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Community Life
Leading for the Common Good

Declaring Independence In College Admission

Brennan Barnard
What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be independent? These are fundamental questions that our nation is wrestling with. Recently we celebrated Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that marked the end of slavery in the United States, and today we commemorate the Declaration of Independence of the United States, on July 4, 1776. Meanwhile, in the past weeks, the Supreme Court handed down decisions that provided protections for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and for LGBTQ workers who face employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. This all comes amidst a national reckoning with police brutality and systematic racism, as supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and others say “enough!” It unfolds beneath the cloud of a global pandemic, which has confined many of us to home this spring. Shelter-in-place and quarantine orders have sparked debates about civil liberties and the role of local, state, and federal authorities in restricting rights. Our nation is embroiled in countless debates about what it means to be free.

Many rising high school students are at the forefront of these communal debates and protests, at a time when they are considering personal questions of identity and independence. In its purest form, the experience of searching for and applying to college is a right of passage that is centered around evolving freedoms. Sadly, with post-secondary education, there are vast inequities in access and affordability, which on a fundamental level restrict individual liberty. We must do better as a nation in leveling the playing field to increase these freedoms and address the structures, including college admission, that perpetuate racism. 

For those who are fortunate to be college-bound, consider the following ways to exert your independence in the admission experience, and try some of these practical exercises to do so:

Declarations
As students anticipate their evolving independence, it is important to set some ground rules and parameters for their college search. Having honest conversations with family members, caregivers, counselors, and other supporters will make it easier to own the experience and prevent misunderstandings, surprises, and conflicts down the road.

Try This:
Consider declaring answers to these foundational questions before launching your search:
  • Why are you going to college?
  • What experience do you want to have?
  • What role do you hope your parents/caregivers will play?
  • How often will you discuss admission as a family and when?
  • What are your financial limitations?
  • What restrictions do you have on location? 
  • Who will have the ultimate decision-making power?
  • Will you share details of your college search with peers, teachers, and/or extended family?
Finances
Perhaps the most limiting aspect of college admission is cost, and if anything hampers your future freedom, it will be insurmountable college debt. Until our nation finds a more sustainable model for affording higher education, students will continue to be saddled with soaring tuition bills. It cannot be repeated often enough that students and those who support them need to have honest conversations about finances before, during, and after the college search. Stories in the media and chatter in many circles tend to focus on one model for earning a college education—the four-year college or university path. However, that is only a slice of the many offerings available for post-secondary education. Community colleges, two-year degrees, competency-based degrees, vocational certificates, and many other pathways exist for after high school. These can be more affordable and eventually lead to the same goal.

Try This:
With the help of a parent, caregiver, counselor, or mentor, draft a monthly budget for your life after high school. What expenses will you have? Factor in car payments, gas, housing, food, insurance, and other living costs. What are your income sources and how much will be available? Are your parents supporting you or are you on your own? If you are planning to go right into college, will you qualify for need-based financial aid? If so, how much will you and your family be asked to contribute toward your education? Each college’s financial aid website has a Net Price Calculator, which will give you a ballpark for what you can expect to pay for a year of school. Enter your financial information into these tools at a couple of different colleges to get a sense for costs. Next, make a budget for after college. You can find information on median salaries for most jobs through the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. Look at some of the careers you are considering and see what your salary range might be. Again consider living costs and other expenses in your budget and then add monthly loan payments from college debt to see what will be feasible. These exercises, along with honest discussions with caregivers, will help you go into your college search with your eyes wide open. 

The College List
As students begin to develop a list of schools that they are interested in, it is natural to rely on what is known. Perhaps you recognize college names from the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament or your parents have rooted for a specific university’s football team since you were in diapers. Maybe you are familiar with colleges to which an older sibling or graduates from your high school applied. This can be a good place to start. Your school counselor, parents, neighbor, boss, or love interest might also have put schools on your radar and that can be helpful (or not). But this is your experience, not theirs, so be intentional about your choices and know why you put each school on your list. 

Try This:
Make your search yours. Students often feel obligated to disclose the list of schools to which they are applying to friends, classmates, and relatives at holiday gatherings. You need to feel empowered to own your list and to share only what you want. For some students, the first time their college process becomes public is when they choose where to attend, and that is their prerogative. Free yourself of others’ reactions, opinions, and influence.

Searching for Colleges
When college campuses began to shut down in the wake of the pandemic, many high school juniors were distraught. Plans to visit schools were dashed and college fairs canceled. While the inability to step on college campuses might feel restrictive, consider the alternative—you now have the freedom to roam. Whereas in previous years, college-bound students often limited their search to schools where they had the opportunity to visit in person, these closures can present an opening. It is an invitation to expand the reach of your search and allow for even more freedom. Colleges and universities have quickly built out robust online offerings so you can know their community better. Virtual tours, information sessions, and live webinars provide ways to search for a college that often did not exist before the crisis. Take advantage of these innovations to look beyond what Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admission, Rick Clark, calls the “college admission echo chamber” where students cling to the schools that everyone around them are talking about.

