By Geraldo Raygoza, 18, UC-Irvine (graduated from Sierra Vista HS in Baldwin Park 06)
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Geraldo advises teens to take school seriously, but not to let it affect their self-esteem.

Whoever said junior year is the toughest is on crack. It’s the senior year, by far. During my senior year, I bit off more than I could chew, just for a spot at a school with a great name and reputation.

The summer before my senior year at Sierra Vista High in Baldwin Park, I wanted to get a head start on the college admissions process. I began reading through a mountain of college brochures. The bold, white letters jumped out at me from the solid blue cover of the Yale brochure. The ivy-covered stone buildings reminded me of old European castles—the perfect environment to become a scholar. Looking at all the brochures with their pictures of unusually cheery students studying in their dorms, playing Frisbee on the green lawns, and having intense bonding experiences, I could not tell one school from another. It was frustrating. How could I find out which school would be a good fit for me?

Searching for more information, I began to look on the colleges’ Web sites. I checked out all the Ivy League schools and schools I’ve never heard of, like Northwestern and the University of Chicago. Then I found a Web site called, which had a message board. To my shock, there were hundreds of messages from perfect overachievers stressing about how to get into elite schools. I learned that one of the reasons these kids wanted to go to those top schools was so they could network with successful people, so they could become part of the elite and have a good life. They posted their incredible GPAs, class ranks, SAT scores, and lists of AP courses, extracurricular activities and awards.

I was so far behind

Illustration by Grady Williams III, L.A. Youth archives

I felt so ignorant and clueless. How could my measly 3.5 GPA compete with all of the 4.0s? I was involved in music, but I never won any national awards. I didn’t even know what “All-State Band” was. These kids were doing 10 times what I was doing. At the rate I was going, I had no chance of getting into Yale. I would be shut out from that world and would never have a chance again of attaining that kind of success.

I told my dad I was worried about getting into college. He told me I could definitely get into college, and that I would be fine. To my dad, who didn’t go to college, any college is good. That was one thing we disagreed about. He thought I had an arrogant attitude because I considered myself better than a Cal State. I was mad at him for not pushing me harder, to achieve the best, like some kids’ parents do. The reality, however, was that we were both nervous because neither of us knew what this whole college thing was all about.

As I began my senior year at Sierra Vista High, I was determined to do so well that I would get into any college I wanted. I was taking four Advanced Placement classes—English, government, physics and calculus. I also was the drum major of my school marching band, played saxophone in the wind ensemble and jazz band, and was a reporter with my school newspaper.

I thought I was going to be Superman, but I was lost from the very start. In government we had daily quizzes on the reading. In English, we wrote an analysis every other day. I would start my homework by doing calculus problems, but I often came across problems I couldn’t solve. It didn’t help that calculus was held during zero period at 6:30 a.m., and my teacher had never taught the subject before. He would write on the board, but it was so messy we couldn’t read it. My mind would drift away, and when I got back on track, I couldn’t understand what he was talking about.

From band practice to homework, I was exhausted

Three times a week, I had marching band practice, with performances at football games every Friday. Right from the start, there were problems with the band. People showed up late, talked during practice, didn’t know the songs and couldn’t keep the beat. The trumpet section was always joking, and the other sections would laugh with them. As drum major, I was supposed to bring them to attention, but they wouldn’t listen to me.

I’d be dead tired when I got home, and I couldn’t keep a clear head to do my homework. I also had to write some newspaper articles, and start working on my college applications.

I wished I had a friend, someone who I could call any time and who would understand what I was going through. Instead, most of the kids at school didn’t care about their education, period. They cared about their cell phones and iPods and could quote from TV shows all day long. I didn’t connect with my AP classmates either. Most wanted to get the perfect score by just “playing the game,” which included cheating and brown-nosing tactics. They didn’t care about learning something new and beneficial; they just wanted to nab that A for their soaring GPAs. Worse, they wouldn’t finish—or start—their homework until the period before it was due. Without giving a thought to the given tasks, they would rush to finish the homework in the middle of another class. As long as it was turned in, they would get the credit.

I could feel my motivation plummeting. Why should I try when no one around me did?

By the end of September, I had dropped out of the newspaper and had a D in calculus. It was a total shock. I had never gotten a D in my life. School had always been easy for me, without much studying. I began doubting my abilities. If I couldn’t do this now, how would I manage in college?

My counselor called me in for a meeting. She knew how much time I was spending with the band. Since I had already completed the required three years of math, why didn’t I drop calculus? In my heart I agreed with her completely. But instead of admitting that I couldn’t do it, I told her that it was no problem. I insisted I was going to turn my grade around, and I would have more time once marching band season was over.

