Common App, SATs, financial aid, scholarships — applying for college offers a bewildering minefield of acronyms and potential pitfalls for high school grads. It can be trying under the best of circumstances, and even harder for disadvantaged students without a support system guiding them through the admissions process.

That’s where The Admit List comes in.

The project aims to pair high school students from underperforming school districts with college students who have successfully navigated the college admissions process.

“We’re dealing with a lot of first generation college students,” said Omika Suryawanshi, a 2018 Ridgefield High graduate who came up with the program.

Out of the 50 students in The Admit List’s pilot program, 45 are the first member of their family to attend college.

That is significant, because “if you have one parent that goes to college, you are four times as likely to go to college yourself,” she told The Press.

One student at a school in Suffolk County, Va., told her “only four or five people went to the community college instead of straight into the workforce.”

Another student was unaware that she could apply for a waiver for her SAT fees. Another never knew that merit scholarships — “free money,” as they characterized it to Suryawanshi — were available to students who do well in high school.

How to get into college

The Admit List currently has over 300 college students who have committed to spending one hour per week mentoring high school juniors and seniors through the college admissions process.

It’s a program meant to help students where high school advisers may fall short — the average school counselor has to work with 482 students, Suryawanshi pointed out

“I’d say that students who attend college right now are more well-versed in the college admissions process than most guidance counselors,” she said.

The college advisers meet with their high school mentees over video-chat, where they give advice on writing college essays or help students navigate the myriad of processes involved in applying to college, such as filling out the Common App. The one-on-one sessions are free for the high school students who participate.

The students use Google Docs to share drafts of their college essays and applications for their mentors to edit. “The connection between an older student and a younger student is a lot more casual” than talking to a high school adviser, she pointed out.

First step

While The Admit List’s mentors include students from top universities like Harvard and Princeton (Suryawanshi is a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia), the program aims to help high school students apply to schools within their personal reach.

“... Some students will want to apply to Ivies,” Suryawanshi said; but for a lot of students just applying to a two-year program at their local community college can be a “huge first step.”

The Admit List recently launched a pilot program of 50 high school students and 50 volunteer college students. The group includes 25 seniors and 25 juniors Suryawanshi said that since the program started, she’s heard some feedback from high school kids about insensitive comments from the volunteers — an issue she said she wants to address before there’s a larger rollout.

“You have to be inherently privileged to volunteer your time,” she said. To make the mentorship more representative, she said she wants to expand the program to include more mentors from community colleges, and from historically black colleges and universities.

The program focuses on colleges and universities — trade schools, for students hoping to become an electrician or plumber, are covered in the guide Suryawanshi gives to the mentors, but she said she wants to wait until the program is more established to advise students interested in a trade program.

Another concern is what will happen when the college volunteers return to class and have to balance a full workload with mentoring a high school student.

One piece of feedback Suryawanshi wants to incorporate is keeping in touch with college-bound high school students until they submit a deposit to avoid what she called “summer melt” — where students apply to and get into college, but “they’ll never enroll,” she explained.

Many of the students in the pilot work a part-time job to make ends meet at home, she said.

While Suryawanshi started the project before Operation Varsity Blues, the college bribery scandal that made national news, came to light, she said she thinks the scandal helped bring attention to The Admit List.

She sees the program as a vehicle to increase diversity in the country’s halls of power.

“... Maybe we’ll get more diversity at top-tier universities as well as at institutions across America,” she said.