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    California is overdoing the adversity advantage

    By HARMONY JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 4, 2002

    Did the admissions officers feel sorry for me?

    After submitting with my college application an essay that described the personal impact of a friend's suicide during my senior year of high school, part of me still wonders just what kind of first impression I must have made on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It wasn't that I lacked good grades and test scores. I just sometimes worry, however unnecessarily, that sympathy might have helped nudge the acceptance letter into my mailbox three years ago.

    But there shouldn't be such worry. After all, the college admissions essay, like an on-paper handshake, has long been a high school student's introduction to a prospective school. In about 300 words or less, college-bound kids are expected to answer a thought-provoking, university-mandated question as a way to distinguish themselves from the thousands of others clamoring to get into some of the nation's most competitive schools.

    The problem is that it's becoming too easy to turn the brief personal statement into a heart-wrenching tale of youthful angst. In the University of California system, admissions officers have begun rewarding students not for a sincere and creative approach to the essay prompt, but for their ability to wring a tear from the eye.

    California recently revamped its admissions criteria to weigh applicants under a process called comprehensive review, which awards extra credit for surmounting a wide range of personal, family or psychological obstacles. The change was meant to promote diversity after the system dropped its affirmative action policy in 1995.

    Starting this spring, extra attention was paid to applicants who had overcome "life challenges," such as family illness, being raised by a single parent or being the first in the family to go to college. The admissions decisions are based on a point system, and school officials award points for high grades and standardized test scores and also for difficult life circumtances. For instance, applicants can earn up to 300 points for coming from a low-income family and up to 300 more for being a first-generation college student. Some of those admitted often have better tales of woe but lower test scores and GPAs than those rejected.

    Students who overcome adversity are likely to bring the same determination to their college studies, school officials say. While their claim has some merit, administrators lack any real way to verify the flood of sob stories their universities are receiving. Applicants who wish to downplay family hardships risk being rejected in favor of those who used their essays as an opportunity to host a pity party. Hyelin Jae of Irvine, Calif., is one example. Jae, according to the Wall Street Journal, is the the daughter of a struggling Korean immigrant pastor who scored 1410 on her SAT, but was denied admission to UCLA. Another applicant, Susana Pena, the daughter of a construction worker, was accepted with a 940 SAT score, the Journal reports. Pena, and not Jae, took part in a university outreach program that, among other things, coached her to stress adverse life experiences in her application.

    With applications yielding such results, California is clearly missing the point. The admissions process, done correctly, allows the college to get to know each prospective student a little better. It allows students the opportunity to demonstrate with their words, actions and achievements that they are so much more than the dysfunctions of their respective childhoods.

    For my essay, I didn't choose to write about the most traumatic event of my young life. But some trivial, lighthearted topic wouldn't have made much of an impact either. UNC hadn't sought to stock its incoming freshman class with underprivileged youths. It simply asked this: Describe a book, person, place or event that has had a significant impact on your life and explain why. A probing question with no right or wrong answer. But the focus of my admissions essay had daunted me for months. Both early admission deadlines passed before I was able to write something -- in just enough time to meet the final deadline -- that would allow me to sleep at night.

    I expected the topic I ultimately chose would garner some sympathy. How could it not? But the essay was not a matter of capitalizing on the trials of my childhood so much as it was about knowing -- and showing -- that an unexpected loss taught me more about myself than reading some noteworthy novel ever had.

    These days, when it comes to admissions essays, applicants to California universities can take my rationalization a bit further. Having a sister with Down's syndrome or a father in prison teaches a more valuable lesson than does speaking a language other than English in the home. According to the UC point system, the more life-altering the event, the more it's worth.

    UC officials claim they borrowed the admissions strategy from elite private universities, which assess applicants as individuals, conduct interviews and consider recommendations. They intend to identify diamonds in the rough and equalize opportunity for all, so that wealthy and privileged students aren't the only ones to reap the benefits of system. But without the additional measures, the California method is little more than a numerical checklist, assigning socioeconomic points for every bump in an applicant's young life.

    The well-meaning approach still doesn't produce a vivid picture of each applicant as an individual. It simply reduces them to not much more than a mass of broad pen strokes on a tear-stained sheet of paper.

    -- Harmony Johnson, a summer intern at the St. Petersburg Times, is the 2002 Pittman Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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