Some years ago I attended a meeting with UC Berkeley admissions officers, where we evaluated two freshman applications. Berkeley’s holistic approach means that readers look at a full range of academic and personal achievements in the context of that student’s opportunities. They use specific information about a student’s high school in order to evaluate how that student made the most of the opportunities available at the school. For example, the application file includes the school’s California Academic Performance Index (API) rank, student to teacher ratio, how many seniors are applying to any UC, what percentage of students are eligible for free meals, the percentage of students who are the first in their family to go to college, how many AP and honors courses are available at the school, the percentage of students who receive passing scores (three or above) on AP exams and other factors that give readers an understanding of the student’s educational environment. The reader will also see how an applicant’s curriculum, grade point average and test scores compare to others applying from that high school as well as to other Berkeley applicants.
As we read the applications, the Berkeley admissions officer pointed out how a student could demonstrate leadership in untraditional ways. One student was given credit for leadership because she transformed her baking hobby into a mini-business filling orders for friends and family. For another student, serving as an aide in a special education classroom and tutoring students in an educational program for disadvantaged students were seen as evidence of leadership. You don’t need to be president of your class to show leadership qualities. It’s not about your title, but what you contribute to your school or community. If you are responsible for organizing a fundraising drive, that could be evidence of leadership. But even if you don’t have leadership to write about, readers will consider significant time spent in extracurricular activities, community service or employment.
Students should use the additional information section of the application to answer any questions the rest of the application could raise. For example, you might need to explain that you had to choose between two AP classes that were offered at the same time, or why your grades dipped at the start of junior year when your family was going through a divorce.
At any highly selective university, students need to stand out in their applications. At a breakfast with admissions officers from Harvard, Princeton, and University of Virginia, I asked for examples of students who had stood out in positive and negative ways. The positive example was a young woman whose writing was so strong that the admissions officer predicted she would win a Pulitzer Prize. That is what it takes to impress admissions officers at Ivy League schools. What does not impress admissions officers at any college is when students try to make an application stand out by shocking the reader. It may seem ridiculous to have to tell students not to write about bodily functions in an application essay, but when the admissions officer at the most prestigious school in the country says she is seeing those essays, it’s time to get the word out. Judgment and likability are factors in admission decisions.