Illustration by Mizuki Kai
Senior Ashley Barahona drags herself out of bed at 8:30 a.m. and joins her classes in the dining room, right next to her 12-year-old sister Giselle, a student at the Energized for Excellence Academy.
On the other side of their apartment, Amy, 5, and Alexander, 15, attend classes in the bedroom where her entire family of six sleeps at night.
As the eldest, Barahona makes sure her siblings are paying attention in class. When the apartment gets too loud, she turns up the volume on her laptop or switches to her phone so she can hear her lectures. After anatomy and physiology, she closes her laptop and eats the lunch that her mom cooked for her.
Then, she joins the call with college counselor Devonta Lee to work on her college applications.
“I’m starting to believe I bother him too much,” Barahona said. “Sometimes, I go twice a week. It depends. When I started preparing, I had to go to constant meetings for him to explain this and how admissions work, and what I need to get ready.”
For Barahona, who will be a first-generation college student, the multistep process has been confusing.
“Mr. Lee has helped me so much,” Barahona said. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t talked to him. I’d be lost without him.”
Barahona’s path to graduation began her sophomore year when she decided to graduate a year early. Her counselor, Susan Childs, helped her enroll in Grad Lab and On-Time Grad Academy, where she took online courses and classes on the weekends to skip one grade level ahead.
“It was a way to challenge myself,” Barahona said. “I come from a Hispanic family and I’m doing this for them and for me too. My family is an inspiration for me because when I look back to what they went through, I think that I should do my part and do my best in school.”
Barahona’s parents immigrated to the US when her mother was pregnant with her. Her father works three times a week, picking up odd jobs at the corner of Home Depot. Though the family has managed to stay afloat, college was never guaranteed.
“The first reaction they had [when I told them I was applying to colleges] was like, ‘Are you sure you can do this Ashley? You know this is going to take a toll on you, and I know you are sensitive,’” Barahona said. “They asked me a bunch of questions. Even my own counselor asked me. But I told them I made my decision, and I can do this. Yeah, I’ll have a few mental breakdowns here and there, but I can do this.”
Barahona has five schools on her list, all in Houston. They include the University of St. Thomas, Houston Baptist University, University of Houston-Downtown and the University of Houston, which is her dream school.
“[I’m only applying to schools in Houston because] I have a family to take care of,” Barahona said. “I’m the oldest in the family, so I have to take care of my siblings and my mother. My mom gets sick easily, so I’m the one taking care of her and my siblings at the same time. For example, right now during online classes, I have to help them with their homework, help clean the apartment and help my parents with anything they need.”
When she started her application process in September, she created her account on ApplyTexas, an admissions platform for in-state universities. She sat down with Lee to discuss potential topics for her main personal statement, and decided to answer prompt A:
“Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?”
With the help of Lee and her cousin who is a student at Houston Community College, Barahona decided on a topic.
“I wrote about my background but I also talked about my experience with the coronavirus,” Barahona said. “[I got coronavirus] over the summer. It was not the best time for me, but I took a course, Pre-Calculus, during that time. I don’t know how I managed, but I managed. Giselle, she’s 12 years old, she got it really, really bad. On the news, there’s a lot of people dying. She was about to be one of those people.”
Barahona believes her family contracted the virus from her father, who got it from his odd jobs, where he goes out and picks up a job for the day. Usually, it’s something that involves painting. Though it’s how her father got sick, Barahona is thankful for his hard work at his jobs. Barahona also knows that he’s proud of her work too.
“My dad didn’t have a nice childhood so he has a hard time communicating his feelings, but I know my dad, and I know how he is, so deep down I know he’s happy for me,” Barahona said. “I once saw him showing me off to his friends and I was like ‘dad, stop, you’re making me embarrassed.’”
Before submitting her application to the University of Houston, Barahona checked each detail meticulously. Her eyesight has gotten worse recently, and she can’t read very clearly even with her glasses, so she squinted at the screen while reading over her application.
She listed her church volunteering on her activity list. On the drop-down menu for major choices, she selected biology. For her, this is her first step to becoming a doctor.
“There were incidents where my family has been really sick or had problems with health,” Barahona said. “For example, my grandma right now, she’s suffering from cancer. I have been to a lot of hospitals since I was a child, and I’ve seen doctors – how they work, how they treat their patients, and how they assure their patients. It makes me happy to see the doctors tell their patients, ‘You’re going to be alright. You can go back to your family. We’ll take care of you.’”
For senior Max Melamed, the process has been quite smooth in comparison to Barahona.
Melamed was in the car with his friends on the way to the Bellaire vs. Sam Houston football game when he received an email from the University of Oregon, his top choice school he had applied to three weeks prior.
“I remember opening the email and getting the acceptance letter,” Melamed said. “I was super excited.”
Other than the University of Oregon, he applied to schools like the University of Georgia, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri.
“I started my essays and stuff like that a month and a half to two months before the UT application opened on Aug. 1,” Melamed said. “The supplemental essays didn’t come out until Aug. 1, so it took me about a week to do them.”
Melamed chose the schools he applied to based on multiple factors, including price, scholarships and student life.
“I went on a trip to Oregon last year, and I really liked Oregon, so I applied to [University of] Oregon,” Melamed said. “There’s a lot of Jewish students that go to UGA now, and I’ve heard a lot of great things about it, so I applied there. I’d rather be in a large university with a good atmosphere, sports teams and a normal college experience.”
As he was applying to out-of-state schools, Melamed created a Common Application account, an application platform that includes over 800 colleges and universities across the US.
Though his parents attended colleges in the US, the application process has changed drastically since. His parents hired a personal college counselor to help him with his essays.
“She helped me brainstorm and gave me an outline, and we went through them to edit,” Melamed said.
