I grew up believing that the American Dream was possible if you worked hard. My parents ingrained that type of mindset as a form of building my work ethic. It was that belief that also led me to think that to get accepted into the best colleges, I needed to work harder and study more than everyone else. So I did. When I was denied from my top choice, I felt like I had failed my family. I had not worked hard enough or prepared the way I should have, and therefore being denied was what I deserved. I ended up taking up the offer at UC Riverside and enjoyed a memorable experience there nonetheless.
It was in college that I learned the reality of college admissions: working harder than everyone else wasn’t the only way students gained admission into prestigious institutions. The idea of it all seemed surreal. So many of my classmates had taken the SAT after months of private tutoring; so many had also had access to a private education with personal college counselors. How could I even think to compete with them?
A few years after graduating from college, I immersed myself in the world of college counseling. I was determined to understand the admissions process as I wanted to provide students from under-resourced communities an opportunity at fulfilling their dreams, while also helping them understand that their worth would not be diminished by a rejection. To be the best counselor I could be, I took it upon myself to attend numerous conferences and workshops offered by the most prestigious institutions with the hopes of familiarizing myself with what they were looking for in order to make my students a “fit” for them. It was through this process that I ended up taking a part-time job as a college counselor for a private college counseling company.
Before there’s judgment, I want to share that I did this with underlying intentions: I wanted to have access to folks with the resources and wealth to pay for private college counselors in order to know exactly what my students were working against. And it was horrible. I only worked for the company for about a year, but in that year, I found myself feeling guilty every time I stepped foot into a client’s home.
Our first session was always a get-to-know your aspirations and goals kind of meeting. It was in this meeting that we discussed what colleges the students were aiming to get accepted into. It was always the Ivy Leagues and the competitive public schools that were mentioned. But the more resounding piece of information always came from the parents, who asked me the same question: “how many hours do I need to purchase in order to have you get my daughter/son into (insert school here)?” The first time this came up, I didn’t even know what to say. I just giggled and shared I was no magician, but I would do my best to help highlight the students’ assets. Still, I couldn’t guarantee anything. This first response didn’t go so well for me as that client requested another more “experienced” counselor that had Ivy League experience as an alumnus by preference. Times after that I would simply share that we would work hard together and asked that they speak to the owner about packages. I limited my discussions about hours because deep inside, it just didn’t sit well with me that these families were paying thousands of dollars for a “College Application Process” package. Meanwhile, my students from the non-profit I was working at were relying on me to help them however I could at no cost.
I ended up leaving the company after I was sent to provide my services to a “partner non-profit” that was seeking to bring in experts in the college admission process to help its students in Gardena and learned how much the owner was charging them to have me there. I decided to offer my help during my own time as a volunteer instead.
The scandal shedding light on this pay-to-play scheme brought back many of the feelings I felt when I first was introduced to that whole world. While it is disappointing, it’s also such a familiar concept to me that I am far from surprised. Unfortunately, it’s not just the wealthy that are paying to have their kids attend prestigious institutions with very little effort to show. The elite college admission process has been an ongoing barrier for our students from lower-income communities. I didn’t directly work with wealthy offspring as families with extra resources paid way more to work with the owner, who happened to be a professional writer (one of her clients was the daughter of a top brand and they demanded the counselors do all the work). In working with the owner directly for an extra charge, they had perfect essays guaranteed and an even more outstanding overall application; she would write everything herself. I refused to write for them so I would only provide editing support. Thus, I was given the smaller clients. But this scheme was real. And it was extremely profitable. Too profitable it seems as the owner called me at least a dozen times to ask why I left and why I took her non-profit client away. It was all a business, and she didn’t appreciate my disruption.
I still do my best to volunteer my time and provide college application support to students in my community. It feels like my moral responsibility to guide them and help them see the bigger picture as so much is working against them. But the truth is, it’s all gone too far. There has to be something done to ensure more accountability by college admissions offices and more transparency. Students’ dreams are on the line.
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