Being Poor at America’s Rich Colleges

“… while poor kids are underrepresented on elite campuses, the wealthiest kids are overrepresented. At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.” 

For all the lip service to being schools that are open and welcoming to all students, many institutions like Harvard are still recruiting, admitting, and educating the nation’s wealthiest students.

Forbes author Maggie McGrath tackles a challenging topic in this article that examines the experiences of middle and lower-income students who find themselves in some of the privileged worlds of American higher education. They have the brains, motivation and toughness to succeed, but sometimes their backgrounds set them apart from their wealthy peers. I remember when I was a student at Dartmouth, wealth wasn’t always in your face, but if you thought about the fact that only about 50% of students receive financial aid, it meant that the other half of the students had families that could pay the $53,000+ a year with cold hard cash. I think there was even a discount for families that could pay the entire tuition in a lump sum. My parents were certainly not in that category.

While I applaud elite, highly selective universities and colleges for opening up their doors to low income, first generation students in order to diversify their campuses, it’s not enough just to admit the students. Faculty members are not always adept to deal with students from different backgrounds, making assumptions of students and families that can be harmful. There must be support systems in place for these students who are at times out of their comfort zone, especially in campuses were talking about wealth, money, and family background can be taboo. It’s great that schools like Stanford have invested in creating offices where students can learn about others and share experiences that they don’t feel completely isolated on a campus that seeps wealth and everyone has a seemingly carefree attitude. Many students from low income backgrounds have faced challenges in high school and beyond, but had mentors or community based organizations that supported them to be admitted to their highly selective schools. Universities need to ensure that the support continues throughout the undergraduate years to ensure that students don’t drop out. One of the best ways is to create mentoring networks of students from similar backgrounds: 1) to show that there is a community of students like them, and 2) to teach younger students how to navigate semi-adulthood while succeeding academically.

“… take it from someone who’s still navigating this often tricky terrain. Harvard’s Christian Ramirez remembers feeling alone as a low-income student at an Ivy League institution at first, but slowly realizing there were many other students like him and it was okay to ask one of them, or an administrator, for help.” 

 Did you face isolation as a student because it was taboo discuss money on your campus? Write to[at]gmail[dot]com to share your story!Widener-Pic





“Personal Statement”- Hilarious YA Novel About Admissions Arms Race


Screaming “Let Me In” at the top of your lungs….

Thanks to the generosity of Ms. Saira Rao over at In This Together Media, I spent the last three days engrossed in Personal Statement, a hilarious young adult novel about the perils of the college admissions arms race. The author, Emmy-nominated Jason Odell Williams, has the keen ability to climb into the minds of over-stressed, competitive teenagers in a privileged suburb of CT as they plot and plan their way into their perfect “personal statement” scenario: natural disaster volunteering. On their journey, they discover that perhaps they’ve lost their way, and question whether or not the stress they face is worth the battle! I commend Mr. Williams for taking often ignored but bubbling under the surface topics like race (Asian American stereotype – one of my favorite topics), class, privilege, the technology revolution and its impact on education and pressure to succeed by any means necessary(!!!) all in this short novel targeted toward young adults getting ready for the college process!

The four characters, Emily Kim, Robert Clinton III, Alexis J. Could, and Rani Caldwell, all read like familiar applicants…probably because I read personal statements from many students like them during my former career as an admissions officer at Stanford University. The four of them are highly motivated, academically excellent, cut-throat competitive and don’t take “NO” for an answer. They are also personifications of privilege and wealth, and aside from Emily and two romantic interests that come and go, almost all benefit from their parent’s educational background and societal know-how. I was impressed how Mr. Williams can ferociously mock Asian American stereotypes (with the Korean American immigrant parents dressing Emily in Ivy League one-zies) as well as wealthy legacy African Americans (using “summer” as a verb and trying to keep connected with their “folks in the community”), while at the same time keeping up with teenage tech and lingo…I would recommend it to parents just that they can get a primer on the newest app that their kids are using! (While at the same time, I worry that the technology citations will make the book lose it’s “newness” as trends come and go…)

For me, two things really stood out: the parents who don’t listen to what their kids want, and the kids who are “racing to no where” with their ambitions in hand. All of the main characters are balancing their genuine and sometimes desperate need to please their parents and their own intellectual curiosity and desire to make a difference. Everyone sees college as an end goal – from the kids who want to post their acceptances on social media to the parents who can’t wait to brag to their gym buddies about the future of their offspring! I saw so many parents just like this in information sessions at Dartmouth and Stanford, raising their hands high Tracy Flick style and asking questions about “HOW WILL MY SON MAKE FRIENDS HERE?” while their child was slumped to the side taking a nap. Lady, chill, it’s not about you. I especially loved the dialogue by parents who talk like they themselves work in the admissions offices (ex. “I know for a fact that XXX got your sister in to Princeton”), even though when they applied most of these universities were letting one out of every three applicant in. The main take away from me was that parents should focus on the kid in front of them rather than wishing for someone else, and for students to take a moment to truly reflect on what will make a satisfying and meaningful college experience that will contribute to their growth and happiness. Of course, that’s easier said than done. All in all, I couldn’t put this novel down, and the first few chapters were especially hilarious that I laughed out loud. Thanks and congrats so much for your debut novel and hope to see more of your writing in the future!

