Maybe the best way to think about getting into an elite university is to look at it through the institution’s eyes. The Ivies can’t sit on their laurels, after all. Each and every one wants to send off graduates who will change the world.
Applicants need to know their submission will be one among tens of thousands. All with great grades. All with high test scores. It will come down to unique résumés and outstanding essays that together say: “I am going to dig in, challenge professors to teach me more, because I care about what matters and want to make a real difference in my community.”
Beyond excellence, drive and high purpose, however, an element of dumb luck pervades the process through which private universities craft a cohort. Who else has applied? If the plan is to bring together a thriving community of unlike souls, the best and brightest of every place, income, culture and field of study will be weighed by the mix as much as their measure.
What might be called the bouillabaisse approach to admissions makes submitting even the best-prepared application an ulcer-inducing poke of the send button. But for those with stout hearts, here are some insights from the shady brick campus of the University of the Pacific, the oldest and most prestigious private university in the Central Valley.
The goal of this piece is to demystify college admissions at Stanford, because explaining nuclear physics is just too simple. Clarifying Middle East politics, solving the Riemann hypothesis, defining love – anyone can do that. Let’s tackle a subject with some heft to it.
“It’s a completely different learning environment,” UOP Provost Maria Pallavicini said, trying to put into words what makes private universities worth it all.
“People engage with faculty at a really personal level,” added Vice Provost J. Michael Thompson. Lower class sizes (average is 19) and intensive advising are part of that, he added, “Teaching is the primary focus here.”
That connection makes for rich class discussions, where instructors are more guides than lecturers, he said. “That may be the secret sauce,” he added.
“These are things in private schools that are part of our DNA. It doesn’t scale and it’s extremely expensive to do, but it’s part of the reason we’ve been around 165 years,” Thompson said.
69 Percentage of Stanford applicants with perfect SAT scores of 2400 turned away Stanford Alumni Magazine
The generally genial private university setting often comes with powerhouse alumni, strong industry and community connections and strong support for the arts. UOP, a Division I school, has about 5,200 students at its Stockton campus. Its graduates include George Moscone, musicians Dave Brubeck and Chris Isaak, and NFL head coaches Tom Flores and Pete Carroll.
How did those notables get picked in the first place? Taking the hard classes in high school, for one – and yes, they know which Advanced Placement classes are at each high school. They want to see that applicants challenged themselves, but if a school has few AP courses, they see that, too, Thompson said.
“It isn’t the number (of AP courses taken). That would advantage the student who goes to Beverly Hills High School and disadvantage the student from Denair High,” he said. “We know persistence and GPA are the best indicators of future success.”
As for résumé builders like band, sports and organizations joined, Thompson said the school looks for those who pursued clear interests. “I’m not interested in a laundry list – ‘I was in 18 clubs.’ We’re looking for folks who are preparing themselves to lead,” he said.
We’re looking for folks who are preparing themselves to lead.
J. Michael Thompson, vice provost, University of the Pacific
The university includes a conservatory of music and schools of dentistry, education, pharmacy, engineering, business and international studies. Within those majors, it encourages cross-field studies, double majors and time studying abroad, Pallavicini said.
“You get a very personalized curriculum plan that allows you to get through in four years,” she said, alluding to another aspect to private school – a smooth road to the finish line.
Finishing in four years is no longer a given at public institutions, but at UOP, dedicated students have a guarantee. “If they follow their plan,” Pallavicini said, “we cover the extra tuition.”
The cost of tuition discourages many a family from considering private colleges. Undergraduate tuition at UOP is $44,688 this year. Add books, food and housing and the total comes to nearly $62,000. Living on campus is required for the first two years.
But that is the sticker price. In practice, 84 percent of UOP students receive financial aid, a mix of public help and private scholarships averaging $26,000 per person. Stanford, which costs about the same, announced last year that students from families earning less than $125,000 a year would pay no tuition.
Cost can be managed, Thompson said, pointing with pride to higher earnings enjoyed by UOP grads. Or to put it another way, he said, “This isn’t just a place where you come and buy a product. There’s a transformation that happens here.”