The University of California (UC) announced in the fall that it has permanently dropped the SAT and ACT as admissions requirements, and will not replace them with any other standardized test. The California State University (CSU) system appears to be on the verge of dropping the SAT and ACT for admissions as well. While some students may have felt a sense of relief at this news, especially those who feel they aren’t strong test-takers, others are concerned that dropping the tests has removed one element of the college application that could have underscored their performance in the classroom and highlighted their abilities.
In the absence of SAT/ACT scores, the rest of the UC and CSU applications are now relatively more important. How will they use this information to evaluate students’ applications?
Course rigor, grade trends, math courses & AP exams
In general, admissions officers encourage students to take and do well in the most rigorous classes available to them, such as AP and honors classes. Getting a B in a very difficult class can be a stronger predictor of your success in college than getting an A in an easier class. So students should challenge themselves, when it makes sense for the student, and do their best in their classes.
When could it make sense to increase rigor in a subject? Earning an A in a college-prep (regular-level) class while earning A’s and B’s in most or all other classes may be an indicator of readiness to step up to an AP or honors class in that subject. However, most students will want to increase rigor gradually to avoid becoming overwhelmed. And remember that every student is different, and each student’s interests, strengths and challenges will inform which types of classes they take and at which difficulty level.
Admissions officers also want to see growth in a student’s academic performance over time. Grade improvement throughout high school is a strong predictor of college success, especially when combined with increasing class rigor. An applicant who had average or below-average grades as a freshman may still be a very strong applicant if they show steady improvement. Also, while grades earned in 9th grade are part of a student’s academic record on the UC and CSU applications, only grades earned in 10th and 11th grades are calculated into the GPA.
The highest level of math taken is also a strong predictor of academic success in college, even for students who intend to major in a field that is not math-heavy. Admissions committees will closely scrutinize the math classes and grades earned, so taking four years of math in high school and doing your best can only help your college application.
Keep in mind that UC will still consider AP scores as part of the admissions evaluation. It appears that different CSU campuses consider AP scores differently in their evaluation of the application for admission. Cal Poly San Luis Obispo said by phone that they do not consider AP scores at all during the admission evaluation process, while some other campuses indicated that they will consider scores as one aspect of the application.
Specialty colleges & extracurricular activities
UC campuses generally admit students by college, so all applicants to a specific college, such as Letters & Science, will usually be considered equally. However, admissions competitiveness varies across colleges within a campus, and applicants may be evaluated slightly differently depending on the college they are applying to. For example, a college of engineering may look for higher-level math and physics classes than another college at the same campus.
Elephant seal sunbathing at Año Nuevo State Park, near UC Santa Cruz. Photo by Matthew Enger, 2022.
Different colleges on UC campuses may also be looking for evidence that the applicant is truly interested in that field (e.g., engineering or nursing). Therefore, they will look closely at the activities the student participated in and what they wrote about in their Personal Insight Question responses. For example, business schools will expect to see classes in business and related extracurricular activities, such as participating in the business club or starting a business.
CSU campuses generally admit by major, so they are specifically looking for evidence of preparation for the major, which they assess based on what classes the applicant took and how they performed in those classes. In general, the CSU campuses do not consider extracurricular activities or require/accept essays, but some campuses, including Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, do a “light” review of extracurricular activity involvement and leadership.
Some UC and CSU programs also have supplemental applications, including art portfolios or letters of interest. Therefore, it is important to check the admissions websites for all programs you are applying to so that you don’t miss an application requirement.
Writing sections on the UC application
Your activities descriptions and your responses to the short essays on the UC application—the Personal Insight Questions—show admissions officers who you are, how you think, what matters to you, and where you see yourself going. UC admissions teams want to hear your voice come out of your responses, because that helps them connect with you as a person and see your accomplishments and challenges through your eyes. By connecting with you this way, they will see your whole application in a more favorable light, because they will feel that they know you better.
The bottom line with UC and CSU SAT/ACT-free admissions is that all other parts of your application will take on greater importance, including and especially the coursework you have taken, the grades you have earned, and, for UC, how you represent yourself through your writing.
Shelley Enger, PhD, MPH, is an experienced college and graduate school admissions consultant, essay coach, and research scientist who supports the education and career development of the next generation. Co-founder of Capstone Higher Education Experts, Shelley has decades of experience mentoring future research scientists and health professionals, and she is a former Freshman Application Reader for UC Berkeley.