Anna Takahashi, Eastside College Preparatory School

Located just north of the affluent town that is home to Stanford University, East Palo Alto has had a history of crime and violence and Silicon Valley's boom economy has largely bypassed the community and the families of the Latino, African American and Pacific Islander students who reside there. Today, the dropout rate for students from East Palo Alto is 65%. 

In 1991, a Stanford student started an after-school basketball program for East Palo Alto kids in grades 4 through 8, linking participation with attendance at a daily study hall. But he soon realized it wasn't enough for these students, who, after eighth grade, would be bused 20 miles away to the nearest high school.  So in 1996 that Stanford student, Chris Bischof, founded Eastside College Preparatory School, private school with an intensive, college-prep curriculum.

With an initial class of eight students, at one point, Bischof, who is today Eastside's principal, was using park benches in a muddy lot as a classroom. Today, more than 300 students enrolled in grades 6 through 12 attend school on a full built-out campus that includes boarding facilities for more than 100 students.

About the time that Eastside graduated their first class, Anna Takahashi was working as Associate Director of Admission across town on the Stanford campus, with responsibility for outreach to underrepresented groups.  Eastside was on her radar and she knew they were doing, as she says, "really interesting things with incredible outcomes." One hundred percent of Eastside's students are accepted at a four-year college or university and 98% of those students are the first in their families to attend college.

When the opportunity to be a part of those incredible outcomes presented itself in 2006, Takahashi jumped and landed on the Eastside campus as Director of College Counseling. "College was an eye-opening experience for me and I would love for others to have that same experience," says Takahashi, who graduated from Rhode Island's Brown University.  "Working on the admission side and seeing the large number of students who were interested and wanted to go to college, but had no idea how to go about it, Eastside felt like a place where I could be helpful. This is how we have to do it. It's great we're having a conversation about access on a national level but its success involves practitioners doing what we need to do at the grass roots level."

Connecting with students, faculty and admission representatives on a deeper level, building relationships, and sharing each other's stories has a humanizing effect on the college admission process for Takahashi, who relishes making an impact in an area she cares about -- helping students overcome the roadblocks to higher education. College decision season is particularly gratifying.

"I've had the incredible opportunity to be a part of some deeply intimate moments where you witness a massive change in a student's life, a major turning point," says Takahashi.  "I was a part of history in the making. Scenarios in which students are offered a full scholarship to attend the college of their choice. I can't begin to describe the tears of happiness and the goose bumps and shock and joy and relief and disbelief in their eyes. The hugs at the end of those meetings when students say 'Wow, I can't believe this is happening" -- they're extremely powerful moments. It's humbling to be a part of." (For a glimpse of where Takahashi's Eastside Class of 2014 will be next year, check out this video. And have some Kleenex nearby.)

When she's not working, Takahashi spends time with her two daughters, 12 and 15, attending water polo tournaments and pursuing common interests like cooking. And when she travels for work, she always carves out some time to explore whatever city she's visiting.

Please join Anna Takahashi here to learn her advice for juniors and what they should be doing over the summer, how the application process is different for first-generation students, her best advice for parents and more…


How did you become a college counselor?

I worked for six years as an admission officer at Stanford University. I learned a tremendous amount about the college application process, the landscape of admissions and highly selective admissions, in particular. While I still care deeply about “big picture” issues, I wanted to work more directly with students and their families over the entire college process from start to finish and to discuss a wide range of college options with students and their families. At Stanford I was involved in outreach to underrepresented groups and issues around college access. At Eastside College Preparatory School, I am able to work with first-generation students in the college application process throughout their senior year and prepare them for the transition to a rigorous college environment.

How many colleges did you apply to? And how is the process different?

Maybe 7 or 8? I applied using paper applications (after calling admission offices to request applications via snail mail) in the pre-Common App era, having only taken the (original 1600, non-recentered) SAT once without test-prep. And somehow it all worked! There are actually many similarities in the overall process, but the number of applications submitted has increased tremendously and technology has certainly changed how and how quickly students and colleges communicate and apply. It also seems like the college process is highlighted more frequently and regularly in the media than in the past - this certainly serves to help inform the public, but it can sometimes cause unnecessary worry and frenzy.

Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?

