Cal Poly Essay Prompt

Kyle McCarty
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Aunt Opal’s famous brownies.

Passed down from generation to generation in the family, these delicious treats are a family heirloom. Surely they are just the ticket to impress admissions officers at a competitive state university, an extra opportunity to impress the people deciding the path your future will take.

There’s only one problem: Computers don’t eat brownies.

According to Cal Poly admissions officers, getting into Cal Poly is up to the cold logic of a computer.

“The screening and scoring is an automated process,” said James Maraviglia, the associate vice provost for marketing and enrollment development. “So there are algorithms that crunch data and then spit out scores.”

With Cal Poly receiving more than 52,000 applications this year from prospective students, acceptance to the university is only becoming more competitive. Cal Poly’s admissions system is based on computer algorithms that select students based on their academics and other factors. Though the applications of some groups, such as athletes and students from areas local to San Luis Obispo, get extra consideration, the admissions criteria seeks to level the playing field and gives no one a special advantage based on who they know or who they can impress, Maraviglia said.

The admissions process at Cal Poly begins by looking at available space at the university, which depends on state funding and  how many people graduate in a given year.

From there, students are scored based on a system the admissions department calls multi-criteria admissions. Entrance into Cal Poly depends on considering both “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” variables, Maraviglia said.

Cognitive variables include GPA, SAT and ACT scores. Non-cognitive variables include things such as the school attended and the rigor of the courses the student took. Strong test scores will not save a student with lackluster coursework.

“If you think you can have early lunch senior year, you’re not getting in here,” Maraviglia said. “We look at senior year here, senior year meaning the breadth of courses you’re taking.”

Though the application form is the same, Cal Poly’s admissions criteria stand in contrast to the rest of the CSU system, Maraviglia said. Most CSUs use an index system, a simple calculation based on GPA and test scores alone. The goal of most of the CSU program is to provide access to college for the upper third of California high school graduates.

Cal Poly began to deviate from the rest of the CSU universities as entrance became more competitive in the 1980s, Maraviglia said. In 1983, a faculty committee created Cal Poly’s multi-criteria admissions system.

But with all the factors, one common admissions tool is missing: Cal Poly has never required an essay for admission.

“I think the essay can be good or bad,” aerospace engineering freshman Alex Zahn said. “If I had done those well, it would have been something more to convince them.”

Despite Cal Poly’s cut-and-dry approach to admittance, some applicants still try to find other ways to put themselves ahead.

“People will think they can send things like cakes and candy and coffee,” Maraviglia said. “We don’t accept any. If it’s recyclable we recycle it.”

Though prospective students try, Cal Poly does not consider letters of recommendation.

“A letter of reference wouldn’t do anything. We probably get hundreds of them, and they aren’t considered.” Maraviglia said. “It’s about not disadvantaging someone who doesn’t have that kind of contact.”

Despite stories of generations of families being educated at Cal Poly, there is no legacy system at the university.

“It’s against the state law,” Maraviglia said. “Prop 209 banned certain criteria, like race, gender — ethnicity was also banned.”

Rejection from the university sometimes results in angry calls to the admissions department. Typically, 65-70 percent of applicants are turned away from Cal Poly. If the trend continues, more applicants will be turned away in the future.

“It’s OK to lose,” Maraviglia said. “If you’re used to everyone getting a trophy then yeah, you do get calls from those, from people that don’t understand that you can do everything right and still not get offered.”

The process does differ for some student groups. The recruiting process for Athletics allows coaches a say in who is admitted to the university. Athletes still have to meet the same level of standards as other students, Maraviglia said.

“Coaches recruiting athletes know the rigor,” Maraviglia said. “They’re evaluated with the same criteria; we’re looking at that mix, taking into account the special contribution they can make as a recruited athlete.”

Students applying to the art and design, music and architecture majors go through an additional step in applying. Art and architecture majors submit portfolios, and music majors audition for a spot at the university. These submissions are reviewed by professors in the respective departments, who make recommendations, Maraviglia said.

Other groups that get additional consideration are local applicants, veterans and students at high schools Cal Poly has identified as having a large number of students on public lunch programs, Maraviglia said.

Every Cal Poly Pomona student must face the Graduate Writing Test sooner or later.

"For undergrads, it becomes available to them after 90 units, and it becomes mandatory after 120 units," said Jacob Feldman, GWT consultant at the University Writing Center. "You get a hold on your record if you don't. At the very least, register for it. You don't have to pass, you just have to register for it."

Graduate students are required to take the GWT upon admission.

"I found out about the GWT through orientation," said Lyle Evans, a fourth-year agricultural studies student. "I was a transfer student, though."

Students have multiple opportunities to take the GWT because it is offered near the beginning of each quarter. Students must sign up through BroncoDirect and pay an $18 fee before the day of the test.

The test is given in Building 5, where students can check in 30 minutes before their scheduled test time.

"I thought it was pretty easy," said Jeanaye Mason, a third-year chemical engineering student. "I just came in one Saturday morning and took it."

One month later, students can look up their score on BroncoDirect. The GWT is scored by two faculty members who can award up to six points. Students need to receive a score of seven to pass.

"Eighty percent of students pass it the first time around," said Feldman. "Of that remaining 20 percent, half of them will pass it with preparation work in the writing center either with tutors or workshops."

Students who have attempted the GWT twice may apply for a hybrid course: CPU 401. Successful completion of the coursework will show the students as having met the GWT requirements. Students who did not complete the coursework successfully may qualify for the GWT waiver.

Students who have attempted the GWT three times may apply for the waiver through a general petition.

In order to qualify for a GWT waiver, the student must first write six essays that are each revised at least once by the Learning Resource Center, University Writing Center or through the Educational Opportunity Program's tutorial services.

Next, the student must take the GWT once more. If he or she does not pass, a waiver package can be submitted to the Office of Academic Problems.

"If they want to know why they didn't do well on the test, they can request their test from the test center," said Feldman.

"Then they can just bring it in and make an appointment here, and we can give some indicators as to why they probably failed. But the best thing for students to do for preparation is to get some of the topics that we have, write practice essays in an environment that emulates the test."

Feldman said a vast majority of the GWT prompts are persuasive essays. Most prompts fall under two categories: one that asks the student to form an opinion and back it up with facts, and one that asks the student to write about the best qualities of an object or person.

"There was a weird [prompt] a couple of quarters ago about … describe a time when you were in an earthquake or some other natural disaster," said Feldman. "A lot of students were very confused by it because it had a strong narrative element to it."

Despite the potential for confusion, Feldman said the prompts don't need any prior knowledge in order to write on them.

"They tend to be fairly uninteresting topics but their goal isn't to be interesting," said Feldman. "It's to give an opportunity to exhibit your writing abilities so they're not trying to make it too hard."

The GWT will be offered again on April 16.

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