How I got into Berkeley

PUBLISHED WED, JAN 16 2019


Karissa Xu

Bachelors in Biology-Others at University of California, Berkeley

Chemistry and Biology Teacher


A little about me…

My family immigrated to America at the end of my eighth grade. The language barrier was quite a challenge for me. Fortunately, I went to a local middle school before immigrating and adopted many study techniques there. Getting good grades was not tremendously difficult for me if I put the time into studying. I went to a public high school in L.A. for four years. My high school was not ranked as the top ones in the nation. However, there were a good number of students who were very intelligent and made it into Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. Compared to them, I was a shy girl, who was hardworking and quiet but with perseverance and motivation, I got into Berkeley.

University of California

How to make sure you get in to university OR
How to get the GPA you need

The thing I spent the most time on and cared the most was GPA. Besides one summer Introduction to AP Chemistry class, I got straight A’s in the rest of my classes. Many of the college application counselors outside of the school would plan out a crazy schedule to squeeze in as many AP/IB classes or Honor classes as possible. I tried to maximize the number of AP classes as well, but I did it in a way that would ensure I would be able to maintain a good GPA. For example, as I mentioned before, I had a language barrier in the first year of high school. I knew that history would be a difficult subject for me, so I chose regular World History and regular American History instead of advanced history classes. There was less homework, and the teacher went over the material at a slower pace that helped me to master the material well. In this way, I had more time to focus more on other classes like AP English Language and AP Chemistry. Another example could be that among all the science classes, I was the least interested in Biology and I knew I would not like the memorization part of it. So I chose a different STEM AP class instead of Biology. For American college applications, American students’ grades are weighted the same in GPA for all classes. It is important to work hard to ensure that you are getting high grades in most of your classes including P.E. and arts & crafts. It can really help to find elective classes that you are good at or are able to get good grades.

Challenge Yourself: Take some AP Classes

If there are only one or two AP classes that are offered by your school, I would recommend taking these challenging classes and trying hard to get an A or B. This is because colleges and universities like to see students challenge themselves in academics. One thing to keep in mind is that a B in AP class can look better than an A in a regular class, especially when other students from the same high school took advanced classes in the same subject. Despite taking regular history classes, I had one AP and two Honor classes starting my sophomore year, three AP classes in my junior year, and five AP classes in my senior year. As a reference, students could take six or seven classes each year at my high school. This was what I was referring to as challenging yourself. If the school offered a good number of advanced classes, increasing the number of advanced classes over the span of four years helps to show students’ willingness and ability to take challenges. Nevertheless, showing improvement through your transcript also helps to present your potential to college recruiters. Increasing your GPA semester by semester is also a good way to show your capability to work hard and be responsible.

Taking AP Tests

Another way to show your academic performance is by taking AP tests. My high school teacher mentioned some colleges like to see that students take the AP tests after spending a year in AP class. I am not sure if what they claimed was true. However, I highly recommend taking AP tests for those of you who are good at those subjects. Especially for public universities like UC Berkeley, many general education classes can be waived by getting good or passing AP scores depending on each school/college/major. For example, I got waived out of a college-leveled English class because I got a 4 in AP. These AP scores can be transferred as college credits that count toward graduation. I received around 40 to 50 credits, and it was common for freshmen in Berkeley to have sophomore standing in credits because of these AP/IB scores. Besides, it was also a good way to show that students were challenging themselves by taking AP tests after completing their AP classes.

Writing Your Personal Statement

My curiosity was captured by my personal statement. In freshman year, I was asked to do a research assignment where I had to either discover the answer to a question or a learn about a rare occupation that I was interested in. I chose to learn about perfumers, the people who make perfume for people or products. As I got more interested in the topic, I tried to explore the field to find out the requirements like Chemistry and Food Science. These are some of the paths people took to become perfumers. I do have a good sense of smell and I dreamed to become a perfumer. This was how my curiosity guided my life, and I began to constantly look for opportunities and news about the field. Even after the assignment was completed, I still continued to find information. My personal statement was about how I got interested and continued to explore this unknown field. I also mentioned in my essay that I received a writing award for a research essay that revealed some intriguing information about the ingredients in some perfumes. Universities like UC Berkeley like to not only have diversity and uniqueness in the student body, but they also hope that students not only dare to dream but also are willing to take a step forward to make them happen.

