The 14 Elements of Comprehensive Review: What You Need to Know
The first thing you need to know about the UC personal insight questions is that they are tied to the 14 elements of comprehensive review. You can find these here, or here:
The 14 Factors of Comprehensive Review for the UC system are...
1. Grade-point average
2. Test scores
3. Performance in and number of courses beyond minimum a-g requirements
4. UC-approved honors courses and advanced courses
5. Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) – CA residents only
6. Quality of senior-year program of study
7. Academic opportunities in California high schools
8. Outstanding performance in one or more academic subject areas
9. Achievements in special projects
10. Improvement in academic performance
11. Special talents, achievements and awards
12. Participation in educational preparation programs
13. Academic accomplishment in light of life experiences
14. Geographic location
Note: No single factor determines admission, as your application is evaluated holistically.
These are the 14 criteria that UC readers use to determine whether you’re in or out.
First, we’ll take a look at each element and I’ll offer tips to help you make sure you don’t leave money on the table--in other words, that any interesting, important contextual information that could set you apart from other UC applicants makes it into your application.
Then, I’ll help you find your topics.
Finally, I’ll give you two ideas for how to structure your essays.
A Brief Look at the 14 Elements of Comprehensive Review
Here are the elements on which you’ll be evaluated, and some points to consider for each:
1. Academic grade point average in all completed "a-g" courses, including additional points for completed UC-certified honors courses.
Your grades are the most important thing the UCs consider when it comes to your application. Note that:
Your grades are self-reported (i.e. - you type them in; you’re not mailing in any hard copy material at this time). But definitely be honest. If you’re accepted, but get caught falsifying your transcript, your acceptance could be rescinded. (Plus, how embarrassing would that be?)
Pro Tip: Don’t try and guess. Only fill this out with an official copy of your transcript in front of you. It’s not worth the risk putting a B when you actually got a C.
You need a minimum of 15 college-preparatory (a-g) courses, with at least 11 finished prior to the beginning of your senior year. This is on the UC website (click here), so I won’t spend a ton of time on this, but basically the 15 courses are:
a. History/social science: 2 years
b. English: 4 years
c. Mathematics: 3 years
d. Laboratory science: 2 years
e. Language other than English: 2 years (or equivalent to the 2nd level of high school instruction)
f. Visual and performing arts: 1 year
g. College-preparatory elective (chosen from the subjects listed above or another course approved by the university)
To qualify for the UCs, you need a GPA of 3.0 or better (3.4 if you're a nonresident) in these courses with no grade lower than a C.
You’re also evaluated on your:
2. Scores on the following tests: ACT with Writing or the SAT Reasoning Test.
And you may or may not know that:
UCs do not superscore (i.e. take the best scores from different sections on different days); all scores have to be from one ACT or SAT sitting.
- Although some private schools don’t like to see you’ve taken the ACT/SAT a bajillion times, to the UCs it matters less how many times you’ve taken the tests; they’re looking for your best score from one sitting.
3. Number of, content of, and performance in academic courses beyond the minimum "a-g" requirements.
In a way, this is pretty straightforward--these are the classes besides those mentioned above--and you’re being evaluated based on a) the content of those courses and b) your performance (i.e. your grades).
Tip for how to stand out: If the content and performance aren’t crystal clear from your transcript, you can use your “additional info” section to clarify.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s say the course you took required you to write six 10-page papers over the semester, required a college-level final and was widely considered the most difficult class at your school, striking fear into the hearts of those daring to take it on. And you got a C+ in the class, though the rest of your transcript boasts As. You might consider (very briefly) providing this context in the Additional Info section. I’m talking like 1-2 sentences here.
Or let’s say you were in the hospital with appendicitis for a month and a half and that’s why the C+. Put it in there.
Why do this? That C+ could be considered a red flag--in other words, it might raise questions. Make sure you explain it.
4. Number of and performance in UC-approved honors, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate Higher Level and transferable college courses.
Again, pretty straightforward: How many AP, IB, and honors courses have you taken? Also, did you take any courses at a local community college (or university), or any online courses? Make sure you list these.
And if you don’t have any, it’s okay. Really. Say in the Additional Info section, “My school doesn’t have AP classes” or “I have no community college near me, but I have taken the most difficult classes at my school” (for example). This may be in the school report the UCs have, but it may not be, so it doesn’t hurt to clarify.
5. Identification by UC as being ranked in the top 9 percent of your high school class at the end of your junior year (Eligible in the Local Context, or ELC).
