PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 213 | Should You Bother Applying to UC Schools?

With nearly every UC school in the Top 10 colleges with the most applications submitted, is it even worth the effort to apply?

In today's episode, I discuss your child's chances of getting into a UC (University of California) school.

There are 9 UC campuses up and down the coast of California.

7 of the 9 schools are in the "Top 10 most-applied-to colleges" in the country.

For example: UCLA (about 150K applications), UC Davis (about 110K applications)

With this obscene number of applications, is it even worth applying? What are your chances of getting in?

If you're interested in how your child might fare in the UC admissions lottery, please listen.

Show Transcript:

Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. This week I want to discuss the prospects of getting admitted to a U.S. school. For those of you not from California or the West Coast, U.S. schools are University of California schools, which are public universities. They represent the nine different schools or campuses up and down the coast of California, and they are comprised of the following.

Number one, U.S. L.A., which is in L.A., UC Berkeley in Berkeley, UC San Diego in San Diego. Number four, UC Irvine. Number five. UC Davis. Number six. UC Santa Barbara. Number seven, UC Santa Cruz. Number eight. UC Merced said. And number nine, UC Riverside. Now, these are different from what are called CSU schools or California State universities. There are 23 CSU schools which include SDSU, which is San Diego State University, or six Fullerton, Cal State Fullerton.

Cal State, San Marcos, Cal State, Long Beach, Cal State, SLO or Saint Louis Obispo and so on. When comparing these two systems, the UC system and the CSU system. Most would say that the U.S. schools are more competitive, stronger academically and generally more, quote unquote, prestigious. That's not to say that UC schools are necessarily better than CSU schools.

I think I can make an argument for the merits of both tracks pretty easily. But most high aspiration students, academically motivated students focus their attention on the UC schools first and the CSU schools second. And let's keep in mind that U.S. schools are not only popular with California students. They are wildly popular with students from all over the country and all over the world.

And thus they've become very competitive from an admissions point of view. And before we dive into just how competitive these schools have become, let's talk briefly about why U.S. schools are so popular. Number one, location. Obviously, all U.S. schools are in California. The climate is great. The sun is out there, palm trees everywhere, beautiful beaches, beautiful bodies, the ocean nearly unlimited outdoor recreational activities from surfing to skating to snowboarding to sunbathing.

It's certainly not hard to convince teenagers to go to a college a few miles from the beach, if not closer. Number two, high academics. U.S. schools are strong academically. They're well resourced. They attract talented faculty. They have sometimes elaborate research facilities. They offer a wide range of technical and non-technical majors with a big emphasis on the STEM fields.

How about the proximity to industry? Many U.S. schools are located near industry hotspots. The tech industry, the entertainment industry. The biotech industry. The sports industry. The real estate industry. Prospective students like the idea that if they play their cards right, they can potentially parlay their college experience into a job in an industry of their choice. In the same general region.

There's also one application for all nine campuses with nine U.S. schools to choose from. You don't have to narrow your choice down to one school or one campus. Chances are that there are a few U.S. campuses that you'd like to attend and conveniently enough, you only have to fill out one application, the so-called U.S. application, to apply to as many U.S. campuses as you like.

You can check off one campus or all nine campuses with just one application. How about relative affordability for in-state students? That is, students who reside in California. The cost to attend a U.S. school is about half 50% of an equivalent private or public school outside of California or an equivalent private school inside California. For example, it will cost about $50,000 a year for an in-state student to attend a U.S. school like UCLA, compared to $100,000 a year to attend a private college inside California like Pepperdine or a private college out-of-state like Bowdoin or a public college out of state like UVA.

$50,000 a year versus $100,000 a year is a pretty big difference. And if you think that the academics and or other facets of U.S. schools are the equivalent or maybe even better than those of more expensive alternatives, then the U.S. schools start to look pretty enticing. And lastly, test blind. Another factor that has made U.S. schools so attractive is the fact that they do not accept S.A.T. or ACT scores.

It's not that submission of these scores is optional, as is the case with almost every other school. The U.S. schools intentionally will not consider how you performed on these standardized tests, no matter how well you did. They don't want to know. Even if you received a perfect 1600 on the SAT or a perfect 36 on the act. They don't want to know about it.

