The New Kids
Shaquinah Taylor Wright is the Mid-Atlantic Director of College Access at Let's Get Ready, an education nonprofit that provides low-income high school students with free SAT preparation, admissions counseling and other support services needed to gain admission to and graduate from college. Shaquinah served as the founding College Counselor at a charter school in the Bronx where she designed and implemented a 9-12 college counseling program. Prior to that, Shaquinah was an Education Pioneers Graduate Fellow where she partnered with an education organization to design a project to help increase college matriculation for disconnected learners. She also worked for two years as a college advisor with the MGI/Gear Up program at an Early College high school.
Shaquinah received her BA from Cornell University with a major in Sociology and Inequality Studies and her Master's in Counseling Psychology from Teachers College. As a first-generation college graduate, Shaquinah has a passion for creating sustainable action to address issues of opportunity and access for students.
As a college counselor, there were a few times a year that I wished the science in Orphan Black was real. I could have one clone to track down the students who hadn’t completed any college applications, one to work on the financial aid process with students and families, one to advise seniors who weren’t on track for graduation, and one to start the process all over again with the junior class.
With seniors, I was often chasing them down to remind them of the multitude of tasks awaiting them on the other side of January 1st. Did you complete your FAFSA? Submit EOP paperwork? Send your SAT scores? Register for placement exams? Study for January Regents? One of my seniors complained that she received more emails from me after she completed her applications than before. Yes, pressing the ‘submit’ button may feel like a huge culminating moment after which the constant deadlines and harassing by your college counselor will finally be over, but students can’t quite indulge in senioritis yet.
Finding the time to continue to work with seniors and paying (more) attention to the upcoming class is daunting; February is definitely a time when I wish I can whip up extra versions of myself. But since I can’t quite figure out how to do that, I focus instead on trying to teach my juniors to be their own college advisors and admissions counselors.
Most of my students enter the college process having “heard of” a few colleges (usually the ones that are pretty hard to get into), but having no idea of what it actually takes to be admitted. We know that there is no magic formula of GPA + extracurricular activities + SAT scores + other factors that will get a student accepted into their dream school. Trying to explain that fact to students can be as complicated as the process itself.
So instead of attempting to explain it, I let them experience it through a mock college admissions activity. I start off by showing this great clip from the Today Show showcasing what happens inside an admissions office, to give them some context. Then, I break them up into small groups and give them a sheet of paper with 6 fictitious applicants complete with GPA, SAT scores, and background information. Their task? Pick one to admit.
The applicants are fairly typical of what you might expect in a large senior class: the student with the high GPA and SAT scores, but little community involvement; the student who struggled in high school, but turned it around junior year and has lots of recommendations to attest to his transformation; the student who juggles her schoolwork and a part-time job to support her family; and so on. It is always fascinating to watch them argue passionately about why one student deserves the opportunity more than the others (“His GPA is so good!” “Yeah, but she has a high GPA and she’s president of her class!”). Even the students who are often disengaged in my advisory class suddenly became fierce advocates for their preferred candidates. Like any good admissions committee, they have to come to a consensus.
Once each group is done deliberating, I bring them all back together to process the experience. Do they all agree on the same student? Which student do they relate most to? As a follow up assignment, I ask the students to think about their own story. Do they feel like an admissions counselor would fight for them as they fought for the sample students? If not, what could they do to increase their chances of getting into their dream school? This type of self-reflection is crucial for students and – when done honestly – can make college advising easier.
After the activity is over, I am usually inundated with several students determined to do everything they can to increase their college options. My struggling students start to realize that this process is more serious than they thought, and that where they ultimately want to graduate college may not be where they are currently on-track to start.
With juniors, there is a delicate balance of letting them know they do not have to have every single thing already figured out (“You like kids? Great, me too! You hate math and science? Okay, so maybe being a pediatrician isn’t the only career you should consider…”) and still encouraging them to seek out opportunities to improve their college chances (like taking that SAT class you emailed them about). Ultimately, the more juniors can do to prepare early for the college admissions process, the more likely you – and they – will be a little saner come the fall.
How do you begin introducing juniors to the college admissions process?