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Paths to undergraduate admission shaped by vast range of resources

Some students enjoy personalized counseling, others share counselors with thousands

This story is the first in a three-part series about socioeconomic status at Brown. The series, through interviews with five undergraduates, examines the way socioeconomic status shapes students’ relationships to Brown in three stages: the application process, adjusting to life on campus and going back home after living and studying here.

This story tracks the application processes of five students who ultimately matriculated at Brown. Students reported disparate experiences in terms of their high school social environments, knowledge about the college admission process and access to academic support systems.

Class awareness before college

For some, high school classes were populated with students of similar social standing.

“I didn’t really have a sense of my class standing until I came to Brown,” said Molly Sandstrom ’17, who is from Lindstrom, Minnesota, a small town north of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and attended Chisago Lakes High School, a public school. Though “some of my friends lived on the lake, and we didn’t live on the lake, and some of their houses were bigger than mine … it seemed like there was something that bound us all together.”

Similarly, Kimberly Davila ’20 identified “pretty well” with her peers at Montebello High School, a public school near Los Angeles, who are mainly from “the same background,” she said.

“It’s predominantly Latino, low-income, and a lot of people are the first in their families to go to college,” Davila said.

Though Chinenye Uduji ’19 attended Central High School of Philadelphia, a public school that attracted students from across the city, he felt a sense of belonging in the diverse student body, he said. “Racially, it was very diverse compared to Brown,” Uduji said, adding that “a lot of low-income students” also attended the school.

Others felt more of a strain against the perceived wealth of their schools.

“People wouldn’t be friends with you if you couldn’t keep up,” said Charlotte May ’17.5, who attended the Hackley School outside of New York City as a day student. Social missteps such as failing to wear the designer clothes many peers wore could provoke questions like, “‘Oh, what is wrong with you?’” she said.

Ahmed Ashour ’19 expressed many of the same sentiments about boarding at Choate Rosemary Hall, a private school in Connecticut. “Everyone had to put on an act to make it through because it’s really hard when you’re going to school with 200 other people who are related to celebrities or are Kennedys,” he said.

“You feel you need to put up a front of ‘I belong here’ and ‘I understand what it means to be part of the elite educational slice,’” he said.

Ashour started his journey to private education in the United States after his junior year at high school in Bahrain, when he was awarded the Crown Prince’s International Scholarship. The scholarship pays for two years at a U.S. boarding school and four years at a university of one’s choosing, he said.

Expectations about admission

As the students approached the college admission process, some had long-standing aspirations, even expectations, about attending an Ivy League school.

At Choate, “There’s a strong culture of going to the Ivys, and if you didn’t go to an Ivy, you missed an opportunity,” Ashour said. “The hardest part was the pressure of ending up at a prestigious institution, not necessarily an institution that fit you best.”

Twenty-nine students from Choate have matriculated to Brown in the past five years, according to the school’s college counseling site.

There was more of a focus on “fit” than prestige at Hackley, May said. She attended Haverford College before transferring to Brown last spring.

Yet in her class at the Mountain School, a semester-long program that sends high school juniors to work on a farm at Vermont, about a fifth of 45 students ended up at Brown, she said.

Other high schools have starkly different records on sending students to Ivy-caliber schools.

For Davila, there was a pressure to stay on the West Coast and attend a school in the University of California or California State systems, she said. From her high school, almost no one left the state for college, she added.

Similarly, a lot of students from Sandstrom’s high school stayed in Minnesota to complete degrees at “vocational schools, trade schools, two-year (colleges)” and four-year universities, she said. Sandstrom’s curriculum included some vocationally oriented options such as “fashion, advanced foods, natural resources and forestry,” she said.

“I didn’t know anybody on the East Coast. I didn’t know anyone who’d left the state for college, with a few exceptions,” Sandstrom said. She applied early decision to Brown after liking the tour the best on a road trip to a few East Coast universities. “Looking back, not the best way, maybe, to pick a college,” she added.

At Uduji’s high school, a majority of students went on to college, though many stayed in state, he said. Being five hours away from his hometown seems “pretty far,” he added.

Uduji applied to Brown “on a whim” after hearing about a friend’s positive visit to campus, he said.

The logistics of applying

Last year, the University admitted 9.3 percent of applicants, The Herald reported. For the past few years, the admission rate has remained below 10 percent.

