Berkeley Now Accepting Two Recommendations

UC Berkeley announced that it will begin accepting two recommendation letters from its freshmen applicants beginning this fall.

UC Berkeley undergraduate admissions has not welcomed recommendations since it opened its doors in 1868, yet admission criteria to the UCs (and Berkeley) have been in the throes of change over the last years.

Recent changes were made to the ELC program (Eligibility Local Context) which, in essence, guarantees seats in the UC System to the top 9% of high school graduates changed from the top 12.5% of students, with the 3.5% differential offered at the discretion of the UC System. Additionally, the two SAT Subject Tests requirement (though certain departments, such as engineering, retain this requirement) was eliminated. Now UC Berkeley is stepping out on its own to support its holistic admissions process by allowing applicants to submit two recommendations. 

According to the UCB admissions site, one letter should be from a teacher while the other can be from any reference of the student’s choosing. Each letter should be held to a page in length and will need to be submitted by January 1st.

It is hard to imagine the massive workload this decision will confer on the UCB admissions staff. Last year, UCB received over 73,000 freshmen applications. This would mean an extra 146,000 pages of information to read, assimilate and consider by UCB’s extended staff of several hundred readers. With a due date of January 1st, and many UCB admissions offers made by mid-March, the admissions office has around 75 days to course through the recommendations requiring a pace of 1000 recommendations a day, 24/7.

But, of course, UCB is reading these applications holistically, so, in many cases, there might be 2, 3, or even 4 readings of certain recommendations.

According to the UCB website, readers are looking for leadership (in school, family and community), persistence in the face of changes, cross cultural engagement, originality and creativity, and demonstrated concern for others. Yet, there are doubts about the holistic admissions process.  

The October 2012 Daily Californian contained an article, “The Holistic Admissions Lie” by Jason Willich, which questioned the credibility of the admission’s holistic process. One question in particular haunts the article: what makes the admission office qualified to not only determine a student’s academic promise but whether he or she is a ‘good person.’ Jason Willich goes on to further speculate that holistic admissions decisions based more on character will entice the less scholarly to apply, increasing application numbers and thereby improving ranking. An even more skeptical observation is offered, with all the competition for so few positions at the most select campuses, the holistic admissions claims might serve to ward off the fact that admissions has become ‘utterly random.’

Ruth Starkman was a UCB external reader during the 2012-2013 admissions cycle. In her NY Times article which appeared on 1 August 2013, Confessions of an Application Reader, she delineated the various aspects of her job: sort out the pool of applicants, rate each applicant on a descending 1-5 basis, and learn how to ‘normalize’ her rating as she reviewed her appraisal against that of her assistant director. In the end Ms. Starkman felt the process strangely subjective. While socioeconomic and race could not be discussed, as mandated by Proposition 209 which banned special consideration because of race or economic status, the exercise of holistic application review constantly engaged both tacitly.

Undoubtedly two recommendations from those who know the applicant well should improve UCB’s holistic admissions process. The hope for all parties is that the final result is a class of students who will extend themselves while fully utilizing the resources of one of the top public universities in the country.