secrets of the sat
photo of bob laird
Bob Laird: He is Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of California, Berkeley.
navigation, see text below
What is life like in the admissions office from January through March 31st?

The actual reading process starts about the third of January. And from then on, until about March 25th, it really is intense. We have 31,000 freshman applications this year. We have only 8,500 admission places. We read every one of those 31,000 applicants at least twice, fully and carefully. So everybody in our office is essentially engaged in reading or in supporting the reading effort during those two and a half months. And then we also have some high school counselors who read for us as paid interns, and some part readers that we employ for that process as well.

Do you actually sit there and read any of the students' applications?

It depends on the year. Some years I read a fair amount and some years I don't read that many. This year I'm not reading that many. In part, because I've wanted to be very heavily involved in the training and "norming" of our readers. And that requires reading applications in a different way. And also because, the legal landscape has changed for us. We have a law suit, that's been filed against the campus. And preparing, work for that law suit has taken a good deal of my time. but I'm deeply involved in the reading and the, the training parts of our process. And then at this point, in the last few weeks, I read hundreds and hundreds of files as we look to be sure that we have everything, completed, that we have had a consistency throughout our process, and that, we have all the pieces where they need to be.

What are you doing when you say you are reading files?

Well, in each of those two individual reads, that an applicant receives--we assign the applicant an academic score based on all of the academic information in the file and on the student's context. And a comprehensive score that looks at, not only the academic achievement, but at everything that the student has done--including the circumstances under which that student has done those things. We have no fixed weights in our scoring processes. We have no formulas. We depend upon the trained professional judgement of our readers. So we need to be sure that there's a reliability, between the individual readers and a consistency in the values that the faculty have instructed us to, support in the admission process at Berkeley.

It's also really important for a place like Berkeley to ask itself--what does it mean for the students who are here if the enrollment at Berkeley becomes 94--95--or 96% white and Asian American? Can we really say we are educating students fully and deeply for positions of leadership in California? So really what we try to do in the training and the "norming" sessions is to keep our arms around, all of our readers, to be sure that we are looking at the same criteria in the same way, to the extent that we can. We have a very high degree of reliability, in our reading process.

Our readers are organized, into five teams, and they're based on geography. Because what we are doing is building knowledge of schools over time, in our readers. We are very interested in learning as much as we can about individual high schools, because we know that there's a tremendous variation, among high schools, in the state of California. And we've built a very careful database, that gives us a lot of demographics and academic information, about all of the high schools in California. We look at that information as we evaluate our applicants and then as we look at the score reports every week, we can talk to the individual team leaders and say--you know, your group is doing a tremendous job. You're 500 files ahead of where you need to be on this date. Thanks very much. Or, your group is 500 files down. We need to know what's going on. Do we need to move files to another team? Has somebody been ill? But also, we can see, if there are any out-liers in the scoring process. And we can work with those individual readers at that moment to say--you know, you're scoring a little too severely on the academic side. We need to have you come up a little bit as you think about the academic achievement of these students, compared to the over all freshman applicant pool.

So in that sense, we work very hard to not have this be simply a subjective process. It's a comprehensive process. But we do have very specific criteria that the faculty have given us in the admission policy. And then we work, as I say, to be sure that, people have a norm set of values and an understanding that it isn't their capricious opinion that matters here, but how they embrace the values of the process and apply them that makes the process work.

It's a heavy responsibility because you guys have the keys to the kingdom.

It is a heavy responsibility. I'm not sure about the kingdom part of it. But I think that those of us who work in the admissions office at Berkeley, really do regard the admission process at Berkeley as a public trust. It really is, in my view, very important to the whole state of California who comes to Berkeley--the flagship public university in the state. So, I think all of us take the work very seriously and understand that with 31,000 applicants and 8,500 admissions places, that we're going to deny a lot of very, very talented students who could clearly succeed at Berkeley if there were a place for them and if they were given the opportunity. So none of us, I think, approach those denials lightly. But we really approach very seriously the decisions about who has the opportunity to come to Berkeley.

How much time can you give to each application?

Well, it really will vary. Some applications that are very, very strong or very, very weak, a reader can read, pretty thoroughly in five, or six, or seven minutes. But some applications will take much more than that. And when you multiply that by two reads. And then we have a decision rule that says if the academic score--on our scale of one to seven given by the two readers--is more than a single point apart, then the application goes to a third read. It goes to the senior reader who then makes the academic score, or in the case of the comprehensive score, where the scale is one to five, makes the comprehensive score determination.

