UCLA Admissions Director Offers Tips For Finding Your Child’s Path

By Melanie Gaball

Los Angeles Schools Gary Clark

UCLA Director of Undergraduate Admissions Gary Clark says parents should encourage kids to do what they love, take charge of their own school assignments and college applications, and look at a broad list of possible schools. PHOTO COURTESY GARY CLARK

As a parent of a child in Los Angeles schools, it’s likely you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your child’s future. You might have started stressing about your child’s path to college long before they began the application process. But UCLA Director of Undergraduate Admissions Gary Clark advises parents to focus more on helping their children find what they love, rather than spending years crafting a resume for college.

With so many accomplished applicants, what qualities does UCLA look for that help a candidate stand out?

First and foremost, we look at the academic qualifications of the student. We want to see not only that a student has done well in high school, but [that she or he] has taken a rigorous program. So if their school offers AP or IB or honors classes, we encourage students to take advantage of those courses and challenge themselves academically.

Other than that, we want to see students getting involved outside of the classroom. That can take a lot of different forms. Maybe it’s being involved in clubs. It could be working part time or even taking care of a sibling at home. It’s not necessarily the length of the resume that matters, as much as the depth of commitment to what the student is doing that stands out. They don’t have to be doing 10 or 12 different things. If we see that they are engaged in three or four different things consistently and taking on progressive leadership, that is compelling for us. When they come to campus, those are the type of students who are going to get involved and follow something through to the end.

How can parents help their kids find what they are passionate about, even at a young age, so that they find their way to the right college major or career path?

What parents can do is really encourage their students to cultivate the things that they really enjoy and are doing for the right reasons. Especially at an early age, I don’t want parents or students strategizing about what they think a college might want to see in the future. Even in high school, they should do what they love. That’s what really stands out in an application. You can tell when a student writes about something they are passionate about. Just encourage kids to explore and try new things and then do the things that they love.

How can parents help their children be successful and happy when they are in college?

One of the big challenges students face today is that fewer and fewer students are given the opportunity to fail. That may sound strange, but they have often been so supported by their parents that when they get to college and they are on their own for the first time, they don’t have Mom or Dad looking over their shoulder to make sure they are keeping up with assignments. When they get a bad grade, they often don’t know how to handle it.

The way parents support their children in college needs to begin in high school. Allow them to be in the driver’s seat on the college-admissions process and to take ownership of their assignments and grades, because when they get to college there is nothing Mom or Dad can do about it. Parents need to help students build the skill set to be self-advocates and to speak up for themselves in high school, so when they go off to college by themselves for the first time, they can handle the challenges that come their way.

What do you think parents worry too much about in the college application process?

Many parents will often fixate on one school. They think there is only one right school for their son or daughter, when the truth is there are many great options. As highly selective as many colleges have become, predicting an admissions decision is next to impossible. The quality of the applicant pool is extremely high and even if you are a really good student, there are no guarantees.

The best thing parents can do is to help their sons and daughters create a broad list, to be sure that they identify a couple of schools that they are confident they will get into and then to be excited about those schools. Parents shouldn’t confuse selectivity with quality. Don’t assume that because an institution is highly selective, that it is the right place for your son or daughter.

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