For the first time, through our partnership with the Turner Chapel AME Church Education Ministry, we offered free college application packaging sessions over the course of three days, during the week following Christmas, for high school seniors. These sessions were in response to the frustration expressed by a number of parents and students regarding the difficulty in navigating the college admissions process and the difficulty experienced by many students with writing scholarship essays. Such research studies as, “Barriers to College Attainment: Lessons from ChicagoCan I Get a Little Advice here? How an Overstretched High School Guidance System is Undermining Students’ College Aspirations, and From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College,” provides insight into why so many students are “under matched” in the college choices. The difficulty in navigating the college admissions process results in many students who are academically capable of getting accepted into highly selective colleges and universities from even applying to such colleges and universities.

Even with offering to freely provide the necessary college application packaging support for students, nearly all of the students and parents who had signed up for the sessions, failed to actually attend. The only two students to actually show up, were my son and a friend who is both a member of our church and student at his high school. Fortunately for my son and his friend, the absence of other students meant that they had more personalized attention with writing their essays and preparing their college application packages.

I had no idea that this would be such a daunting task. In fact, it consumed the better part of three days and nights with my son’s final college applications being submitted close to the midnight deadline on New Year’s eve. Almost much has been written about the college admissions process and the importance of carefully creating a student’s college application packages, we learned some valuable lessons.

  1. The earlier that a student identifies the types of colleges and universities that he or she will be interested in attending, the sooner he or she will be able to begin to identify the types of classes, programs, extracurricular activities, and community service that are best aligned with each colleges’ institutional needs and admissions expectations. For example, we were initially concerned with our son’s lack of having engaged in a broad range of community service activities. However, we discovered that his most passionate areas of community service, which he had been engaged in for several years at our church, were directly aligned with some of the institutional priorities of the colleges he was interested in applying to.
  2. The importance of reviewing the essay questions on the Common Application website and the specific questions within the supplements for the colleges and universities a student is interested in applying to. Some of the essay prompts and university-specific questions will require a great deal of thought, as well as editing by a teacher or parent.
  3. The importance of students allowing enough time to carefully review their packages and allowing for the opportunity of having their packages reviewed by others for misspellings, incorrect word usage, and fragmented thoughts in their essays. Students should keep in mind that their      application will be reviewed along with thousands of other applications and that they will be competing with thousands of other students for a limited number of invitations for admissions at the colleges and universities they apply to.

Some of the questions that our son had to answer or write essay responses to were:

Considering both the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying and the unique aspects of our university, what do you hope to learn from and contribute to our university community?

Engineering leaders do more than just solve technical problems. What kinds of experiences, inside and outside of the classroom, would you want to explore to enhance your studies?

Engineers have sometimes been stereotyped as “nerds” or “geeks.” Do you embrace or reject that stereotype? Why?

A distinctive feature of our curriculum is the opportunity to be the architect of your education. Why does this academic environment appeal to you?

We all exist within communities or groups of various sizes, origins, and purposes; pick one and tell us why it is important to you, and how it has shaped you.

What does the following quotes mean to you:

“Stereotyped beliefs have the power to become self-fulfilling prophesies for behavior.”

“It seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools’ graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interests…unless the graduates of this college…are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion. Then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible.”

Setting aside this time to assist my son and his friend was truly beneficial. We are hopeful that they will be accepted into each of the colleges they applied so that they will have the opportunity to review and compare multiple financial aid offers. However, knowing that they had the necessary guidance and support to ensure that they submitted quality application packages to each of the schools and they are well prepared to be competitive candidates for admission is reward in itself.

The experience has taught us how important our efforts are in assisting students with pursuing their college-bound dreams. No matter how many students take advantage of the opportunity, we are comforted with knowing that we have ensured that help, that is rarely offered by their high schools, is available to widen the pathway to college.