One last word about In This Together Media — which I think is a wonderful publishing organization (started on Kickstarter? How cool is that!) that supports authors who write novels that focus on girls’ empowerment! I was even excited to see one of my former colleague’s books on the site as a Amazon best seller! Keep up the great work! If you’re ever looking for non-fiction about college admissions, please let me know! I’d love to work with you!

See, Admissions Deans and Officers are Human…Dealing with Aftermath of Boston Bombings

I can’t even start to describe the fear and sadness I felt, along with my classmates and friends in the Boston area, over the recent bombings during the Boston Marathon. The insecurity felt in the entire city echoed throughout the cable news and social networks was so intense. I was on my iPhone with many of my friends who live in Watertown, who heard the shots only a mile or so away from their apartment.

There aren’t any adequate words to show the sorrow I have for the families of the victims and injured. It was surreal to see my old neighborhood splashed across the news screen as if it was a movie.

While all of the searches for the suspect was going on, Harvard University was supposed to be hosting the admitted students from the Class of 2017. I’m not trying to belittle the situation or the event. I am sure it was crazy to be in Boston, but I wanted to highlight how amazing the admissions staff of Harvard was in responding to the need of students who flew in from all parts of the world and then were stuck in the airport. I remember during my college days going on buses to receive admitted students, and how the energy was electric and so exciting. I am amazed at how the Dean, who went HIMSELF to the airport, and other staff members took care of many of the students and cared for them while the search continued outside near Watertown.

What a great way for a community to show how they take care of their students, and it’s also heart-warming to see that current students came online using social networks and media to make new students feel welcome!

I know that there must be disappointed students out there all over the nation who didn’t get into their top choice schools….and it’s tough. I get that. I got rejected from seven out of eight schools I applied to! I just want you to know; however, that admission officers are not EVIL. They are people, doing their job, trying to find the students that are the right fit for the institutions where they work. We also get really sad when we are not able to admit the students that we love as well…and I would sometimes have to excuse myself during a committee meeting during admissions and cry about a student that I really wanted to admit. It happens. We are human…and I think that Dean Fitzsimmons and his staff showed that last weekend.

Bravo Harvard!

Google Drive Full of Columbia Admissions Essays?

I try not to get caught up in the rumor mill/craze of college admissions, but this is just so different…I never saw anything like this before.

I know that young people are a lot more open with their personal lives online, but wow…the class of 2017 published their college admissions essays on a public Google Drive one day ago…letting the whole world see what they shared with the admissions office!

Gawker has a great article about it, and so does IvyGate. It’s even on The Atlantic’s blog! I’m so sad that I can’t open up the Google Drive to see the essays…because I am sure there are some true gems in there.

On the positive side, I think that reading successful essays can inspire and help other high school students…so I think that’s great. It’s free, it’s open, and I guess we are all crowd-sourcing solutions to different problems, so why not with college admissions too…

On the negative side…these are PERSONAL statements. They are supposed to be about one SINGLE person. You can model and read other’s essays but at the end of the day you have to choose the best way to represent yourself. Only you can do that.

I do have to say, after my jaw hitting the floor with Suzy Lee Weiss’s mean-spirited ramblings, I thought this was a cute, open prank.


Highly Qualified Students from Low-Income Backgrounds Don’t Apply to Top Colleges

Happy New Year!

Can’t believe it’s already 2013…I’m still in training preparing for a new job, but it gives me more time to explore the world of college admissions. A recent article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson summarizes new research by Professor Hoxby at Stanford that states that the smartest kids in low income communities are not applying to the best colleges with generous financial aid packages. I heard Professor Hoxby speak about this topic in 2010 (she is an professor of education/economics at Stanford University), and thought a lot about what factors lead students to apply to top schools and where the connection is lost.

It is true, that when I was visiting low income schools in Northern California, there would be schools where only about 12% of the students who graduated would matriculate into a 4 year college, and they had never met someone who had gone to a Harvard or a Stanford. Even though these schools were within 50 miles of Stanford University and UC Berkeley. So much of your world view, especially when you are young is shaped by your community. If your parents work at the Jelly Belly Factory or Travis Air Force Base and your siblings went to community college before taking on a job in your hometown, there is not a lot of ways that you can learn about opportunities for higher learning. On top of that, some guidance and college counselors that I would meet with did not know how to encourage their top students and they were not familiar with need blind financial aid programs. I think Thompson is right that there needs to be better marketing that is targeted toward the right kinds of students.

