Applying to UCs and Cal States: Q&A with Counselor Julie Crossen



UCLA’s Royce Hall is one destination that could await students who apply to UCs and Cal States.

Newport Harbor counselor Julie Crossen started working at Newport Harbor High School in 2006. A Southern California native, she graduated from Mater Dei High School and began her secondary education on a full-ride soccer scholarship at Gonzaga University. Though she explained that “it was supposed to be the best experience ever,” she did not enjoy the often doomy, gloomy and dreary weather of Spokane, Washington, so Crossen returned to her sunny home state and began coaching soccer for her alma mater. She would go on to earn her degree from Cal State Fullerton, coming to realize that she is happiest near her family. She then earned her masters in counseling from Azusa Pacific University, beginning her counseling career working with at-risk students as a coordinator for recreational middle school programs in the city of Irvine. After working closely with a middle school counselor, Crossen earned her degree and decided to pursue the same career. I had the pleasure of speaking with Crossen about applying to the UCs and Cal States, as well as a few other aspects of counseling.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


When should students start thinking about the college process?

I think if you ask any freshman – heck, if you ask any senior – what they want to do for the rest of their life or what they want to major in, I think a lot of kids are still very overwhelmed by that question. So I think that freshman and sophomore year are a good time to be taking the right classes and asking the right questions about college eligibility but not be overly stressed out about where they’re applying.

I think by junior year, typically, the college conversation [starts], and then you’d be surprised by how many kids really change their directions between junior and senior year, whether they choose different colleges or decide, ‘Hey, I thought I loved Spokane. I hate it. I don’t know what I’m thinking going to Washington. I’m a California person.’ I think it does change a lot of perspective between junior and senior year as well, so I think junior year is a great time to be starting to think about colleges seriously and visiting them. But you can never start too early. 

I don’t know that college is the only way for every kid, but I think it just depends on your household. Freshman year I think is a little premature to be stressed out about college, but by junior year, we should be talking about it for sure.


How often should students meet with their counselors to talk about completing their high school requirements and applying to college?

I think because counselors, especially at Newport Harbor, play such an important role in letters of recommendation, it really helps to get to know us from freshman year on. So even if we’re not talking about college specifically, it’s really nice to have context in a relationship with counselors or teachers or anything like that. 

Generally speaking, the second semester of junior year I probably start having those conversations more frequently with certain kids. Definitely the eager ones who kind of already know where they’re going or want to go are really on it by the second semester of junior year, and I probably talk to those kids once a month at least, which is very different from freshman year. Sometimes I don’t even see a student in my office until they’re a sophomore. 

Really, the time to be talking and planning and just bouncing off ideas and having fluid conversations really starts freshman year. That way, you’re building your rapport with your counselor, and we can help guide and, as things change, we can change gears together and plan together.

When kids are serious about college, we see them pretty frequently in our office between second semester junior year and first semester senior year. I probably see every single one of my seniors applying to college between August and December of senior year frequently, maybe once a week – in a normal situation they would fly by my office probably once a week. Fall is just a really busy time for seniors.


Tell me about AP and IB courses. Ideally, how many of these classes should a student take, if any?

I think it’s totally student-driven. In general terms, we want students to really push outside their comfort level, but not everybody’s comfortable taking AP or IB classes. So it just depends. I mean, I don’t know a set number or a portion, but I think that if you’re a straight-A student doing really well in college prep, non-honors, non-AP or -IB classes, from a college perspective, I think they’re going to want to know what classes were available to you, and what you [opted] to take.

If you’re an A-plus student in Comp-Lit 1, and maybe you didn’t consider AP Language, but that was offered to you as a sophomore, from the college perspective they’re going to question why. Maybe English isn’t your thing, and you’re stronger in math and science, and that’s where you took the advanced classes. So I think it’s really specific to each student. There’s no blanket answer. It’s definitely not one-size-fits-all, and there’s lots of pathways to college, even for kids who don’t take AP or IB classes. There are still so many colleges out there that would love a really strong student, so I personally don’t think it’s the end-all be-all, but I think if you’re up for the challenge, some kids can just handle it.


Is it ever wise to take fewer classes to have a higher GPA? 

It depends what you’re thinking about in terms of colleges. The competitive colleges want high GPA, high course load. I mean, that’s the reality of it. Taking less just leads to more questions, like, ‘Why?’ If you’re really involved in the National Charity League or you’re really involved in something outside that you just didn’t feel like you could balance your time [with], then it kind of makes sense, but to take your foot off the gas ‘just because’ wouldn’t be a really rational reason to not take a high-level class.

Let’s say you wanted to go to UCLA. Well, the majority of people applying to schools like that are high-level students, right? They’re the masters of everything. That’s what makes it really hard for our kids, is that you feel you have to do this to get into all of these colleges. I think again it’s really specific [to] the student. If you came to me and wanted to ask me something very specific about you, I would be asking questions like, ‘What do you have going on outside?’ and ‘What are your favorite subjects?’ and ‘What can you handle?’ [or] ‘How did you do in that subject last year?’

I think in terms of college and planning, what students need to know is that colleges get something called the high school profile, and within the high school profile it lists the AP, IB, college prep [courses] – that kind of thing. So, any college is going to look at a student’s profile, which is their transcript, and say ‘What did they take?’ and ‘What was available to them?’ In some cases, like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t take Spanish because it was offered the same period as AP Biology’– well, that makes complete sense, and that’s not the student’s fault. But then, choosing not to take that class just because you didn’t want to take it is a completely different story.


When applying for college, what are some key differences between the UCs and Cal States versus other colleges?

I think the biggie is the application fees, for sure. They all have different applications. The Cal States is one portal, the UC application is a completely different one, and some schools are Common App. Some schools just have their own application, but the major difference I’d say is the application fees. Within that application, some schools [require] letters of [recommendation], some schools do not take letters of rec, and so students that show really well on paper sometimes could be better suited for schools that don’t take letters of rec because there [may be] nobody to [recommend] them.


High school students have so much they are required to do. For those aiming for the UCs rather than the Cal States, what areas would you recommend students focus on?

All of it, unfortunately. I think it’s so specific, though, to students. I like to put it like pieces of a puzzle, right? When you look at a student’s application, you’re thinking about fit for your particular campus, so UCs in general – there’s probably a big difference on campuses and fit for students looking at UC Riverside versus UC Santa Cruz, aside from location. When you look at the college experience in general and planning, and you think of it like a puzzle, it’s got to make sense. If [you’re] going to be a bio major, you’ve got to be taking strong sciences in high school; otherwise, what supports the fact that you want to be a bio major?

So I like to look at it like pieces of a puzzle, and by starting with freshman year, you’re really making choices to add to your puzzle, so by senior year, it all fits together, and it blends nicely. Again, I go back to the [high school] profile: ‘What was offered?’ and ‘What were you able to take?’ Do you have to take everything? No, but I think it needs to be pretty calculated on pieces of the puzzle. Does it make sense for you as a student?