UCLA, Cal Rejections Baffle High SAT Scorers

Times Staff Writers

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.

“I was a foreign student,” said Farshid Hekmat, who came to the United States from Iran. “I paid my way through school. With hard work, I got through medical school and became a doctor. The concept of rewarding somebody on the basis of their poor background, at the expense of somebody who does the work, I think, is unfair.”

UC Berkeley and UCLA officials deny that students from affluent homes or top high schools are penalized in admissions decisions.

“As a factual matter, the admissions rates are higher for students from high [performing] schools,” said David S. Stern, a UC Berkeley education professor who heads its faculty admissions oversight committee.

About 90% of the high-scoring students rejected by Berkeley or UCLA are white or Asian. But some black, Latino and Native American applicants with SAT scores over 1400 have been turned away, too.

Joshua Clavell, a freshman at Pomona College, was one of them. Clavell, whose father is from Puerto Rico, scored 1420 on the SAT. He figures he was turned down by UCLA because his grade point average was below 4.0.

He doubts that his high school activities -- which included playing on the football team, serving as the secretary-treasurer of his senior class, participating in a model United Nations and doing volunteer work for the American Cancer Society -- were seriously weighed by the UCLA admissions office. Likewise, Clavell discounts the possibility that his family’s moderate income, about $50,000 annually, was taken into account.

At UCLA, he said, “There are just so many kids who apply, you can’t really get a full sense of who is applying .... They’re such massive impersonal schools, that that’s the way they have to do it.”

UCLA officials acknowledged the frustration of many applicants and parents who are struggling to understand the complex admissions process, made more complex by the fact that it is carried out differently on each of UC’s eight undergraduate campuses. In the past, the formula was simpler: Fifty percent to 75% of all students admitted to the University of California were accepted on the basis of grades and test scores alone.

Still, at a school like UCLA, the rise in rejections is simply a matter of arithmetic, officials say. The number of applicants has more than doubled in the last decade -- to nearly 45,000 for the current freshman class -- forcing the campus to disappoint a larger share each year.

“We have to turn away right now 76% or more of our applicants, no matter how we go about selecting” them, said UCLA’s Lifka.

Lifka acknowledged that many of those turned down “could succeed here, if we had a spot for them.”

Some college counselors are struck by the difference with times past. Until a few years ago, top graduates at respected private schools such as Harvard-Westlake “would have been a slam dunk” to get in to UC Berkeley or UCLA, said Edward W. Hu, who headed college counseling there for nine years.

Other counselors at top California high schools say UC admissions decisions under the new policy generally make sense -- even on purely academic grounds.

One is Alice Cotti, director of college counseling at Pasadena’s Polytechnic School, a highly regarded private school. She said that of the 47 Poly students who scored above 1400 on the SAT and applied to UCLA or UC Berkeley or both in the last two years, only nine were denied by one or both campuses.

She said four of them had grade point averages below a 3.5 on a four-point scale; several others had at least one C on their transcripts.

Jimmy Hall of La Crescenta was among the latter.

Now 19 and a sophomore at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Hall was denied admission by UCLA and UC Berkeley, as well as by Yale University, his first choice. He had excellent test scores -- 1550 on the SAT, along with two perfect 800s and a 760 on his three SAT II subject tests (given twice the weight as the basic SAT in UC admissions).

But Hall, who managed a 3.5 grade point average on a tough course load throughout high school, got a C in Advanced Placement chemistry his sophomore year; his other grades slipped a bit that year, too.

“When I look back at it, that’s got to be the reason,” for being turned down by UC’s top schools, he said.

His mother, a corporate attorney, said her son actually preferred to head east. “I knew [UC] wasn’t where his heart was,” Debbie Hall said. “But there’s that part of you that says ‘I pay a lot of taxes and my kid should have an equal shot.’ ”

At some top public high schools such as San Marino High in the San Gabriel Valley, rejections from UC Berkeley or UCLA are far more common than acceptances -- partly because many students apply at the insistence of their parents, regardless of whether they are qualified.

“For many of our Asian parents, there are really only two UCs -- UCLA and UC Berkeley,” said Marilyn Colyar, San Marino’s assistant principal of guidance and instruction.

But several of last year’s UCLA denials surprised her -- including those of Pearl Poon, Marilynn Chan and Melissa Wang.

All three scored above 1400 on the SAT and each averaged 730 or above on her three SAT II subject exams. Their high school grades were strong too, with each taking numerous AP and honors courses. Wang’s overall grade point average was 3.7 on a four-point scale, Poon’s was 3.5 and Chan’s was 3.6.

All did community service and Poon and Chan, in particular, had many extracurricular activities. Poon, for instance, was senior class president and Chan was drum major of the school’s marching band.

All three elected to attend UC San Diego, although Chan, despite her rejection at UCLA, was accepted by UC Berkeley.

Over coffee recently, the three young women talked about their perceptions of the difficulty -- and the fairness -- of UC admissions these days.

They felt bad at being rejected -- and worse after checking with a few of their classmates.

“We’re kind of like resentful because sometimes we got 200 points higher [on the SAT] than some of the people who got into UCLA,” Chan said slowly. “It’s just hard sometimes to figure out why they got in and we didn’t.”

All three young women said they thought there should be room at UC, including its top campuses, for lower scoring but high achieving students who managed to succeed despite difficult circumstances.

“Those people who are on top of their classes, from impoverished areas, they should get in,” Poon said. “I mean, they really, really tried.”

“Yeah, if you just pick people who are kind of upper crust, from the best schools, that’s not good,” Chan said. “They want a mix. It’s just how they decide sometimes -- that’s what kind of gets us.”


Rejection tally

Between them, UC Berkeley and UCLA rejected over 10,000 applicants with SAT scores above 1400 for fall admission in 2002 and 2003 combined. Here are the totals for high SAT students by ethnic group:

UC Berkeley Number Number Percent applied rejected rejected Total 13,932 6,587 47 Asian Amer. 5,898 2,616 44 African Amer. 124 54 44 Latino 417 169 41 Native Amer. 44 20 45 White 4.985 2,435 49 International 895 610 68 Other 130 62 48 Unknown 1,439 621 43

UCLA Number Number Percent applied rejected rejected Total 11,950 3,737 31 Asian Amer. 5,361 1,470 27 African Amer. 96 32 33 Latino 392 132 34 Native Amer. 38 19 50 White 4,289 1,455 34 International 376 186 49 Other 127 45 35 Unknown 1,271 398 31

Source: University of California