By May S. Ruiz
A year ago, Emma Li was a 17-year-old high school senior at Arcadia High School, eagerly yet nervously waiting to hear from the colleges and universities to which she had applied. Today she is a freshman at Cornell University and a near-peer mentor to teenagers who are going through this same mind-numbingly complicated process called college applications.
Arcadia, where Li spent her childhood, is one of the San Gabriel Valley’s most sought after districts because of its excellent schools. Indeed she was very fortunate to have attended Arcadia High School whose graduates are admitted to very selective universities – the class of 2016 had students who were accepted into every Ivy League university in the country. However, it also has a large enrollment.
According Ryan Foran, Public Information Officer for the Arcadia Unified School District, there are 9.5 counselors at the high school. While every student from ninth through twelfth grade is assigned a counselor, it is also a stretch for all 3,500 students to get face-to-face time with their counselor on a regular basis.
Li says, “I actually started meeting with my counselor during freshman year because I needed assistance on applying to summer programs, which required a letter of recommendation to apply for. If I hadn’t wanted to attend these programs, I probably would have met with my counselor much later on. However, there are only two counselors assigned to each class and there were approximately 850 students in mine.”
“When we were seniors, we were assigned a counselor who would write the recommendations for our college applications, and that counselor might not have been the one designated to our class year,” Li adds. “I was lucky enough to have requested that my counselor for all four years write my counselor recommendation; I know that this wasn’t the case for many of my peers.”
Still, Li felt it had been an impersonal experience for her. She explains, “There has to be an active effort on the students’ part to meet with their counselor or they will just get lost in the crowd. If I didn’t proactively seek it out, I wouldn’t get any time with the counselors. As it was, I didn’t see or speak with mine that often.”
“Most of my college application experience was on my own,” expounds Li. “My counselor gave me a few recommendations when I had my interview with her; she told me to look at some more schools. On a few occasions, my teachers suggested universities that might be a good fit; another helped narrow my choices after I received acceptance letters. Older students also helped with my essay.”
A first generation Asian-American whose parents are immigrants from China, Li didn’t get much guidance from them. She states, “My parents have only been here for two decades and didn’t have any experience in U.S. college application. So I was pretty much on my own. I did a lot of research and applied to 15 schools – five UCs and ten private universities – but I only visited a handful of them.”
Li was accepted to UC Berkeley, Williams and Cornell. She didn’t visit Cornell but decided to matriculate there based on a friend’s recommendation. She says, “I think that being in college is overwhelming for almost all of the people I met. Before coming here, I had expected to be intellectually challenged, to meet people who’ve done incredible things, to join clubs and organizations that would allow me to pursue the interests I had in high school or to explore new passions. In that respect, Cornell lived up to what I had anticipated, but at the same time, so could any other college that I had applied to. The way I see it, my expectations were about college itself than about this school in particular. I don’t think visiting Cornell would have altered what I hoped to experience, although I would have been able to picture myself walking to class or eating in the dining halls.”
From Cornell’s Facebook page, Li learned about a company called CollegeVine (CV), which helps families navigate the path to the best schools. She applied to one of the jobs and internships it was offering for Cornell students and was accepted.
Asked why she decided to become a CV mentor, Li answers, “It’s probably a mix of two reasons. Firstly, I was a tutor for many years and I enjoyed doing it; but there aren’t too many similar programs in college. Secondly, when I was in high school, a lot of the help I got with my essays came from older students who were attending the schools to which I was applying.”
“There are many college prep companies in Arcadia to help students through the process, but I find that they are primarily staffed with older people,” adds Li. “What’s really appealing for CollegeVine clients is that the counselors helping them are in their age group. In that sense, CollegeVine is more effective because the consultants recently applied to college, know what it’s like and share a common experience of the pressure of applying.”
Li went through intensive training – on completing the common application, writing a compelling essay, interviewing techniques – to become a CV mentor. She got her first client, an international student, in September last year.
Because the academic system in other countries isn’t the same as in the U.S., Li’s first job required her to do a lot of paperwork and research. She spent three hours a week working – one-and-a-half hours doing research and the other one-and-a-half hours video chatting with her client. She checked her student’s essay for grammatical errors and organized it, while ensuring it still had her client’s voice.
“My client applied to seven U.S. schools and a few in her home country,” relates Li. “She concentrated on colleges with rolling admissions so she sent her first application early on and was accepted to her first choice school in mid-November. I was very excited for her! On top of that, she got a half-ride scholarship which her parents didn’t think they would qualify for.”
College counselors in private schools discourage their students from hiring independent consultants to help them through the application process. By necessity, though, those who are in large, public schools who can’t see their counselor regularly have to seek additional assistance.
As Li emphasizes, “I definitely think that getting outside help will make students more successful, just because they can have the personalized attention they don’t receive in school. Independent counselors like me can better assess students’ strengths and weaknesses to find the best way to present them to college admissions officers.”
“It also benefits students to have someone who can recommend ways to handle less-than-ideal scenarios,” Li says further. “As a counselor, I provide an alternative point of view if they’re deferred, waitlisted, or rejected. Having gone through this process recently, I can honestly tell my clients not to make senior year more stressful than it already is. While it might be the culmination of everything they’ve worked for 12 years, it all comes together in the end.”
College application is a rite-of-passage for most teenagers in this country. And as Li could personally attest to, it is at once nerve-wracking and thrilling. Now, as a counselor, the most rewarding aspect of her job is being able to relive its best moments.