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National CrossTalk
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

Competing for Admission
Three students who were admitted to UC Berkeley, and one who was not


ONE SUCCESSFUL APPLICANT was a young woman who grew up in a working class family and attended a poor, inner city Catholic high school, where she could not take as many advanced courses as most Berkeley applicants. But her mixed test scores showed good results in verbal and writing categories.

What really persuaded the application readers to admit this student was her interest and involvement in theater from an early age, and the way she talked about it: how she discovered Shakespeare and went on to compete at the statewide level in competitive readings from the Bard. Her essay discussed the challenges and rewards of interpreting Shakespeare, displaying a gift for language and, one reader said, "an impressive intellectual depth in her understanding of dramatic literature."

A second successful applicant was a young woman who emigrated from Russia in 1994, at age 14, able to speak only Russian. Her well-educated parents had made sure, however, that she had a solid early education. In this country, she was forced to attend four different high schools–switching at mid-term twice–as her parents struggled to find a permanent home. But the young woman persisted and earned all A’s.

Despite low SAT scores, the application showed she did well in Advanced Placement exams in courses she completed. The admissions office decided this showed strong mastery of content, regardless of test scores. Perhaps most important, one reader wrote, "was how well she had stayed on track, given the serious disruption in her life."

A young man impressed Berkeley’s admissions officials by developing and aggressively pursuing a passion for computer science that began in elementary school. He began to take college-level courses while still in middle school. After exhausting the high school curriculum, he sought out more college courses.

Readers also found that this student had shared his learning with others and that he also balanced his first love with other activities: playing symphonic and jazz music from middle school on, serving as president of the high school band in his junior and senior years, and being elected to student government in the tenth and 12th grades.

Readers agonized over one young woman who described parents who strongly supported her education, despite their poverty and the fact that they neither spoke English nor graduated from high school.

This student had displayed initiative. In the ninth grade she applied for a "magnet" school and was accepted. For four years she traveled more than an hour each morning to get to the school, where she took honors and Advanced Placement courses. Because she had to translate for her parents, she became adept at both English and Spanish and also studied beginning, intermediate and advanced Japanese.

She enrolled in some college courses during her spare time and got very good grades. Her test scores were not outstanding, except for work in a Spanish achievement test. "Even though this student was not as strong on all dimensions as many thousands of our other applicants, it was clear that she had set an ambitious course for herself, that she challenged herself academically, that she met those challenges," a reader commented.

Her grades, courses and activities suggested that "this student would not only do just fine at Berkeley, she would be a great addition to our campus. So we gave her a high score." But the fierce competition from other highly qualified applicants left no room for her at the final moment of decision in late March.

Carl Irving

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