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Learning to help scholars map their road to college

PEAK mentors help and support their scholars along their journey in many ways – from helping them with study habits to modeling professional work habits. They're always keen to learn how to be the best mentor they can be.

Often staff are asked what mentors can do to help them scholars get into college. How important is the overall GPA vs. improvement? What can help a PEAK scholar thrive once he or she starts a post-graduate career?

HighSight Executive Director Mark Duhon detailed some answers to those questions recently during one of our twice-yearly Mentor Roundtables. Mark has spent more than 30 years helping Chicago students from low-income families excel in high school and graduate from four-year colleges.

It’s a numbers game, according to Mark, and it’s important to understand what numbers will equal success.

All colleges are most interested in students’ grade point average, Mark explained - up to 35% of admission decisions focus on a student’s grades. The traditional cut-off has been a 2.8 GPA on a 4.0 scale, he said; anything less than that is an early warning sign a student might not graduate college and makes it unlikely he or she will be considered for admission unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Colleges next consider a student’s “class rigor,” or the curriculum’s level of challenge. Students who take rigorous math, science, English, social science and language courses throughout high school are considered more ready for college than those who take less-challenging courses or opt out of math and science after completing the state-mandated basics, Mark said.

Students focused on getting into college should also be involved in extracurricular activities such as sports, service groups and clubs; college admission officers are looking for people who exhibit good character as well as community involvement, both at school and in a student’s home neighborhood. These particular extracurricular activities are good indicators of someone who will be a strong addition to the college’s community and a positive influence on peers, he said.

While SAT and ACT scores are slowly becoming less important for applicants at some colleges and universities, many still require their inclusion on applications, Mark said. Students should take test preparation courses if they can - all PEAK scholars are encouraged take the prep courses available at Holy Trinity - and research the minimum scores needed at the colleges that interest them. Students can consider taking the tests more than once if they feel their initial scores aren’t high enough - both the ACT and SAT only count a student’s highest score and transmit that to colleges.

While mentors can help scholars plan for college by helping them with studying, discussing class-schedule planning and exploring school activities that they enjoy, they can also help scholars stay on the lookout for teacher recommendations, Mark noted. Most colleges require teacher recommendations with applications, but a student shouldn’t wait until October of senior year to ask for them - teachers get swamped by recommendation requests then, and students might not get the carefully considered, glowing recommendations they’re seeking. Instead, he advised, encourage scholars to ask for recommendations in their sophomore and junior years and hold onto them until ready to send applications.

Most people know that college application essays are important…but not many know that colleges are also closely attuned to the interest an applicant exhibits in the school before applying, Mark noted. Schools track how many times a potential applicant reaches out to a school, whether that student signs up for a mailing list, comes to information sessions or attends a campus virtual or in-person tour. If a student has reached out before applying, schools consider it a plus; if the applicant’s level of interest is high, he or she is more likely to be an invested member of the school community.

When considering which schools to apply to, Mark recommended that mentors encourage scholars to check out the graduation rates of the programs they’re interested in - if the graduation rates are low, students should keep looking.

While encouraging students to keep their grades up to increase both acceptance chances and possibility of scholarships and grants, mentors should also urge students to do fun things over the summer, Mark said. Activities that students really enjoy help build their confidence and might also turn into ways to build their resumes, he said.

Ultimately, if they’re informed about current college admission processes, mentors (and anyone in a scholars’ support system) can give critical guidance that will ease a student’s road to higher education, he said.

Our PEAK mentors were grateful for Mark’s advice, and said they'd be talking about college with their scholars. Some also said they’re looking forward to another college conversation - this time, one that will cover how to start talking with parents about the college selection process so they can bring parents’ help into the mix as well!


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