Fighting the disadvantage: College admissions disfavor Lowell students

“Thank you for applying to the University of California Santa Cruz” were the first words displayed on my admissions update, instead of the word “congratulations,” implying that I did not receive admission. I read this same sentence over and over again for the six other University of California (UC) schools I applied to. After working tirelessly at Lowell for four years for a high GPA and building an application I was proud of, I felt my accomplishments were nothing in comparison to my classmates. 

I’m not alone in this feeling, and many Lowell students are left feeling angry and confused after not getting into colleges they were told they were qualified for. Although Lowell prioritizes academic success and has unique opportunities, through an abundance of challenging classes, extracurricular activities, and a competitive student body, I felt disadvantaged in college admissions at Lowell. Even before the college application process begins, admissions officers and counselors stress that challenging yourself and taking advantage of your resources is an essential part of your application. This could include taking AP classes or running for class president. How much you’re taking initiative in your community is measured relative to your classmates often in terms of class rankings. In Lowell’s competitive environment, there are many people challenging themselves, making it nearly impossible to outperform your peers. After attending public schools my whole life, attending a UC was an opportunity that I had hoped for, and was disappointed when I couldn’t attain it. The college application process overwhelmed me with feelings of self-hatred and doubt which was intensified with Lowell’s cutthroat and competitive environment. 

After working tirelessly at Lowell for four years for a high GPA and building an application I was proud of, I felt my accomplishments were nothing in comparison to my classmates. 

Due to the amount of honors and Advanced Placement classes at Lowell, many students attain high GPAs, thus raising the bar. According to the University of California, the UC system has a unique way of calculating GPA, which includes adding points for AP, honors, and IB classes while taking into account the offered classes at each school, and shows the GPAs of all other applicants from the same school. Having your classmates’ GPAs on display to admissions officers forces Lowell students to overload their schedules to be even slightly competitive. Since Lowell offers 28 different AP classes, more than any other school in San Francisco, some students take up to 5 AP classes in one year, significantly boosting their GPA. When I got two Bs in my first three years at Lowell, my GPA fell below my peers, making it unlikely for me to be considered at higher-ranked UC campuses. As I tried to prioritize balance and my mental health while choosing classes throughout high school, my admission to prestigious universities became unattainable, in my eyes.

Photo by Kahlo Friel-Asay

Lowell students go beyond the classroom to create unique resumes, making other students look unambitious. With Lowell’s infamously large homework load, many students don’t have time to do the amount of extracurriculars needed to stand out among their peers. Throughout high school, I played a club sport, and an instrument, and had a job that completely filled my free time. I was confident that I was doing enough to get into college but my peers were maintaining their grades while also doing hours of community service each week, running for student government, starting nonprofits, or whatever college admissions view as valuable. For me, going to Lowell was a constant reminder that whatever I did, even if I felt fulfilled, it wouldn’t be enough. Lowell should warn students early on that they will need to go above and beyond the threshold to show leadership and initiative on their college applications.

With a lack of information throughout the first few years of high school and a lack of guidance through the application process, Lowell students often don’t expect the rejections they may eventually experience. Lowell doesn’t have a formal college and career class like other SFUSD high schools but instead offers Plan Ahead as a replacement. Although they teach the basic A to G requirements of the UCs, a list of the recommended subjects you take in high school, doesn’t do much to warn you of the expectations of colleges. When you reach senior year, there’s one college counselor for nearly 700 seniors. My friends were denied meetings at the college center because they were so busy and felt unguided when writing essays and filling out applications. If Lowell’s college center or Plan Ahead curriculum was more cohesive and honest, it may warn students that they won’t get into even less competitive UCs just by having a 4.0. Because of Lowell’s reputation of spitting out students who go to Ivy Leagues, many of my peers and I weren’t expecting rejection or waitlist letters from less prestigious colleges.

I believe the UCs should serve the public school students of California and was angry when my opportunity at a public education wasn’t an opportunity for me or many of my peers. Out of the seven I applied to, I was waitlisted at four and rejected from three. Even though waiting was an option, I chose not to prolong the wait through the summer as the college process was already exhaustingly long. I was admitted to New York University and will attend there in the fall. Although this is a good school and I’m satisfied, I’m stuck paying more money and moving across the country. After working so hard for four years at Lowell, I feel like I wasted my time. I fell into the trap of thinking Lowell would help my future but instead, it just left me with rejections and low self-esteem.