students.
UC made clear early on that admission offers to Californians would be smaller this year than last — UC President Janet Napolitano had laid out a plan for increases of 5,000 in 2016-17 and 2,500 in the two years after that.
She noted, however, that UC is enrolling more Californians than ever before.
"We welcome this accomplished, talented group of applicants to the university," Napolitano said in a statement. "All of us — in California, and throughout the nation and world — will be enriched by their talent, curiosity and drive to learn and succeed."
Wiley speculated that he lost out at UCLA because his extracurriculars weren't sufficiently geared toward his intended major but looks forward to studying structural engineering at UC San Diego.
Mercado, meanwhile, thinks he got into UCLA through an eye-catching characteristic: He's just 15 years old, having skipped three grades since taking the first of several community college classes in sixth grade. The second-generation Bruin — his father, a high school math teacher, attended UCLA — plans to major in applied mathematics en route to becoming a neurosurgeon.
"I think they saw me as a unique candidate," he said with a laugh.
The growing odds of admission to one of the system's top campuses sparked major disappointment among many students, parents and high school counselors.
"This was a TERRIBLE year for UC admissions: the worst ever for us!" Lynda McGee, college counselor at Downtown Magnets High School, said in an email.
She said UCLA normally admits between eight and 10 of her students; this year, only one of them succeeded. UC Irvine's offers of admission declined from 36 last year to 10 this year — but accepted four more after McGee argued their case. UC Berkeley offered spots to just two students — one of them from the wait list — compared with the usual number of six to 10 students, she said.
Marc Escobar, a recent Downtown Magnets graduate, said he and many friends felt "defeated" after being rejected by all of the UC campuses where they applied. He said he knew his 3.5 weighted GPA was too low for top-tier campuses such as UCLA, but he hoped to win admission to UC Riverside — especially because he took rigorous classes in his International Baccalaureate program. But he struck out everywhere.
"Many students that I am close friends with had amazing transcripts … and near perfect straight A's," he wrote in an email. "Seeing them not being accepted into the UC schools really shocked us all."
Juliana Tom of South Pasadena will attend UC Riverside, majoring in biology. Her first choice was UC Irvine, where she thought she had a good shot at admission with a 4.0 weighted GPA, varsity basketball and track, a Girl Scout Gold Award and leadership experience at her church. But she was wait-listed, and her appeal failed.
Still, she said she's happy to be a Highlander. "I'm excited about meeting a bunch of new people," she said.
Her mother, Sandie Yamashita Tom, wondered whether UC is discriminating against Asian Americans like her daughter. California voters banned race-based affirmative action with the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, but as UC has moved toward "holistic" reviews to take into greater account such factors as overcoming adversity, the proportion of Asians and whites has declined while that of Latinos and African Americans has increased.
The new data, however, show gains over last year for Asian Americans, who made up 34.2% of admissions, Latinos at 33.2% and African Americans at 5%. The proportion of whites admitted declined slightly to 23.8%. About four in 10 freshman admitted are low-income and the first in their families to go to college.
Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA's vice-provost of enrollment management, said public universities should reflect California's rich diversity — and her campus was committed to leading the way.
"For a highly selective university, it is unusual to have a combination of excellence and diversity that we see in our freshmen and transfer class," she said.
She added that competition for spots will stay keen. The admissions team advised aspiring Bruins to succeed in rigorous classes, find a passion and pursue it.
Last year, a state audit accused UC of harming California students by admitting too many out-of-state and international students. Napolitano denounced the findings, saying that deep cuts in state funding had compelled campuses to recruit more non-resident students, who pay $27,000 more in annual tuition, and their dollars helped UC enroll more Californians.
Under growing pressure to do still more for Californians, UC regents this year approved a limit on non-resident students for the first time. But it's not enough for people like McGee, the Downtown Magnets high school counselor.
"It should be easier for Californians to get into their own schools that we as taxpayers support," she said.
2:22 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.