There is no place to submit these scores on the application. Or if there is, it will be hidden from the admissions officers on purpose. This test blind policy encourages a lot of students to apply to U.S. schools. Many, many, many more students then used to apply when an SAT or an ACT score was required. Just a few years ago.

Because after all, most students who are serious about college get mostly A's and B's in their classes. So if there's no S.A.T. or a score to separate the wheat from the chaff, everyone feels like they have a chance to get in and thus everyone applies. I could go on and on, but I think I've painted a pretty clear picture about why so many students are applying to U.S. schools.

In fact, I believe I saw recently seven of the top ten colleges who received the most applications in the country were U.S. schools. Seven of the top ten. Starting with UCLA at the top of the list with about 150,000 applications down to UC Davis, I believe had on the order of 110,000 applications. The rub here is that with so many applications, it becomes harder and harder to gain admissions due to the sheer numbers alone.

Think about it. UCLA, for example, enrolls only about 8000 students per class, per incoming class. So if 150,000 students apply and they can only enroll about 8000 per class. That's a lot of disappointed students. Like 140,000 of them. And you can guess how many of those hundred and 40,000 had incredibly compelling applications. A lot of them. So this begs the question, how do I know whether I'll get into UCLA or UCSD or UC Berkeley or any U.S. school, for that matter?

The numbers are obviously not in my favor, no matter how great I am. How do I prove that I'm worthy? How can I distinguish myself among a sea of 150,000 other applicants? I'm a strong student. I've done a ton of extracurricular activities. I'm a leader in my high school. I've demonstrated an interest. I have a great SAT score.

I have stellar letters of recommendation. My personal statement is compelling. I know what I want to major in. I was born and raised in California. Does any of this even matter anymore? The short answer is no. Given the way you see admissions is set up and their criteria for accepting students. None of that likely matters. Even if you're an absolute rock star student.

I would not count on getting into a specific UC campus of your choice, especially UCLA, UCSD, UC Berkeley. They tend to be some of the more popular campuses. Now, if you check every box showing that you're interested in every one of the nine UC campuses, which is easy to do and you're highly qualified, you'll likely come out with a few campuses that accept you.

And UCLA may be one of them, but I wouldn't count on putting all of my hopes and dreams on one campus in particular. That is, of course, unless you check one of the magic boxes. These magic boxes include recruited athlete, first generation, college student, LGBTQ eye, a plus, or if you have some other D-I diversity equity inclusion related affiliation.

If you check one of those magic boxes and the campus needs students with that particular magic box background, which is their highest priority these days, then your chances of getting in likely go up. Now, you might be wondering to yourself, I don't get it. I'm a highly qualified applicant, maybe even overqualified for many U.S. schools. I have an extremely strong background.

I've done everything in my power and more to make myself an attractive candidate for college admissions officers. I've been at this since freshman year. I live in California. My parents have spent ungodly sums of money in state taxes that fund these schools. So help me out here. Apart from the insane number of applications that obviously don't help my cause, why should my chances of getting into a U.S. school be any worse than they would be for getting into any other college?

Well, there are a whole bunch of reasons. Let me offer today two reasons. Reason number one, the U.S. test blind policy that says no SAT or ACT scores allowed. Yes, that is the primary reason for the absurd increase in number of applications. As we discussed. But that's not where it ends. As I noted earlier, if you happen to score well or very well on one of these standardized tests, you will not get credit for that in the U.S. admissions process.

They don't want to know about your SAT or ACT score, otherwise they would let you submit a score if you wanted to and they would consider it. When it comes to standardized test scores in the U.S. admissions process, every applicant is the same. That is, there are no scores to consider or compare or evaluate. Submitting your SAT score is not optional like it is at almost every other school where at least you have the option to show how well you did, how smart you are.

U.S. schools are forbidden from seeing your score. So the fact that you crushed the SAT because you've been an avid reader since the age of six and you spent a year meticulously going through the Free Khan Academy modules and you've been grinding math problems in your spare time for months and putting a lot of time and effort and energy into preparing for this test doesn't matter for the U.S. schools with respect to how well you perform on an S.A.T., an objective measure of your intelligence with a 30 year track record, by the way.

