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Applying to colleges in “Competitive California”

California is one of the most sought out destinations in the United States, especially for students applying to colleges. As may rising high school seniors know, choosing where to apply for college is not just about where the best educational opportunities may be. Where you go to college is where you will ultimately spend your next four years adapting to significantly more difficult schooling, potentially living far from your family, and meeting a whole new group of people in an environment that you and everyone else are brand new to. Loving the city that you move to for college plays more of a roll than many anticipate when it comes to choosing where to apply. This is just one of the reasons why California colleges are becoming more and more competitive.


California plays host to 9 University of California (UC) schools, 23 California State University (CSU) schools, and over 150 private institutions. However, even with such a large number of universities in California, UCLA had almost 100,000 applicants this past year. While most of the other eight UC’s had around 85,000 applicants, no school can accept this many students. To ease the discomfort that these numbers inevitably arise, note that CSU schools each received around 50,000 (plus or minus up to 10,000) students applying to colleges this past fall and most publish acceptance rates around 65%. Disclaimer: CSU Long Beach, CSU San Diego, and Cal Poly SLO each had only 30-35% acceptance rates this past fall. However, these three CSU’s are definitely the outliers; the other 20 schools are all around the 65% rate. USC is California’s most popular private school, receiving 60,000 applications, but accepting only 16% of them.


These numbers are very unsettling, especially for rising high school seniors preparing to send in applications this fall. While California residents have typically higher acceptance rates to the public UC and CSU schools (not so much with the private schools, though), formatting your application to fit the competitive “market” is something that all students planning to apply in California are struggling with. This article will quickly break down the general pieces of college applications, and hopefully help you format your application to better fit the competitive acceptance market.


Your GPA and Standardized Testing Scores


Notice how I put GPA and test scores (SAT/ACT) in the same category. This is because I want to emphasize the fact that just GPA and scores alone probably won’t get you into a prestigious college in California. California schools are known to practice something that they call “holistic review” which means that they factor in every part of your application when you are applying to colleges. Yes, these components are HUGE, and I am in no way trying to undermine the importance of a high GPA and above average test scores. These two application components are what get your foot in the door with college admissions; they are what set you up for consideration. However, after they have gotten you that consideration, a lot of other factors come into play.


As far as GPA goes, I’m sure you’ve heard this said a million times; “Getting a B in an AP/Honors class looks better than getting an A in a CP/regular class.” This is a FACT. Colleges want to accept well-rounded students with educational drive. Choosing to take a bunch of regular classes that are easy for you just so that you can graduate with a 4.0 looks lazy. College admissions officers see hundreds of thousands of students applying to colleges throughout their careers; you can’t fool them. If you’re being lazy and taking easier regular classes, they’re going to know that you’re being lazy.


Educational drive is huge for college admissions. When applying to colleges, if you can show the admissions officer reading your application that you consistently study and put effort into school in high school, you have a better chance for acceptance because they’re going to hope that you put even more effort and study time into college. They want to accept dedicated students that will be high achieving at their college- that makes them look good too.


Your Personal Statements and Potential Secondary Essays


STAND OUT! If you’re applying to UCLA along with 99,999 other students, think about how many essays these poor admissions officers have to read. If your essay doesn’t stand out to them, they’re going to lose track of it in the sea of other well-written essays they’re reading.

Let’s face it; a majority of students applying to colleges in competitive environments are going to be able to write a well-structured, sophisticated personal essay if given the time and pressure to do so. In order to stand out, you can’t just write an excellent, AP Language level essay about how being a varsity athlete taught you leadership and motivation. I’m sure that’s a fantastic essay that your AP Lang teacher gave you an A on, and I’m sure that being a varsity athlete did make you a better leader, but every non-creative varsity athlete is going to write that essay.


Be creative. These essays don’t all have to be serious or somber or sad. Readers get enough of those. Sometimes an upbeat or humorous tone to the paper, if written well, stands out better.


Choosing Your Major


I wish I could say that the major you apply to doesn’t affect your chance for acceptance, but this isn’t true. Almost all California schools have impacted Business, Biological Sciences, Nursing, and Criminal Justice programs. Being impacted means that currently at the school there is an undesirably low ratio of professors to students in that particular major. Impacted majors are naturally more competitive to get into because schools will take less students into an impacted major than a non-impacted one.


If that wasn’t bad enough, a scary-large number of schools are just impacted. Meaning that all of their majors are impacted, because the school itself is impacted. This just means that the school is in general a very competitive school.


Caution! The age-old scheme of applying to a non-impacted major with the plan to switch major once accepted doesn’t work. Almost all schools nowadays require specific GPAs and course requirements before they allow you to switch into a different major. For impacted majors, this GPA requirement is typically pretty high and difficult to achieve in your first year of adjusting to the harder classes and independence that college brings.


Your Extracurricular Activities


Extracurricular activities are more important than one would think for college acceptance, especially to competitive and impacted schools. With so many students applying and a majority of those students having high GPAs and test scores, your extracurriculars are another way (on top of your personal statement essays) to stand out from other applicants that have similar academics as you. With so many types of extracurriculars, there’s lots of room for variety. From sports to internships to volunteer work, there’s a lot of options. However, college admissions officers prefer to see structure and commitment. Dedicating yourself to one, long term and more immersive extracurricular (not including sports) that’s educational or beneficial to the community is your best bet for standing out.

Co-Founder, Titan Tutors

I am lucky enough to marry the person I met when I was in junior high. She has given me two beautiful children and we, like many other parents, find parenting one of the most challenging things we have faced. After spending 15 years working with kids, and hearing the concerns and struggles that many parents have expressed in raising their kids, I look to share my journey of happiness and struggles, both as a parent and an individual hoping to make my contribution to society.

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