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When Applying For College Is Especially Difficult


We're reaching the end of the college application season. While some families can afford private tutors and college counselors for their kids, others struggle just to pay the application fees. It can cost over $100 per college to apply. And there's another barrier to entry for kids like Kayla Sasser who grew up in a rural town in California, some of the questions they encounter on the applications.

KAYLA SASSER: What's your favorite type of publication? I don't receive any daily newspapers. Even when I lived with my mother, we didn't have any. And if she did, she'd probably just throw it away.

MCCAMMON: Sasser's life at home has been unstable. Her mom kicked her out of the house. And now she's living with friends as she applies to a range of schools, including elite universities like Columbia and Stanford. Mehrsa Baradaran has been helping her.

MEHRSA BARADARAN: Something to know about Kayla is, when she walks in a room, she just kind of lights it up.

MCCAMMON: Baradaran is now a law professor at the University of California Irvine. But she was the first in her family to go to college. And she remembers struggling through her own applications. So Kayla's story struck a nerve. And last week, Baradaran posted on Twitter about some of the hidden hurdles in the college application process.

BARADARAN: I know that universities at least give lip service to, we want first-generation students. We want, you know, diverse students from all sorts of backgrounds. But then when I see a question that says, you know, what exhibits and museums and theater and film productions - and I'm sitting here with someone like Kayla who to me seems like exactly the type of person Stanford should be looking for, there's a huge disconnect. And it has a lot to do with race and class. And I think it has a lot to do with the people devising these applications not understanding the reality of what it's like to not live in, you know, whatever elite community that a lot of them - and I, you know, will consider myself now - are part of.

And I think when you are a teen filling out a college application that asks for that, you are likely to blame yourself and say, oh, I should have taken advantage of this. And, you know, what's wrong with me that I don't know how to answer this question? Even simple ones, like, tell us what you're most excited about, you know, coming to Stanford or Harvard - how - I don't know. I don't know what it's like to go to Stanford. I didn't go to Stanford. Certainly, Kayla - how's Kayla supposed to know?

MCCAMMON: So given those gaps that you've identified, I mean, how do you advise someone like Kayla to answer these questions?

BARADARAN: Yeah. The way that Kayla answered them, I think, on the applications was to say, honestly, this is my town. This is my situation. So I don't have access to those things. And I think that's a great response. And I think the admissions officers need to phrase better questions. And we did see some good questions. So, for example, there's one question that was, explain to me what you did the last two summers. You know - and it was - Kayla could say, I worked full-time, you know, to support myself because here's my situation. You know, for someone like Kayla, who has an excellent GPA and great scores and she's been on track and cross-country and she's been managing a very tricky home situation, I actually think someone like that is going to, you know, crush it at Stanford. So I think it is something that we need to talk about.

And I - you know, I came from a family who didn't know how to maneuver this process at all. And so that's I think why I wanted to sort of make people aware - hey. To my colleagues in the academy, we got to do this better. And to all the other people who are first-generation, like, this is not your fault. This is a problem of the system.

MCCAMMON: Mehrsa, you've been talking about your - the challenges you faced yourself. Do you think the process has changed since then? Is it getting easier? Is it getting harder?

BARADARAN: I think it's gotten harder because the financial costs have skyrocketed. And I think there are more people now who just cannot afford any college. I think there are fewer colleges that are affordable. And I think there are more class barriers.

MCCAMMON: And just things like admissions fees.

BARADARAN: Admissions fees, just tuition, room and board, access - you have two different Americas essentially, right? You've got people who are very connected. And you have people who are not connected. And I think there's just whole swaths of the country that don't have access to this stuff. And this is the class issue. It's a geography issue. But it also has to do with race.

MCCAMMON: Kayla, we've talked so much about the sense of inaccessibility about some of these college admissions essays. What kinds of questions do you think would help you to tell a college your story? What would you want to write about if you could choose?

SASSER: I think what I'd want to write about is showing how - what I've done with what I've got, like all the community service I've done or how much work I've had to put in. I know we get, like, a personal essay. But you only have so many words to express everything you've done in four years. And I don't feel like the questions they ask properly show what you've experienced in those years.

MCCAMMON: And Kayla, you haven't had the easiest path through high school. But you are applying to college now. What are you planning to study? Where do you hope to be in a few years?

SASSER: Well, I've really been interested in people and how people live in different places across the world, like how a 17-year-old like me may spend their time throughout the day on the opposite side of the planet. So I've wanted to study international affairs and languages.

MCCAMMON: Well, good luck to you, Kayla.

SASSER: Thank you.

MCCAMMON: That's Kayla Sasser and her friend Mehrsa Baradaran. Thanks to both of you for talking with us.

BARADARAN: Thank you so much.

SASSER: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.