For his main personal essay, he chose to answer prompt 1:
“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.”
“I wrote about Swaggr, the sock business [I work for],” Melamed said. “[Writing the essay] was easier than hard because I’ve been working a lot for the company, and I kind of already knew in my head what I wanted to write before I actually started writing anything.”
The activities Melamed listed on his Common Application included Camp Impact (a summer camp for underprivileged children where he worked as a counselor), baseball, National Honor Society, lifeguarding and working with Swaggr, the sock company. He also sent his SAT score to some of the colleges he applied to, along with his supplemental essays.
“[For my supplemental essays,] I had to do research about the colleges and figure out different activities, clubs, and religious activities I would join and how I would want to incorporate myself into that college,” Melamed said.
The entire process was low-stress for Melamed, who had supportive parents, though his mother pushed him once in a while to work on his essays. He’s already applied to all of his schools and has even gotten back some decisions besides the University of Oregon.
“The first college I got into was Kansas, and I was excited because I was going to college,” Melamed said. “And then, I also got into Missouri around the same time.”
Now, the only thing left for Melamed is to wait and choose.
“I just need to get in first and decide where I’m going,” Melamed said.
Yet, for other seniors like William Fan, the application process is far from over, despite having started months before in the summer.
Fan attends his classes in the morning, and after AP Microeconomics, his last class of the day, he watches highlights videos of Valorant (his go-to video game) on YouTube, eats lunch and then continues his work on his college applications — a process he started back in July.
“That’s when I was looking at schools I wanted to apply to,” Fan said. “[I] looked a little bit deeper into whether or not their programs would be something I’d be interested in.”
As an all-A student who is ranked top 6 percent of the senior class, Fan’s college list boasts the most selective schools in the country, including Harvard University, Yale University, Duke University, Cornell University, Rice University and Stanford University, where he applied as a restrictive early action (REA) applicant.
“I have auto-admit to UT [because of the top 6 percent rule], so that’s my safety school, and I applied to the honors program. For the other schools, I don’t really have any target schools — UT is my safety school, and everything else is a reach school, so I didn’t really think too much about it.”
REA applicants can only apply early on the Nov. 1 deadline to one private university but are not binded to the school if accepted. Early decision (ED) applicants, on the other hand, cannot apply ED to any other school and must attend if accepted. Early action is non-binding and non-restrictive, but applicants are notified of their decision months before those who apply regular decision (RD).
Early deadline applications — whether REA, ED or EA — in some cases are known to boost admissions chances, so for those vying for top school acceptances like Fan, the decision to apply early is a strategic move.
“Stanford’s obviously a top-tier school, and it’s a really far-reaching school; the acceptance rate is one of the lowest in the nation,” Fan said. “I felt like if I was going to use my early [application option], it would be a school that I would be comfortable going to, even if it’s not a binding agreement. My options were either Stanford or Rice, but I didn’t feel like I was ready to commit to Rice, because they have ED which is binding, so I decided to go with Stanford.”
He took the SAT in the fall of junior year and is satisfied with his score. Along with the test scores, his application includes a myriad of activities, which range from those rooted in service and leadership like “President of NHS” and “Eagle Scout” (a rank he finally received this semester) to school activities like debate. For his Common Application personal statement essay, like Melamed, he chose to answer Prompt 1.
“I wrote my common application about my ride in piano, and it sounds really generic, but to me, it was something special,” Fan said. “I’ve used a lot of my piano talent in helping the elderly and performing musical therapy at senior centers. And to me, that hits really differently, because as a Chinese American, it’s really difficult not living with my grandparents because grandparents are a huge aspect of Asian culture, and I’ve always been missing that in my life. So, I just talked about how being able to perform and provide musical therapy for seniors at senior centers kind of allows me to connect back with my culture.”
Fan went through multiple drafts of the essay to perfect it before submitting it, where his four years of hard work, along with his essay, will be judged by his regional Stanford admissions officer.
“My first draft was just talking about piano and how I played piano,” Fan said. “I feel like that really lacked a uniqueness to it, so I asked a lot of my friends what they thought and they said ‘Hey, you should tie it back to something that means a lot to you,’ so I said okay, I don’t really get to see my grandparents very often, and I think that’s a really important aspect [of my life].”
Fan, whose parents went to college in China, is reliant on his own research and his friends to help him through the convoluted process.
“There’s no one place where you can reliably get all of your information, you have to do a lot of searching on your own,” Fan said. “I also asked friends in high school who are researching right now, and other friends that are already in college and have already gone through the application process.”
The colleges’ Fan is applying to have multiple supplemental essays per school. He’s had his friends, his brother and his father’s English-professor friends help him draft and edit his essays.
“I think supplements are really hard because you are limited on words and you really need to write about something similar to what you would write about in a Common App essay, but with a lot less words,” Fan said. “I think I’ve been relatively involved in my high school years, so I pick an activity that I feel like would best answers the prompt, draft it out and start cutting specifics in terms of essay writing. That’s about it.”
Though Fan is able to relieve stress through playing Valorant and going on runs, there’s still some nervousness about his college decisions.
“[My parents] have definitely been pressuring me to work on my apps and get them done as soon as possible,” Fan said. “It’s a little stressful, but I know that at the end they just want what’s best for me and they know that even if I get rejected from all of those schools, if I tried my hardest, they wouldn’t be mad at me, they’ll still be proud of me for what I’ve done. But, they have been pressuring me as of right now.”
Though Fan and Barahona feel different types of pressure, they both reflect the same fear that seniors go through during the application process.
“I feel nervous,” Barahona said. “I know that for me, when I’m applying to colleges, there’s a 50-50 chance you will get in, or you won’t. So I get nervous and I start thinking, what happens if I don’t get in, or what happens if I get in?”