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Waukegan High School’s marathon application session helps students get to college

Waukegan High School senior Osvaldo Calzadworks with volunteer ChristinSolis during school's College ApplicatiMarathheld Wednesday Oct. 30. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media

Waukegan High School senior Osvaldo Calzada works with volunteer Christina Solis during the school's College Application Marathon, held Wednesday, Oct. 30. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media

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College application tips

Apply by Nov. 1 of senior year

Funds through the Illinois Student Assistance Commission begin to dry up in January

Take the PSAT, preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which gives access to the National Merit Scholarship and college and career planning tools

Use Naviance college and career software. Users are often eligible for waiver of application fees

Take an ACT prep course. “It’s not about competency,” said Charmaine Harris, a Waukegan High School principal. “It’s about building confidence.”

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Updated: December 3, 2013 6:07AM

The college application process is like courtship, where both the suitor and the courted are working to impress, said Charmaine Harris, chair of Waukegan High School’s College and Career Services.

“Colleges want to get to know a student,” said Harris, who doubles as a principal at the school’s Washington Campus. “Students need to get to know them. And once they get to know you, they’re likely to make you an offer.”

The high school worked overtime to help students market themselves during College Application Weeks, Oct. 21 through Nov. 1. On Wednesday, the school held a College Application Marathon in which about 200 students were assisted by a small army of volunteers, working together until nearly midnight, to complete online college applications.

Colleges are eager to recruit and help fund a diverse, high-achieving student body, but they can’t hand-out scholarships to students they don’t know about, Harris said.

“We’re finding that a lot of our students haven’t been starting the college application process early enough,” Harris said. “College exploration should begin in the ninth grade. In 11th grade you need to be narrowing your choices and by 12th, you need to complete applications by Nov. 1 and put yourself in the pipeline for resources.”

Students in more affluent districts are privy to inside tips, Harris said, pointing out that financial aid begins to dry up by January. She also stressed the importance of test preparation, including college and career planning software.

But students in Waukegan, where many families are low-income, are catching up, she said.

“My goal is that everybody should get the inside track on this information,” Harris said. “It’s the school’s responsibility to make sure we’re advocating for our kids, to help them get ahead in the game. To do that, we need to create a college-going culture.

Donte Wilkins, 24, an advisor at Waukegan High School who works through the Illinois College Advising Corps, worked Wednesday with senior Cheyenne Johnson, who filled out applications for both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Wilkin’s alma mater, and Elmhurst College.

Wilkins said he has seen improvement in student preparedness over last year.

“The students are more on top of it, they’re more motivated, they’re taking more initiative,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘This is what I want to do. This is where I want to go.’ We’re seeing more and more students applying and applying earlier, and that’s our goal.”

Johnson, who wants to be a high school physics teacher, called the marathon session helpful.

“I have to ask a lot of questions,” she said as she looked up from a pile of papers.

Senior Osvaldo Calzada, a finalist with QuestBridge, a program that matches high-achieving, low-income students with the nation’s top colleges, used the session to complete the Common Application, which will be considered by schools including Stanford, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt and Tufts.

“You have to put time and dedication into it,” said Calzada, who hopes to pursue a career as an engineer. “You have to focus on little things, but you also have to focus on the big picture and make sure the whole thing makes sense.”

At least four volunteers, some of them teachers, had by 6 p.m. provided input on Calzada’s essays − personal statements that tell a college who the student is, highlight their strengths and make the case for a match.

“It’s great,” Calzada said. “The more people who can read them, the more they can help me out.”

“I see a lot of passion among the kids to really take the next step and improve their lives,” said volunteer Rose Kattezhan, WHS science teacher. “They have the skills for the most part. They just need a little bit of guidance, a little push.”

“A lot of our students look great on paper, but they look even greater when schools see them in person,” Harris added. “Our kids can sell themselves. We’re just taking raw talent and cultivating it to give them an edge.”

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