If you’re family’s not wealthy, you probably feel the system’s rigged against you. There’s a reason why – it is! Your feelings are right. I don’t mean that an evil conspiracy against people like you exists, but naturally, people with resources are going to use them to help themselves and their families, not you or your family. Students from wealthy families can afford private schools, tutors, special classes, more and better medical care (meaning more opportunities to have their learning disabilities found and treated or accommodated). Their parents are linked to “movers and shakers” who can give them impressive recommendations, and the parents themselves are likely to be influential, important people that most university admissions people would LOVE to know better. Universities are expensive to run – it’s awfully nice to have wealthy donors who can donate buildings, help pay for maintenance, and so on.
I attended a decent, but not amazing, high school in an average suburb in the United States, with a good number of really dedicated teachers, and a few, well, less-than-dedicated teachers. That still put me far ahead, in the sense of opportunities and privileges available to me, of most students who had to attend schools in the inner city and poor rural districts. Yes, there are specialty and magnet schools in urban school districts, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. My family couldn’t afford private schools, tutors, or most of the special educational advantages some other families could. My SAT review consisted of my sitting with an SAT review book in my parents’ living room and practicing the test. I was still accepted to several elite colleges and universities.
How was that possible, you ask? First, I still attended a decent school, and the place I lived was full of people who valued education, or at least understood it was possible to advance your social status by getting a good education. My parents had a decent idea as to what it takes to get into a good college – it is by no means just a matter of grades and test scores. You have to show you have outside interests, are working a paid or volunteer job (ideally, both), are involved in your community in a positive way, and so on. None of those things require you or your family to have money to spend.
If you can’t do community service because you’re busy working to help support your family, trust me, admissions officers will understand, and even be impressed with you. You’ll have to balance academics, athletics, other extracurriculars, and a social life in college. You’ll have to balance a job, athletics, family obligations, a social life, continuing education, and more for the rest of your life. Scheduling and prioritizing are important skills that often aren’t taught in school. I know the Boy Scouts have a “Personal Management merit badge,” and maybe some other youth groups teach it, but generally, most kids have to learn it from their parents or their own personal experience (e.g., having a teacher tell you “I don’t care that your Aunt Phyllis died; you had two weeks to do this project – you’re getting a lower grade on this one.”)
Colleges really are not that interested in admitting people who seem to ONLY study and do nothing else – I’ve heard of them being called “gunners,” perhaps after Charles Joseph Whitman, the University of Texas student who climbed the University of Texas clock tower with his hunting rifle and started shooting at random people on campus. They really don’t want people who’ll burn out when they’re forced to face more than just academics, or BECAUSE all they do are academics, and a job is a nice “real world” counterbalance to what you learn in classes.
“Why is that?” you ask? Since colleges and universities look to produce successful graduates, they don’t want to admit people who are going to burn out easily. Also, if you attended a school that can’t afford to provide tons of support (e.g., tutoring, teachers with a lot of time to help you, etc.), you’ll be much less likely to burden the college’s tutoring service (assuming they have one), counseling services, etc., since you’ve learned coping and academic skills to get by in an environment where more people don’t care about you, or actively wish to harm you. Seriously, some people get jealous when they see you succeed and often try to get in your way. It can be conscious or unconscious, but either way, it doesn’t help you. Students from large urban high schools often do quite well at large state universities such as the University of California or State University of New York schools for that reason.
“Why do they want to have successful graduates?” I’m glad you asked. As a college student, you are both the consumer and the product. Your parents and/or you pay tuition, you’ll be asked to donate money after you graduate, and the college will use your professional and personal successes as advertising to future students, and to get higher rankings from U.S. News and World Report and other sources.
You’re probably thinking “That’s all well and good, John, but how do I compete against people who can afford all the academic support I can’t? My school’s not special. I can’t afford an SAT prep course or a private tutor. What do I do?” Never fear – I have advice for you.
My first advice is – use the library! Your school provides you with free books; read them! Your school probably has a library where you can borrow books; you almost certainly live where there’s a public library. These resources are often underused by the general public. Why? It’s your (or your family’s) tax money; use it! You can get test prep books to use for free; just don’t write in them. I generally don’t write in the ones I own, since I like to have lots of space for calculations and notes.
Secondly, see if your school offers any sort of SAT prep class – I recall that mine did. I didn’t take it, but you shouldn’t let my foolish decisions (maybe I had a scheduling conflict – it was a long time ago) influence yours.
Thirdly, don’t be shy about asking your teachers for help if you don’t understand something. Most people who became teachers did so because they actually want to help people learn – generally, they’re not paid very well, so it’s not about the money. If a teacher says he or she won’t help you, you haven’t lost anything, but you may get a ton of help if you ask someone who actually wants to help, and is probably thrilled and flattered that a student is actually interested in the subject matter.
Fourthly, Google, Bing, and whatever other search engines there are your FRIEND. There is tons of material available for free about the SAT, the ACT, and any academic subject. Yes, some teachers are so geeky and helpful that they actually wrote their advice down and posted it to the Web. Also, some test prep services put up free advice in the hopes that when it comes time to pay for services, you’ll consider using their services (why, yes, I AM one of those – thanks for noticing!).
Fifthly, ask for financial aid at test prep companies. From a quick Google search, and some information I’d heard before and remembered poorly, I found that Kaplan offers scholarships to students taking the LSAT, MCAT, GRE, GMAT, and some other graduate-school entrance exams – up to a 60% discount. They may also offer something for students who want to take the SAT, ACT, and so on. Again, it doesn’t hurt to ASK for a discount, scholarship, fellowship, etc. – just call, email, write, and ask the test prep company. The worst thing they can say is “No.” You might even be able to make a deal similar to what some bar exam prep companies do – agree to be a sales rep for them, get a certain number of people to sign up for their course, and your course is free! Why not ask?
Finally, I’d be happy to help you get test prep at a low price by arranging a group session with a few other students. My time costs about the same, no matter how many students I have to tutor at the same time. I probably will want a small premium for the additional work involved, but I’m not going to double the price for two students, or triple it for three, etc. So you can save money that way – contact me if you’re interested. Thanks for reading this, and I hope this helps!
Author: John Linneball Who did you think? ;-)
I'm the proprietor and only tutor for this business; that's why I named it after me.