After helping several students appeal their admissions decisions to UCLA, Lisa Golden, a local college counselor, wanted to learn why UCLA was rejecting applicants she felt were highly qualified. So she applied to be a undergraduate application reader for UCLA admissions.
Following extensive training and over 400 hours of reading applications this year, Golden no longer questions admissions decisions.
As one of roughly 160 readers responsible for scoring the 57,600 applications sent to UCLA this year, Golden read 800 applications this admissions cycle, said Rosa Pimentel, associate director of admissions.
The majority of readers are admissions staff members as well as high school college counselors and academic advisors. Two readers score each application on a one to six point scale, with one being the highest.
In early fall, readers attend training where they learn how to evaluate applicants holistically, taking into account all aspects of a student’s application, said Pimentel, a senior member of the admissions training and reading team.
The average applicant to UCLA scores about a four, while an admitted student is below a three, Pimentel said.
“We read each application in the context of the environment the student is coming from, both their school environment and personal environment,” Pimentel said.
For each applicant, readers are given a cover sheet that explains the academic environment of the school, including the school’s API score and how many AP and honors classes the school offered. Also included, Pimentel said, is the applicant’s high school ranking, as well as the ranking of their grades and standardized test scores compared to other UC applicants and UCLA applicants.
“The academics drive the final score,” Pimentel said. “Everything else in the application enhances it.”
But an applicant with only strong test scores and GPA will not necessarily receive a high score.
“If a student has a 4.0 GPA, but has no extracurricular activities, they will not score well because their application shows that they are focused, but not a well-rounded student. You can’t have one without the other,” Golden said.
Readers also take into consideration special circumstances, such as if the applicant is a veteran, from a low income community or a foster child, Pimentel said.
Readers look for applicants who have taken advantage of their opportunities.
“We want to see that students challenged themselves, and are able to overcome any obstacles successfully,” Pimentel said.
The applicant’s final score is the average of the reader’s two scores. Only if the difference in scores is greater than one point does a senior reader reread the application and assign another score.
Readers’ final scores are sent to the director of admissions, who is in charge of setting the cutoff score for acceptance to the university based on enrollment targets, Pimentel said.
Though the scores she gives are recommendations and not the final admission decision, Golden said she feels pressure to do her job well.
“I know that for many applicants, UCLA is their No. 1 choice and my recommendation will play a large role in whether they will get in.
“It’s not something I take lightly,” Golden said.
Golden said she spent between 30-40 minutes reading each application, reading between 15-20 applications in one sitting.
It is important to break readings up, Pimentel said. She said she encourages readers to limit the number of applications they read to 20-30 in one sitting so they do not fatigue.
“We want the process to be as fair as possible,” she said.
Part of that process of ensuring fairness is putting readers through extensive training before they receive their first application to evaluate.
In their training, readers learn how to balance all aspects of an application in computing a score, as well as recognizing their own personal biases and learning to avoid them. Readers are talked through over 200 practice cases from the previous year, and must be able to score previous applications comparatively to the actual scores of the application.
Meredith Phillips, vice chair of the UCLA Academic Senate Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools, sat in on the trainings last year and said she was impressed with what she saw.
“I came in skeptical, but I was convinced (after the training) that the standards the readers are using to evaluate students are quite high. The things that matter most: Getting good grades and challenging yourself in high school are weighted heavily,” Phillips said. “Getting into UCLA is not easy.”
Golden said she is in constantly in awe of the UCLA applicant pool.
“There are no words to describe how outstanding these applicants are. For some, it’s hard to believe they are high school students,” she said. “When do they sleep?”