Berkeley Leadership Essay

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A HIGHLY qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G. Berkeley might accept 21 percent of freshman applicants over all but only 12 percent in engineering. We were to assess each piece of information — grades, courses, standardized test scores, activities, leadership potential and character — in an additive fashion, looking for ways to advance the student to the next level, as opposed to counting any factor as a negative. Every one of our applications was scored by an experienced lead reader before being passed on to an inner committee of admissions officers for the selection phase.

He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India. My new position required two days of intensive training at the Berkeley Alumni House as well as eight three-hour norming sessions.

I could see the fundamental unevenness in this process both in the norming Webinars and when alone in a dark room at home with my Berkeley-issued netbook, reading assigned applications away from enormously curious family members.

First and foremost, the process is confusingly subjective, despite all the objective criteria I was trained to examine. Could it be because he was a nonresident and had wealthy parents? A.’s, or a lot of applicants whose bigger picture would fail to advance them, or a lot of Jewish and Asian applicants (Berkeley is 43 percent Asian, 11 percent Latino and 3 percent black)?

Why did I hear so many times from the assistant director? Some things can’t be spelled out, but they have to be known.

Application readers must simply pick it up by osmosis, so that the process of detecting objective factors of disadvantage becomes tricky.

Is the kindergarten aide or soup kitchen volunteer a leader?

And what about “blue noise,” what the admissions pros called the blank blue screen when there were no activities listed? ”IN personal statements, we had been told to read for the “authentic” voice over students whose writing bragged of volunteer trips to exotic places or anything that “smacks of privilege.”Fortunately, that authentic voice articulated itself abundantly.

Surely Berkeley seeks the class president, the organizer of a volunteer effort, the team captain.

But there are so many other types of contributions to evaluate.


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