Do you live in California? Did you graduate in the top 9% of your class with a GPA above 3.0? Have you completed your A-G requirements? If so, you’re guaranteed acceptance to a UC. Click here for more info.
6. Quality of your senior-year program as measured by the type and number of academic courses in progress or planned.
Even though the UCs won’t use your senior-year grades to determine your acceptance, you will report your 12th grade classes and the UCs want to know that you’ll continue to challenge yourself--that you’re not just hoping to sail through 12th grade with easy classes.
Basically: Are you taking a senior-year course load that is as challenging as or more challenging than your junior year schedule?
7. Quality of your academic performance relative to the educational opportunities available in your high school.
Not all high schools are created equal. Some schools offer just a few advanced (AP, IB, Honors) courses, and some offer a TON. What percentage of these are you taking?
Here’s a key question (for your whole application, really):
Did you make the most of the opportunities available to you?
You took the most rigorous course-load (i.e. toughest courses) available to you.
When a particular advanced course wasn’t available at your school, you sought out an opportunity to take this course at another school or local community college.
Did you develop an independent study to take a particular course you're passionate about?
These are all worth mentioning in your Additional Info section.
Tip: Although the UC readers often have some good information on California high schools, the reader may not know that, for example a) a particular class on your transcript is selective and only 10% of your Senior class can take this course, or b) you couldn’t take a particular course because of the way your school structures its academic schedule, or c) (heads-up international students) your high school is the #1 most rigorous school in your country.
These are things you may want to mention in your Additional Info section.
Another tip: you could use the fourth prompt, which addresses how you’ve “worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced,” but only do so if you feel like your story warrants 350 words. If not, just do a quick 1-2 sentence explanation in your additional info section, then write about something else for your fourth response.
8. Outstanding performance in one or more specific subject areas.
Here’s where your 350-word responses can help. Are you the top student in your AP Calc AB class--so much so that your teacher made you a teaching assistant in the class. Do you tutor other students?”
Or did you take your study of science to the next level by taking an online course in Genetics with a Duke professor and then applying for and completing an internship over the summer at a local university? All these would be considered “outstanding performance” in a subject area. We’ll look at some examples of these when I break down the individual prompts.
9. Outstanding work in one or more special projects in any academic field of study.
The terms “special project” is somewhat flexible here and might include:
Performing on Broadway in the National Shakespeare Monologue Competition
Participating in a real-world research study on how sleep affects the brain (and maybe even getting published)
Designing a free app to help students study for APUSH and getting 10K downloads on iTunes
10. Recent, marked improvement in academic performance as demonstrated by academic GPA and the quality of coursework completed or in progress.
Were your grades terrible in 9th or 10th grade? Did they go up in 11th grade? Why? What wasn’t working in 9th-10th grade? What did you do differently? What has changed for you as a result--not just in terms of your grades, but in your approach to academics, or life? Again, something that’s a great topic for one of the personal insight questions and something we’ll look at more closely when we discuss the individual prompts.
11. Special talents, achievements and awards in a particular field, such as visual and performing arts, communication or athletic endeavors; special skills, such as demonstrated written and oral proficiency in other languages; special interests, such as intensive study and exploration of other cultures; experiences that demonstrate unusual promise for leadership, such as significant community service or significant participation in student government; or other significant experiences or achievements that demonstrate the student's promise for contributing to the intellectual vitality of a campus.
This one is incredibly open, and one we’ll spent a good deal of time discussing later. Essentially: what else are you good at?
Did you spend months studying constructed languages on your own, and even invent one?
Did you turn hikes with your Boy Scout troop into historical odysseys?
Or did you work to resolve racial tension at your school in a really interesting way?
Write about it! And you can see examples of all these in my pay-what-you-can course in the section where I address this prompt.
12. Completion of special projects undertaken in the context of your high school curriculum or in conjunction with special school events, projects or programs.
This overlaps a little with 9 and 11, but here are a few more examples:
Did you write an IB Extended Essay on frog mating habits?
Did you create a fundraiser to save your school’s Book Club?
Did you create a blog based on interviews you did with CEOs in your community?
13. Academic accomplishments in light of your life experiences and special circumstances, including but not limited to: disabilities, low family income, first generation to attend college, need to work, disadvantaged social or educational environment, difficult personal and family situations or circumstances, refugee status or veteran status.
Were any of the circumstances mentioned above a part of your high school experience? If so, how did they affect you?
Your school transportation is the city bus service and it’s not safe to be out on the streets in your neighborhood after dark, so you didn’t participate in too many extracurricular activities.
