For some, the school year starts with an extra bit of confidence, boosted by the new school supplies of vibrant highlighters and rubbery, squeaky-clean erasers. One tells themselves, firmly, that this will be their year of success, the year of sleeping at 9 p.m. and the year of eating a healthy, well-rounded breakfast everyday. However, the first day passes, and then the second, and before one knows it, the first month has ended, rounded off by a teetering pile of homework and tests awaiting the student. In that moment, they wonder if they’ve taken on a little too much this year.
Faced with that dilemma, sophomore Neha Balsu admits her course load for this school year isn’t extremely rigorous, which had encouraged her to heed her biology teacher’s advice and try taking Chemistry Honors. At first, she was certainly confident about taking on the challenge. However, as the school year began, Balsu realized that the format of Chemistry Honors didn’t work with her personal learning style. She’s never considered herself a self-learner, a trait which clashed with the teacher’s method of presenting material at the surface level and expecting students to follow through on their own.
The idea of dropping merely floated at the back of her mind, and she tentatively decided to stay in Chemistry Honors to see how the course would would eventually play out. However, the vague idea of dropping eventually developed into a more concrete plan due to her constant B average during her first month and a half in the class, which she viewed as both unsatisfactory and impossible to maintain.
Balsu decided it’d be best for her to drop down to regular Chemistry, a decision in direct contrast with her family’s advice. Her parents recommended she utilize this opportunity as a means of pushing herself academically. Previously, her older brother had also encountered a similar dilemma with Chemistry Honors, only he opted to stay in the honors level course and rounded off the year with a B, a grade that he was satisfied with.
“As bad as this sounds, I would rather get an A,” Balsu said. “I would rather have an A and actually understand the concept than have a B and not understand what’s happening in the class.”
When Balsu told her classmates that she was thinking of dropping, they flooded her with requests to stay in the class.
Balsu’s school counselor shared similar opinions with Balsu’s classmates, although for different reasons entirely. Taking into account Balsu’s relatively light schedule and her wish to major in biochemistry, she felt that a challenging class on her transcript might be the optimal course of action. That was a good point, Balsu conceded, but it did not alter her desire to drop.
Regardless, her counselor urged Balsu to test the waters a little more and prepare for the next assessment before deciding what to do.
While Balsu cannot recall the exact score she received on that assessment, it was low enough to certify her counselor’s approval of her drop — a decision that they came to just in the nick of time. Her course change was processed the Monday after the Friday deadline for dropping classes, which factored into her nervousness as she considered the possibility of the “drop” appearing on her transcript for all colleges to see.
Fortunately, her counselor reassured her that they would work it out since they had encouraged her to wait before dropping. In reflection, Balsu is extremely thankful the drop was successfully processed, especially in light of her peers’ performance in the honors class.
“I know people that got C’s in the class and were like ‘I should’ve dropped to regular chem,’” Balsu said. “I was like, you could’ve, you just didn’t want to.”
One of her friends ultimately dropped their Chemistry class entirely, as there was no longer any spaces remaining in regular Chemistry. Balsu happened to snag one of two remaining spots. If she was in her friend’s position, Balsu believes she would have definitely remained in the honors class, as her future entails a major in science. If the latter did not apply, however, she’d certainly drop.
On the other hand, sophomore Glenn Chen, with the suggestion of his counselor outside of school, decided to challenge himself and take AP Computer Science as a freshman without taking the Java course at MVHS. Though he was concerned about how well he would do, he studied hard the summer after eighth grade and took a 6 week java class at Harker.
“It was pretty hard at first,” Chen said. “I did really poorly on the first quiz and the environment was pretty different from what I was used [to] but then I just took time to adjust and then I ended up doing pretty well.”
Though Chen was able to continue with the course for the rest of the year, he felt a lot of pressure after the initial quiz, and he could feel himself losing confidence. But on top of the class’ academic difficulty, Chen also felt challenged by its environment.
“It was like pretty hard being the only freshman, there wasn’t really...anyone that I already knew,” Chen said. “It made the environment a lot harder for me, than if I was a sophomore and like the difference between me taking it [as] a sophomore and freshman, I thought it was less [about] me not taking Java first and more like the environment being completely different.”
Like Balsu, sophomore Reedit Shariar started his high school experience with a particularly rigorous class on his plate: AP Calculus AB, which is typically taken by upperclassmen instead of underclassmen.
And just like Balsu, he found himself attempting to change classes his freshman year — in his case, however, he wanted to move up — from AP calculus AB to AP calculus BC.
Unfortunately, the response he received to his request was identical to that of Balsu’s peers who wanted to move down: there was simply no space in any of the AP calculus BC classes, and he had to stay in AP calculus AB. At first, Shariar had found the math material in AP calculus AB challenging, yet he was able to adapt quite quickly and wanted to moved up. Even before he took the class, he had had a mindset of working out the problems as they came and simply trying harder if the material turned out to be exceedingly rigious.