You are treated the same way as a student who didn't spend one minute preparing or even thinking about the SAT. You see, admissions considers this policy a way to make things more fair and more equitable. They don't want to compare SAT scores of their students. In fact, they don't want any type of official record of the SAT scores of the students, they admit, because if they collect these scores, even if they hide them, people would ask for that information.

And you see, admissions would not want to give that information up. And I think we all know the reasons why they wouldn't want to publicize these scores. So, unfortunately, if you are someone with a strong SAT or a score, you've been defanged. The admissions officers will never know how you did, and that's the way they want it. Those objective measures are off the table.

Now, you might be thinking, Well, that sucks. I really wish I could share my SAT score. I'm proud of it. I worked really hard for that score and my academic ability is part of my identity. But I have an idea. What if I have my math teacher who is writing my letter of recommendation? Make note of my SAT score in the letter of recommendation, along with how well I've done in their class and how much time I spend tutoring my classmates, and how above and beyond I go in terms of class participation and the quality of my research paper that I turned in and the feedback that I got from my math internship this summer.

Wouldn't that work? Isn't that a creative way to let the U.S. admissions officers know how well they did on the S.A.T.? And my response would be, that's not a bad strategy. I like where your head is with that. Unfortunately, you see schools do not accept letters of recommendations from math teachers or English teachers or your guidance counselor or anyone else.

Sorry. Not only will that teacher not be able to slip in your outstanding SAT score, but they won't be able to discuss any of those other wonderful things you did to stand out from the crowd. They don't want to hear about such things. And reason number two of many reasons. You can't specify which U.S. campus you're most interested in.

In other words, if you've checked off multiple U.S. campuses on your U.S. application, which you should do to hedge your bets, there's no way to demonstrate your particular interest in any one of the campuses. For example, if you checked off six different U.S. campuses. It would be awkward to mention that you really only want to go to UCLA or you only want to go to UC Santa Barbara because the same application goes to all of the campuses.

Do you really want the UCSD admissions officer reading about how you only really care about UCLA? I don't think so. So there's no real way to differentiate which campuses you like, more or less. They're all the same. Sound familiar? In the end, no matter how much of a rock star you are, you see, schools only review a very limited amount of information on purpose.

They will see your GPA, which we've discussed ad nauseum, about how little information this really provides in this era of grade inflation, especially since most students have roughly the same grades, mostly A's, maybe a few B's, a 4.3 GPA. It's not going to be wowing anyone and certainly won't elevate you from among 150,000 applicants. They will see your extracurricular activities.

There's some room here to show a pattern of interest that could be helpful. But you can only say so much about your extracurriculars in 350 characters, which is just a few sentences. They will see your for many essays, also known as pics Personal insight questions. These are paragraph length mini essays about leadership and adversity and identity and the usual generic questions.

This gives you a little bit of room to operate, but not that much. And they'll see what major you're interested in and Lord help you if you happen to pick a favorite like psychology or business or computer science. Understand that you're up against a ton of other students who are interested in that very same thing. And that's about it.

Your grades. We're strong. Academic students will all look about the same. Your extracurriculars, where most students will have some combination of speech and debate and robotics club and student government. And I played Sport X, Y, Z, and I was in band. They'll see your four mini essays, which can only be so compelling one paragraph each and what you're interested in majoring in.

And that's it. Those four things. So how, you might ask, are the admissions officers supposed to pick the 10,000 people they like out of the 150,000 applicants? With no additional information, no S.A.T., no A.C.T., no letters of recommendation, No. 650 word personal statement. That's a great question. And if you then overlay this with the institutional demands and priorities of seeking out specific applicants with very specific D-I and other related in demand demographics, you end up with a black box that is unpredictable at best and random at worst.

The moral of the story is do the best you can. Fill out the application as best you can. Put your best foot forward, but manage your expectations. If you are a truly outstanding candidate but have no magic boxes to check off, you should hope for the best. But plan for the worst. That's all I've got for you today, folks.

Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me. Where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies and for ROTC and athletic scholarships.

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PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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