Helping Kids Get into College

December 16th, 2013

SMG students’ College AppAssist gives high schoolers a boost

It’s crunch time for Javier Plaza—he’s just one week away from taking the SATs. So at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, Plaza meets up with Joseph McNiff in the Brighton High School library to help him prepare for the test. Books and worksheets are strewn across a large wooden table as the two review the formula for finding the area of a base of a cylinder.

“Area equals r2, so we have to solve for ‘r’,” says McNiff (SMG’14). Plaza starts to swipe his finger on his phone to pull up its calculator, but McNiff harkens back to his days of taking the SATs. “They don’t allow cell phones during the test,” he says, as he reaches into his backpack. “Here, I brought you an old-fashioned calculator to take with you.”

Plaza is enrolled in College AppAssist, a nonprofit organization formed by School of Management students that works with high schools to identify students who want to go to college, but lack a support system, and to match them with mentors who help them navigate the college admissions maze. The organization—made up of 11 BU students—is working with its first class, 10 Brighton High School seniors.

“When I met Joe for the first time I knew it would work,” says Plaza. “He helped me make a plan of going to a community college for two years, and then applying to a four-year school after that. I’m thinking about majoring in law, psychology, maybe music. I’m just excited to get there.”

College AppAssist works with students one-on-one, helping them with things that people with a strong home support system often take for granted—they tutor students for SATs, read over their Common Application essays, and help explain the workings of financial aid. A few weeks ago McNiff brought Plaza to BU to give him a college tour.

“College AppAssist started as a conversation between five friends our sophomore year,” says McNiff, the group’s founding president. “I like the idea that we’re only a few years older than the kids we’re working with, so we remember what it was like applying and how tough it can be.”

The organization was conceived in June 2012, but it had to secure IRS 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status before it could get off the ground. “It was an intense, monthslong process that required us to answer questions like how are you organized and what is your mission statement,” McNiff says. “It pointed out things to us that we hadn’t thought about or had overlooked. We were forced to get our ideas down on paper, and in the end it was really useful.”

To encourage high school students to join the program, College AppAssist gives each $250 to use towards textbooks and tuition. The money comes from the more than $3,500 in corporate donations that the nonprofit has raised over the past year.

The group relies on high school guidance counselors and teachers to recommend students who would be a good fit. The enrollees are all low-income students and most come from families without college experience. Alexandria Chong (SMG’14), for example, works with a high school student who lived part of his life in an African refugee camp. “His Common App essay is about what education means to him,” Chong says. “He’s estranged from his mother, so I’ve been helping him think of which schools he should apply to and what he plans to major in—he’s thinking of engineering at one of the UMass schools.”

In addition to meeting with her student once a week, Rashidat Agboola (SMG’14), tricaptain of the BU women’s basketball team, texts and calls to see how his week is going. “Yesterday we worked on filling out his Common App and started talking about scholarships he can apply for,” she says. “I’m also connecting him with people who have graduated, so he can get an idea of what he wants to do. He knows that he can look to me for advice or help.”

College AppAssist members hope to expand to more local high schools next year and also to create a formal application process. They are considering starting branches of their nonprofit at other colleges.

McNiff is one of four seniors in the group committed to continuing their relationships even after they graduate. “We want to be seen as someone they can go to with questions as they navigate college,” says McNiff, who is joining Citigroup Investment Banking after graduation. “Whether it’s which class to register for or a question about laundry, we want to be ongoing mentors.”