Applying to college can be nerve-wracking for Utah’s high school seniors, and newly leaked documents suggest the line between admission and denial could be drawn by factors beyond a student’s control — like gender and geography.
Last week, the website MormonLeaks published a series of alleged Brigham Young University enrollment guidelines, including breakdowns of how student applications were scored between 2013 and 2015. In addition to standard factors like GPA and ACT scores, the documents suggest BYU gave favorable weighting to men, East Coast residents and first-generation college students.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins declined to comment on whether the documents were authentic. But in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, Jenkins confirmed that gender was previously a determining factor in student enrollment.
“BYU is constantly revising and updating its admission process. For instance, in the spring of 2015, BYU stopped giving any additional weighting for gender,” Jenkins said. “Other changes have been made throughout the years as well.”
As a private university, there is no law that prohibits consideration of a potential student’s gender, Jenkins said.
And in addition to being legal, the practice of weighting applications based on nonacademic characteristics is relatively common in higher education. A growing number of U.S. schools, both public and private, are moving toward so-called “holistic” admissions policies that direct staff to look beyond traditional metrics before mailing acceptance letters.
In fact, Jenkins said, BYU this year put in place a new admission application that focuses on a holistic view of applicants “and does not use a fixed-point system.”
Admissions criteria are typically divided between so-called “hard factors” — quantifiable metrics like test scores, GPAs and Advanced Placement participation — and “soft factors,” such as extracurricular activities, essays, alumni interviews and, in some cases, gender.
Often GPA and test scores will be combined to produce a number on an admissions matrix, with the additional “soft” factors evaluated to either boost applicants over the cutoff line or trim them from the candidate pool.
But if the MormonLeaks documents are authentic, they suggest BYU’s former process was uniquely mathematical. It applies equations to esoteric student attributes, such as geography (plus 1.5 points if they live east of Colorado), punctuality (plus 1 point if they turn in their application before Dec. 1) and special numerical advantages for students who attended small high schools or whose parents don’t hold college degrees.
Like most college and universities, the documents attributed to BYU show that GPAs and college-readiness scores were the main driving factors of a student’s admittance. Taken together, GPA and ACT accounted for up to 76 points out of 100 total. Gender, by comparison, gave a one-point advantage to male students.
And because first-generation college students are, as a whole, more diverse than students whose parents earned degrees, the 0.5-point to 1.5-point weighting for that group of applicants would correlate with higher enrollment of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income applicants.
“BYU is aware of, and sensitive to, the unique dynamics of first-generation college students,” Jenkins said. “With that said, there are no quotas in BYU's admission process where we attempt to meet a specific ratio or admit a certain demographic.”
Jenkins referred to the Code of Federal Regulations, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex for admissions at institutions of vocational education, professional education, graduate higher education,and public institutions of undergraduate higher education.
The federal restriction does not apply to private undergraduate campuses, or public institutions that are traditionally single gender.
Nationwide, women outnumber men on college and university campuses and make up the majority of enrollment applicants. That trend is expected to grow over the next decade, according to forecasts by the National Center for Education Statistics, and led The Atlantic magazine to describe male students as “the new college minority” in a recent report.
The gender gap is more narrow in the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees the state’s eight public colleges and universities. But public enrollment has been majority female since 2016, according to USHE data, including 51 percent of students this year.
The purported BYU documents also coincide with a period when the Provo-based university experienced a 10 percent drop in enrollment after changes to the minimum age requirements for missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU.
Jenkins declined to comment on any connection between the gender weighting and the missionary age change.
“In the past, BYU has monitored the balance of male and female students who are admitted,” Jenkins said. “Without going into specifics, there have been various reasons for this.”
Most of Utah’s public campuses are open enrollment, meaning anyone who wishes to enroll is able to after paying tuition and completing admission requirements. Of the state’s three selective-admission campuses, Utah State University and Southern Utah University rely on an index system that bases admittance on the combination of a student’s GPA and ACT score.
“If you strictly look at ACT and GPA, you leave out a large group of students who could still be successful here,” said Mary Parker, associate vice president of enrollment management at the U.
Parker said students who apply to the U. are asked to provide detailed descriptions of their high school experience, including why they took the courses they did and what jobs or familial responsibilities they held outside of school that could have impacted their academic standing.
“We don’t have a magic [index] number,” she said. “That’s why our application is so important for you to answer.”
