I sat down with John S, University of California, Berkeley graduate who majored in linguistics, to go over his application process. I was able to pick his brain on tips for students hoping to be admitted to top tier universities such as Berkeley.
Editor: Thank you so much for sitting down with me John. Let’s jump right into it. Berkeley graduate, that is not an easy school to get into. What would you say gave you the upper hand in your application process, if you had one?
John: Happy to be here! Well for me, the first and foremost thing that helped with my application was that I was a transfer student. That was a big deal. I honestly might not have had the opportunity to go to a school like Berkeley had I not gone to a community college first and had the opportunity to prove myself. I had really good grades at the community college, and that opens up so many more doors for you because it shows that you are capable of performing in a college environment. Even if it’s at a college that isn’t as cutthroat as Berkeley is, because the class levels are way beyond the difficulty of high school, if you have good grades at a community college, that goes a long way. I am a big proponent of community colleges because it gave me opportunities that most people don’t have.
Editor: I think it’s worth mentioning that this is the case because the transfer system that we have in California is very good.
John: Yes, it’s particularly special in California because we have such a wealth of public universities. Due to the system, they have in place, transferring from a public community college to a public 4-year university is pretty smooth. They all have the same standards, whereas transferring to a private university would be much more difficult. It probably depends on where you go, but it’s definitely smoother to transfer [from a community college] especially because we have a wealth of good universities in the UC system.
Editor: Was your major impacted or not? And do you think that had an impact on you getting in?
John: My degree was not impacted. When I first applied I was a math major – that wasn’t impacted and when I transferred to linguistics that too was not. I did know people who applied for economics and ended up on the waiting list. It’s something to keep in mind when applying.
Editor: Was your SAT score crucial for your admittance?
John: So, my SAT score was not particularly impressive. My English scores were good but my math was in the 70th percentile. Now, the important thing to note here is because I was a transfer student, the importance of my SAT wasn’t as crucial. I didn’t perform extraordinarily well, which is what you typically need to do in order to get into Berkley, but I was fine.
Editor: Would you say that you picked a unique topic for your essay?
John: My personal essay, I believe I had to write two of them, and for one of them I had to write…it’s very funny looking back. I was a math major as I said, but I changed my major to linguistics, and I wrote one of my essays on how much I love languages. They probably should have seen [the transition] coming. Now I don’t remember what the prompts were, but I think it had to do with something in your personal life you had to deal with, and I wrote it about my brothers. Both of them have down syndrome, and I wrote on how that taught me to work with people with different abilities – with special abilities.
Editor: What extracurricular activities did you put on your application, and would you say that’s really important for applicants to focus on?
John: It’s hard for me to say since I wasn’t the one making the decisions…I would honestly say that academic achievement is first. Other things like extracurricular, it depends on the school, I know that that is something Berkeley does look at. I knew people who were honestly surprised they were accepted, and I think it was perhaps on the merits of their extracurricular, even though their academics weren’t necessarily up to par.
For me, I talked about my involvement with a political group. Your mileage may vary, for me, I think it helped that it showed that I was involved in something political, which was important, especially at a young age of 16 or 17. It is essential to have something. They are looking for a type of person, not just someone who can get good grades.
Editor: Let’s talk about that. Good schools are, like you said, looking for a type of person. Now you’ve showcased that you were involved in politics and that your experience with people with special needs opened up your world view. How can someone find out the type of person a school is looking for?
John: I mean, as I said, your mileage may vary, but I would honestly say that what might be especially revealing is looking at stories of people who didn’t think they were going to get in but they did. And that gives you an idea of what the school is weighing that is unusual or what this particular school finds important or sees in students that other universities might not. So I would say that that is probably a good way of looking into what you should be focusing on.
Editor: What would your top 3 tips be for high school graduates who are looking into getting into a school like Berkeley?
John: Study hard. More than anything, study hard and get good grades. I know that’s very cliche, but it’s true. It’s the most important thing. I mean, if you want to look at a common denominator of top universities, it’s that everyone at these types of schools does have a solid level of academic achievement. I just can’t stress that enough. Beyond that, just don’t fall behind on your applications. I have honestly seen, and it’s surprising but it happens, but I know people who had to delay their college experience by a year because they missed the deadlines. And the third thing, I do believe is having a strong personal essay. Make sure it’s proofread. Don’t just type it up in one day without having anyone else look over it. Make sure it’s well thought out and that it answers the question that they are asking. Don’t go off on some absurd tangent. So those are the three top things I think are very important.
Editor: Any last tips for the actual application?
John: It depends a lot on the university. Some may look more at extracurricular activities, some may look more at personal essays. Some departments within the university may do things differently. There is a lot of variabilities. But I think the common denominator between all of them would be, study hard and get good grades. Because that will set you apart.
Editor: Lastly, the college application process, as well as college life, can be daunting. What’s a personal struggle that you faced and how did you overcome it?
John: Something that I definitely struggled with, and something a lot of people struggle with, is imposter syndrome. This was definitely the case for me at Berkeley. So, I don’t know if you’re aware but imposter syndrome is when you get somewhere or you achieve something but you feel as though you don’t really belong there. You’re not worthy, essentially. And I think that was the case for me because of my transfer background. Sometimes I felt like I shouldn’t have been there. But one thing that helped me was studying with my peers. And more often than not you will learn that you really didn’t have anything to worry about at all. And this is something that you continue to deal with throughout college and even when you get a job, so learning to work with your peers really helps.
Editor: And I think that’s good to keep in mind with the college application process; not to think that you shouldn’t apply to a school just because it’s prestigious.
John: Definitely not. If they take you, you belong there. End of story.
Editor: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time, John.
John: My pleasure.