By Lori Pike, English teacher, San Fernando HS
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When I started teaching English 13 years ago at San Fernando High, I never thought I’d immerse myself in teaching my seniors how to apply to college. But in the summer of 2002, I sensed a need and developed a program to fill it.

My college prep unit was born when a bunch of girls in my AP Literature class weren’t ready for an interview with Mount St. Mary’s admissions officers. The reason was they weren’t sure how to fill out the application, and didn’t know how to write their personal statements. The irony was, in this “college-level” AP course, I had a bunch of students who didn’t know how to navigate the paperwork to actually get into a college.

Ms. Pike’s college deadlines

1. Research 12 universities, including four privates. Deadline: End of August.

2. Rough draft of one of three required essays for UC application. Deadline: Nov. 1

3. Research 20 scholarships.

Deadline: Nov. 1.

4. UC application—final draft of three essays. Deadline: First two weeks of November.

5. UC and Cal State applications submitted online. Deadline: Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

6. First five scholarship applications completed. Deadline: Dec. 15.

7. Three drafts of private university personal statements completed. Deadline: First two weeks of December.

8. Two private university applications submitted. Deadline: Last week of school before winter break.

9. Secure Personal Identification Number (PIN) for students and their parents from Federal Student Aid at and fill out a rough draft of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by Jan. 15.

10. FAFSA submitted online. Deadline: Feb. 1.

11. Five more scholarship applications completed. Deadline: Feb. 1

12. FASFA Student Aid Report (SAR) form updated. Deadline: Feb. 15

These girls had excellent GPAs, were active in a variety of campus activities, were outspoken in my class, and obviously, quite intelligent. I, like every other teacher, had assumed up to that point that those qualities guaranteed that the young ladies would apply to a number of colleges, win admission and smoothly sail into their freshman year on a university campus.

But my assumptions were incorrect. Because, as I soon learned, the road to college admission is long, arduous and filled with twists and turns—paperwork, deadlines, knowing how to confidently package oneself, and even learning how to defend one’s college goals in the face of parental opposition. Applying and going on to a four-year university takes guts and an incredible amount of organization.

So I developed a special college “unit,” a collection of research and writing exercises that I cram into my AP curriculum from July through March (I teach at a year-round school). I realized that students can manage applications for college, financial aid and scholarships, if they are taught step-by-step how to do so.

In researching a wide variety of universities and their application processes, I came across statistics showing how first-generation students have an extremely poor transfer rate from community colleges to four-year institutions. So, I require my students to research 12 four-year universities and apply to six, including two private colleges as well as the UCs and Cal States. In these competitive times, many of my first-generation students get better financial aid at some private schools.

There’s no genius to what I do. I just carefully break all the steps of the process into smaller steps. Then I turn every piece into an assignment, with a deadline AND A GRADE. My students tell me that the incentive of points earned or lost gives them just the boost they need to confront scary and overwhelming tasks.

Lots of reminders

Two other facets of my program seem to make a big difference. First, I nag the students frequently about deadlines. “I am your college mother,” I intone, and they all laugh. But the reality is, many of my students’ parents have not graduated high school, much less college, and they’re not sure how best to guide their teens through this process. Secondly, these young people really bond as they write and revise personal statements, complete complex applications and share financial aid tips. When peers and even adults in their lives sneer at their college plans—which unfortunately does sometimes happen—these teens keep marching toward their goals. Peer support in the college application process is vitally important.

We do have excellent college counselors. We also have a great college preparation organization on campus called Project Grad. And certainly, a number of our students successfully apply to multiple universities on their own. But the momentum of my college-related assignments, and the moral support of classmates, is what seem to keep my students pressing toward their goal when some of their peers fade.

Some of my colleagues ask why I spend so much time during an AP English class guiding my students through applying to college. The answer: as vital as it is for me to teach reading and writing skills, I feel that completing a four-year college degree is so important to student lives that I’m willing to do whatever I need to do to help them, cajole them, and inspire them to achieve that goal.

I wish the state of California would mandate a “College Prep Seminar” for all seniors in their fall semester, so that they could research college options and apply. Even those only eligible for community college admission could begin to strategize for a university future. Such a course would definitively assert to students, parents and the general public that our state not only values higher education-—it actually takes tangible steps to make sure more students benefit from a college degree.

But until that happens, I’ll just keep on slotting my college exercises into my AP course.

At graduation in June, I ran into a few students from my “guinea pig” senior class from four years ago. They proudly told me they had just graduated from college, and that everyone else they could think of from that group of pioneers had graduated too. I felt happy that what I began as a great experiment has become an annual tradition, which helps propel at least a segment of San Fernando High students toward college success.

Not many San Fernando High
grads attend four-year schools.

72% will not attend four-year schools:
55% Community college
12% The military, work or “other”
    5% Vocational school

19% will attend four-year schools:
11% California State University
 5% UC school
 3% Private university

Source: School survey of 588 graduates of the Class of 2006, San Fernando HS. There were 695 graduates, but not all were surveyed.

To read the stories of how some of Lori Pike’s students made it to four-year colleges, click here.