Columbia student reaches out to Philly seniors with college essay help

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Isaac Riddle

Applying to college, especially writing a compelling essay that will catch the eye of admissions officials, can be an intimidating process for many high school seniors.

This year, students in Philadelphia’s District-run high schools have it even harder due to a critical shortage of counselors. So Marilyn He, a senior at Columbia University, decided to do something about it.

He, who grew up on the Main Line, said she has organized a network of 300 volunteer readers to help city students with their essays.

“With few counselors and so many other deficits, these students must be feeling lost in the college application process,” He said. “We want them to know we’re here to support them in the only way we can.”

He, who attended Conestoga High School in the well-funded Tredyffrin-Easttown School District in Delaware County, said, “It was surreal to imagine that anyone would be going to schools under these circumstances.”

The idea for the service, said He, came when she read about the loss of counseling positions in Philadelphia schools. Nearly half of Philadelphia’s 50 high schools now lack a full-time counselor. Facing a huge budget shortfall, officials laid off all 270 counselors in June and, based on current revenue estimates, have hired back just 126. So far, only schools with enrollments over 600 have been allotted a full-time counselor.

Students can submit their essays for review by emailing Volunteers can apply to be readers by submitting an application.

To protect the privacy of the students, only He and a few others have access to identifying email addresses. They will act as intermediaries between the volunteer readers and the students.

Remembering her own experience with the complicated application process, He decided to act. Despite living in New York City, 100 miles away from Philadelphia, she was determined not to be limited by geography. She reached out to friends on Facebook to gauge the interest of her friends in volunteering. The response she got surprised her.

Spreading the word, He has established collaborations with the Philadelphia Student Union and PhillyGoes2College, a college-resource initiative run through the mayor’s office. She has even called high schools directly to inform them of this service.

Kensington CAPA, an arts-themed school with 415 students, went from having two counselors last year to one "roving" counselor who divides time between KCAPA and seven other high schools.

“When will that counselor have time to help? It is a lot for one person,” said Nicole Brown, one of the laid-off counselors who worked at the school for seven years. Told of the program, Brown said she acknowledged the need for help, but lamented the fact that the need existed at all.

“It is sad that someone from another state has to pioneer a way to help local students,” Brown said.

On the group’s Facebook page, He acknowledges that the service is not of professional level. But the point, she writes, is to make a difference.

"These kids need the opportunity to apply to college. We need to refuse to let them be victimized by some idiot bureaucrat who took away their only source of advice."

Isaac Riddle is an intern at the Notebook.