So in a, in a complicated file, it may take a reader 15 or 20 minutes for an initial read. And then the same amount of time in a second read. And if the scores are more than a point apart, it will go to a third read. So that in some cases, applications get a very, very careful scrutiny over a 30, or 40, or 45 minutes-- a really careful focus reflecting, thinking. But it does vary. A lot depends on how much information the students have given us. And a lot depends within that framework on, how careful the job and how detailed a job the student has done in the personal statement that they're all required to write. Some students, I'm really sorry to say, blow off that. And they miss an opportunity. And they don't give us much information. They have very wide margins. And they triple space. And they really are at a loss about how to approach the essay. And they hurt themselves. But those applications don't take as long to read as an application where someone has been very thoughtful in looking at their life experiences, at their goals, their values, and writes with care and articulateness about those things.

Does the essay make a difference?

In reading thousands and thousands of essays, one of the big disappointments is how many students miss the opportunity. And a lot of times I think they miss the opportunity because they wait until the last minute, or they're careless, or both.

It's not a waste of time because we read the essays with care. And the essays really are a student's chance to write their own letter of recommendation. Because of our application volume, we don't do interviews and we don't ask for letters for letters of recommendation from secondary schools. We would have a counselor revolution on our hands if we did that.

So the personal statement is a lot of things, rolled into a single assignment. But one of the things it can be is the student's own letter of recommendation. You know, who is the human being behind the courses, and the grades, and the test scores, and the activities? And what has been important to you in your life so far and why? And what have you gained from the choices that you've had to make?

I think in every case, we get past the numbers. I think we're not obsessed with the numbers. And as I have said, we have no formulas and no fixed weights attached to things. We really are interested in understanding not just what the student has done in the classroom or outside the classroom, but in the full set of circumstances under which those achievements have been made.

Is this a Harvard admissions process? Is it a question of money?

Well, I think the Berkeley admission process now is very similar to the admission process at Harvard or at Stanford or any of the really elite, private, universities. The campus, and particularly the chancellor, has been very, strong in his support of this process. Because I think there is a consensus that if a public university is going to admit only 27 percent of its freshman applicants, it needs to treat those applicants as individual human beings and not dismiss some portion of the applicant pool based on numbers. And that's--I think--why we've been able to gain the support that we have for this comprehensive reading process that we do.

Now our process is different from that of Harvard, in that we don't require letters of recommendation, and we don't do interviews. Partly that's a question of volume. But it's also a question of something else. And that is that it's very difficult for lots of students in California high schools to get meaningful letters of recommendation, because, as most people know, in many high schools there are no counselors. Class size is often times relatively large. And it's sometimes difficult for students to build personal relationships, with teachers in some of those schools, that will lead to a letter of recommendation that really says something telling about that individual student in comparison to other students that that teacher or that counselor has had.

There's also just the question volume. no one in the country--public or private--reads as many applications as Berkeley does. Stanford for example, has a process similar to ours. But they have probably 18,000 applicants, not 31,000 applicants. If we, in California, began to ask high schools for letters of recommendation, we would have, because in some high schools we have 200 or 250 applicants, such an enormous pressure placed on the teachers and counselors in those schools, that it would be hard to maintain the set of working relationships that we have with some of those schools. And many of those letters wouldn't be helpful in the process. Because the teachers or the counselors who write them wouldn't know their students well enough, or they wouldn't have the time--because of the incredible pressure demands on them in their jobs to write a really careful, thoughtful letter.

Students who come from elite private high schools, that are primarily college preparatory schools--that's what those schools do. And the director of counseling in a school like that spends December writing those individual letters of recommendation or school reports for those 50 or 60 seniors. But there are high schools like Los Angeles that have 5,000 students. And to ask counselors and teachers in those schools--where there are counselors--to write letters of recommendations, is really, I think, impractical and maybe even a disservice to the students, ultimately.

There are some people who say that Berkeley relies very heavily on the numbers...

I really think this is widely misunderstood. what we do is look at an individual applicant against the high school from which she comes. We have gone through all of the course lists for every one of the high schools in California, to count the number of honors courses for example offered in those individual schools. So when we say that we use an uncapped GPA and give students the additional grade points, which is a UC system wide policy for honors level courses taken in high school, we don't simply take the highest GPAs that we have in our applicant pool and admit those students. Because that would concentrate our admits in a small number of schools. We look at what a student has done within the curriculum that's available to her. So if we have a student from a high school that offers only two semesters of honors courses for example, and that applicant has taken both of those courses and done well in them, that student can make an academic score of one in our comprehensive review. Just as the student from a high powered suburban high school, where there are 44 semesters of honors courses, and who has taken 24 semesters of those courses and done well--can make a one as well.

