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Exclusive interview with a UCD admissions director!

Have you ever wondered who reads your college applications essays, and what type of student they're looking for? How do they make admit decisions? Is there a secret committee discussing applicants behind closed doors? Can you bribe an admissions officer? Well read on—I got to sit down with Brenda Fudge Jensen, Associate Director of Admissions and Public Advising at UC Davis, to find out all of that and more!

Thank you, Brenda Fudge Jensen!

Here are the highlights:

  • Last application season (2016-2017), UC Davis received more than 71,000 freshman applications.

  • Just because you've worked really hard on the application, doesn't mean you're guaranteed to get in.

  • Students need to apply to multiple schools as backup, NOT TO JUST ONE.

  • No, you don't get extra brownie points for calling UCD or visiting, but you do get valuable information and tips for applying.

  • Admissions staff are obligated to read every single thing on your application, from your reported grades to your answers on the "personal insight questions" (i.e. the applications essays), even if you don't have the recommended 3.0 GPA.

  • Keep track of all your activities and awards from the summer after 8th grade onward.

  • You can't bribe an admissions officer.


Read the interview for more!

Eda: So your official title is Associate Director of Admissions and Public Advising. What does that role entail?

Brenda: I work out of the Welcome Center. When people come take a tour of Davis, they can ask to speak with an advisor. They're often students in high school with their parents, transfer students. We also help existing students with external credit; they can bring in their transcript of, say, community college classes they took over the summer, and we can process that for them. We're basically customer service for the Welcome Center. I direct student staff at the call center, and we field any calls that come in about admissions.

Eda: How many applications did you receive for the 2016-2017 college application season?

Brenda: Over 71,000 freshmen applications and 17,000 transfer applications.

Eda: Do you anticipate that the numbers will be higher this season?

Brenda: Yes, it always is. That type of competition is what the students are up against.

Eda: Do students raise their chances of getting in if they contact you or visit the Center?

Bremda: No. [Laughs.] But I do get the opportunity to be honest. I tell students they need to have Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C; they cannot just apply to one school. A lot of students do make that mistake. Decisions go out in March for freshmen, and the phone will ring and somebody will be sobbing, "I didn't get in." We'd ask, "Where else did you apply?"

Eda: And they didn't.

Brenda: No. It's heartbreaking.

Eda: Wow, that sounds like a miscommunication between the UC system and the families.

Brenda: I don't know where they're getting their information. The students work really hard on the application, we know that. They think that hard work alone will get them in, and that's not happening with 70,000 applications.

Eda: So what would you tell students?

Brenda: I tell them to apply to a few UCs, a few CSUs—community colleges and private universities can serve as Plan C, when possible.

Eda: When you're wading through those tons of applications, do you have to look at each one? Do you have to read all of the essays?

Brenda: They're personal insight questions now, and yes we read every single one, even if they have a GPA of less than 3.0.

Eda: Gotcha. So does that mean that there are times when a student might not have the best GPA, but is able to write a super impressive essay…

Brenda: Yes, they still have a chance. Because remember, the UC system does a comprehensive review of each student, but Davis does a holistic review. We look at 14 different criteria, not just GPA and test scores. So I ask students when they come to the Welcome Center to take a look at the list. What have you done in your life that might correspond to these 14 points?

I think it would be a good idea for students to keep a journal of all their activities from 9th grade on, maybe even starting the summer after 8th grade: every little award, every accomplishment. Because this is their time to brag, and they really are supposed to.

["Activity Logging" is one of Élan Advising's college admissions coaching sessions! We help students review every activity they've been involved in and strategize which should be prioritized for a more attractive application. See our Life and College Readiness Program to learn more. Call for a FREE consultation at 1-866-250-ELAN.]

Eda: Would you say that the applications process is as good as it can be right now? If you had more resources or time, would it be any different?

Brenda: No, I think it's very good as is, so long as the students take advantage of the process and fill out every single area. Some students don't. Some students come from cultures that more strongly value humility, and they under-do, when they should be sharing everything.

Eda: How would you describe your ideal UCD applicant?

Brenda: We want to see a student who is thriving in their environment, thriving on their high school campus. Thriving means getting involved and being successful. It doesn't mean a 4.0 GPA, but successful. Taking advantage of their high school's resources, resources in their communities. Then we'll know they'll do the same on campus here. We always look for the same thing.

Eda: Oh, so not "x" amount of engineers this application year, or…

Brenda: No. If there's something that's not quite right, such as a bad grade, don't hide it! We always find out. But don't be blaming. It's very negative. It puts us off.

Eda: In our industry, admissions consultants typically advise our clients to avoid the Four Ds for college applications essays: divorce, death, disease, disability.

Brenda: Oh, they can talk about anything. For example, there's a question, should the students choose it, that asks about difficulties they've overcome. If something like that affected their grades, they should absolutely talk about it, but only in regards to how it affected them personally. Not their mom, not their grandma. We get a lot of students who write about their relatives, and they mistakenly don't tell anything about themselves.