To prepare for such a rigorous admission process, applicants who attend prestigious high schools or come from affluent backgrounds often take advantage of resources such as top college counseling and testing preparatory services. Others navigate the process with little information besides what is available online.

The University “pays very close attention to an individual’s family circumstance” during the admission process, said Dean of Admission Logan Powell.

To increase access to higher education for students of diverse class backgrounds, the University has partnered with the College Board’s Consortium on Financing Higher Education initiative, which contacted over 20,000 high-achieving low- and middle-income students with information about the college search process this fall, Powell said.

Yet disparities in resources to prepare for the process remain widespread.

“I was given misinformation” from a guidance counselor, who said Harvard would “approach you” and offer you admission before you applied, Sandstrom said. In a school of over 1,000 students with only three counselors, personalized attention was not possible, she added.

Completing the applications by herself, Sandstrom used the email “” because, “Nobody said, ‘You should make a Molly Sandstrom gmail,’” she said.

At times, applying required “guessing what to do,” Davila said. In a school of about 3,000 students, there was one college counselor, she added.

While many applicants to Brown benefit from parents who came here themselves or went to other Ivy-caliber schools, other applicants cannot rely on their parents for information.

“I am the child of immigrants, and because of that, they aren’t as knowledgeable about the American system of higher education,” Uduji said. Moreover, “There’s a difference between going to a college and a college like Brown.”

In response to the lack of answers from peers, counselors and family members, some applicants turn to external programs for support.

Davila participated in the Upward Bound Program, a federally funded service that serves low-income and first-generation students to increase the rate at which participants enroll in and graduate from institutions of postsecondary education, according to the program’s website.

The program held “Saturday Academy,” where participants could prepare for standardized tests and work on college applications, Davila said. Upward Bound also provided Davila with a college counselor, but he hadn’t advised a student accepted to a school “like (Brown)” and did not have answers to some of her questions.

In a school where there was one counselor for every 800 students, Uduji engaged with the “Mentor for Philly” program, in which local college students help high school students with their applications, he said. He also consulted with teachers after school, even though they were not paid for the effort, he added.

For other students, personalized college counseling services were furnished directly through their high school.

At Hackley, seniors met as a class with guidance counselors once a week for “senior seminars,” May said. Further, each student was assigned a college counselor who would tell them, “Here are the after-school activities you (can) do that (will) look good on your application.”

When May applied to universities, she decided where to apply based on an “equation” of grades, extracurriculars and an “x-factor” — a component of an application that is not quantifiable. “Maybe you’re an international student, or maybe your family would go to Haiti and do service projects every Christmas instead of celebrating,” she said.

Ashour was assigned a college counselor at Choate who answered questions and read essays for about 20 students, he said. As someone who had moved to the United States the year before, “I knew about … the Ivy (League) and maybe a few other popular (colleges) like USC or UCLA,” so he benefited from the in-school resources, he said.

His parents only knew about Harvard and Yale because, “If you watched anything that made a reference to the Ivys, it would be Harvard or Yale,” Ashour said. Therefore, the process of applying to schools was principally driven by his college counselor and himself, Ashour said.

Accepting an offer

After an application process characterized by vastly different resources, students approach deciding which schools to attend in distinct manners as well.

Ashour was admitted to and ultimately narrowed his options down to Rice University in Texas and Brown. He decided to stay in New England for the open curriculum and partially for the Ivy League prestige, he said.

Uduji ended up choosing among Brown, the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University. His parents urged him to attend one of the Ivy League schools, and he did not like Penn’s competitive atmosphere, so he chose Brown.

For Sandstrom, Brown did not have much name recognition or pull in her community, she said. At her graduation, her school announced her college decision, and some people thought she was going to attend “Brown College … a community college in Minnesota,” she said.

When Davila’s mother told her friends that her daughter was attending Brown, they would ask, “‘Isn’t that a color or something?’” Davila said.

Ultimately, Davila decided to travel to the East Coast to make more of an “impact” in her community, she said. “We’ve had students go to UC Berkeley before, but we haven’t had students go to Brown, so I knew that it would send a clear message to people at my school and to my siblings … that I want to reach higher, past the UC system.”

Additional reporting by Kasturi Pananjady


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