The same thing is true with test scores. We're interested in test scores, but not in any mechanical way. We don't add up the scores and make some judgement or some cut, in our applicant pool. We look at the SAT verbal score and the SAT math score. We look at the three required SAT two examination scores, as individual pieces of information. And we look at those numbers in relation to all the other academic information that we have on a student. And we look at those numbers in relation to the student's own history. So that an SAT one verbal score of 600 doesn't have a single meaning across our applicant pool. A score of 600 may mean one thing for a student who's first language isn't English, or who's parents didn't complete high school, or a student who comes from a low income family, where that same 600 may mean something entirely different for a student from an affluent background with educated parents.

So we're looking at context as well as numeric achievement. And we're matching those test score numbers against other things in the academic record. We might have a student with a verbal score of 500, let's say. But when we look at the academic curricul we see that the student has done well in advanced level English classes. Maybe has taken AP English already. Maybe has a score of 4 on the AP English exam. And so that verbal score then is going to get weighed against another indicator of strong achievement in, English language and literature skills.

What about the notion of grade lock--such similar grades-- don't you have to go the SAT to break the tie?

No. We don't have to go to the SAT to break this grid lock among all of these applicants with very high GPAs. For one thing, it is true that among our 31,000 applicants this year, we have 14,800 students who report a grade point average of 4.0 or higher. Keep in mind that you can have above a 4.0 because of the university wide honors grade point policy. Nevertheless, all of those 4.0 GPAs, first of all, are not straight A's. There's sometimes a confusion in an observers mind--well, gee, 4.0 means straight A. But with the honors grade point policy, that's not true. So, all of those GPAs are very definitely not equal. And second, the course work that students have taken in earning those GPAs will vary tremendously within our applicant pool. So it isn't just the GPA that we care about. We want to see what the actual grades are that the student has made. We want to see what kinds of courses the student has taken. We want to see what kinds of courses the student has taken compared to what was available in that school. So we may have a student with a 4.0 GPA in a school with 24 honors courses. But that student has taken none of those honors courses. That 4.0 GPA is going to be different than a 4.0 GPA from, for another applicant from that school, where that student has taken 12 of those honors courses.

So we're going to look at a whole range of academic measures as we assess what the level of academic achievement is. Not just that GPA. Same thing is true for the test scores.

Do you think using the SAT as the major basis for admissions could drive out college diversity?

My personal view is that that's a very definite risk. That we could in fact enter a period of time when American's really--elite universities or certainly the public universities in California, which are those governed by 209--could revert to, almost entirely white and Asian American student bodies. I think that's a fundamentally important public policy question for the state of California. This year, public K-12 school in the entire state of California, are 51 percent native American, African American and Chicano Latino. That's not counting Asian American students. Fifty-one percent native American, African American, Chicano Latino--the groups that have been devastated at Berkeley, and UCLA, and UC San Diego by proposition 209. I think a really basic and important question is--what will happen over the next two or three years, under the governance of 209? Will, African American, and Latino students, and native American students continue to apply to Berkeley, and UCLA? Or will those application numbers decline? Will the numbers of admits then decline? And will we see a downward spiral? And I think that's a really critical public policy question for the entire state. I think we have to ask ourselves--what does it mean for the state if more than half of the school children in California look at the premier public university in the state and say I don't have a chance to go there? I think we're looking at extending the already growing inequality between the really affluent, folks in California and the increasing number of increasingly poor folks in California--and the correlation between race and ethnicity. And those income distribution patterns are clear and serious.

It's also really important for a place like Berkeley to ask itself--what does it mean for the students who are here if the enrollment at Berkeley becomes 94, or 95, or 96 percent white and Asian American? Can we really say that we are educating students fully and deeply for positions of leadership in California, when we already know that the make up of the state's K-12 schools, is a majority of native American, African American, Chicano Latino students?

It seems to me that your hands are tied. You can no longer use race.

