What Are the UCs Looking For?

The schools in the University of California system are some of the most popular in the country, with more students applying there than to any other system of public schools. We have written about UC’s admissions portal before, but this time we want to focus on how admissions officers at these schools review your application, and what they are looking for when they do.

To determine this, we’ll be reviewing the information released by UC Berkeley in their Freshman Admissions Policy. While this was published for and about Berkeley, all of the UCs are bound by the same state guidelines, and share a common culture. Thus which traits one group of admissions officers prizes can be used to make statements about the whole.

What is a Holistic Review?

The UCs use a process of holistic review to determine admissions; but what does that mean anyway? Holistic review is a process where every part of a student is considered and judged when determining their fitness for a school. Thus it is not just academics, or just extracurriculars, or just essays that cause you to be accepted or rejected. It is the sum total of your application, and what it says about you.

(Unless you happen to be a truly amazing football player [see: Aaron Rodgers], in which case admissions standards can be more flexible. However, most of the students we work with are not Aaron Rodgers, so we do not recommend this strategy).

Holistic review is used to determine the following things about a candidate:

  • Future Performance: A student’s past accomplishments both academically and in their extracurriculars are seen as the best predictor of future performance.
  • Context. A student’s performance is further put in context of their background. This means the difficulty of your high school, your socioeconomic status, and any personal setbacks or challenges which impacted your performance will all be considered as part of an evaluation.
  • Background: The UC system is devoted to ensuring that the diversity of student backgrounds seen in California is reflected in their student populations.
  • Graduation: The schools want to be sure admitted students will graduate. While your prior performance is judged relative to your background, the schools only want to admit students who will go on to graduate from that school.

These are what admissions officers seek to learn about you so that they better understand you as a person or student. Only by understanding each student and their context fully can they be properly evaluated, and only then admitted or rejected.

What Admissions Wants to See

So now we know why admissions officers use holistic review broadly; to understand your performance in its context, so they can properly evaluate you and your accomplishments. Now we’ll discuss what accomplishments they actually want to see. The following are the criteria used to decide which students are admitted:

  • Academic Performance: A student’s full coursework, including classes needed to prepare for college, and advanced courses. Admissions officers want to see that you’ve gone above and beyond the base academic requirements for admission, especially at Berkeley and UCLA. They also consider courses from your senior year, to make sure you aren’t just coasting, but finishing strong. If you have honors, AP, or IB classes available, they want to see that you’ve taken them, and done well.
  • Personal Qualities: Admissions officers want to admit students who are good people, not just good scholars. They want to see that you’re excited about learning, a compassionate and understanding person, that you’ll work through adversity, and that you are self-motivated to succeed.
  • Test Scores: While the UC system no longer uses SAT or ACT scores, they do still consider AP or IB exam results. They will not penalize you if your high school does not offer these courses; however if they are offered, you should take them. Doing well on these exams is also seen as a predictor of future academic success.
  • Recommendations: Not all students are required to submit letters of recommendation; this depends on the UCs you apply to. When recommendation letters are requested, they are used to evaluate who you are as a student: your behavior in the classroom, your desire to learn, how you interact with and compare to your peers, and your potential.
  • Other achievement: This covers any achievements you have outside of an academic environment. They are specifically looking for long-term commitment and achievement in a single field. This shows that you are capable of devoting yourself to a project, and seeing it through to completion. It further demonstrates your passions, and what you care about enough to devote your time and energy to. Colleges want to admit passionate students, because these are the ones who go on to change the world. They want to see high achievement here for this reason as well.

All of these criteria are examined holistically, in the full context of your application. No single achievement will get you admitted, and each is examined in your own context.

Reader Evaluations

Once your applications are evaluated, you can receive one of three results from admissions officers. These are then used to decide who is admitted and who is rejected. These evaluations are based on the above criteria. They are: strongly recommend, recommend, and do not recommend. Here’s the reasoning behind each:

  • Strongly Recommend: This only goes to students who exceed expectations for what is required for admissions. These are students who have achieved great things relative to their circumstances, with the highest academic and personal accomplishments. The very top of this group will receive the most prestigious merit awards. Getting a strong recommend means the student is almost certain to be accepted.
  • Recommend: This student is a good fit for the school based on their achievements. While these students have not exceeded expectations in the same way as students in the “strongly recommend” category, admissions officers believe they will experience success at the school. These students are often accepted, though this depends on the number of spaces available.
  • Do Not Recommend: This student is not seen as a good fit for the school, due to lack of academic achievement, ambition, or other factors. Students who do the bare minimum, who have poor grades, who have little to no extracurricular activities (and no mitigating factors), or who have not demonstrated any passions often end up here. These students are rejected, unless there are overriding factors (see the Aaron Rodgers comment above).

This does not mean all admitted students are the same. On the contrary, they do and should have different strengths and abilities, and will benefit the school and campus in different ways by their presence.

The only commonality all admitted students have is that admissions officers believe that they will be able to succeed at the school. If a student is ill-equipped or unprepared for college, then admitting them is not the right call for the student or the school. 

