“The race started, and I was in great position. I cruised through the mile mark in 5:02 and was in sixth place, well on my way to a top-five finish, but it never happened. An injury I had been battling for the second half of the season was re-aggravated when I tried to make a quick turn in soft mud.”

This is the beginning of a college admissions essay by Solomon, an Honor Roll student and star athlete, whose transcript is only sullied by one C in math. If you were an admissions counselor at Dunbar College, would you let Solomon in?

I’m sitting in a room with fifteen high school students trying to figure that out. We’re participating in Making Waves Academy’s tweflth annual Case Study and College Fair, an event that helps demystify the college admission process for low-income and often first-generation students throughout the Bay Area. Representatives from Boston University and Colgate University are leading our session, asking questions to help us evaluate the admissions prospects of Solomon, Alex, and Guadalupe (fictional students) at Dunbar (a fictional college).

Throughout the session, the reps pepper in advice for the students, who attend schools including Making Waves Academy, Aspire Public Schools, Envision Academy, and the Bay Area Technology School. “Everyone’s journey through college is different. Asking questions of the college reps here today is one of the best things you can do for yourself to pick the best college for you,” says Emily Rutherford, the rep from Colgate University.

After we vote (and decide to accept Guadalupe, waitlist Solomon, and deny Alex), it’s time for the college fair, where 57 college reps are waiting to directly engage with students. The reps are from public and private colleges in California and throughout the country, as well as local community colleges, gap year programs, and the ROTC. I stand at the table of my alma mater, Oberlin, and help answer questions from parents and students. “What’s the music conservatory like?” “What can I major in if I want a career in graphic design?” “What’s it like to live in Ohio, anyway?”

Later in the day I talk to Jon Siapno, Director of College & Career Counseling at Making Waves Academy, about the purpose of the event. “Gaining admission to colleges or other post-secondary programs is a competitive process, and it’s important that our students understand how they’ll be evaluated and what they’re up against so that they can begin backwards-planning now. Our students have big dreams and we ought to let them know if they’re taking the right steps to achieve what they want in life.”

This event—attend by students as young as eighth grade—help instill a college mindset in Making Waves Academy students from an early age. And it works: over 95% of MWA graduates are enrolled in post-secondary schools: about 70% in 4-year colleges and universities and about 25% in 2-year colleges.

Alton Nelson Jr., CEO of Making Waves Academy, also discusses the purpose of the day. “When our students leave our school, we’re not always sure what they will find next,” he says. “The institutions in this room are some of the few places that signal to students that society can make true on what it promises. These reps give a snippet of what could be.”

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