Well, I think it's important to be very clear that there is no surrogate for race in a selective university admissions process, in a state like California. And if racial and ethnic diversity are a fundamental value of the state, then we need to be able to consider race and ethnicity in the admission process--at least until such a time that the society fixes the gross inequities, among families and, children in California. Twenty-six percent of the school children in California live below the federal poverty line. The federal poverty line for a family of four is an income of $16,000 a year. And a very large portion of those students--the 26 percent of California's children living below that federal poverty line--are African American, Chicano Latino, and native American. So this isn't just a question of somehow fixing the schools. This is, a more fundamental question about the fairness, of the society. And until we get to a point where that issue is really addressed -- and it's a long term, and a deep structure kind of issue -- we are not going to be able to achieve the racial and ethnic diversity that reflects the entire state in a highly selective admission process like Berkeley. It isn't that there aren't large numbers of low income applicants to Berkeley. a quarter of our freshman class, for example, comes from families with incomes below $32,000 a year. But in California-- while there are very large numbers of very poor Chicano, and Latino, and African American families--there are also very large numbers of white, and particularly Asian American, families. And in the aggregate, those Asian American students have better academic records. So that unless you're also able to consider race and ethnicity in addition to socioeconomic status, you won't get racial and ethnic integration of the kind that we've achieved at Berkeley successfully over the past 20 years.

Are you going to be able to find proxies so that you would be able to admit the numbers you had before?

There are no proxies for race in a state with the complex demographics of California. One of the most commonly suggested solutions, is to increase the emphasis for example, that we place on low socioeconomic status. Well, it's important to remind people the Berkeley has considered low socioeconomic status heavily for years, regardless of race and ethnicity. That is an important part of the mission of a public university in my view. But in California, if you increase the emphasis on socioeconomic status without being able to consider also race and ethnicity, what results is a large increase in the number of very poor Asian American students admitted to a place like Berkeley. Now that might be the right public policy. But it will not give you a racial and ethnic distribution that will reflect the state of California.

The first question I think we have to ask ourselves is--how much can university outreach programs do? there's a very strong investment on the part of the state legislature, and the University of California to expand the outreach programs. I think that that is a mildly hopeful but short term approach to trying to fix much larger socio-economic inequities that are much deeper than just the K-12 system. But I think outreach is important. And I think we can make some short term gains there. But I think asking outreach programs to compensate for schools that have been starved for resources for 25 years --and in which, even though we have an entire state of public high schools, we really have at least two different public school experiences --depending on whether you're in the affluent suburbs, or you're in the inner city, or in a small rural community. Because, even though those are all public school communities, the public school experience that students have in those different communities might as well be on different planets.

Last month, the university did get sued. These were groups of people that you've worked with in the past. How did it make you feel to suddenly be on the other side?

Well, it was very hard to hear the press conference held by the ACLU, and the NAACP, and MALDEF because those are groups that we have felt at least a real affinity with. Most of the people who work in the admissions office are deeply committed to the notion of opportunity and equity for all of California's students. And that's why we work here--because it's a chance to influence what happens in the best public university in the world. So there was a sense, in my own part of real disappointment and pain even, in being sued with folks with whom we have common values and common goals. And I worry that we're focusing on each other and starting to quarrel, instead of really focusing on the set of problems that we all need to work together to solve.

Well, there's been a whole series of public records act requests, from those groups. And so we assumed that they were preparing to sue us. And actually some of us are friends with some of them. And we also knew informally that this was probably going to happen. I think the admission process at Berkeley is the most highly scrutinized admission process in the United States--maybe in the history of the United States. I'm not sure about that, but it feels like it right now. And our expectation has been that we are going to get audited by both sides. And that this will continue, for the next several years. The emotions around the issues of race in American society and American history, and the perception that the elite public and private universities are the only key to a good life in America, raised the emotional stakes on this issue to a level that is just extraordinarily intense.

What would you say to Jesus Rios?

I think his dreams are going to come true. I think he's a remarkable student. I think he's going to succeed, where he has chosen to go to school. I think that not everybody gets admitted to Berkeley however. And that's a really hard and painful fact of life. So I think that we have to understand the high degree of competition for places at Berkeley, and the fact that we're going to turn away some very good students who we would love to have at Berkeley. and to say very clearly that these are students who could succeed at Berkeley. But that there are 8,500 admissions places with 31,000 freshman applicants. In denying three quarters of our applicants, we're going to turn away a lot of very good students, like Jesus Rios.

There's an argument that's been put forward. It's not a problem if you don't get into, lets say, Berkeley or UCLA, because this country has other colleges that will be just as good...