It depends. Freshmen and sophomores should start building a general understanding of the college process and they need to make sure they are on track to meet all the requirements for applying when they are seniors. Some students might have special interests or specific needs or may come from backgrounds where they might need additional support or have questions about preparation. Many schools offer grade-specific workshops or other opportunities for students to meet with their counselors and this is a great time for students to learn what they need to do in 9th grade or in 10th grade. Ultimately freshmen and sophomores should focus on making the transition to high school, setting a strong foundation for their academics, exploring their extracurricular interests and making strong connections with others like their peers, faculty, et al.

What advice do you have for students about getting to know their high school counselor?

Counselors are people. Really. Take advantage of opportunities to meet your counselor, say hello, introduce yourself, maybe ask a question or two, attend workshops or meetings and stay in touch. Be respectful of the time constraints of others - it might not always be possible to “pop in,” but you can make an appointment for a mutually-convenient time.

What three things should be priorities for juniors over the summer months?

The college process is essentially about self-reflection. The summer before your senior year is a great time to really start thinking about what you want for yourself in a college environment - where would you thrive and grow? What do you hope to do in college? What are you interested in studying? What is your learning style? What activities do you wish to continue (or start) in college? What factors are most important to you (cost, location, size, etc.)?

Do a lot of college research using resources available to you - read college brochures and websites, talk to people affiliated with the school (e.g., current students, professors, admission representatives, et al), visit campuses and take tours, etc. Be open-minded when it comes to considering colleges - you’ll have to narrow down your list eventually, but the summer is a great time to see the range of possibilities.

The college process is also about time management and planning. Use your summer to plot out your senior year - do you still need to take standardized tests? Do you need to request teacher recommendation letters? Are there major dates and deadlines, especially in the fall semester, which will require your full attention (major extracurricular commitments, trips, exams, etc.)? Make sure you set aside time to work on your college applications - this is another major time commitment and deadlines matter! Learn the resources available to you from your school - are there workshops from your counseling office? Are there colleges coming to visit your school? Are there certain processes that you need to follow to request high school transcripts or teacher recommendations?

What is your best advice for seniors at this time? 

Most seniors have made their college decision by May 1 (or earlier) and the months/weeks leading up to May 1 might feel like an emotional roller coaster. Most students are relieved that this part of the process is over; some agonize over their decision and worry they “made a mistake” and still others are anxiously awaiting to hear back from schools on which they are on a waitlist. I encourage students to look forward - instead of worrying about every possible (unlikely, doom-and-gloom) scenario, focus on the immediate reality. Make plans for attending the college you chose on May 1. There is a major transition between high school and college as you take on more “adult responsibilities” so it’s important to stay on top of things - check your portal and email daily, meet deadlines, ask questions when things are unclear, seek out resources that can help. Finally, breathe and enjoy this moment - you’re embarking on an incredible adventure. Sometimes in the college process, the acceptance becomes the end goal, but in fact, this marks the beginning of something big - so go out there and try something new, different and maybe even a little scary.

What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?

Students oftentimes close doors without even realizing it. Keep an open mind when you’re researching colleges - your college list should not be dictated by someone else’s ranking list and might even include schools that you previously haven’t encountered. Read the fine print to make sure you haven’t closed doors because you didn’t meet a school’s admission requirements or by missing deadlines. The college process is much more stressful and less thoughtful if you wait until the last minute. Keep in mind that this process isn't about finding that one perfect school, because, in fact, there are many that could be a great fit for you!

What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?

You’ll get through this - there will be ups and downs (significant ups and downs), but hang in there and get things done in manageable chunks. It will probably be harder to check items off your to-do list if they’re vague and broad (e.g., “apply to colleges”) so it might make things easier to create smaller milestones (e.g., “create Common App account and complete the biographical section”). Others can be helpful so ask questions of your counselors, teachers and admissions representatives. And watch for those deadlines - they matter.

How do you encourage students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?

All of my students (and many students in general) will make their college decision based on financial aid packages so I encourage students to consider the schools that will meet full demonstrated need. This includes schools that are well-known and highly selective, but the list actually includes a range of schools that would appeal to a broad group of students. I also encourage students to take advantage of opportunities to meet admission representatives, especially if they visit our high school - the admission office is interested in our students and this is a great way to establish a rapport with the college while learning more about their programs.

What is your best advice about how many schools students should apply to?

When a student has been thoughtful in researching colleges, s/he probably only needs to apply to 8-10 schools which includes schools of different selectivity levels. Ideally the list will include many schools that will be affordable for the family - for example, applying to schools that will meet full need, schools that offer merit scholarships for which the student is in range and using the school’s Net Price Calculator to get a sense of how much that school might cost the family.