Extra Curricular Activities

Extracurricular activities are also nice to demonstrate an applicants’ personality and what they care about. I spent three years in Academic Decathlon, an extracurricular activity where selected students from each school compete as a team to answer questions about ten possible subjects. There was tons of reading and it required a lot of memorization. My English improved by participating in this activity. Moreover, I realized that as I continued to read about various subjects, I started to find the content interesting. I spent more time on Academic Decathlon than my other extracurricular activity. As a team, we practiced everyday after class for two to three hours and sometimes on weekends. All of my friends quit after the first year but I continued for three years, slowly learning and grasping the information.. My coach, who graduated from Berkeley, was impressed by my diligence and wrote my recommendation letter to Berkeley. I was very grateful that I worked hard during that time. This experience was part of my supplemental personal statement for my college application.

Playing Sports is good for you in more ways that you think

In terms of sports, I played tennis for two years in high school. It is quite common for American students to join some school sports teams after school. One of my friends, who is an amazing athlete and played on all the teams, was offered full scholarship to an out-of-state university. Extracurricular activities are a good way to show the college you are applying to that you can be part of a team and that you care about your health.

Help Yourself by Helping Others –Volunteer

My school required the all students complete a certain number of hours of community service in order to graduate. I volunteered in a preschool two to three hours a week for two years.. I also volunteered in a church and a non-profit organization as an intern assistant. Moreover, I worked as a online volunteer tutor for English students in remote regions of China. In total, I spent more than 200 hours doing community service

What if my SAT score is low?

Standard testing was not very easy for me. I took the SAT test three times, and my SAT score was a little over 2000 (the old SAT test), which was not considered very high for top universities. I started to prepare for the SAT in my sophomore year by taking pre-SAT classes once a week. I also spent my entire sophomore-to-junior year summer in China taking intensive SAT classes as well as private tutoring during junior year. Despite all my effort, my SAT score was not good enough, in particular, my reading score. Luckily, in my case, because my GPA was high enough, my SAT score did not affect my application a lot. I received offers from all but one of the schools that I had applied to, which was around 7 or 8 schools. I do know a few people with a high SAT score and a GPA of around 3.8, attending Berkeley and other top schools. So it’s a tie between the two. It is the best to get the maximum score on both of them, but by getting a high enough score in at least one area may help you get in.

Talk to a Guidance Counselor

Another thing I would like to mention was that finding a private college counselor may help you to save some time during the application process. However, it is also very important to double check your information before submission. I found two mistakes after I had already submitted my early applications. I had to call the school twice in order to correct my information. It was very time-consuming and stressful. So be sure to manage your college application and check carefully before submission.

Do I have to declare my major now?

When I applied to Berkeley, I did not declare a major because I wanted to explore a little before making the decision. It is perfectly okay to do so if you are not sure. Moreover, some majors may have a lower acceptance rate than others. Checking the acceptance rate ahead of time can give applicants a chance to find similar majors with higher acceptance rates. Moreover, in Berkeley, switching majors or colleges is not extremely difficult except for entering HAAS Business School. As long as you finish the required classes before deadline, you can always declare a major, switch majors, or even switch colleges. Just plan your schedule well once you know exactly what you want to study.

In Summary

Academics and SAT scores show your learning ability, which is important for top universities in order to know that you can excel. Extracurricular and personal statements are able to show your character, your beliefs, and your dreams or concerns for the society. Perseverance, determination, and curiosity are examples of qualities that college and universities like to see their students demonstrate. It is important to know how students may react to obstacles and problems. Showing your strength of character in your personal statements, supplemental essays, and short response questions can help you impress your audience and recruiters.