College pennants: USC, Harvard, Stanford, MIT

UC admissions for fall 2018: Brutal

College pennants: USC, Harvard, Stanford, and MIT

Hi there!

Before we get into the subject of today’s newsletter (this past year’s college admissions), I have a couple things to mention.

First, I’m planning to start sending emails more regularly. My current plan is once a week; I’ll try that and see how people respond. Why? Mainly because I want to be able to build a channel of communication with people. I talk to students and their parents almost every day, and there are always many things that I wish I could tell them. I’ve been asking people to join my email newsletter so that I can get information out more efficiently. (Ever year it seems there are a handful of people who say something to the effect that they wish they’d known X or Y a year ago.) So, if you no longer wish to receive these emails, please just unsubscribe, no hard feelings. How to unsubscribe? Every email has an unsubscribe link at the bottom. Just click that, and you’ll no longer receive these emails from us. I will also start removing subscribers who appear to be inactive (i.e., who have never opened an email or clicked a link in the email).

Second, we (at TestMagic) are planning one or two seminars for the summer to help people get up to speed on college applications. In these seminars, I freely share my experience and information with attendees. They will be held on-site at TestMagic in San Francisco (6902 Geary Blvd @ 33rd Ave). If that’s something you’re interested in attending, and have an idea of the kind of topic you’d like to discuss, please hit reply and let me know. I will be sending out updates by email soon as well.

Now, to begin the discussion of the college admissions cycle that has recently ended (or nearly ended) for most high school seniors.

UC admissions for the fall of 2018

In the last month or so, I’ve talked to dozens of students and parents who have expressed their excitement, their confusion, and unfortunately, their exasperation and befuddlement with this past admissions cycle (those applying to start in the fall of 2018).

The UCs this year were unpredictable. We’ve gotten used to seeing unexpected results occasionally, but not consistently. For example, a student gets dinged by a lower-ranked UC only to be admitted by the top one. (This sort of thing happens every year.) But to see so many bright, promising young people (with the numbers to back it up) get offered spots at only two or three UCs or waitlisted at three or four UCs was confounding.

There were patterns, though. First, numbers mattered. Yes, GPA and test scores always matter. But I’ve seen a lot of deserving students who’ve told compelling stories in their essays overcome some of the odds. This year, not so much. There are always a lot of essays about shyness and family illnesses, and they can work. But this year was different. Even some of the most interesting stories I’ve ever read didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

There was one factor that did seem to make a difference more than usual—the high school you attended. In general, the “under-represented” high schools were better to apply from than the “over-represented” ones. This may not be surprising, but for some students, it’s heartbreaking.

Read on for more info and background.


There are several important factors that affect admissions, and couple that are specific to the UC system. Here are some of the main ones, in my opinion, that affected admissions this year:

  • The UC system received a record number of applications for the fall of 2018. In fact, pretty much every year, there are more applicants. For this cycle, 221,000 students applied, which is 5.7% more than in the previous cycle. Interesting trivia: With 113,000 applicants, UCLA is the most-applied to university in the US.
  • The number of out-of-state and international students is rising; these students pay full tuition (as opposed to the subsidized tuition paid by in-state students). Part of the reason for admitting more of these students is simply that the UC system continues to face budget challenges, and these students pay more money into the system. (Remember, the alternative is raising tuition or taxes.)
  • The UC system cannot admit students based solely on achievements, extracurriculars, grades, test scores, and personal insight questions; they look also at the high school you’re applying from. Why? Because of the so-called Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) Program. In a nutshell, this program tries to accept students from each school so that all areas of California are represented in the UC system. There is a very long and controversial history to this, but the UCs switched to this system in 2001 as a replacement for its previous system of affirmative action. I CANNOT OVER-EMPHASIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS PRACTICE. This basically means that a 4.0 GPA student from an under-represented high school has a much greater chance of admission to a selective UC than does a student applying from an over-represented high school (such as Lowell or Gunn).
  • I can say anecdotally that compared to 20 years ago when I started in our office on Irving Street, now it takes much, much more to get into a selective college. In the old days, playing piano or violin, being on the swim team, and doing your volunteer hours at a hospital or church summer camp would suffice for extracurriculars for most of the UCs and private universities. Nowadays it really feels that the bar has been raised substantially; now you’ve got to win awards, compete at the state, national, or even international level, have publications, etc. In other words, a resume similar to a graduate student!

That’s a lot of information to digest, I’ll be honest. I’ll expand on those points in a future article.

If you’re off to college this summer

First, I’d like to say congratulations on your success! You’re about to embark on a years-long journey in which you will likely have life-altering experiences, meet new friends and perhaps even your life-partner, and of course, pursue your academic interests and hopefully have a little (safe) fun along the way. It’s one of the most important parts of many people’s lives, and I for one am excited for you.

Though you do have some options (taking a gap year or attending community college), you will likely go off to college in the fall. My advice to you is to make the best of it. Have a great time, learn a lot, and enjoy every single moment. (This is coming from a guy in his fifties. Truth be told, many people my age live vicariously through the experiences of the next generation.)

This is only the beginning of your academic career. You may go on to graduate school, or you may continue a lifelong journey of learning. When I look back at my own college experience, I realize that it, like high school before it, was simply one of the many steps to furthering knowledge and understanding. In truth, I think learning accelerates throughout one’s lifetime (assuming you keep learning, of course)—you learn more and learn faster as time goes on, partly because you’re building on a foundation of knowledge. I think I learned more from reading, writing, and living in the three years following college than I did in college. And in the first couple of years of running TestMagic. And so on.

If you’re attending a college where you think it’ll be relatively easy to do well, then by all means, get that 4.0! It’ll only help you if you apply to graduate school.

A little secret—you don’t actually need $200,000 and four years to get a great education. Education is built largely on reading, writing, memorizing, hopefully some problem-solving, and sharing ideas with professors and classmates. Theoretically you could read a couple hundred books and do this on your own. But we go to college for reason—for the structure, the camaraderie, the networking potential, or perhaps just the achievement to list on your resume. It’s truly a unique opportunity in life—never gain will you (likely) have the chance to take a four years off to build your mind, to focus solely on you.

You will get out of college what you put into it, and this is your chance to prove yourself and build a solid foundation of learning that will last a lifetime.

For future applicants and parents

First, I would just like to say there’s no need to panic. Just be aware that getting into a competitive college seems to be getting harder and harder.

Also keep in mind that the college you attend does not reflect your whole character; rather, your college represents more how you look on paper, i.e., your GPA, your test scores, your extracurriculars, and more and more nowadays, how well you’ve planned out your future.

You could be the most moral, empathetic, intelligent, creative kid on the planet, dreaming up how to cure disease, give clean drinking water to the world’s 7.6 billion, solve the traveling-salesperson problem, write the definitive memoir of the American millennial, but if you can’t show this all on paper, the colleges won’t accept you.

And if you’re okay with that, then don’t worry. You’re good. You will reach your goals in your own way, at your own pace, in your own time. After all, the movers and shakers of today’s world are those who dared to “think different,” as Apple once advertised.

But if attending a certain college means the world to you, please do yourself a favor and start planning out the next few years. Try to think outside the box, do something different. Instead of playing piano, try the guzheng. If you want to go into business, instead of taking summer classes, consider starting your own online business selling something you love (Etsy, eBay, Amazon, etc.). If you’re set on medical school (like a good 20% of our students seem to be), in addition to acing those Bio and Chem AP and SAT Subject tests, get a spot on a team that’s researching something important, such as West Nile virus. (And you could talk to our own teacher, Dr. Quick, who researched West Nile virus for his dissertation.)

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