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This is an op-ed by Aileen Moner, Network Director of College and Career Success at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School.
Think back to when you anxiously checked the mail every day, looking for letters from every college to which you applied, opening them with a rush of excitement, knowing that what is written inside will decide your future. This is now happening for high school students across the country as they begin receiving college acceptance letters in the coming weeks.
This excitement is in full swing at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School (GOLCS), where I support our students and alumni as Network Director of College and Career Success. We’re proud that we have had a stellar year in terms of college applications and acceptances, with 100% of students submitting applications and over 90% being accepted so far. Additionally, our students have been awarded an incredible $1.4 million in first year scholarships — an average of $45,000 per student – and 63% of them have been granted a four-year renewable scholarship.
Our school implemented and adapted various strategies that helped our students in the college and FAFSA application processes, and I hope sharing them today will help other schools across the state guide and support their students.
Getting Started Early
Last Spring, our College Office team came together to align on a vision for students and set goals for success in the following year. As part of this process, we agreed that it was important to get started as early as possible.
Our counselors meet with seniors early in the summer to get a head start and ensure they can complete and submit a college application by November 15th – meeting both early decision and early action deadlines. Although this takes a lot of effort, it is critical to meet these early deadlines because it ensures earlier review and better financial aid packages, as the pot of available financial aid gets smaller and smaller as time goes on.
College and Careers Pathway Classes
Setting adequate time aside for students to learn about careers and colleges and fill out applications is vital to ensuring their success. In addition to counselor meetings, implementing full term courses specifically about the college decision and application process is also effective in engaging students and ensuring success.
At GOLCS, our College and Careers Pathway Classes, given in the spring for juniors and fall for seniors, support students by helping them complete important steps of the college application process, such as writing essays and understanding financial aid. Classes like these are incredibly valuable as they give students the opportunity to work on their applications, continue to find what they are passionate about, and connect their strengths to how they will make use of them in the future.
Attentive and Involved Counselors
For schools that may have counselors running classes dedicated to careers, they can consider pulling them out of the classroom to allow for more one-on-one meetings with scholars and the chance to build stronger relationships. Using this strategy at GOLCS has allowed us to support our goal of getting started early, as counselors were available for meetings with students as soon as they got to campus in August and maintained a level of follow up that wasn’t possible in previous years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Schools can also consider hiring alumni counselors to be responsible for staying in touch with alumni and continue the support process after they graduate. These counselors also aim to build trust with students before they graduate and do so by having meetings with seniors to make sure they are prepared for the transition to college and career and help them with any part of their application. We have seen that having attentive and involved counselors has helped our students feel comfortable and confident as they prepare for postsecondary success.
Assist With Financial Aid
Successfully completing FAFSA applications to apply for financial aid can be a hurdle for many families. In order for schools to help with this process, an extraordinary amount of trust must be built with students and families so they feel comfortable disclosing the sensitive financial information required for the application. At GOLCS, we start building trusting relationships with families early on so we can give them this hands-on guidance for applications.
In partnership with New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA), we host financial aid awareness and FAFSA completion events. Financial aid counselors from different colleges and universities present workshops for students. This year we were honored to have a counselor with over ten years of experience from Montclair’s Financial Aid Office come in to help students and families by walking them through the FAFSA application and helping them complete it.
Every fall, we also host Financial Aid Night for our seniors and also hold one for juniors in the spring to provide them with general financial aid information. I’m proud to say we’ve had a 90% FAFSA completion this year — 12% higher than it was at this time in 2022 and 2021.
While every school takes a different approach to supporting students through their college application journey, these strategies have proven to be the most effective for our scholars at Great Oaks. We’re so excited for the over 90% of our students that have already been accepted to exceptional schools – including Boston University, Temple, Penn State and Rutgers. We hope that our strategies can be helpful to those looking to make a change and increase the success of their hardworking students.