Your family lost its house when you were a freshman, so you took on jobs in cafes and restaurants to help the family make ends meet--and you still found time for a few extracurriculars!
Your father has had three surgeries and is unable to work, your mother was deported two years ago and doesn’t live here, and you have had to be the mother for your younger brother, cooking for him and your father and doing all the grocery cleaning and shopping… but you’ve still managed to have perfect attendance.
Any of these could be addressed in the “educational barriers” or “significant challenge” 350-word statements or, briefly, in a few sentences in the Additional Info section.
14. Location of your secondary school and residence.
Not something you have much control over, but essentially if your home or school is in an underserved area, you may have had to deal with increased challenges to access your education. If not, don’t worry about it. And this will be something the UCs have information on, but if there are particulars you feel the UCs may not have info on, clarify in very brief terms on the Additional Info section.
Okay, that’s that for now.
Time to brainstorm some potential topics.
And what’s the best way? I recommend creating your UC Activities List (since you’ll need it for your application anyway).
Heads-up: there is some particular information the UCs are looking for and some particular ways to list your activities on that list.
Click the next lesson below to learn how.
Completing the application
- Should a high school student apply to UC as a freshman or transfer student after high school graduation if they concurrently attended a college/university while in high school?
- If an applicant is taking classes concurrently at more than one college/university, can they report courses at both institutions?
- When a high school student repeats a course, how should they and the school report the two courses?
- If a student withdraws from a college/university course, do they still need to report it on their UC application?
- Should freshman applicants enter all courses taken or only those that are on their school's UC-certified course list?
- Our high school's data-management system attaches summer school to the previous year's courses on the academic record. Would a UC-required course taken between 9th and 10th grade still be counted for admission?
- If the language other than English requirement is waived for a high school senior because they satisfied it with the SAT Subject Test, an AP exam or formal schooling in a foreign language in another country, how should the student indicate that on their application?
- If a student takes a college/university course in a language other than English, but has already satisfied UC's requirement in this subject area with coursework or documented proficiency, and the high school did not include the course on its academic record, is the student still required to report this extra course and grade?
- If a student spent his junior year abroad and received IB grades, how do you convert them into letter grades?
- If a student is denied a fee waiver on the application but is eligible for a College Board fee waiver, what should they do?
- I am assisting several students who are undocumented and eligible to apply to UC under AB540. Are there special instructions for these students in filling out the application?
- What should a student do if they want to apply to an additional campus after submitting an application?
- Would a freshman applicant be better off declaring a selective major or applying to UC as undeclared?
- How should a student in foster care answer the family information questions on the application?
- If a student's parents are both deceased, should the student provide their legal guardian's job, title, etc., on the application, or should they enter "deceased" for parent information on the application?
- A student has gone through high school using their middle name as their first name. Which name should the student use on their UC application?
- Do students need to submit academic records with the application?
Should a high school student apply to UC as a freshman or transfer student after high school graduation if they concurrently attended a college/university while in high school?
As long as the student does not enroll in a regular (fall, winter and/or spring) session at the college/university after high school graduation, that student would apply as a freshman. If the student plans to continue taking college/university courses after high school graduation, they will be a transfer student.
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If an applicant is taking classes concurrently at more than one college/university, can they report courses at both institutions?
Yes. The student must list information for all institutions, including the dates of attendance, even if they overlap. In answer to the question "Is this your current or most recent school?" the student must enter "yes" for the college where they have the most units, or for their high school if they are applying as a freshman, and enter all coursework completed or in progress at all institutions.
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When a high school student repeats a course, how should they and the school report the two courses?
The student must self-report the grades for both courses on the application, and we will determine which course and grade will be used in the GPA calculation. Schools should follow their own or their district's policy in recording grades on the student's academic record.
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If a student withdraws from a college/university course, do they still need to report it on their UC application?
Yes. Students must report all enrollments and coursework that appear in their academic records.
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Should freshman applicants enter all courses taken or only those that are on their school's UC-certified course list?
Students must enter courses that appear on their school's UC-certified course list. Students who have attended more than one high school must list courses taken from each school. Transferable college/university courses and/or college/university courses that meet an “a-g” requirement must also be listed. Students can list non-"a-g" courses in the appropriate section of the Activities and Awards portion of the application.
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Our high school's data-management system attaches summer school to the previous year's courses on the academic record. Would a UC-required course taken between 9th and 10th grade still be counted for admission?