In October, I caught a bad cold, missed some school and fell even further behind. Then I got sick again. By the end of December, I had gotten sick three times in two months—a personal record.

With such difficult classes, there was little hope that I could get back on track. My classes demanded a lot of abstract thinking. I was not used to learning this way because my past classes involved mere memorization. I felt so frustrated that, as a senior, I didn’t have the skills I would need in college. Why hadn’t my teachers taught me to do these things before?

In physics, even though I did the reading, took notes in class and did the homework, I was only getting Bs and Cs on the tests. I couldn’t remember all the formulas and the problems were devastatingly complicated. I was worried that I would fail the AP exam at the end of the year, and that I wouldn’t get an A in the class. To go to the best schools, you have to have straight As.

One day during physics, we had to grade each other’s tests. My classmate noticed that I had gotten a few answers wrong. He encouraged me to let him change some of the answers so I would get a higher score. No, I told him, that’s wrong. If I cheated, would it boost my chances at getting into a prestigious college? Wasn’t it better to do the work, and actually prepare myself for college-level coursework and thinking—for any college? It made me feel good that, even with all that pressure, I didn’t resort to cheating.

After I submitted the UC application at the end of November, I began to debate with myself over whether to apply to Yale. Should I go for the “Big Time?” Or stop lying to myself and accept the cold hard truth—that I wasn’t ready for that yet. That I probably wouldn’t survive even one semester at Yale. With my grades—two Bs and two Cs—maybe I wasn’t smart enough.

It was a tough decision. I felt like I was giving up my only chance at bonding with some of the smartest, hardest-working people; at being one of them. They would encourage me to push myself harder. I would have someone to study with or go to a museum with, instead of being surrounded by kids whose first priority is their cell phone ringtone. Plus, my physics teacher, English teacher, and counselor had already written recommendations for me to go to Yale. Wouldn’t they be disappointed if I didn’t apply?

Part of me felt like a loser and I was really depressed to give up my dream of Yale. But I told myself I could get a great experience anywhere, not just at the elite, East Coast colleges. Maybe I could catch up on everything I had missed somewhere else and, if I really wanted to, give Yale another shot as a transfer student or go to grad school there.

Looking around me, I noticed that many adults I admired had never applied to elite schools, and they were happy and successful.

My physics teacher, Mr. Bray, had not followed a standard path to success. He first attended Citrus College in Glendora, but did not do well there. After a stint in Vietnam, he earned a B.A. in psychology at Cal Poly Pomona with a 4.0 GPA.

Ms. Dunn, my career counselor, had studied at various community colleges before finishing her B.A. at Brigham Young University.

When I talked to her about not applying to Yale, she said it didn’t matter. She reminded me of my accomplishments, like marching in the Rose Parade, performing in the school’s jazz band, and attaining a 3.5 GPA. Maybe I hadn’t done better than students on College Confidential, but I had done better than most students at Sierra Vista.

Yes, I was going to college

Later in the spring, I accepted admission to UC Irvine. I was offered a good financial aid package that I couldn’t resist. Ms. Dunn was astounded by the award; no UC had offered that much aid to a Sierra Vista student before. Although my heart ached at first because I wasn’t going to a finer school, I got over it quickly, realizing that it was still a UC—a school from the best public university system in the nation—and that it offered many superb opportunities for me to catch up on what I’d missed and to continue progressing from there.

At the end of the year, many people signed my yearbook. Most of them wrote that they thought I would be successful in life, that I would go places, that I was talented. One classmate said that I seemed like the kind of person who would never give up, no matter what the circumstance. My friend Ryan, who knew I hadn’t done as well academically as in past years, wrote that he hadn’t lost respect for me, and nonetheless I was still a good person.

My notion of success had changed as the year went by. Maybe I couldn’t get an A in calculus, maybe I couldn’t organize the band, and maybe I couldn’t get into Yale. But I could be a positive influence on the people around me. I could take my classes seriously and even become friends with some of my teachers. I could balance academic studies with fun, like joking around with the jazz band and going to Disneyland on grad night.

Looking back on my senior year, I can see why I drove myself crazy with such a big workload. I don’t regret having worked hard, but I wish I could have been a little easier on myself. I wish I had known I didn’t have to prove anything and there are many ways to be successful. I think that if you’re a good student, you’re going to get somewhere. That should be plenty of relief for all seniors.

Click here to read about how San Fernando High students overcame obstacles to get to four-year colleges.

Click here to read a teacher’s system for getting her students onto four-year college tracks.