Parker said the school does not ask about family income, but the application does include questions about race, gender and whether a student’s parents attended college.
“Those are not factors that make or break a decision,” she said. “Those are taken in the context of the holistic review process as we are looking at the student — the whole student — to make that determination.”
The holistic model is less cut and dry than admissions matrices, requiring additional time for staff to review and consider applicants, Parker said. The process is intended to increase access to higher education, she said, by considering students who on paper may have been lacking under the old format.
“What we say to students is that everyone has an opportunity to apply to the University of Utah,” Parker said, “and we’re going to make sure that we really look at if they can be successful.”
Brigham Young University Application Essay Prompts
List and describe (in 100 words) up to five of your most meaningful and significant activities, awards, and/or experiences you have had since beginning high school.
Let’s start with the short answer question. In this part of the application, you are allowed to highlight some of your most important high school accomplishments. Because the word limit is rather restrictive — you have approximately 20 words per item — it is important that you are succinct, but still communicate your accomplishments effectively.
The first step is to identify which activities, awards, or experiences you want to list. When deciding, you should think about which activities will help you distinguish yourself. Remember, BYU received approximately 13,408 applicants in the last admissions cycle, so you want to stand out. For instance, listing an award that many other applicants in the pool have also earned is unlikely to significantly benefit your chance of admission.
In addition, it is important to consider BYU’s identity as an LDS school. While you do not have to be a member of the LDS church in order to be accepted (BYU states that “non-LDS applicants will only be required to meet with one of the following: an LDS bishop, branch president, or mission president”) it can be extremely beneficial to highlight your connection to the LDS church, if you have one.
Additionally, you should keep in mind BYU’s admissions criteria. It evaluates students based on their “seminary attendance, service, leadership, personal essays, individual talents, creativity, AP/IB courses taken, unique or special circumstances, and other factors showing a student’s ability to strengthen the BYU community.” You’ll notice that many of these qualities can be directly demonstrated through your extracurricular activities and other high school experiences.
For instance, BYU appreciates applicants who have demonstrated a commitment to service. If you have spent your high school career engaging in meaningful community service, you should certainly prioritize this activity when listing your relevant experiences. Or, if you were the president of your school’s French Club, you should emphasize your strong leadership abilities and background to impress admissions officers who are looking for student leaders.
Finally, consider the types of activities and awards current students have listed on their applications. 96.6% of successful applicants were four-year seminary graduates; 84.2% received Duty to God or Young Women Recognition; 82.2% were employed during high school; 78.3% were involved in the performing arts; and 71.1% participated in high school sports.
While it is not wholly necessary that you match this profile perfectly, it is helpful to know what has impressed admissions officers in the past and to highlight these kinds of awards and activities in your own application. Keep in mind, however, that you should still try to distinguish yourself even when describing experiences that are more typical of the applicant pool. For instance, if you were involved with your high school’s track and field team and earned the position of captain, you should emphasize your leadership position in order to give yourself more of an edge.
What is one of the most difficult things you have ever done or experienced? What did you learn from it?
This essay has a 250-word limit, so as always, it is important to be concise and get your message across as clearly and effectively as possible.
This essay question can, initially, seem a little difficult to tackle because it is so broad. There is some ambiguity in the language; BYU uses the word “thing” as opposed to directly naming a type of difficulty, and allows students to elaborate on things that they have either “done or experienced,” leaving the door wide open for interpretation.
However, there’s no need to balk at this question. In actuality, the relative ambiguity of the prompt just means that you have all the more room to be creative and truly help the admissions officers understand you on a deeper level. In many ways, how you choose to attack this question says a lot about you as an individual and as an applicant.
The most straightforward way to approach this essay would be to talk about a tangible challenge you have had to address. This could be a difficulty you had in school, in your community, or in your personal life. These kinds of challenges could range from family tragedies to academic setbacks to extracurricular obstacles.
A more subtle, but still effective way to answer this question is to think about a moral or ethical dilemma you have faced. While not as obvious of a choice for this essay, this can still be extremely powerful, because at its core, this question seeks to help BYU understand how you tackle problems and how you grow from those experiences.
No matter what kind of challenge or problem you choose to discuss, the focus should not be on describing the problem itself. Rather, the majority of your essay should revolve around your particular approach to this challenge and, most importantly, what you have learned as a result. BYU admissions officers want to see that not only can you handle challenges, but that you welcome them and indeed grow from them.