The student should report the course under "10th grade" even if it appears on the academic record as a ninth-grade course. It will earn credit toward the subject requirement and be used in calculating the GPA.
All “a-g” courses completed in the ninth grade are used toward the subject requirement, but are not used in calculating the GPA.
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If the language other than English requirement is waived for a high school senior because they satisfied it with the SAT Subject Test, an AP exam or formal schooling in a foreign language in another country, how should the student indicate that on their application?
If the student doesn't enter coursework showing that they have fulfilled the "a-g" requirements, they may receive an error message. If that happens, they should check the box that indicates they are aware of the possible deficiency (even though it is not a subject deficiency). In the additional comments box in the Academic History section, they should report that they have fulfilled the language other than English requirement through an alternative method. When UC evaluators see the student's test scores or that the student was taught in a language other than English, they will note that the requirement has been met.
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If a student takes a college/university course in a language other than English, but has already satisfied UC's requirement in this subject area with coursework or documented proficiency, and the high school did not include the course on its academic record, is the student still required to report this extra course and grade?
Applicants are required to report enrollment and coursework from all institutions they have attended. Failure to submit complete information may jeopardize an applicant's chances for admission, and will result in the cancellation of an admission offer if it later becomes known that the applicant did not do so, even if they withdrew from a course before a grade was earned.
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If a student spent his junior year abroad and received IB grades, how do you convert them into letter grades?
There is no need to convert the grades. In the application, the student must report the grades exactly as they appear on their academic record from the school abroad. If necessary, the student may select "Other" for Grading System and then enter those grades manually for each course. They can use the Additional Comments box in the Academic History section to explain the grading system.
The admissions office at each campus has experienced international specialists who will evaluate the student's international coursework. They are knowledgeable about the different grading systems and methods of reporting coursework in other countries.
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If a student is denied a fee waiver on the application but is eligible for a College Board fee waiver, what should they do?
If the student has applied for the UC application fee waiver within the online application and is denied the UC fee waiver, they must indicate that they want to pay by check. When they receive a bill from the UC Application Center, they must mail the College Board fee waiver to the address provided.
Regardless of the source of an application fee waiver, UC only approves waivers for applications for up to four campuses. If a student chooses to apply to more than four campuses and is approved for a fee waiver, they are responsible for the additional application fees owed.
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I am assisting several students who are undocumented and eligible to apply to UC under AB540. Are there special instructions for these students in filling out the application?
Yes. When asked their country of citizenship, they should select "No Selection" from the drop-down menu. Applicants who don't have a Social Security number must leave that field blank. They must not indicate the DACA Taxpayer ID or SSN provided as a result of the DACA process.
Students should submit the UC Nonresident Tuition Exemption Application and Affidavit, available from campus registrar's offices, as soon as they are accepted for admission.
View more information about the AB540 tuition exemption, including contact information for the campus registrars.
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What should a student do if they want to apply to an additional campus after submitting an application?
Provided a campus is still accepting applications, the student must log back in to their application, select the desired campus and major, and pay an additional fee ($70 per campus; $80 per campus for international applicants). The student should not start a new application.
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Would a freshman applicant be better off declaring a selective major or applying to UC as undeclared?
For information about applying undeclared and applying to selective majors at each of UC's undergraduate campuses, download the PDF document UC Campus Policies and Procedures on Evaluating Freshman Applicants (document will be updated by early November 2016 and reposted).
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How should a student in foster care answer the family information questions on the application?
The student can leave the sections on parents' occupations blank. For parents' highest level of formal education, required of EOP applicants, they must enter their parents' education level. If it is unknown, they can choose "No Selection."
For family income and size, which is required if the student is applying for a fee waiver or for EOP consideration, the student should fill out the section as an independent student. The California Chaffey Grant foster youth may provide assistance to cover the cost of attending UC.
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If a student's parents are both deceased, should the student provide their legal guardian's job, title, etc., on the application, or should they enter "deceased" for parent information on the application?
The student must provide the information for his or her legal guardian. They may also choose to inform UC that their parents are deceased in their personal statement or the additional comments section of the admission application.
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A student has gone through high school using their middle name as their first name. Which name should the student use on their UC application?
When filling out the application, the student must use their full legal name as it appears on their official birth certificate/records. The application asks for other names used on records; this is where the student should enter the name they have used during high school.
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Do students need to submit academic records with the application?
No. Students must refer to academic records to complete the academic history section of the application for accuracy, and submit official academic records once an offer of admission is accepted by the student.
The deadline to submit final, official academic records with all grades and a graduation date is July 1.
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