Now, ticket to UCLA rides on bigger picture

Times Staff Writer

Bruin applicant No. 1 had an A-minus average at a good high school. His transcript showed numerous honors and accelerated classes, and his SAT score was 2040 of 2400. He was an athlete and clearly engaged at his high school and his church.

In his essays, he wrote movingly about his family and its influence on his life and choices.

But did he have what it took to become a UCLA freshman?

A group of admissions readers was asked to answer that question in December, when it met to be trained for a difficult task: choosing about 11,800 students for admission to the fall freshman class from the nearly 51,000 who applied.


Many high school students across the country are awaiting decisions from UCLA this week and are more uncertain than ever of what to expect.

The university announced in September that it was making a major shift in the way it accepted freshmen, switching to a more “holistic” approach in which all available information about a student could be considered at the same time by admissions readers. Previously, UCLA applicants’ files were divided by academic and personal areas and read by separate reviewers.

UCLA officials said the change, which takes effect for the fall entering class, would be fairer to all applicants, helping readers see them and their achievements in context. And it would make admission to UCLA more like that of other elite schools, including UC Berkeley and much of the Ivy League.

The change was made after figures, released last summer, showed that only about 100 African American students, or about 2% of the freshman class, would enroll at UCLA for the current academic year. The number, the lowest in more than 30 years, prompted UCLA leaders to declare an admissions crisis and push for the new system. But under Proposition 209, the state’s 1996 voter-approved ban on affirmative action, the university cannot consider race in its admissions decisions.


In a relatively rare window into University of California admissions, a process that students, parents and even some UC leaders have called opaque and confusing, UCLA granted a reporter permission to sit in on two training sessions for admissions readers in December.

Because much of the process was new this year, all UCLA readers, including veterans, underwent 12 hours of training, divided into a full-day session and an afternoon follow-up. After the training, readers were asked to rate several sets of sample applications, which were then checked against pre-scored controls. Officials said 156 readers were certified.

Admissions Director Vu Tran told readers they would be ranking applications on a 6-point scale, from those that would merit 1 -- “emphatically recommend for admission” -- to 5 -- “recommend deny.” There is also a score of 2.5, because the distinction between 2 and 3 is often the toughest for readers to make.

Each application would be scored by two readers. If the scores were more than a point apart, the application would be assessed again, this time by a senior staff member.

Applicants would be admitted in rank order, 1s, then 2s and so on, up to UCLA’s admissions target of 11,800, which officials say will ultimately yield a class of about 4,700.

“You shouldn’t feel the pressure,” said Rosa M. Pimentel, an assistant admissions director who has been part of the process at UCLA since 1983, when she was a student staffer. “By yourself, you’re not going to be the one that actually gets that student in or denies that person.”

Readers would be balancing many more factors than before, however. Grades, test scores and other academic measures should still be given the greatest weight, but reviewers also were asked to keep in mind the overall picture of the student’s background, using information from all parts of the file.

For instance, if there were a stretch of poor grades in an otherwise stellar record, was there an explanation? Maybe it’s because of a family crisis or even “senioritis”? Or were there circumstances, such as a need to work or baby-sit younger siblings, that could have kept an applicant from achieving the grades and extracurricular activities that impress admissions officers?


Or maybe a student was very focused on a single area -- music or sports, for example -- and although terrific at that, the student might not have the variety of activities typical of most who apply.

Any of these applicants, at least in theory, might be worthy of admission. “We’re looking for all kinds of students at UCLA,” Pimentel said. “We really want students who are likely to contribute to the intellectual and cultural vitality of the campus.”

What about diversity, a reader asked?

Pimentel answered without hesitation. UCLA, like other top schools, was looking for a range of personal backgrounds and experiences in each freshman class, she said. Socioeconomic diversity was a plus. But, she cautioned, race could not be part of the equation.