There are some caveats to keep in mind when answering this question. If you do decide to focus on a personal challenge, you want to ensure that this is not a challenge that may cast doubt on your ability to succeed at BYU. For this reason, it can be safer to choose a problem that has long since been resolved and no longer affects you.
Additionally, be wary of coming across as unnecessarily lamentful. It can be dangerous if your essay bears the tone of “woe is me.” Although the essay is about a difficulty, it should still be positive. Remember, you should focus on 1) your problem solving abilities and 2) your growth in the face of difficulties. These are inherently positive subjects, so as long as your essay is centered around these two angles, you should be in the clear.
Given the choice, which CES school would you most like to attend, and why? Please be specific.
This question is relatively straightforward, in that it is essentially a “Why this major?” essay. In these types of essays, passion is key. You need to convey your deep interest in a given field, or in this case, BYU school.
The first step is to identify which school you are planning to apply to, which is simple enough. You do not need to have identified a specific major within that school, but if you already have an idea of what you intend to study, it can be helpful to include.
This part of your essay should be relatively brief. The bulk of the content needs to be oriented around why that specific school is perfect for you as a student, and more subtly, why you would be a valuable contributor to that school.
As BYU stipulates in the prompt itself, specificity is crucial. The easiest way to convey passion is to identify key, direct reasons why you are choosing that particular school. For instance, if you are intending to pursue law, you can talk about how your early interest in law started when you watched a particularly fascinating trial early on in life.
Then, you should connect it back to your high school extracurricular career and show the admissions officers how your passion for a given field has impacted your secondary studies. Continuing with our law example, perhaps you participated in Mock Trial to gain trial experience and helped lead the Model UN team to improve your public speaking skills.
Beyond highlighting extracurricular activities that help convey your commitment to a discipline, it is also helpful to point to your academic record. For instance, if you are applying to BYU’s physical sciences school, you should highlight the fact that you have chosen to take all of your school’s honors and AP physical science courses. This is particularly effective as it not only demonstrates your strong interest in the field, but also shows admissions officers that you can be successful in that specific subject as well.
That being said, you shouldn’t simply rehash your extracurricular and academic accomplishments in this essay.
Remember that these aspects are already explored in other sections of your application. This essay should be centered around your passion for a field, and while citing examples can help demonstrate this, you should make sure that this essay is personal to you and reveals important information about who you are as a person. Bring in relevant anecdotes, past experiences, and personal characteristics to show admissions officers why you are a perfect fit for a given BYU school.
“Tell us anything else you want us to know about yourself that you haven’t had the opportunity to describe elsewhere in the application. Include any special circumstances, experiences, talents, skills, etc. that you think would have a positive impact on the Admission Committee.”
If you thought that the first essay question was daunting in its breadth, this prompt may seem unthinkably difficult! However, this is just another opportunity to help admissions officers get to know you on a deeper level. The wide scope of the prompt is actually helpful, as it allows you to focus on any subject that 1) demonstrates who you as an individual and 2) adds a new dimension to your application.
With that in mind, you should focus on elucidating something that is otherwise absent from your application. If you choose to write about an experience, it should not be one of the experiences you listed in the short answer question; if you choose to write about a special circumstance, it should not be connected to the challenge you described in the second essay. You get the picture: this essay is supposed to bring something new to the table.
That being said, there aren’t many limits as to what you can write about. The only wrong answers here are things that would detract from your overall application or place you in a negative light, such as mentioning drug or alcohol abuse. Apart from these obviously poor choices, anything is fair game.
There are a few ways you can really take advantage of this prompt. For one thing, because it is so open-ended, this is a fantastic opportunity to help distinguish yourself from the rest of the applicant pool. It is helpful to focus on something that is memorable and unique to you, so that you stand out in the minds of admissions officers. Discussing a quirky skill, unique talent, or another distinguishing attribute or experience is one way to go about this.
This essay can also provide a forum through which you can explain any gaps in your application, or answer any questions that may be lingering in admissions officers’ minds. For instance, if a significant personal circumstance impacted your application — and this was not the circumstance you described in Essay Two — this would be a good time to elaborate on that. Bear in mind, however, that the essay should still end on a positive note and leave no doubt that you are fully capable of succeeding at BYU, should you be accepted.
With these tips and tricks in mind, you are ready to begin writing essays that are sure to impress the Brigham Young University admissions officers. Best of luck from the CollegeVine team!
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