Eda: I think a lot of that comes from English class, where you focus on simply writing a good piece.

Brenda: Yes, it's very sweet, but you don't learn anything about the applicant. I was thinking about the Personal Insight Questions. It would be useful to have someone sit across the table from the student, ask them the question, and take notes.

Eda: That's actually precisely what I do—I use life coaching to help the student delve deeper into the questions.

[Learn more about our Life and College Readiness program and our college application services here! For a free consultation, call 1-866-250-ELAN.]

Brenda: That's great. We want students to treat the Personal Insight Questions as an interview. We want to get to know the students.

Eda: So for this upcoming application season, what are your office's priorities?

Brenda: We're going to be reading freshman applications! We'll start mid-December and we'll read as long as it takes. We usually finish the bulk of it in January, take care of administrative tasks in February, and send out decisions in March. Then we evaluate transfer applications.

Eda: You can only accept so many applications, so is there some sort of system or process where you get to advocate on behalf of the applications you've read?

Brenda: Yes, there can be a process like that. A lot of [application readers] work out in the field—they recruit, or work for low-income or first-generation students. If someone is absolutely needing an advocate, sometimes that can happen.

Eda: What do you wish students understood better about the applications process?

Brenda: Answering the Personal Insight Questions. If the student at all had any leadership position, that needs to be on there. And they need to remember that we don't know everything there is to know about their schools, so don't use abbreviations, don't use acronyms. Let's say a student says, "I was a member of SAM." Well, that's great, but we don't know what that is, and we're not going to look it up because we don't have time. They need to tell us what the organization is, and what they did as a member.

Eda: So in that situation, do you just try to piece together the story as much as you can?

Brenda: Well, you're not supposed to assume. You can't add to the story because you can't make things up. You have to just take what's there in the text.

And there are leadership roles that are not necessarily president of the ASB [Associated Student Body/student government] or captain of the football team. If a student is caring for a grandmother every day after school or caring for their siblings, that's leadership. Many students just don't recognize it as such.

Eda: They're not certain of how leadership can be defined.

Brenda: Right. So we'd like them to think about everything in their lives where they are a leader.

Eda: How long have you been at UC Davis?

Brenda: Since 2011.

Eda: Where did you work before then?

Brenda: Well I was a student getting my bachelor's at Chico State. I worked in the Student Center and taught people study habits and time management.

Eda: Oh wow! I just feel that no one teaches that. You're just told to get your stuff done on time. But how…

Brenda: Yes, but how… People assume they know how, but they don't. Davis has the Student Academic Success Center, where all of these different services are free.

[We can help with study skills! For a FREE consultation, call 1-866-250-ELAN.]

Eda: So in the context of UC schools, how would you say that UC Davis is different?

We have a number of different strengths, but if students want to work with anything related to animals or agriculture, we're the place to be. UCD is number one in the world for veterinary science and forestry. On campus, we've got goats, pigs, sheep, llamas, horses. We have a dairy. We have the primate center, the Bohart Museum of Entomology.

Eda: What difficulties are you encountering with the applications?

Brenda: We're having trouble getting students to read their emails. As soon as you fill out your application, you'll receive an email saying, "Thank you, we've received your application." Then emails will go out to students asking them to do certain things by deadlines. And some students don't read these emails at all.

Eda: [Laughs.] So you gotta Snapchat them, basically.

Brenda: [Laughs.] Yeah, I don't know! We're trying to figure that out, but every campus is having that problem.

Eda: What are some things that students need to do when notified by email?

Brenda: Well for one, they need to accept their place at UCD after their admit decision comes out. Sometimes, past the deadline, we'll receive a call saying, "I never got my admit decision."

Eda: They were expecting a paper decision probably.

Brenda: Well imagine 70,000 paper notices. And they need to get their documents in by certain dates. They really need to check their emails, really, really.

Eda: [Laughs.] Okay, I'll get that into the blog, all caps. CHECK YOUR EMAIL.

Brenda: Please! Consider opening a new email account just for your college applications. Last

Eda: Oh, that's a great idea. And that probably looks more professional than some of the emails some students are using out there. Sparkleunicorn255.

Brenda: Exactly!

Eda: What do you appreciate about Millennials?

Brenda: I think they're very optimistic. Almost unrealistically [laughs]. But they're very optimistic.

Eda: I get this question from a lot of families, but would you rather a student be well-rounded in all their classes, or great in, say, just math and science, which they know they'll want to pursue?

Brenda: Either one because we know they're going to change their major.

Eda: Gotcha!

Brenda: We have over 100 majors. There are majors students have never heard of. They get to campus, and they're like, "Oh! What's that?"

Eda: "Oh, that's shiny."

Brenda: Yeah. And there they go.

Eda: What is your favorite Personal Insight Question from this application season?

Brenda: I don't really have a favorite. I just love it when students answer them directly. Remember there's also a section for additional comments. If there may be something peculiar, students should use that.

Eda: It sounds like, just be upfront.

Brenda: Yeah, just tell us. "I got a D in Calculus, and here's what happened." Okay, at least I know. I'm not just looking at the D and wondering.