Try This: 
Explore and “visit” at least two colleges a week this summer—register for their official online events but also go rogue and scour the website for a deeper dive. With two months left before school begins in the fall, that is at least 16 schools you will learn about. Here’s the catch. One school you research during the week could be familiar to you, but make the other a college or university that you have not heard of before. Start with the Colleges That Change Lives list for hidden gems that you might not be aware of. Use a college search engine and enter some broad criteria and see what they suggest. Many tools also have a function where you can find similar schools to those you know you like. Here are a few of the many websites to conduct a search:

College Board Big Future College Search:
Princeton Review College Search
College Data College Match
College Raptor Free College Search
UNIGO College Scholarships, Stats, Admissions Advice & School Reviews

Rankings
A significant barrier to an independent approach to college admission is commercial college rankings that purport to tell you what is best for you. Break free and consider what you want in a college, not what some flawed metric of quality dictates for you.

Try This: 
Burn your copy of the US News and World Report’s Best Colleges rankings. Delete their website and those of other external ranking sources from your browser history. If you are someone who works well with quantitative indices, create your own ranking system. Identify the qualities that are most important for you in a college and put them in a spreadsheet where you can rate each college. Choose schools based on your own research and impressions rather than those of others.

Standardized Testing
Like tea in the Boston harbor, colleges and universities across the country have been tossing out their reliance on high stakes standardized testing for the 2020-2021 application cycle and beyond. A growing list of institutions have adopted test-optional policies in response to the global pandemic. While over 1,000 schools already had embraced the reality that standardized testing is not the best predictor of success in college, hundreds more have now acknowledged that the inability for students to take the ACT and SAT this year would be a significant and inequitable barrier to applying to college. A frequent question that students and families ask is: “does test-optional really mean that colleges don’t want to see scores?” Yes, optional means optional. If you have been able to take standardized tests and you are pleased with the results, by all means, submit them, but if you have not had this opportunity—or they are not representative of your academic potential—then simply do not submit scores at schools with this policy. It will not be held against you.

Try This:
Take a practice or diagnostic test for the SAT and/or the ACT. Many on-line test preparation companies and other resources like Khan Academy have free practice tests. Once you have a baseline score, you can decide if studying for and taking the SAT/ACT is worth your time, energy, and money. If your score is at the upper end or above the middle 50% of test scores for admitted students at the colleges in which you are interested, you should consider taking the official test (if that is even possible this fall) and submitting results. If not and the schools on your list are all test-optional, be free!

Essays
If there is one place on the college application to best exert your independence, it is the essay. Also called the “personal statement,” it is just that, an articulation of your individuality. Too often students approach this writing exercise trying to anticipate what colleges want to hear. This is the wrong idea. Be free. What is the story you want to tell? Tell it in your unique way. While most applications suggest prompts about which you might write, commonly you are also allowed to choose the topic of your choice. This permits you to share your authentic and original experience.

Try This:
Don’t start by looking at the prompts provided on applications. Students who begin there often find they are stifled by trying to answer a specific question or come up with a creative response to a particular prompt. Instead engage in freewriting about experiences you have had or values that you hold. What has not been told in other parts of your application? If you are struggling for a starting place, try spending twenty minutes with some stream of consciousness writing, completing the following sentences: 
“This I believe...” 
“I remember when…” 
“The hardest part…”

Don’t try to write the perfect college essay, just write what comes to mind and then come back to it after a day or two and see if anything you wrote resonates with you. Maybe all of what you wrote, or even just a sentence, will be the foundation for a powerful essay about who you are and what you value.

Liberty and Justice for All
If you are fortunate enough to have the freedom of choice in college admission, consider how you might expand those opportunities for others. Accessing and affording college is wildly unjust and rife with barriers, especially for first-generation college students, applicants from low-income families, and disproportionately for Black, Indiginegious, and People of Color (BIPOC). College admission should not be a Hunger Games type competition for a limited number of select spots. Nor should post-secondary education be reserved for a select few. Don’t hoard opportunities as an applicant or engage in competitive parenting if your child is applying to college. Share resources with other families and advocate for more inclusivity.

Try This:
Donate to the United Negro College Fund or a local Community Based Organization (CBO) like the Breakthrough Collaborative that works with traditionally underrepresented students. Support affirmative action initiatives and anti-racist policies in college admission. If you are a college graduate, ask your alma mater how they are recruiting and supporting students who have not traditionally had access to higher education. When you donate to your college’s annual fund, direct your contribution towards financial aid if you can determine whether those dollars are going to students with demonstrated need.

Freedom is a complicated privilege and means something different to everyone. Take advantage of this time of transition as high school nears an end to consider what you want for yourself and how best to get there. Celebrate any opportunities you have to choose freely and advocate for the same for others. Declare your independence from restrictive approaches to college admission and be intentional about your future.

Brennan Barnard

Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
for The Washington Post
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