Final Thoughts

The way colleges evaluate you often feels opaque, as admissions officers are frequently reticent to go into too much detail about how admissions choices are made. We hope that this article has been able to clearly lay out what the admissions officers at UC schools want to see from applicants and assuage any concerns you have.

If you want to evaluate your own chances at admission or want help refining any aspect of your application, you should schedule a free consultation with us. We have long experience helping students find the colleges that suit them best, and are always happy to hear from you.

Wendy Y.
Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

From an admitted student's perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have met Sasha - he has been instrumental in helping me achieve my educational dreams (Ivy League), all while being an absolute joy (he's a walking encyclopedia, only funnier!) to work with.

Many people are dissuaded from seeking a college counselor because they think they can get into their desired college(s) either way. Honestly, going that route is a bit short-sighted and can jeopardize your odds of acceptances after years of hard work. The sad truth is, the American education system (even if you attend a fancy private school and ESPECIALLY if you go to a public school) doesn't really tell students how to write a compelling and authentic application. Going into the admissions process alone, without speaking with an advisor, is like going to court without a lawyer - you put yourself at a significant disadvantage because you don't have all the facts in front of you, or the help you need to negotiate the system.

That said, you need a good lawyer just like you need a good college counselor. And that's where Sasha distinguishes himself from the crowd of people claiming they'll get you into Harvard. I came to Sasha worried about and frankly dumbfounded by the college admissions process. I was unsure what to write about and how to go about drafting the essay that perfectly captured my passion, interests, and self. And I was highly skeptical that anyone could really help me. But, damn, did Sasha prove me wrong. From the beginning, Sasha amazed me with his understanding of the process, and ability to lend clarity and direction to me when I desperate needed it. After interviewing me about my background, experiences, activities, outlook, and vision, he helped me see qualities about myself I had not previously considered 'unique' or 'stand-out.' This process of understanding myself was so incredibly important in laying the groundwork for the essays I eventually wrote, and I'm certain I would've drafted boring, inauthentic essays without it.

Looking back, Sasha's talent is that he can see where your strengths lie, even when you don't see them. The truth is, although we don't always realize it, everyone has a unique story to tell. Sasha helped me see mine, and with his big-picture insight I was able to write the application that truly encapsulated my life and vision. He inspired me to dig deeper and write better, challenging me to revise and revise until my essays were the most passionate and authentic work I had ever written. As clichéd as that sounds, that's really what universities are looking for. In retrospect, it makes sense - in the real world passionate (not simply intelligent) individuals are the ones who make a difference in the world, and those are the individuals colleges would like to have associated with their brand.

In the end, I was accepted to the college of my dreams, a feat I could not have achieved without the direction Sasha lent to me. Essays (and the personal narrative you develop through your application) matter so much, and can literally make or break your application. I have seen so many of my 'qualified' friends receive rejections because they wrote contrived essays that didn't truly represent who they were; conversely, I have also seen so many friends with shorter resumes accepted because they were able to articulate their story in a genuinely passionate and authentic way - I fall into the latter category.

As a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Sasha knows what types of essays jibe well with universities, an invaluable asset to have in the admissions process. He is responsive, flexible, creative, positive, and witty. For anyone who is serious about going into the college admissions process informed and prepared, I highly recommend Sasha.
Arda E.
I used Ivy Scholars to mainly help me with college applications. Within weeks of using this service, Sasha was able to simplify the already complex process. When it came to writing the Common App essay, Sasha didn’t just help with grammar and syntax, he brought my essays to life. Sasha also worked tirelessly to help solidify my extracurricular activities, including research and internship opportunities. Without his help, I would have never had an impressive resume.

Sasha is not only an extremely knowledgeable tutor, but also a genuine brother figure. His guidance, throughout my last two years of high school, was everything I needed to get me an acceptance letter from my dream schools (UC Berkeley, Tufts, Emory).

When it came to testing, Ivy Scholars worked like a charm. Sasha offered a very comprehensive plan when it came to completely acing my standardized tests. Without his test taking strategies I would have never gotten straight 5s on my AP tests and a 35 on the ACT.

Working with Sasha, I didn’t just become a good student, I became a genuine scholar.
Samson S.
We worked with Ivy Scholars during my son's senior year. I was concerned that we may be too late to take advantage of college advising but the Ivy Scholars team quickly and confidently directed us through the steps to ensure no deadlines were missed. Sasha's knowledge about schools, what they looked for in candidates, and how to maneuver the application process was invaluable. Mateo and Ryan worked with my son to help him create an essay that would get noticed and I am so appreciative he had their guidance.

Prior to securing Ivy Scholars, we tried using a less-expensive online service which was a terrible experience. As a parent, Ivy Scholars brought peace of mind to an area that was frankly overwhelming. This service was invaluable in the knowledge that we gained throughout the process. He has also met with my freshman daughter to provide guidance for her high school courses, career paths, extracurricular activities, and more.

Prior to signing with Ivy Scholars, I tried a less expensive online service and was very disappointed.

As a result of our work with Ivy Scholars, I am pleased to say that my son will be attending Stern Business School at New York University this fall! I highly recommend Ivy Scholars. Highly recommend!