Eda: Is there anything you wish families knew?

Brenda: Don't force students into a certain major. I see a lot of families that choose the majors for their child and if it's not what they love, they might not do well, they might not get good grades. So maybe let them do what they love, and their grades will be good, and everything will work out.

Just about every high school student is stressed to the max. They are all feeling anxiety, all feeling depression. So I feel that we need to let these students relax a little bit; they need an outlet.

Eda: And what do you think would work?

Brenda: I don't know. I did the same thing to my oldest daughter, and I’m so sorry now that they did. They need some space to relax.

Eda: Well I did a lot of reflecting on why I was so anxious as a high school student and as an adult, really. It's because I think I really strongly associated my performance in school with my identity.

Brenda: Yeah!

Eda: Performance as in if you get an A, you're a good student. But if you get a B or lower, it kind of devolves from "I didn't do well in this class, I need to study more" to "I'm a bad person."

Brenda: Yeah, yeah.

Eda: I feel like for Millennials it's an especially prescient point because I feel that for older generations, they're better at compartmentalizing and for Millennials, I feel like that everything is so integrated in their lives. College admit decisions may be the first concrete time in their lives when they're receiving a rejection, a concrete "No, you weren't the right fit for us."

Brenda: And the parents can't do anything to fix it.

[Emotional support is just as important as applications guidance. That's why all of our programs include life coaching—for students to have a healthy sense of self no matter what happens. To learn more about our Life and College Readiness program, call us for a FREE consultation at 1-866-250-ELAN.]

Eda: There's a big sense of helplessness. Because growing up, you're always being told, so long as you work hard, so long as you try, you can do anything, right? There's this first time in their lives when the disappointment might be real.

Brenda: That's hard for them. That's why I say Plan A, Plan B, Plan C.

Eda: So 70,000 applicants, I mean, it seems really hard to think about how you can even distinguish—again, you use the 14 criteria—but beyond that, if you have two applicants who are nearly exactly the same, what's the one factor that would decide in favor of one versus the other?

Brenda: There isn't. But we do have a selection committee that sits down that will talk about all those things.

Eda: How many people are in this committee?

Brenda: It's our senior management folks. So I would say at least six.

Eda: And do you know what the process actually is for that committee?

Brenda: No, I do not.

Eda: I mean, do they flip coins, play thumb war?

Brenda: [Laughs.] I do not know.

Eda: So is that almost a kind of secret thing in terms of the committee's process?

Brenda: I don't think it's a secret. But the applicant pool is different every year, so they come up with something every year.

Eda: Wow, okay sounds good. So this may be more true for private schools and whatnot, but is there anything that applicants can do to sway the admissions committee in their favor? If they show up on your doorstep with flowers or chocolate…

Brenda: No! We have parents that come in and ask us, "Tell me what to do. Tell me what the secret is." And I say, "There are no secrets! I can't help you with that!"

Eda: "How much do you need?"

Brenda: And they do, they ask.

Eda: What's the most outrageous offer you've ever gotten?

Brenda: They just ask right to your face, "So what can I do to make this happen?" And I'll laugh and walk right back to my desk.

Eda: I feel like you should ask what they can offer and just keep a tally…

Brenda: No, no!

Eda: Oh because that would make it seem you were amenable… That's too bad because I would love to find out. Is there anything else you would like to share with students and families?

Brenda: That the people who read the applications genuinely care. They're very caring, loving people. And they all do this job because they love working for students.

Eda: Is it a volunteer position?

Brenda: No, it's our staff, plus outside readers that we hire just for reading.

Eda: How do you find your outside readers?

Brenda: A lot of them are retirees or former educators, but have some connection to the school. We all go through training every year, and we love our job.

Eda: What do you wish you were asked more often?

Brenda: "Will it all work out, no matter where I get in?" The answer is that the universe has a plan, and what happens is what's supposed to.

Eda: Love it! Do you and your staff do anything to celebrate once you're done with an application season?

Brenda: The supervisors bring food for everyone!

More insights from Brenda:

  • Make sure you transfer information correctly from your transcript to your application. Don't guess about the grades you've made, etc. The schools always find out, and they can rescind their acceptance offer to you.

  • Average number of times a student changes their major at UC Davis: 2.3.

  • Bribery doesn't work.

  • UCD is very considerate of the balance of in-state versus out-of-state students. They're trying to make the campus mirror the population of California.

  • For all students, if they're not initially admitted into UCD, they can start at community college and be admitted to UCD, on average, in 2 years

  • If you don't write anything for the Personal Insight Questions, you will NOT get in!

Are you currently a junior in high school planning to apply to colleges next fall? We can help you with UC, CSU, Common App and more!

Call us for a FREE consultation at 1-866-250-ELAN.

There is absolutely NO pressure to buy, but we would be happy to show you how we can help on your college applications, whether you need a little or a lot.

A special thank you to Brenda Fudge Jensen, who, in granting this interview, in no way represents UC Davis' opinion on Élan Advising's services!

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