I recently sat down with one of our parents who was extremely anxious over her son's prospects of being admitted to one of several of the University of California's (UC) top campuses. Despite his excellent profile -- he had strong grades (4.1 at a great high school) and had posted an outstanding ACT score (top 5% of the country) -- her perception was that this wouldn't be nearly enough at UCLA, UC Berkeley, or UC San Diego. She wanted to add as many AP courses as possible to her son's upcoming Senior year.
She went so far as to quote a number of admissions statistics that she had gleaned from the internet, including the following:
- UCLA recently saw a 50% increase in admits with 21+ Honors/AP courses
- One out of four students who were admitted to UC Berkeley last year scored a 35 or 36 on the ACT
- More than two-thirds of UC San Diego's admits last year had a GPA above 4.0
These were facts. They were true. But...
...the critical piece of the puzzle that she was missing was that a student's statistics (GPA, AP courses, SAT/ACT scores) are far from the only factors that are considered in an admissions decision at a selective college.
The UCs practice holistic admissions -- in short, this means they look at a lot more than just the numbers. In fact, at the majority of selective colleges, it is safe to say that while grades and SAT/ACT scores are obviously quite important, they are far from being the ONLY important factors.
It often works as follows: once a student is in the competitive range of standardized test scores and GPA at a given school (for instance, 50% of UCLA admits score between 27-33 on the ACT), the actual decision is often made based on qualitative measures. These qualitative measures include essays, outside interests, the student's ability to express a unique point of view, the possession of a unique skill set, or perhaps a track record of intellectual curiosity in an area of study that fits with the school's offerings.
Naturally, we all want the best for our children. But what the student in this particular story needed to give him the best possible opportunity to gain entrance to one of his top choice schools wasn't necessarily to add more AP classes to his schedule (he had already taken plenty in areas of study that he truly enjoyed). Instead, he needed to take the necessary time to focus his energy on the process of writing unique personal statements, asking the right people for letters of recommendation, and crafting interesting applications.
I share this story because I know that many parents experience similar levels of anxiety over their child's prospects of gaining admission to one of the "top" UCs. However, it's important to remember that the reality is that selective colleges aren't often wowed by students who only have high GPAs/standardized test scores -- what they are looking for are interesting students.
To sum up--
Do SAT/ACT scores and grades matter? Of course they do.
Are they the only measures that matter? Not by a long shot.
What always matters? Being an interesting individual.
So while the scaffolding of an excellent college application requires a solid foundation (GPA, SAT or ACT scores, AP classes, etc.), what really sets top-tier students apart from their peers is a dedication to offering something original and honing their own unique sense of self.