I spent the last summer volunteering for a political campaign and learned about how data is used for micro-targeting – for example, if you want to find women who are 35-55 years old who live in a certain county and have voted Democrat in the last 5 elections and are in the education sector…you could use your data base to find those people to hit them up for donations or volunteer shifts. Why can’t we use the data collected from the SAT (although they are self-reported by students so there are questions with accuracy) to micro-target students who are exceptionally smart within a community but are not linked within a network that encourages “college going” in their culture. I think a great example of this is College Horizons, which is THE premier college prep program for promising Native American high school students. I have close friends who recruit high school students for this program, and since many Native students live in rural communities, they rely on social networking and word of mouth. I have also seen in the Hmong community while working at Stanford that if you can get one sibling accepted, the younger siblings will aim high for high caliber schools following the foot steps of their siblings.

Lots to think about. On a really exciting note, my best friend brought a friend to visit, and I found out that his cousin was part of the cohort of students that I admitted during my admissions days. Obviously, I did not discuss details of the application, but I went back and read through my notes about the student…and it really warmed my heart to know that he was doing well and about to graduate. There are days when working in education just feel so worthwhile. This was one of them. If you have ideas about how to outreach better to low-income high achieving students, write me at

Happy New Year Everyone!

Asian American College Applicant Profile on NYT & Senior Check List!

Vietnamese American College Applicant

Love this young Vietnamese American girl – she is so modest and adorable, and she believes in the good in people…I have to say that she comes off totally likable, but shows her love of learning and curiosity by letting us know that she is interested in technology and biotech and tinkers with games and electronics. LOVE that she’s a woman in science and she’s not shy about it. This type of geeky-smart is well liked in admission offices across the county! She does not seem overly stressed and comes off as friendly and calm. Please approach college in the same way that she does.

Thanh-Tran is so likeable because to me, she acts like her age. She isn’t trying to be overly sophisticated or adult. I meet so many students during college interviews who are trying to pretend to be something that I would be impressed with…and a lot of them miss the mark because how can one high school student try to guess what their admission officer (reader of their application would like…?) Students should just try to be authentically be the same!

She is a A/B student, and honestly, there are more students like Thanh-Tran who aren’t the tippy top of their class and curing cancer. I was in the bottom half of my senior class during high school, but I still graduated from college cum laude (I think that’s top third of my class), had a wonderful first job at a university and went on to graduate school…so deciding how successful you will be at 16 or 17 years old is just ridiculous. Don’t stress out students…learn from Thanh-Tran!

She says

Right now, I’m waiting to hear back from college fly-in programs. Given that I can’t afford to make cross-country college visits, these fly-in programs would help me get a real sense of what I’m looking for in a college, as well as firsthand experience of the colleges I’m going to visit.

I applied to Oberlin College’s Multicultural Visit, the Multicultural Open House at Colgate University, the SEED program at Brandeis University, and the Voices of Tufts Diversity Experience.”

She’s on the right track to pursue these diversity programs, and I hope that she will be able to visit many schools and see which one is the right fit for her. She mentions that she needs financial aid, so perhaps she comes form a modest family?

I got this blog post from the NYT admissions blog, The Choice, where they profile eight students every year who are going through the college process. Wow, it must take guts to let the entire nation know what your college process is like…from where you applied to where you are accepted and denied! I like the video format they have this year a lot!

Below is a quick checklist for our seniors who are getting ready to apply to school: Making a List and Checking it TWICE!

College Fair from Your Couch…

I do not normally endorse private corporations that try to milk money from students re: college advice; however, I find this idea of a virtual college fair rather intriguing. Especially if you are in a foreign country and do not have access to U.S. universities – something like a virtual fair might be of interest!

On September 15, 2012, Hobsons is hosting a virtual college fair – all you need is internet and computer access! If you are looking for other ways to learn about American education please research your local American Embassy. If they have an American Center, that’s a great place to get advice on college in the United States, research financial aid opportunities, and practice your English. Here are links to the Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam. I worked in the Embassy in Hanoi last summer, and it was amazing. During July, we got a record breaking 3,000 visitors that came to learn about American culture, listen to music, join the debate club, and watch movies with us. It’s great that people all over the world can learn about the United States from their home country.

If you are an American college student and you want to work at an Embassy abroad for an internship, I guarantee you it’s the BEST WAY TO SPEND A SEMESTER. You will learn SO much while gaining valuable skills and meeting incredible people!