Can you address the best way for students to research colleges -- resources, criteria, or do's and don'ts?

College research first begins with the student reflecting on his/her strengths and weaknesses and considering a college environment where s/he can grow and thrive. Students should use a variety of resources because resources differ in their effectiveness for a student. I like using the college website to get a sense of how the institution views itself.

I also like big search engines that offer information that is easy to retrieve/understand, for example, College Board’s Big Future (in the interest of disclosure, I’m a member of the Advisory Panel) and College Navigator (especially for people who want a lot of data). I also appreciate the websites for public university systems since my students apply to the UC and CSU systems. I think visiting a campus in person is a great way to get a “feel” for the school, but this isn’t always possible so I encourage students to read the student newspapers at the college, which are usually available online - it’s a different perspective on a school, but can help a high school student learn what is happening on campus, what the student body cares about and the hot topics at the school.

Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently?

It is helpful to start learning about the process earlier for first-generation students since this might be the first time someone in the family has pursued college after high school. There might be many questions about how the process works, there might be many myths and misunderstandings to straighten out and there is a new “language” to learn. The application process itself follows the same timeline for all students so a head start for first-generation students might help them stay on track and meet those important deadlines. The application process is very personal in nature, but all students should be open and honest in how they portray themselves. Some first-generation students don’t realize that the small details matter (e.g., indicating their parents did not attend college, or that English is not spoken at home, or that the student works to help pay the bills, etc.). All students have a story to share, it's sometimes hard for a student to realize their perspective is compelling, especially as a first-generation student who isn't familiar with the admission process.

What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way?

As a parent, it is especially difficult to step back and let our children take the lead and make their own decisions. Parents play an important role in this process - as a cheerleader, the person with the checkbook/credit card and someone who continues to unconditionally love and support the student no matter what. This process is also a huge milestone as the student transitions to adulthood - something terribly exciting and scary for everyone involved. But this is ultimately the student's process. Open communication between parents and their student is extremely important (e.g., the student's interests/goals for college, the family's financial situation, etc.), but the college process ideally will not take over the entire relationship - everyone needs a break. Some parental concerns will warrant direct conversations with the student, other concerns might be more appropriate with the student's counselor and sometimes parents need to vent to a good friend or family members. Students often take their cues from their parents so I would encourage parents to ensure that the college process is not an all-consuming, high-stakes, life-or-death situation because it's not.

What is your best advice for families about financial aid?

Apply. Watch deadlines. Make sure your student checks his/her email or portal regularly as colleges will inform the student about any missing or additional documents or forms. Speak with financial aid officers about things that are unclear or confusing, don't be afraid to ask questions, but don't wait until the last minute. And finally, remember that the cost of attendance for a school is the sticker price, a family might not end up paying the full amount. But if you want to be considered for financial aid, you have to apply.

Finding scholarships can be a time- and labor-intensive task, any advice or tips for students and families?

Finding and applying to scholarships is absolutely time- and labor-intensive, but every little bit helps. Use the scholarship lists provided through your school and, if you are eligible, apply to the smaller, local scholarships - you might have a better chance winning these since the applicant pool is smaller than the large, well-known, national scholarships. Look for essay-writing contests, many students shy away from scholarships or essay contests that require additional work (like writing an essay or addressing a specific prompt). Finally budget your time well - each scholarship might have different requirements and you certainly don't want to ask a teacher for a recommendation at the last minute.

Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?

I closely watch issues related to college access and first-generation students - my college experience was deeply transformative and I want others to have something similar. I am interested in the transition from high school to college and ways to prepare students and families for that shift - it's not just about getting to college, it's about making the most of your college career. I am very concerned about the cost of higher education for all families, especially middle-income families who seem to be increasingly priced out of higher education.

With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?

As I mentioned previously, my college experience was absolutely transformative for me. Growing up in a predominantly white, Italian and Jewish community, my head spun when I attended a pre-orientation program for multicultural students before I started college. I got to know many students who had similar ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to mine, as well as students who had completely different backgrounds from me and I was fascinated by the stories we all brought to the table and how our families, heritage, language, culture, neighborhood, school, religion and geography influenced our perspectives.

When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?

I admire deans who take a stand and articulate their position on an issue even if it runs counter to the mainstream. I realize that deans have many constituencies, but I appreciate those who trust that they can have a candid conversation with me when appropriate. Finally I appreciate the admission professionals who treat this as a student-centric process that is about fit.


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