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. That made it an impersonal experience for me.”
“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,” Li explains. “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 my counselor that often.”
“Most of my college application experience was on my own,” Li expands. “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 schools that might be a good fit; another helped narrow my choices after I received acceptance letters. Older students also helped with my essay.”
Li applied to five UC schools and ten private universities. She was accepted to UC Berkeley, Williams and Cornell and chose to attend Cornell. It was from Cornell’s Facebook page that she learned about a company called CollegeVine (CV), which helps families navigate the path to the best schools. She applied to be a near-peer mentor and got the job.
“There are many college prep companies in Arcadia to help students through the process, but they are primarily staffed with older people,” Li states. “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.”
Before becoming a CV mentor Li went through intensive training – on completing the common application, writing a compelling essay, interviewing techniques. She got her first client, an international student, in September last year.
“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 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.