The data shows time and time again, the cards are stacked against public school students. But there are ways to make yourself marketable to colleges without having things like essay prep, perfect grades, and unbelievable test scores. So what if you don’t have access to these things? As a senior at DeKalb School of the Arts, I didn’t have a 4.0 and never scored 1600 on the SAT, but I still earned nearly half a million dollars worth of scholarship offers. Here’s how I did it.
Do Your Research!
I pulled up the US News Rankings of Best Universities and went right down the list from number one, finding ways to eliminate colleges as I scrolled. Either I was way out of the SAT range or simply didn’t like the vibes of the website. I jotted down around 15-20 colleges that seemed interesting and sorted them into a spreadsheet using Notion, with categories including location, total cost, expected admissions chances, SAT ranges, and overall feel.
In hindsight, I’d recommend narrowing down on a major first and then figuring out which schools are best for what you could picture yourself doing.
Make Yourself Marketable
The next step was to make myself marketable. That’s the one piece of advice I would give to rising juniors or anyone prepping for college applications. We’re in a world where so many people have good grades, and anyone applying to a reputable university probably has impressive stats. It’s enough to have good grades, but if you’re able to make yourself look more than qualified, it can really be the thing that takes you over the top.
Since I applied as a journalism major, I made sure to go after every opportunity that revolved around journalism and communications. I started leading my school’s yearbook club, I participated in a journalism summer program with the New York Times. I led the marketing team for my school’s productions, and I started working here at VOX ATL. I found every possible way to make myself marketable. That way, colleges didn’t have a reason to say no when they read my application.
Be The Best Version Of Yourself
It was actually at my tour of Boston University (BU) that I heard about the Posse Scholarship! The Posse Scholarship is a merit-based, leadership, full-tuition scholarship, supporting students in 20 cities around the country.
Locally, the scholarship is awarded to 60 students by six colleges and universities. At the end of the process, each college receives a posse of 10 students, and the students receive a full-tuition scholarship and other supports to attend. The six colleges participating with Posse Atlanta, for context, are Brandeis University, Boston University, Bard College, The College of Wooster, Texas A&M, and The George Washington University.
The process involves three sets of interviews in addition to a variety of lengthy short-answer responses. In total, I wrote around 2,500 words worth of Posse short-answer responses, in addition to my Common App, and “Why BU?” essays.
Posse’s interview style isn’t your traditional one. The very first interview involves team-building exercises and games; the second one is formal with Posse leadership, and the third, final interview is leadership-style like the first one.
If you’re at all interested in any of the six schools mentioned above, I’d 100% recommend going after the Posse Scholarship. (See the nomination process here.) It’s the way I’ll be able to afford my top college, and I found it in a non-traditional way. The final interview actually allows you to connect with the admission representatives at your school, and many finalists are recruited by colleges, even if they’re not awarded the Posse scholarship for the school where they were finalists.
However, as I mentioned, it’s hard work! It often feels like you’re forced to be the best person in the room. The one piece of advice I could give: Be the best version of yourself. In every interview, I tried to be more excited, more knowledgeable, and more present than I’d been in the last. There’s always going to be someone somewhere who is better than you by your definition of the word. All you can do is try your hardest to be better than the previous versions of yourself.
I had just left my third and final interview, and the entire car ride home I went on endlessly about how qualified everyone else in the room was. Then, I got the call: “Congrats Nick, you did it! Welcome to the Boston University Posse 16!” I was over the moon. I spent that entire night pacing in my bedroom, relishing in the fact that I did it. My spreadsheets, my essays, my interviews, my grades — it had all finally paid off. I had finally made myself, my friends, and my family proud. I’m positive that one day, you can do it, too.
Questbridge Scholarship Finalist Anna Ager shared a few words of encouragement for underclassmen in an interview with VOX ATL: “Learn what your boundaries are and set those for yourself before going into your junior year… because colleges really value your junior year grades. Manage your workload in a smart way and be intentional… You don’t need to cure cancer to get into college, just be good at what you’re doing.”
She added, “There’s always going to be someone better than you, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to be more successful than you. Just take a deep breath.”
Do your research, make yourself marketable, and be the best version of yourself. The college application process is strange and unexpected, but you can grasp hold of it.
You got this. Hope this helps.
Author’s note: After researching and reporting on the “Not-So-Secret Private School to Top 40 University Pipeline” for VOX ATL, I wrote this advice piece to encourage other public school students like myself.