By Renzo San Juan, 15, Belmont HS
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Renzo learned that being a great student can get you into college, regardless of the achievement gap.

Click to read Andrea’s story in which she writes about overcoming the achievement gap.

I’ve always known that some students get a better education than others but I never knew there was a name for it. I first heard that it was called the “achievement gap” at an L.A. Youth meeting. We discussed what factors cause the achievement gap, such as the type of school and neighborhood a student comes from. At school I hear students saying our school is “ghetto.” One student said that Asian students were the only ones in AP classes (which is definitely not true). I’ve always been taught that it’s up to you whether you’re successful. I interviewed Rosa Pimentel, an admissions officer at UCLA. I wanted to know if the achievement gap affects our chances of getting into college. 

L.A. Youth: How does where a student goes to high school affect their chances of getting into college?
Rosa Pimentel: In general, at least with the University of California, what we all do is something we call the holistic review. It means that we look at a student’s application in its entirety. We read the beginning of the application where it gives you personal information about the student, about their family. There are optional parts of the application where it asks how many people are in your family, what type of work does your mom or your dad do, are they divorced, has anyone passed away, how many people are in the family, income. That’s optional but I always tell students, “That information doesn’t hurt you. It can help or it’s going to be neutral.” Some people worry, “Is there such as thing as making too much money?” We’re not going to hold that against you. Or, we’re embarrassed because maybe our family makes too little money. No, we don’t do judgments. We’re looking at the environment that the student is coming from, not just from the school but the home as well and the neighborhood. We want to understand what the student is dealing with.

So getting back to the school environment, we know that not every high school has the same amount of resources. We will look at students who historically come from the high school that the student is applying from. We’ll look at the last three years worth of data from the perspective of their average GPA, average test scores, are any of the students on the free lunch program, are they first-generation students, are they English learners? An API (academic performance index) school of 1—it goes from 1 to 10 with 1 being the lowest—may not offer the wide variety of courses a student can chose from. We take that into consideration. We look at the student’s performance in the courses that they chose to take. If a student who goes to a school that doesn’t have a lot of resources takes classes at a community college, we look at that as a positive. And if they’ve done really well in them that can enhance their application. So it’s really what the student has done about the situation, not making an excuse.

Renzo San Juan, 15, interviews UCLA admissions officer Rosa Pimentel about what high school students can do to look impressive to a college.

L.A. Youth: What if one school offers fewer APs than another.
Pimentel: There’s another level to that. Let’s say a student goes to a school that offers 20 Advanced Placement courses but when they apply to college they’ve only taken one. That may not look too good to the admissions people. The person reading the application will wonder, “Is there a reason why?” That’s why the essay is very important. Maybe they are working 20 hours a week. Maybe they have to help pay bills in the house because somebody lost their job or mom or dad don’t make enough money. It could be that the student has done a lot of leadership in their school, in their community, with these responsibilities. So it’s the whole package we want to know. The student who has 10 AP classes, let’s say they haven’t done anything extracurricular. And they don’t have anything else to say in their personal statement: there are no family responsibilities, there’s no real reason why they’re not a well-rounded student. We may not take that student. And we may take the kid with only the one AP, it just depends on the situation.

I think most people underestimate the power of the personal statement. We want to get to know you, and we want to know the accomplishments that you’ve had so far and if there are challenges, what are the challenges and how have you dealt with them? The biggest mistake that students will make with the personal statement is they talk about other people or they talk about the problem. They may have an unfortunate family situation where things are not that great at home. But they fixate on only talking about that and they never say, “But despite this, this is what I’ve done to still do well in school.”

If a school doesn’t offer many extracurricular will that hurt the student’s chances?
Pimentel: No. Extracurricular activities can be what the student does outside of school. They might be active in their church, they might be active in their communities, they may have hobbies, they may do sports. It’s important to be involved. At the university we are looking for students who are engaged in their communities. Whatever your thing is, whether it’s the arts, music, sports, the sciences, whatever you’re interested in, tell us on the application because those are important skills that you’re learning. It’s not so important whether you’re a cheerleader, a football player, a scientist or a chess player, it’s why do you enjoy that and how much time do you put into it and do you evolve into some leadership positions. Some people are shier so they don’t have to be presidents of their organizations. There’s a lot of people who like to be the helpers, the behind-the-scenes people. Tell us that in your application because we won’t know unless you tell us. That tells us what you’re committed to and what you really care about and who you are as a person.