In addition, she said, readers should never make up their minds about a student until they had read the entire file. “You can say, ‘I don’t see the spark. I don’t see the spunk,’ and then you get to the essay and you say, ‘Wow!’ ” she said.

Pimentel then turned to the half a dozen sample cases, including Bruin No. 1, that the readers had been asked to score. These were applications by real students, though not from the current year and with their names blocked out.

Readers around the table discussed Bruin No. 1, with most saying they had given this student a score of 3: “acceptable” for admission but not exceptional.

The student’s grades had dipped in his junior year -- not a good thing. He seemed like a good, steady kid, a reader said, but had focused his essays too much on his parents and not enough on who he was and what he cared about.


Pimentel and a second admissions staffer, Annie Huerta, said the group was on target. When the application was taken in context, Bruin No 1 was a 3, acceptable but barely.

Bruin No. 2 had a B-plus average, low test scores and fewer honors and Advanced Placement classes than most UCLA applicants. And nothing else in her record seemed to grab anyone. She would be a 4, most readers agreed, “qualified” but not recommended for admission.

Bruin No. 3 had extraordinary grades in a very tough program and a 2360 SAT score. She was bilingual, had taken community college courses her senior year and appeared to have led most groups she was involved in, including a political club and an academic team. She had a history of community service, and for her application, she wrote eloquent essays that gave additional detail about her life and activities.

“This just seems like a phenomenal applicant, very distinctive,” said Esther Walling, who is a veteran college counselor at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles and is in her second year as a UCLA reader. Nearly everyone agreed: This one was a 1.

As the session wore on, thorny questions arose. What about a student who had a competitive, though not extraordinary, academic and leadership record but had multiple disadvantages compared with most kids? One parent was dead, the other was unemployed and the family lived far from his school, making it tough for him to take part in many extracurricular activities.

Given his record and his family circumstances -- and under the holistic approach -- he was a 2, most agreed. He would also be a candidate for a new procedure this year called supplemental review, the admissions officials said. This extra step is for students on the edge of admission, but whose applications are missing some key information or show very challenging circumstances.

In such cases, the applicant would be sent a questionnaire that requests more information.

And what about cases in which the essays were so sophisticated that they raise questions about who had written them? Readers should look at the grades and scores in English and writing and consider any obvious discrepancy. But in most cases, the student should be given the benefit of the doubt, the trainers said.

There were more cases and more tips. Be wary of sob stories, but try to recognize when a student has genuine difficulties. Look for “passion” in an applicant’s file, as well as evidence of values and ethics. Look for leadership, but know that not every student could be first in everything.

Overall, the trainers said, readers should search for those students who could succeed at UCLA and would bring something special, perhaps indefinable, to the campus.

By the end of the sessions, that seemed easier to spot.

UCLA officials say they can’t yet predict what effect the admissions changes are likely to have on the fall freshman class but believe the process will be fairer for all concerned. Many in the community and on campus will be scrutinizing and dissecting the outcome.

Several readers interviewed during and after the training said they thought the changes were positive, although a few said they thought too much emphasis was still placed on grades and test scores.

“I’d like to see it equally weighted with the academics, and the activities and community involvement,” said Walling, of Jefferson High. “But it’s much better this year. You know much more about where the kids are coming from.”



Grading scale

Admissions readers were instructed to rank applicants from 1 to 5. They also had the option of giving a score of 2.5, because choosing between 2 and 3 can be difficult. Here are what the scores mean:

1: Emphatically recommend for admission. This score should be given to truly outstanding applicants the reader would emphatically endorse. About 5% of the total applicant pool should receive this score.

2: Strongly recommend for admission. About 10% of applicants should get this score.

2.5: Recommend for admission. About 10% of the pool should receive this.

3: Acceptable for admission. About 15% should get this.

4: Qualified. About 50% should receive this.

5: Recommend deny. These are applicants the reader cannot say with confidence could succeed at UCLA. About 10% of all applicants should receive this score.


Source: UCLA admissions office

Los Angeles Times