It all started as a fixation with public records, University of Washington student Jake Harper said.
Enthralled with the idea that government institutions like UW must disclose certain documents, the 19-year-old spent the past year crafting quite a few requests to the university. This month, he turned one of those responses into a website that aims to help students get into some of the institution’s most coveted and competitive academic majors.
The launch comes at a time of great concern for how few homegrown students land well-paying jobs in the state’s booming industries. GetUWMajor, which was featured on a viral TikTok video, has had around 30,000 unique page views since it launched, Harper said. It includes recent rubrics — gleaned from public records — used by admissions committees for the university’s computer science, informatics, public health and business school departments.
All these departments fall under what the university calls its “capacity constrained” major programs. The computer science and engineering programs accepted between 25% and 35% of current and transfer students in the past two years, according to the university.
“The issue of capacity in certain majors is an important one that the UW continues to work toward addressing,” university spokesperson Victor Balta said. “There remains a shortage to meet the demand of students and their families, as well as employers who are eager to hire our graduates in these and many other fields.”
Majors become capacity constrained for a number of reasons, including a lack of physical space to teach students, and the costs of purchasing any equipment required for instruction. Private donations poured in several years ago so that the university could open a larger computer science building with the hope of doubling the number of students who could be admitted.
Balta added that the rubrics on Harper’s site only pertain to the way current UW and transfer students are evaluated — not incoming freshmen, who in some cases can apply directly to their major. In the case of computer science and computer engineering students, most are admitted directly as freshmen.
“The UW cannot vouch for the success — or lack thereof — of applicants who attempt to use the tools available on this site to inform their applications to these majors,” Balta said.
Harper, who went to high school in Sammamish, said he saw the need for this kind of resource after serving on the informatics department’s admissions committee. It was clear some students had certain advantages, such as friends who had already successfully gotten into the program and who were able to advise them on the process. He’d encounter student essays that he felt warranted admission into the program, but in the end those essays didn’t check all of the boxes on a rubric that was hidden from applicants.
“If the process was transparent to begin with, it would put everyone in the same playing field,” said Harper, who is about to begin his junior year studying informatics.
Those additional pieces of information on how students are judged could be really helpful for applicants, Harper says. The informatics department, for example, doesn’t grade on grammar in students’ applications, something that isn’t obvious from what the university shares online.
The website also has an interactive component: Students can plug in drafts of their admissions essays to get artificial intelligence feedback from OpenAI’s GPT-4, which measures how well the essay meets the rubric. Around 600 essays have been graded so far, he said.
Harper says he plans to eventually expand the project to other universities across the country.
The launch comes just in time for the application window to several majors, which closes in October.
And what became of his other public records requests? Harper also turned a massive file of every course’s average grade-point into a Chrome extension that is aimed at helping students evaluate the difficulty of certain courses during the registration process.