Does race matter?
Pimentel: Ethnicity, at least for the public schools, is not an element that we can take into consideration because of Proposition 209 in California. So it’s illegal to use race, ethnicity, gender as a reason to admit a student. Independent schools have their own rules, they’re not bound by state law. But for the public schools—so that’s the UC, the CSU and community colleges—we are not allowed to do that. We might ask you the question on the application [but] that’s for statistical reasons. When we review your application we don’t have that information in front of us.

Do colleges value diversity?
Pimentel: Yes, every campus is dedicated to having diversity. Here at UCLA we value diversity but it’s not just ethnic diversity. It’s also, “Where does the student come from?” Maybe they come from a small town in Northern California or the Central Valley. We want more students from there to come here. Students who come from out of state are important as well; you have different perspectives if you come from New York. And it’s very important for us to bring international students to our campuses so students from California can learn from them and then vice versa.

If there are a lot of one ethnicity already, will it be harder to get in as another member of that ethnic group?
Pimentel: No, because we don’t use ethnicity as a criteria. Right now there are many Asians that are represented at most colleges. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to look to cut back on admitting Asians for each subsequent year. We don’t cut back or we don’t over-admit because maybe a group is very low. Because we have a very low number of Native Americans, it doesn’t mean that every year we’re going to over-admit just because of their ethnicity. It’s going to be based on their accomplishments and if they’re eligible for the campus.

Do colleges have limits on how many students can get accepted from one high school?
Pimentel: No. If one school sends us 300 kids that’s great. We do have schools like that in Southern California where they might send us 300 applications and maybe we admit 100 of them and maybe we end up with 40. And then we have other schools that might send us five applications and three people get in and all three people come. We don’t have cutoffs. Shaping the class is about the individuals who apply. It’s not about what school they came from or what group they’re from.

Do colleges take a family’s income into consideration when deciding on admission?
Pimentel: For the public schools, we don’t hold the income against a student. Lets say a family is low-income and the student puts it down on the application. How we can use that is to say “wow this student has beat the odds” because traditionally students coming from low-income families may not be as competitive because sometimes they go to lower-performing schools, they may have to work, their parents may need them to take care of household chores or take care of younger brothers or sisters so they don’t allow them to do a lot of extracurricular things.

What is more important, grades or SAT scores?
Pimentel: At least for the University of California, for all nine of our campuses, we look for a balance. What if your friend has taken every honors course and maybe taken five AP courses at your school and you’ve maybe taken two honors and one AP. That GPA of that other student might be slightly lower than yours but they’ve challenged themselves more with the opportunities that that school has offered. So we might go with the other student because you might not have challenged yourself as much.

The guidance I usually give students when they’re preparing for the SAT is … work your way up. Have a number every year you practice it. Maybe the first time they take it they shoot for 500s (out of 800) in all three of the areas. Then the next time they take it they shoot for 600s. If they feel they need to get higher than that because they’re entering a competitive college or a competitive program like engineering, then shoot for the 700s the next time. If you practice enough and you get exposure to the test, then you will do better each time. Some students like to take SAT prep courses. If a student feels that’s going to help them then they should do it. But really, I think a student who will do well on the SAT is a student who is well read, who enjoys reading, who enjoys vocabulary, who enjoys expressing themselves. Whether they like math or not, as long as they are doing well in [their math classes] and doing their assignments. We don’t care how many times you take it. Just take it, practice it, get comfortable with the test.

My school is predominantly Hispanic. My math teacher had extra challenges for us and he’d give us a reward like extra credit or candy. One of my classmates said, “I’m not even going to try because those Asians over there are just going to get it.”
Pimentel: My school was predominantly Latino and a third of the class was Asian. What I remember unfortunately was that most of the students who were in the honors and AP classes were Asian and not Latino. And I always wondered why because I was one of the few handful of Latinos that got into the honors and AP. Students would ask, “What’s wrong with your people?” I said, “Not all the Asians in our school are in the honors or AP.” I think that unfortunately students do become aware that there are differences. I would hope that they realize that no matter what, your achievement has to come from a personal place and you have to want it bad enough to do it. So if you want that honors class, if you want that AP class, if you want to get into college, you have to learn what it takes to do it. That’s what I did. I survived all my AP and honors courses because I told myself I was going to prove everybody wrong that a Latino student could make it. And when I got to college I realized that there were a lot more students like myself, but that we all performed and that there’s nothing wrong with any particular group.