Write your way to the money, guidance counselor says

Kids & Money

Ron Anderson was enjoying retirement in 2011 after spending most of his professional career in college admissions at several schools, including the University of Chicago. Then he got a job pitch.

Come work as a college guidance counselor at Southland College Prep Charter High School, a start-up school with a predominantly African-American student body in a Chicago suburb.

Initially, Anderson thought about volunteering there three days a week, but Southland wanted him full time with a much bigger commitment.

Hundreds of current and former Southland students are certainly thankful he took the job.

When Anderson accepted a position as Southland’s head of college counseling, the decision was a life changer for many of its students, especially those who might not have been able to attend college without proper guidance and encouragement.

“I’m having lots of fun helping to shape students for that next stage of their life,” Anderson, 67, said.

The Chicago native, whose father drove a cab and put all three kids through college, has an enviable track record helping teens make it to college. Southland, for students in grades 9 through 12, not only has a 100 percent college acceptance rate, but all 408 graduates have also been offered college scholarships, in some cases by more than one school.

Anderson, who works with another counselor on all phases of the school’s college counseling program, has helped students secure more than $75 million in academic achievement-based merit scholarships since the school opened in 2010. Last year’s graduating class alone was offered more than $25 million in scholarships.

Schools such as Yale, Stanford, Pennsylvania, Northwestern, Notre Dame and Illinois have Southland students on their campus.

What’s Anderson’s secret, and how can parents learn from his methods?

“Write your way to admission and you write your way to the money.” That’s his mantra. And private schools, he added, often have the most money to offer.

He argues that the required college admissions essay is more important than a student’s test scores. The essay can make you stand out, especially at the highly selective schools, he said.

“You want to make yourself come alive,” he said. “Admissions officers are busy people. Your story has to be compelling right out of the gate.”

At Southland, the writing work begins during a students’ junior year, when they are encouraged to keep a journal and record their daily life experiences from which they can pull for their essays.

Don’t focus on getting into the most prestigious school, Anderson said. Instead, focus on finding the school where you will flourish, and there are plenty of great schools out there.

Be realistic about the financial piece of the puzzle.

“You have to be very realistic about the money,” he said. “You’ve got to look at three to five years down the road from college graduation to get total perspective. If you’re paying off lots of student debts, how is that going to impact your salary and living conditions? It’s about opportunity costs and what you’re forfeiting.”

Don’t ignore private scholarship money available from parents’ employers, nonprofit organizations, churches and other community sources.

So much of it goes unused, he said. But $1,000 here and there will cover book fees and other expenses to fill in the funding gap. Application deadlines for these smaller awards are frequently in the spring.

Manage stress. The admissions process during senior year, he said, is as much about writing and test-taking as it is about helping teens keep their anxiety levels in check.

“This is not a sprint,” Anderson said. “This is a marathon.”

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