By Diana Park, 16, La CaƱada High School
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I believed that seniors had it good. The most critical part of their high school career was over. All they had to do was fill out a few college applications and relax as senioritis took over their systems. Boy, was I wrong. I watched this year’s seniors nearly pass out from the anxiety and frustration of the college application procedure. To add to their stress load, UCLA, the goal and dream school of many students, changed its admission policy just a few weeks before the Nov. 30 deadline! Even as the applications were turned in, traces of shock and resentment could still be felt in the seniors applying to UCLA. To find out what the new admission requirements are, I went directly to the new Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Vu T. Tran, who just started his job Nov. 1.

As I stepped onto the UCLA campus, I was scared out of my wits. I imagined Tran to be a scary and bossy person who would mock my petty concerns to attend his glorious university. When I stepped into his office, I was glad to find that he was a kindly man with a gentle personality who was more than eager to explain the new admission policies.

One thing hasn’t changed at all—UCLA is extremely competitive. Last year, 40,676 people applied, the largest applicant group of any college in the country. Only 26.8 percent got in. Their average GPA was 4.23 and average SAT score was 1328. This year, Tran estimates that the number of applicants will grow to 43,000 and only 25 percent of those will be admitted. With a limited number of spots, and a growing number of applicants, it gets a little tougher every year.

But the new admission policy seems to offer a little hope to students like me, with average grades. Under the old policy, 55 percent of students got in based on their academics alone. Admission officers considered other factors for the remaining 45 percent. Under the new system, every applicant will be evaluated in three areas: academic achievement, personal achievement and overcoming life challenges. As Tran said, this makes the whole process "more comprehensive." (Maybe I still have a chance!)

Study, study, study

As always, the most important factor in the admissions process is academic achievement. Admission officers will look at your average (unweighted) GPA, all Sat I and II exams, number of courses beyond the A-F requirements, number of honors and AP classes and the "strength of the senior program." That means seniors should continue to take challenging courses (specifically four academic courses) and maintain good grades throughout their senior year.

Also included in the academic ranking is the "degree to which individual applicants have challenged themselves within the context of the school offerings." In other words, UCLA wants students who have taken full advantage of their schools’ programs and/ or taken all or most of the challenging courses that are offered in that school such as AP or honors classes.

Just like last year, those students identified as among the top four percent of students at their high school are "Eligible in the Local Context (ELC)." That means these students are guaranteed a spot at a UC school, but not necessarily UCLA or a UC school of their choice.

The academic standards sounded so high, I started to freak out. I thought, "Oh my goodness, I will never be admitted under this policy." Tran reassured me that admission officers would also consider my personal achievement and life challenges.

Personal achievement would include sports, clubs, volunteering and other extracurricular activities that show students’ efforts to "explore the world around them." Rather than getting involved in every activity on your campus, Tran seemed to say that it’s better to excel in a few areas. "We look beyond the set requirements. It’s not just quantity, we look at the quality of those experiences." Instead of doing everything possible to put on your brag sheet, he recommended that you put your time into something you actually love doing.

Lastly, admission officers evaluate students’ ability to overcome life challenges. Challenges could mean anything from family financial struggles, the death of a loved one, a serious illness or injury or other difficult circumstances. Admission officers are looking for signs of maturity shown by students who are able to obtain high goals despite their misfortunes, Tran said.

What about people who have NOT had a serious tragedy or challenge in their lives? His response was, "Then how have you taken advantage of the environment you’re in?"

The purpose of the essay, or personal statement remains unchanged from last year. It serves to give the admission officer a deeper insight, explain or further clarify what is not already on your application. It might be the place to describe your personal achievements or life challenges. Having tried a few of these personal statements in my AP English class, I thought that a humorous approach would be preferred. But Tran said that rather than adopting different writing styles, you should write with the intent of "supplementing your application" so that admission officer may "get to know more of who you are and what you can achieve based on past achievements." Prepare in advance. "If you wait till the last minute, you won’t do your best."

But how will UCLA know if dishonest students lie or exaggerate on the personal statements? I mean, wouldn’t they be getting an unfair advantage? Tran reassured me that the officers who read thousands of these essays, will be able to distinguish between lies and truths.

‘Don’t be discouraged’

Being among the first in my family to go to school in the United States, I find it very hard to meet the expectations of my parents, who are foreign to the ways of this land. He seemed to know the exact mindset of these parents. He said, "They think that if you don’t get into UCLA you’re nothing, but it’s not true." They just don’t understand that "UCLA is a very competitive school that is tough to get into. We wish to accommodate everyone, but we can’t. But don’t be discouraged! There are plenty of other good and respectable schools. UCLA is a very good school but realize that there is still life beyond UCLA. The important thing to ask yourself is what major, not which college to go to. A credential is only one way to open the door."

Wow, his words of advice were so reassuring to me. As the interview came to an end, I became motivated to try my very best.

Vu Tran’s advice to college applicants:

• Don’t wait until senior year to get ready.

• Work hard, aim high but don’t think it’s UCLA or nothing.

• The desire to be the best will help you overcome those moments of weakness.

• Realize the reality that sometimes we cannot achieve our goals.

• If you do the best you can, you have an excellent chance.

• Pick a major you love. If you don’t love it, then you won’t do it with your heart. Whatever you love to do, you will do it well.

• If you don’t try because of the fear of failing, you will never achieve your full potential.