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Mistake That Led To A Rejection At Cal

A Preventable Error that Cost a Student a Shot at Berkeley

This is a continuation of my previous post, Applying to Berkeley: 4 Biggest Fails with Remarkable Turnarounds

About three years ago I worked extensively with a student who was applying to Berkeley, UCLA and a few other UCs in Computer Science. 

He was an international student at a California community college in L.A.

I worked with finalizing his course schedule and then later with his Personal Insight essays.  During that time period we interacted a great deal via email and text. He told me a lot about his life. He had come to the U.S. from a third world country, having won a lottery. His family was very poor and he came here not knowing a soul. The little English he knew was not very good and he spent his days trying to learn as much as he could about CS, as well as perfecting his language skills.  Sometimes he lived on bread and extremely cheap food because finances were tight.  He didn’t go out much and spent his time trying to improve his chances for a UC. He was lonely and had not seen his family for two years.

His dream was to get to Berkeley. He spoke about it all the time.  His GPA was about 3.9 and he had many extra-curricular activities and consulting jobs related to coding.  In other words, all things considered he stood a very good shot.

Application submission

When the time came to apply he handled his own application. He did send me a few screenshots for clarification — the extra-curricular section, the programs and scholarship section, and I believe the Transfer Pathways question. I did not look over the entirety of his application. He submitted and we waited excitedly and nervously for the results.

During this period he had other stresses. He was let go of the coding job he’d had for over a year because the company was downsizing and he was freaking out because he depended on that income. He ended up driving for Uber. We talked a lot and I would give him pep talks telling him not to get discouraged. To be honest, I think I was one of his main personal connections.

In January when it was time to submit the online Transfer Academic Update (TAU) with the final fall grades and restatement of projected winter/spring courses, he found a message noting that he was missing a required engineering course.  He sent me a screenshot and said the course was not part of CS. Either through the TAU or by looking over his application (I can’t remember which) I realized he had applied to the Electrical Engineering and CS major at Berkeley, and not Computer Science, as he had done for all the other UCs.  For reference, Computer Science at Cal is not in the College of Engineering but in College of Letters and Science.

I told him he had applied to the wrong major but not to worry, it could be switched.  I called admissions and told them I had a student who just found out in the TAU that he applied to the wrong major and how do we go about switching it.

The axe falls

There were two problems. The first was the deadline to switch majors was a few days earlier, so it was too late. (That I felt was possibly correctable, since I discovered a long time ago that not everything is set in stone.) However, the bigger and catastrophic issue was that a student cannot switch from the College of Engineering to the College of Letters and Science under any circumstances once the application is submitted. The only way that can be accomplished is to withdraw the application, correct the issue and resubmit during the Nov 1-30 filing period. There was absolutely no way to correct the problem in January and his major was locked in as EECS.

That meant an automatic rejection. Not only was he missing a required engineering course, Berkeley’s engineering majors are so competitive it is encouraged that every applicant complete as many recommended courses as possible, even if it means driving to Timbuktu — and that’s an approximate addition of four courses. (There are more recommended but some aren’t offered anywhere.) He had zero recommended courses.

The aftermath

I remember talking with him on the phone and all he kept saying over and over was I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid, I’m so stupid.  I tried to remain upbeat — UCLA was still possible and worse case he could reapply, but  he just kept saying I’m so stupid.

Prior to this he would answer any email or text I sent instantly. But from that day forward he never responded again. I left so many messages telling him I was worried and to please let me know he was okay. I’ll be honest, it entered my head he might try and kill himself.  It was also during the time when Trump had that draconian law in effect when they were deporting people right and left. I wondered if he got deported. Eventually, after about a year of sporadic emails with no response and periodic internet searching, I saw he was active on some social media so was assured he was all right.

Lesson learned

It’s mind-boggling to think something like this can happen and since then, whenever a student I am working with is majoring in CS or Biology-related or biz-econ-related, I always remind them to double-verify the major, so they don’t get caught choosing the wrong major, the one that has more course requirements. (For instance UCLA’s Business Econ major has more course requirements than its Econ counterpart.)

Lesson learned.

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Lindy is an independent UC admissions consultant, who works with both transfers and freshmen. She also has just completed her first novel, a supernatural thriller set in San Francisco.

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