School & District Management

Univ. of Calif. to Spot-Check Applicant Claims

By Sean Cavanagh — December 04, 2002 7 min read

The University of California is on the verge of imposing a tough new requirement on the thousands of high school students who annually apply to its eight undergraduate campuses: the truth.

Beginning with next fall’s freshman class, the highly respected public system is expected to begin spot-checking claims of honors, extracurricular activities, and other personal achievements cited on students’ applications— and denying admission to those found to have lied about those accomplishments.

Officials at the university have not yet hammered out the details of the spot-checking process, believed to be the first official policy of its kind in the nation. But its supporters describe it as important to maintaining credibility in the wake of the UC system’s recent adoption of sweeping changes to its admissions policies that put more weight on students’ personal experiences during high school, in addition to grades and test scores.

The checks are also an acknowledgment of the increasingly stout competition for spots at the most elite campuses in the system, which has 148,024 undergraduates.

“This step is to reassure students that we do look at their applications, and that for all the students who do it honestly, they will be rewarded for it,” said Barbara A. Sawrey, the chair of UC’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, which drafted the policy. “It seems that the feedback from teachers, counselors, and students has been positive.”

University of California officials say they are already confident the vast majority of high school students are truthful on their application forms—and a pilot study conducted last year seemed to back up that perception.

A task force is working on final recommendations for the spot- checking process and could have them by the end of this year, Ms. Sawrey said. The goal is to have the review process in place for next year’s freshman class, which was required to turn in applications by the end of November and will receive notice of admissions decisions by the end of March.

Staff members at the UC system’s administrative offices in Oakland, where applications are normally reviewed, are likely to oversee the spot-checks. The employees will choose a random sampling of applications to all eight of the undergraduate campuses. Officials at UC aren’t yet sure how many of their applicants will have their forms reviewed, though Ms. Sawrey offered a rough estimate of under 10 percent. More than 61,000 applied for undergraduate admission for fall 2002.

The reviewers will look at areas such as extracurricular activities, community services, and possibly claims of personal hardship. Students typically provide some of that information in responses to questions on their application forms; other applicants provide such details on the “personal statement,” a two-page essay in which candidates are asked to expound on their “talents, experiences, achievements, and points of view.”

Added Import

The nonacademic successes and travails of students have gained new importance in UC’s admissions process in recent years. Students who graduate in the top 12.5 percent of the overall, statewide graduating senior class are already guaranteed admission to at least one UC campus. But in 2001, the system’s board of regents added to that process by implementing “comprehensive review,” a system in which admissions officers use 14 different criteria to evaluate applicants to its six most selective schools: the campuses in Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego.

Under the policy, admissions officers use those criteria to review applications, taking into account not only standardized-test scores and grades, but also special talents and disadvantages in students’ lives, such as struggles in their home or school environments, financial woes, or being the first in their families to attend college.

“Comprehensive review” emerged in the wake of several setbacks to affirmative action in the state and the UC system. The regents themselves decided in 1995 to phase out the use of race in admissions, a ban they reversed years later. But in the meantime, California residents in 1996 had approved Proposition 209, a much-debated ballot initiative that barred consideration of race in hiring or admissions at any state institution.

California’s new verification policy is a logical result of its shift in admissions policy, said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, in Washington. Judging students from a broader spectrum of high school experience called for the creation of a mechanism for proving their claims were true, he said.

Neither Mr. Nassirian, nor several other national officials who work with high school counselors and college-admissions officers, had ever heard of a policy like the University of California’s.

“This is qualitatively different from the run-of-the-mill information that can be verified,” Mr. Nassirian said of the more personal criteria. “Those written statements are not backed up with standard forms of evidence, the way grades are.”

While UC hopes to discourage deceit, school officials say two pilot programs conducted for this fall’s entering class suggest there is little evidence of it so far. Staff members at UC-San Diego reviewed self-reported family income for 137 applicants who were admitted, and randomly selected the honors and activities for 300 other applicants. Only one student out of 437 could not verify that information.

The UC president’s office also conducted a smaller review of personal statements last year, and found no evidence of dishonesty.

University officials are still not certain if they will try to verify claims of “hardship,” or specific economic or social disadvantages potential students discuss on their applications, said Dennis Galligani, the UC system’s associate vice president for student academic services.

“That’s very sensitive information, when people are talking about disadvantaged situations they’re working through,” Mr. Galligani said. “We’re going to [work] very carefully and very slowly in that area.”

The reviews will be handled by staff members within UC’s office of the president in Oakland, though it is unclear how many employees will be involved, or how much the process will cost, Mr. Galligani said. High school students submit applications to UC through a central office and indicate the individual campuses to which they seek admission.

It Happens

Because the UC system is both more selective and more subjective in its admissions criteria than many public universities, other schools might not see as great a need to establish a similar spot-checking model, several higher education officials elsewhere said.

And in an era when many universities are coping with budget shortfalls, some might question the wisdom of adding the employees who might be needed to fact-check applications, said Judy K. Hingle, the director for professional development for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in Alexandria, Va.

Interest in securing a UC education continues to climb, and in recent years, the odds of getting into the system’s premier campuses have grown considerably tougher. Total undergraduate applications to UC rose from 45,714 in 1995 to 61,331 in 2002. Meanwhile, the percent of students admitted to Berkeley, the system’s flagship school, fell from roughly 40 percent in 1995 to only 28 percent, out of 28,145 applicants, in 2001.

UCLA accepted only 29 percent of its applicants in 2001, and UC-San Diego granted admission to 45 percent.

At Skyline High School in Oakland, counselor David Turner occasionally has heard tales of students fibbing on admissions applications. Even so, he questioned whether top-tier schools like those in the California system really need the fact-checking policy.

“I don’t think students who apply to the University of California and other top universities in this country are the students who also deceive,” Mr. Turner said. “Usually, it’s the student who is very marginal who feels the need to embellish their [record] with falsehood.”

But Chris Abraham, a sophomore at UCLA, said stories about students who were deceitful on their college applications were fairly common. Some college hopefuls might exaggerate the time they spent in community service, he said, or boast about a leadership role in a club, when in reality their their involvement was minimal.

The Lancaster, Calif., native, who ran track, played basketball, and worked for his student newspaper in high school, predicted that word of the fact checking would spread quickly among UC applicants.

“Just saying they’re going to do it,” Mr. Abraham said, “will be a deterrent.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2002 edition of Education Week as Univ. of Calif. to Spot-Check Applicant Claims

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