Philip Morgan, a stocky football player and senior at Dunbar High School, has a list of the nine colleges he hopes will accept him next fall. He has been working on his applications to schools like Morgan State University and Alma College for days, but there is one part of the process befuddling him: the arduous college essay.
Luckily, Dunbar High School deployed volunteers from across the community to help students like him as part of D.C. College Application Week. The American Council on Education launched the national effort to increase the number of first-generation and low-income students who pursue a postsecondary education.
GW Dean of Admissions Karen Stroud Felton, Assistant Director of Admissions Sydney Morris and Admissions Communications Associate Alex Fonseca filed into Dunbar’s buzzing media center on Wednesday to read applications and edit college essays. About 30 high school seniors bounced onto computers, checking university websites and shouting questions about the stressful college application process.
Dunbar guidance counselor LaShawn Montgomery said the extra GW assistance came at just the right time. D.C. College Application Week can be chaotic, she said, as students hustle to get all their college materials in order. Just that morning, more than 60 seniors had filled the room asking for advice, and she didn’t anticipate the stream of students slowing down.
“I can only describe it as overwhelming, and it can be too much for one or two people to handle. The more help we get, the better and more efficiently we can guide students and submit these applications,” Ms. Montgomery said.
GW’s volunteer efforts were in keeping with the university’s commitment to college accessibility. In 2014, GW President Steven Knapp attended a White House summit on college opportunity and subsequently created the Task Force on Access and Success to support first-generation and low-income students who want to attend college. Since then, the university has implemented programs to support first-generation, minority and low-income students to diversify GW's student body, which Dr. Knapp has said would better prepare graduates for a global workplace.
The university also has formed partnerships with the Posse Foundation and Say Yes to Education to increase the number of low-income, high achieving students at GW. In July, the university announced it would no longer require most students who apply for undergraduate admission to submit SAT or ACT test scores, making GW one of the largest test-optional private universities in the United States.
“Applying to college can feel like a daunting task, and we hoped to help the students from our community recognize their dreams are attainable,” Ms. Felton said.
At Dunbar, Mr. Fonseca and Ms. Morris spent time with several high school seniors. Ms. Morris approached Sherry Lyles, a 17 year old who chattered brightly about how she wants to become a veterinarian after attending Shenandoah University. She wanted to write an essay about how she had struggled in school her sophomore year, but didn’t know how to formulate it.
“So maybe you can talk about how those experiences made you realize you were going down the wrong path and how you turned things around,” Ms. Morris suggested.
The recommendations seemed to trigger a slew of ideas for Ms. Lyles. Soon, she was speedily typing an introduction for her essay. She said she wouldn’t have been able to narrow down what she wanted to write about without Ms. Morris.
“I did not really know she was working in college admissions until she gave me her card,” Ms. Lyles said. “I was wondering how she was so good at this, and then I got excited, because, if anything, people like her are going to be the kinds of people looking at my statement.”
Across the room, Ms. Felton sat next to Mr. Morgan, the football player grappling with his personal statement. They leaned over his laptop, rearranging the sentences of the essay like a puzzle until all the pieces fit. Nearly an hour passed. Then, Mr. Morgan read the final version of the essay out loud.
He described the feeling he gets playing football, and how it has motivated him to pursue a career as a coach or in sports management. He shared examples of his hard work in high school and listed the skills he thinks will enable him to succeed in college. He glanced over at Ms. Felton once he was done reading.
“I think you have a great essay,” Ms. Felton assured him.
It was the boost Mr. Morgan needed amid the nerve-wracking college admissions experience.
“She helped me explore my thoughts,” he said. “That was better than if I had just sat down and tried to write what I think admissions counselors want. She’s someone who actually knows.”