The Ever Growing Selectivity of USC

In 2007, USC admitted 25% of its applicants. For 2008, the number is 21%. Next year, there will be still more high school applicants, while the number of undergraduate spots available at USC will, yet again, decrease. This number is purposely being reduced by the USC administration to improve the quality of life, and the quality of the educational experience for its undergraduate community.  This is an admirable effort but, for those seeking admission to USC, the bar just keeps going up.  Furthermore, while USC admissions continues to become ever more selective, these numbers don't reflect that just under 600 seats each year are reserved for legacy students (alumni, donors, faculty relatives...) and then there are the athletic recruits-reducing the number a bit more.   USC is becoming ever more selective with each passing year-and as an alumnus of UCLA this is painful to watch. Whether USC will reach the selectivity level of Stanford (8% and dropping) is anyone's guess, but then USC football lost to Stanford in 2007, so why shouldn't USC attempt to gain on Stanford's selectivity? Tim Brunold, the Associate Dean and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Southern California, described the ever competitive USC admissions process at a recent counselor workshop at Marymount College in Palos Verdes. I'm going to be equally selective in commenting on the portions of his presentation.

When an application arrives at USC, the admissions office reviews the following components (in order of importance): the transcript, standardized test scores, essays and writing samples, extracurricular activities, recommendations, auditions/portfolios (for artists and performers), and interviews.  A great deal of the decision, assuming you can't run the 40 yard dash in 4.35 seconds or score three-point shots with 80% reliability, rests on the first two components. So let's explore Tim's comments on the transcript and standardized test scores.

One issue that seems to vary among the highly selective schools is whether the admissions department scrutinizes transcripts beginning with the freshman or sophomore year? USC looks at all four years.  It wants to see a trend of progressively better grades and challenging coursework; that should come as no surprise to most knowledgeable applicants.  Fine, but is there a magical GPA and class ranking that assures a student's transcript leaps to the top of the heap? When you consider the number of valedictorians rejected by the 20 top selective schools (and a year ago University of Pennsylvania claimed hundreds were turned down), and the fact many high schools 'stopped ranking students,' then you realize there is little security in relying on grades to gain admission. Grades might (depending on the school) indicate work ethic, dedication, and intellectual curiosity but, then again, they might not. There is so much gaming involved with grades (whether to take AP, IB, or classes at a community college to gain a stronger weighting, or to find the teacher with lower standards that doles out easy A's) that admissions offices are wary of even the stellar transcripts. What, in the end, is important, is whether a candidate took content-rich courses (included in the A-E portion of the University of California subject requirements) and whether, through her transcript, recommendations-the whole application--- is seen a true intellectual curiosity.

Does USC prefer the ACT or SAT?  Either is fine. Will a 36 on the ACT or a 2400 on the SAT guarantee acceptance to USC? No, the number of students with perfect standardized tests turned away by the most selective schools is legion. It was noted in the presentation, that the ACT allows the student to withhold scores from the admissions office. Since the ACT is gaining substantial ground on the SAT as the standardized test of choice, the SAT is considering implementing the same feature. Tim Brunold, however, doesn't like this situation. He wants to see all test scores when evaluating a candidate. It's an interesting minor issue, yet one that might tilt some applicants into exploring the ACT alternative. Lastly, in Brunold's opinion, it's a waste for applicants to take the test more than three times, "...don't make a career of taking tests."

The key to getting the fat envelop from USC (and most selective schools) is to work hard, stay positive, prepare for your standardized tests, but not to the point of obsession, and, during all the challenges of the high school effort, try to discover what captures your interest. Once found, follow all paths to make this interest a passion.  The effort will spark your curiosity, build your interests, and make you a good candidate for a selective school. More importantly, it will make you a happier, more productive and interesting human being; that's the whole point of life, let alone college admissions.

Ralph Becker
Founder, Ivy College Prep LLC
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