I think there is something wrong with the argument that says don't worry if you don't get to go to Berkeley or UCLA. I agree with the point that there are great opportunities at all of the campuses in the UC system. And the students would get extraordinary educations there--period. But I also think it makes a difference who goes to Berkeley and UCLA, in part for the other students at those campuses, but also in part because of a point that Bok and Bowen make in The Shape of the River. It does in fact matter to some degree where you do your undergraduate work, in terms of the opportunities for graduate and professional school, and even employment beyond that. And I think it's very important that there not develop over time a two tiered University of California system that says, Berkeley and UCLA are essentially white and Asian American campuses, and the other campuses in the system are much more racially and ethnically diverse and integrated. I think there's a fundamental public policy issue for the whole state that has to be addressed candidly and directly over the next several years.

Throwing out the SAT to some people suggests that, in order to insure racial diversity, you're lowering the standards.

It was the opposite. The bar was raised over the last 20 years at Berkeley for all students admitted. Including students who benefited from affirmative action. And if you look at the profile of entering students to Berkeley, by any traditional academic measure you see a steady upward trend line, across all ethnic groups. So I think the notion that somehow affirmative action lowered the bar is completely a mistake and, in fact, dishonest. When you look at the graduation rates, for example at Berkeley, you see this sharp increase in the graduation rates for African American and Chicano Latino students at Berkeley. And a faster increase in the graduation rates for those students, than for white and Asian American students. There's still a gap between those graduation rates. But the gap has been closing sharply over years. And that's an important fact that's often ignored.

Why do you think people have that notion?

I think part of it is the emotional heat generated by the combination of the history of race in this country and by the increased pressure that people perceive to be admitted to one of 20 or 25 colleges and universities across the country. I think it also reflects our own society's rather obsessive focus on numbers as somehow meaning more than just numbers--and the desire to quantify things, and then make easy judgements.

But anybody in higher education, will almost always say that merit is a much more complex notion that can be reflected in simple grade point averages or test scores. And that's certainly been true of the faculty at Berkeley, as they have constructed the admission policy that we currently use.

What, in your opinion, are the real issues that are not being discussed?

Well, I believe the real issue is that colleges and universities that are highly selective, need to be able to consider race and ethnicity responsibly --and within the Bakke decision of the Supreme Court-- in order to have racial and ethnic diversity that comes close to approximating that of the state of California. And there is no other way to do that, short of considering race and ethnicity. I think there are no surrogates that will do that. And I think tinkering with eligibility requirements, without the long term prospect of making significant change is just not a really practical thing to do. I think we need to have a very serious conversation as a state, about why these unequal level of achievements persist--that are so tightly correlated to race and ethnicity, in California. But until we're willing to have that conversation, and to begin to address those inequalities and to change the conditions that lead to the need for affirmative action, I think we need to be able to consider race and ethnicity in the admission process.

In my view, we ended affirmative action before we ended the causes of the conditions that required affirmative action to begin with. And I think we have a gap that we're not going to be able to bridge.

Do you actually think that the era of the great multi-racial university is over?

It's possible that the era of the multi-racial public university might be over. But I don't think so. And the reason why I don't think so is that this isn't just a 50 year circle. This is part of a 400 year struggle for opportunity and, equity and social justice in the United States. And also, I don't think the era of the multi-cultural public university is over because I don't think the society can afford for it to be over. I don't think we can have a two tiered elite public education system in the state of California and survive as a society.

Does it occur to you that you are really the man in the middle? That you are caught in a bind between all of these conflicting demands as to how to admit these students, and your personal beliefs?

I don't think I'm the man in the middle. I think I'm one of a lot of people in the middle, struggling with fidelity to the law of the state of California, and our own personal values, and the things that many of us have worked for most of our adult lives. And that part is hard. But I do see this as part of a much longer struggle. And I think looking at it that way, it's important to think about ways to influence outcomes, down the line--politically and legally.

I think there are lots of us who are the middle. I think the faculty admissions committee at Berkeley, all of the people in our office, other people who read for us, people who are, really supportive of diversity--all feel that sense of tension between the law that non governs us and many of our own personal values. But I think we also believe that if we can't uphold the law, then we need to leave--that, that is the law, and admissions is a public trust in a public university. And we have to reconcile that and figure out whether we think we can work within that set of limitations or not.

home | discussion | who got in? | interviews | the race issue | sat & test prep | history of the sat
the screening process | test score gap | getting in to berkeley | bibliography | links | tapes & transcripts | press | synopsis

FRONTLINE | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation



../test/ ../race/ ../interviews/ ../who/ ../talk/ ../