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College Admissions: What Every High School Scholar — and Parent — Should Know

On Saturday, April 29th, Success Academy High School of the Liberal Arts hosted its inaugural College Admissions Case Studies Program. I created this event for our founding scholars and their families — now in 10th and 11th grades — which placed them in an admissions officer’s seat for the day. Our participants received packets of three fictitious college applications that I crafted from scratch to reflect real-deal college hopefuls. These application packets contained everything an admissions officer would evaluate: demographics, extracurriculars, essays, transcripts, recommendations, and interview reports.

We were joined by seasoned admissions representatives from eight college and universities ranging in size and type, including Columbia University, Baruch College, MIT, and Lehigh University. As families took their seats before the panel of experts, I explained the task: to work alongside of these admissions officers; evaluate and discuss the fake applications; and ultimately vote to admit, waitlist, or deny the three applicants to two imaginary colleges.

As a former admissions officer who participated in similar programs at elite schools across the country, I knew how impactful this event could be for scholars. Some of them are six months out from preparing their college applications, and with the admissions process daunting and opaque at times, it’s crucial to draw back the curtain on what colleges actually look for as they craft a class of students.

It’s also essential for parents and young people to have constructive dialogues about college, which is why we were pleased to host this opportunity for scholars to bring their families into the discussion. The rich conversations that took place indicate how eager SA families are to learn together. Below, one parent shares her perspective on the day.

My team is dedicated to ensuring that our scholars fully understand what it takes to apply to college, to get in, and to persist. I am so proud to work for a network that supports this mission and that is committed to investing in achieving these goals for all students.

My team is dedicated to ensuring that our scholars fully understand what it takes to apply to college, to get in, and to persist.

Diana Rodriguez, founding parent of Success Academy 10th grader, Mariah Galindo:

Before my daughter Mariah and I arrived for the event, I’d never actually held a college application in my hands. I didn’t know what to expect: What will Mariah have to do to get in? She’s only in tenth grade, but she’s always been so independent and driven. We both dream of her getting into the college of her choice — and then on to a master’s degree.

I loved the activity Ms. Jakob created; I was rooting for that pretend applicant, Juan! Mariah could relate to him, because we’ve seen kids in our neighborhood face similar struggles — losing a father, having to take on responsibilities at home, and working hard to pull up his grades. It was a shock that many of the reps said that even though they admired Juan like we did, the improvement of his grades came too late to accept him. Mariah is already a hard worker, but this was a good reminder for her to keep up her grades.

Almost everyone agreed that the slightly boring girl, Jennifer, wasn’t impressive, even though her grades and extracurriculars were admirable. Colleges seem to value character and really want to see you shine on your application, so we’ll have to find ways for Mariah (who is pretty shy) to express how amazing she is on paper. She always takes the extra step to work hard and be involved. Whenever the College Team finds opportunities for the scholars, Mariah just jumps at the chance to sign up. Like heading out on the Girls Write Now trip to Boston! I want colleges to see how inspiring and enthusiastic she is.

When Ms. Jakob told us that one of the pseudo-applicants plagiarized, it caused so much debate. Parents and their kids disagreed on whether the applicant should be given a second chance. In any case, most all of the college experts said that they would be unwilling to accept someone who wasn’t honest — another great reminder for the kids.

One thing I didn’t realize is that colleges often ask for or offer interviews to get to know students better. The reps agreed that it was a problem that the applicant Jennifer didn’t pursue an interview, even though she had the chance. These are the kinds of details that we need to know so we don’t miss out, which is why I like to get involved with the College Access & Persistence events that take place throughout the year. Now Mariah and I know that she’ll need to be on Columbia’s campus next September or October so that she can take the opportunity to interview.

It’s so useful for me to understand all the parts of the application: they have to write their essay, present their activities, list their grades, get their recommendations, and also complete an interview. It’s a lot, but I’m happy to hear about it ahead of time so we’re prepared. Two years is a long time to go before college, but there’s still so much to learn and do to get ready. I attended another HSLA event this month, which helped us figure out the best financial options for funding college. We have challenges to face between now and then, but everything will be worth it for Mariah to have a college education, and a great life.


Mariah (right) and her partner present their panel’s decision to accept, waitlist, or deny applicants.

For more great tips and information, watch a full-length video of the program here.


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