Comprehensive Review – one year later

No one really enjoyed applying to college. It’s a daunting task to narrow yourself down to a few sheets of paper. Transcripts, a list of extracurricular activities and a letter from a guidance counselor with whom you spoke maybe twice — hardly an accurate portrayal of a complex individual. In such a context, every word has to count.

The words that count the most as far as fleshing out an applicant are in the ever-so-notorious essays. The reason those essays are such a cause of anxiety is because of the exten to which they fill in the blanks of a student’s identity. In the UC system, a student’s best shot at giving an admissions board some hint of who they really are is their personal statement.

Personal statements give students the opportunity to go beyond the numbers and represent themselves through something a bit more substantial than their GPA.

To prevent the fraudulent abuse of personal statements, the University of California has begun background checks on a random selection of applicants to validate their paperwork.

That doesn’t mean that the current process isn’t working. It doesn’t mean that comprehensive applications are flawed. It doesn’t mean that personal statements encourage people to lie. What it means is that the system is being modified to do what it was doing all along: Give kids a chance to get what they deserve.

A key criticism of the application process has always been that it fails to take into consideration things like a student’s background, personal trials and individual hardships. Amid constant contentions about the discriminatory aspects of standardized testing and the inability of GPA to reflect a student’s true academic ability, an essay about one’s experiences becomes incredibly important.

It’s how you explain a faltering GPA due to switching high schools three times in three semesters. It’s how you discuss the way discovering journalism affected your academic aspirations. It’s how you convince an admissions board that you deserve admission into their school.

Critics of essay prompts say that they encourage sob stories. They say that they cater to minorities or the disabled, and that the applicant with the sappiest essay wins regardless of his or her proven ability. But these accusations are missing the point. They mistake an opportunity to voice adversity as a free pass to an acceptance letter out of pity. This isn’t a handout to kids who have had a difficult time; it’s a chance for them to spell out who they are when they have an aspect of their personality that can’t be seen in transcripts.

And obviously that’s something that applies to everyone; people who haven’t been the victims of adversity all their lives are simply asked to find another way to define who they are. In that sense, this isn’t an application that is biased toward students with sob stories; it’s an application that is biased toward people who are capable of writing about themselves in a way that says something meaningful about themselves.

The opinion that personal statements are a plea for pity is what encourages students to falsify their applications in the attempt to manipulate their way into a UC school.

A review board is a good thing because it’s likely to keep people from creating fictional experiences to garner compassion from an admissions board. With the possibility of being reviewed, students are forced to present themselves as an interesting individual, not because of some fictitious, stereotyped essay but because they found something that separated them from the masses and wrote about it. And it won’t be something made up, but something honest.

Personal statements don’t have to be some maudlin passage on the worst thing that ever happened to you. Most admissions board members cite their favorite essays — and the most successful essays — as the ones that depicted some quirky or interesting facet of a personality that had little to do with generating sympathy.

This is a step in the right direction for the admissions process; it’s a way to keep students honest about who they are and why they deserve to be accepted.

It isn’t easy narrowing yourself down to a bunch of checked boxes and a list of the classes you took. This is a way to ensure that students make the most of the chances they are given in a forum as limited as a college application. Applying to college is a stressful process. Comprehensive applications make it a fair process — random reviews make it an honest one.