Ultimately, however, he urges those who are skipping into a higher course to be confident in their preparation before they take it.
“Don’t try anything that you’re not ready or prepared for,” Shariar said. “You should have an interest in it.”
Senior William Hsu is able to reflect back on his course selections throughout high school as he nears graduation. As someone who has taken many challenging courses, he feels as though his decisions have been made after a lot of thought. For some classes, he decided that he could challenge himself and gain college credit ahead of time, and for others they were out of interest.
He suggests that students shouldn’t feel concerned by the change in course override forms — they are no longer required — as the decision to take advanced classes should come after careful consideration.
“I feel like taking hard classes should be when you yourself know that you’re ready for that kind of challenge or have that further developed interest and have that much time to dedicate towards it, rather than doing it for the sake of doing it,” Hsu said.
This took time to recognize, Hsu admits. As a freshman and sophomore he wouldn’t think about his decision that much, but when he was more sure of his passions and what he wanted to pursue, taking classes helped him to reach his goals.
Hsu feels like by taking some AP classes outside of school or by self-studying, he developed a new set of skills that came from beyond just taking the classes at school.
“That requires the most motivation and you have to want to do it,” Hsu said. “I feel like I’m really choosing the things I’m interested in and I really want to pursue, and that’s also part of having the motivation and drive to do well.”
MVHS has been around for 49 years, and has had the reputation of being an academically challenging school to go to. While there are horror stories about the intense competition amongst students, there is also fear of the stressful college application season. This is the time when students turn to the help of college counselors, people who guide them into the realm of college applications. The latter is a free option, but it can be difficult to obtain the help with the overwhelming number of students that MVHS has.
Listen to the podcast to hear about two different MVHS students’ experiences with college counselors.
2380 students, four guidance counsellors and one college counsellor. With the limited resources at MVHS, many students pay thousands of dollars to go to outside establishments for college counselling and SAT help. However, MVHS provides resources for prep classes that many students don’t know about.
At MVHS, there are SAT classes for three weeks in April, which are taught by math teacher Martin Jennings and English teacher Mark Carpenter. Jennings teaches the math section while Carpenter goes over the reading and writing part.
“In my case, I show them math questions that they are maybe not well rehearsed in and [hope] to make them comfortable with the test format,” Jennings said. “There’s different kinds of questions and we try to educate them on what they can expect to see.”
However, since SAT classes at school only allow for fourty students, many students decide to go outside for classes and end up paying a hefty price. Senior Shaurya Srivastava, who used Khan Academy’s SAT prep, went to Elite prep for SAT classes and saw the course as beneficial.
“I felt that the times for Elite were better for me than the ones the school [offered] after school,” Srivastava said. “It definitely helped for the start in getting the tricks down. I did self studying after those classes and both helped a lot.”
On the other hand, sophomore Divya Suresh took the PSAT class at MVHS because she felt it was easier to manage her time when she didn’t have to commute.
“I took [the class] because the class being at school was more convenient and it was volleyball season as well so I did not have a lot of time to go around,” Suresh said.
Just like SAT practice, many students at MVHS go to a college counsellor outside of school to deal with the admissions process. Sarah De Souza, a college counsellor at Insight Education, also expressed her thoughts on how outside counseling is more beneficial for the student.
According to De Souza, because there are so many different application timelines and requirements, parents and students would have to go through extensive research to go through the application process on their own.
However, according to students, these outside counsellors cost a lot of money out of pocket with Insight charging around 5,000 dollars a year. Still, students like Srivastava, who went to Insight, prefer outside counsellors than the ones at school.
“In school these different college counsellors are required to be there for 200 to 300 or maybe more students,” Srivastava said. “I know the counsellor I’m with [at Insight] only has 40 other students so we can meet with the counsellor more which allows for more time to edit your essays or give you more feedback.”
With college admissions rates declining in UC’s, students are getting more and more reasons to get private counsellors. According to the UC website, the admissions rate for UC’s has dropped from 63.4% to 61.7% since 2016, which is why some students want outside guidance.
Even at MVHS, less and less students are going to UC’s but applying to other colleges with a less competitive environment instead. According to the school website, 50% of graduates in the class of 2016 went to UC’s with only 35% going in 2017.
Students also face the problem of maintaining their grades at school while submitting their college applications. De Souza expresses the need for a college counsellor.
“Once you are a senior you can take the most advanced math, or the most advanced science, the most advanced English class,” De Souza said. “If you’re enrolled in those classes then doing college admissions on top of that becomes a whole other stressful burden.”
Because of the limited amount of help students can receive at MVHS, students often turn to outside help, paying thousands of dollars to get private counselling so they can try to better their chances of getting into a top college.
