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.