3 Things I Wish Applicants Knew: One Application Reader’s Perspective

By Susan Pendo, Manager, Freshman Reading

I’m a reader for freshman applicants to UC Berkeley. Actually, I’ve led and trained readers over the years, since I’ve been managing our holistic reading process. And I also have read a number of transfer applications.

One question I hear over and over from students is: “How can I improve my chances of getting admitted to UC Berkeley?” I always remind them that Berkeley students are more than their test scores and GPAs.

That means, we rely on you to tell us, outside of all the numbers, who you are, and why you belong at Berkeley.

When you read as many applications as our staff does, you come across many stellar and worthy students. We sometimes literally wince when we realize that, with a little bit more information, an applicant could have risen higher in the selection pool.

After reading literally thousands of applications, I’ve seen a few common ways applicants miss opportunities to tell us their story.

As UC Berkeley’s Admissions staff enters another application season, I wanted to share my thoughts on three key things I wish all applicants knew when they applied to UC Berkeley.

1. Tell us your unique story.

The University of California application is the only place where I, the application reader, get to see you, the student and applicant. Take advantage of every place in the application to share your story with me.

Here are a few examples of what I mean: Tell us your unique story in your answers to the Personal Insight questions. (Berkeley previously called this your Personal Statement.) Essentially, the application is asking you to share your experience and background here.

As a reader, I feel the most successful stories are ones that give me more insight and context around the rest of the application: Who is the person behind the test scores and grades and activities? What are your struggles and how did you overcome them? What opportunities were you given and how did you take advantage of them? Many times I read essays about a student’s loving family or activities they enjoyed prior to high school. There’s nothing wrong with those — they just don’t always help me learn more about that student, determine why he or she should be at Berkeley, or understand any context for the information I see in the rest of the application.

Use the Additional Comments box following the Personal Insight questions section. This is an area where you can share anything (outside of academics; save academic information for the other Additional Comments box, which I explain below) that you haven’t been able to share anywhere else in the application or in your Personal Insight questions. It’s the last opportunity for you to share anything we need to know about you.

2. Report your academics thoughtfully.

Academic reporting is an area where applicants assume readers can fill in the blanks. Readers cannot assume anything and must use the information you give us. When you report your Academic History, be complete and accurate.

List all A-G courses, including summer work, in High School Courses & Grades within the Academic History section.

Use the non A-G coursework section within Activities & Awards to help us understand other courses you may be taking. This includes Leadership, Yearbook, Physical Education, etc.

Under the Additional Comments box in Academic History, be sure to tell me anything more that I need to know about your academics. Did your grades dip overall between sophomore and junior year, or, if you are a transfer applicant, did you drop out of college at one point? Tell me why. Did you struggle in math? Tell me what you did about it. Maybe I see in your application that you brought those Ds in your first semester to solid As. What happened? Those are the sorts of comments that help me understand you better.

The Additional Comments box is yet another area where you can tell us anything we need to know about your unique academic situation, which already has not been covered in other parts of the application. A good example of what to include is explaining a unique or nontraditional school environment, such as home-schooling, magnets, or special academies.

3. Don’t assume we know; give us context.

Context means “the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens.” When I speak of context in your application, I mean that you should provide the conditions that exist around your achievements, especially in the areas of activities, awards, volunteering, or employment.

Here’s an example: So many times I see applicants use abbreviations, acronyms, or shorthand. This is okay if the abbreviation applies to a well-known organization or is commonly used, such as ASB.

However, if I look at activities and see something like “High School Knights” or “Transfer Fellows,” I am not sure what that means in your particular situation. Add a little bit more description so that I understand the activity and your role in it. Were you a member of a group? What did the group do? What was your role in that group?

Help the readers understand the context of any awards or achievements. For example, what was the level of selectivity for an award or honor (such as: 500 applied and 20 were selected). Was this a school award, a local honor, or a national competition? If you mention a job, how did that employment affect your academics? What skills did you learn? Did you have a leadership role? Be specific.

Overall, the message I want to convey to all applicants is that adding context to any items you list (in academics, activities, awards, volunteering, and work experience) adds to the reader’s understanding of your achievements. We want to get a better sense of who you are. After all, you are unique, you’ve achieved a lot, and you want to come to Berkeley. Be sure to give us the information we need to make the best decision. Good luck!