“When I am meeting with a student regularly, which I have the time to do because I am not trying to meet the needs of 200 students, trust in a therapeutic relationship is built on the relationship, you have to a relationship with the student to trust that you have their best interest in heart. They need to trust that you understand their needs and goals for the future,” De Souza said.
The first time I met my college counselor, I was a whiny sophomore who couldn’t stop fidgeting in her seat. The idea of having a counselor was pushed on me — my sister had one to help her in high school, so my parents decided to hire the same person for me. I felt like I was in the principal’s office. However, two years later, whenever I meet my college counselor, I feel as if I’m sitting with a friend, about to say goodbye as I get ready to leave in a couple of months.
Before I start, I just want to address how pretentious having a college counselor seems. It looks like I’m a rich kid paying thousands for extraneous and useless help — and I have to tell you, that’s not far from the truth. Yes, my family has enough money to afford a college counselor — I acknowledge that not everybody does. Yes, my parents thought it would help me in high school, just like any other stereotypical Asian parents wanting their kid to get into a reputable college. And yes, I could’ve survived high school and gotten into college without her help, but I probably would’ve missed a bunch of opportunities because of pure procrastination.
And while I was concerned about how much money my parents were spending on counseling, I realized that they were comfortable with it. After having a conversation about cost and managing their budget appropriately, my parents felt comfortable with spending so much, and I soon acknowledged that it wasn’t my place to tell them otherwise. They said any money spent on education is not a waste of money at all. And I have to say, I agree.
Even then, having a college counselor during my sophomore year was pretty useless. The first couple of meetings with my counselor were just like how they’d go for anyone: we talked about the classes I was taking, what I was interested in and what my so-called “plan” was for high school and college. And right within those first few meetings I realized that this wasn’t working. I was “encouraged” to finish my testing in sophomore year only so I didn’t have to worry about it junior year. And while she wasn’t wrong, I still felt as if it was too early. Unlike her typical students, I didn’t want to go to an Ivy League school. I didn’t want to take 10 APs. I didn’t want to do any internships.
I don’t think she understood that in the beginning. It took her having to hear it from me and my parents to realize that my goals were different than the average student she had talked to. However, I think that’s why college counseling eventually worked for me. My counselor took the time to get to know me, understand who I am and realize what I wanted out of high school. She was also useful in convincing my parents of ideas they weren’t thrilled about, like getting a job or not applying to certain colleges.
By the time junior year rolled around, she knew what my priorities were and started helping me plan. It was a hard year for me because I took more AP and honors level courses than I was used to. Grades started to sink along with motivation, and it was hard to keep track of everything I had to do, especially in second semester. That’s when I truly began to realize and appreciate how helpful my counselor was. She encouraged me to get help by talking with teachers or getting a tutor and balance my workload, which I soon realized was too much for me, and also advised me in planning out schedules and mini-deadlines. Because I didn’t want to do a summer internship, she supported my decision to stay home and get a job instead of traveling yet again for another thing to add to my college resume.
She helped me even when it came to compromising. I wasn’t a big fan of doing intensive summer programs, so my counselor recommended I apply to those that fit my area of interest and my personality. I didn’t want to take a math class my senior year, so instead of not taking one at all, I compromised and took it over the summer instead (it really wasn’t that bad, trust me). Compromise was a big part of our relationship, and it wouldn’t have worked without it.
Then came the thing my counselor was actually meant for: college. The college application process was relatively painless because of her. I stayed on top of my deadlines, allowed leeway time for all my essays and got multiple people to give me feedback because I had her supporting me and sending me reminders. Now, in all honesty, if I didn’t have my counselor, I’m pretty sure I could’ve still applied to college. However, my counselor helped me look at schools, programs and scholarships I didn’t think to look at at first. She helped me navigate a lot of the nitty-gritty parts of applying with shortcuts and advice she’s taken away from the process over the years. She made sure to double-check all of my forms and remind me of every deadline so I didn’t have to stress later.
I know that I was lucky to have the counselor I did and that not everyone is as lucky as I was. She understood my boundaries and who I wanted to be, and made sure to respect that in whatever I did. I never felt pressured to take on more than I could handle — if I did, that pressure came from me or someone else. And to be honest, I think it’ll all be worth it in the end to see the look of pride on her face when I tell her where I’ve committed to college. Because as much as I was involved in the college application process, so was she.
If I could go back and change one thing, it would be to not get a counselor until at least junior year — as I said before, no one really needs one before anyways. Not only does having a counselor who understands who you are, not who anyone else wants you to be, make for great college essay content, but it makes you feel like someone’s on your side even if others aren’t. And most important of all, whatever decisions you make in high school should be yours and yours only. If you feel as if they’re pushing you to do something you’re not comfortable with, advocate for yourself because if you don’t, no one will.