The Inner Workings of UC Admissions, Part 1

“1 is the best and 5 is the worst…Every app gets read twice. The computer itself will give the application a score based on the actual statistics of the student,” says UC Santa Cruz senior admissions evaluator, Ria Jagasia. In this deep dive into the inner workings of University of California admissions, we learn exactly how computers and humans score apps, tricks to bumping up your score, the do’s and don’ts of the UC essays (Personal Insight Questions), and which groups of students are prioritized over others.

Thanks so much for joining us, Ria! Can you tell us about your experience as an admissions officer for the University of California system?

My title is senior admissions evaluator. My primary goal is to read applications and do the actual technical transfer application process. Reading-wise, we read whatever comes in our queue. I’ve read international, domestic, in-state, and then not in the state of California, freshmen and transfer apps, so it’s really just everything. I’ve gotten a taste of everything this past cycle. We get upwards of 50,000 applications per cycle, so we have to hire a whole army to read for us. I know I read over 1000 applications this past cycle between freshmen and transfers. I like reading not only one region; it just gives me a taste of everything.

When you say you’re “reading,” what exactly are you reading and looking for?

That’s a good question. For freshmen, it’s pretty standard. What you should present in your application is pretty straightforward. I think the only real difference between private admissions and at the UC or even other state systems is that the UC questions are very straightforward, so students don’t have a lot of space to talk about themselves and we don’t grade your personal statement. We don’t really necessarily grade for writing skills or eloquence in the essays. We’re really looking for the meat of your essays.

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So what happens when you have an application in front of you?

What I do is that I’ll have my rubric. The rubric typically has SAT — this year, it’s test optional and we’re completely redoing our rubric for this cycle — test scores, honors, GPA. Because we read so many California applicants, they have a certain pattern of coursework they have to follow, so it’s very technical. And the PIQ (personal insight questions) give me more context as to things like, “What are hardships you’ve gone through?” California is so diverse in our applicant pool; students have gone through everything. It’s good really humbling, honestly, to read some of these stories. It’s like, “Wow, I have it good compared to a lot of these students.” To pursue a bachelor’s degree on top of everything they’ve gone through is pretty impressive. So I definitely like reading for context. We get information on their school, so I get some sense of what the average income, average SAT, ACT is in their pool. So I’m not comparing a student who’s in a top 1% Bay Area high school versus another student from the middle of nowhere California. It’s a very different scheme in terms of what I’m looking for in an application. It’s not just like, “Oh, you have a bad SAT score, you get a one.” It really depends on what I feel in terms of the context where the student should lie. So although we have a rubric, it’s very context-heavy.

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Is this rubric you speak of one that students can access or confidential for admissions officers?

It is internal. We actually don’t release our rubric, even to students. But the criteria that’s listed online is what we grade for, so the things we’re looking for are available on the UC website and the application isn’t a surprise. Especially since I have the consulting background, I’ve seen the process of putting together an application and I’ve obviously done my own college process too. It’s pretty crazy to me how students get so caught up in the nitty gritty when, honestly, I spend less than five minutes on their application. I probably won’t notice if you spelled one word wrong, but if you spell twenty words wrong, it’ll stand out.

Are students focusing on the wrong thing when it comes to UC applications?

Students just get so caught up in test scores and GPAs being everything, and that’s just not true in the grand scheme of things.  Even when I evaluate, I just give one score, and then it goes on. I don’t make a final decision; our directors make the final decision on who gets admitted from which population. We call it slicing and dicing. There’s a lot of data that gets pulled out, and then we will admit certain populations from each school. We create an equitable and diverse class. There’s a lot more number crunching that goes into the end decision. I feel it’s very straightforward.

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You mentioned the scoring system. Can you tell us more about that?

1 is the best and 5 is the worst. The UC uses a consistent system, so all our campuses grade on that scale. Every app gets read twice. Every app goes through another reader, just so there is some consensus and there’s not just one person reading it completely wrong. Our system is really good in the sense that the computer itself will give the application a score based on the actual statistics of the student.

How does the computer’s score differ from the ones the admissions officers give?

So say I rated an application a 1 and then somebody else gives it a 4. The application gets flagged, and a third person reads it. We call that a third read.

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