“My son took more AP classes and had a perfect GPA and higher SAT. He got into COSMOS this year. How come my coworker’s kid got into Berkeley but my son didn’t?”
“Hard to say. But have you read his entire application?”
The he-got-in-but-I-didn’t scenario might be one of the biggest myths in college admission. I always tell students and parents do not to harp on the comparison unless you know every single detail of another kid.
Factors, other than GPA, tests, and the list of activities, also affect the admission results. For example, at UCB, 23% of their freshmen are first-generation college students.
At elite schools, 10-25% are recruited athletes, 10-25% are legacy students, and 1-2% are children of celebrities and politicians. There are many special influences that contribute to the results. But are they fair?
My meeting with a boy from East Bay helped me understand why colleges would take socioeconomic/geographic backgrounds into consideration. He went to a public high school where as long as you did the assignments and showed some effort, it was not difficult to maintain a 3.8 GPA. As an A student, he scored 1200+ out of 1600 on SAT.
But given what he really learned from the school, getting 1200 was already challenging, and he had to spend extra time learning the materials that were not covered in the class. It was not fair to compare his test score to those students who had a similar GPA but came from schools like Monta Vista or Gunn High. Gladly, colleges did consider the contexts when evaluating the applicants, and he was admitted to UCSB.
Some of the characteristics, such as exceptional talents in sports/music/academic subjects, are convincing. I had the chance to talk to a girl who was a synchronized swimmer competing at the national level. She described her life as “swimming pool, classroom, home.”
She devoted all her free time to the pool, where after her practice, she was able to earn volunteering hours by teaching entry-level swimmers and helping patients with rehabilitation. To gain the energy she needed for the intense training and keep fit, she had to watch her diet carefully. Meanwhile, she attended a competitive private high school, taking as many AP’s and honor classes as she could and maintaining a 3.9+ GPA (unweighted), and her SAT was almost perfect.
People felt she was lucky that she got recruited by one of the top-10 national universities, but few could see how these athletes went the extra miles to be competitive both academically and in their sport.
However, I personally have a complex feeling about how legacy works. It might be true that on average, parents who have colleges or higher degrees tend to pay more attention to the education of the next generation. But does it make a student more competitive, in terms of academic performance, personal attributes, and potentials, than other applicants though the parents graduated from this school? If, as argued by some professionals, legacy may help with the yield of the school, then it’s already made the admission unfair.
At the end of the day, what really matters? I’ve always got questions like “Does playing football help with college admission?” The answer is no, in general. Whether it be badminton or gymnastics, what colleges are looking for is quality. Depending on how “unique” you are and what it has led to, it may or may not help you during college admission.