"In 500 words or less, why are you interested in attending [Top UC or Private University]?"
The question can seem almost trite.
But William Chen, a 2010 graduate of and current Harvard University sophomore, tells college applicants that within that question lies a profound opportunity to shine.
“Think of it as, ‘Ask not what your college can do for you. Ask what you can do for your college!’” he said during a late-December meeting at .
Also at the meeting were 2010 Amador graduate and current Princeton University Sophomore, Vivienne Chen, and current Amador seniors, Dev Richi and Cary Yang.
The meeting marked the climax of this year’s Amador Valley Mentor Program, the brain child of William Chen and Vivienne Chen (no relation).
Both Vivienne and William remember how it felt to navigate complex college applications, essays and interviews while maintaining high GPAs during their senior year at Amador.
The result of their passion to give back to their hometown was the Amador Valley Mentorship Program, which they founded as college freshmen in 2010.
“When I was a senior, I sought the advice of my friends who were already in college,” said William.
“They helped me look over the essays and go over my college plans and to this day I am grateful,” said William, a statistics and mathematics major at Harvard.
The program, said William, is a way of “passing the torch of mentorship to those who are younger.”
Vivienne pointed out that while Pleasanton schools are among the best in California, “the reality is that our hard working academic counselors are outnumbered by seniors” at a ratio greater than 100:1.
“After starting college at Princeton last year, I realized how many of my fellow students had come from small schools or private academies where their academic counselors guided them individually through the entire college application process,” said Vivienne, an English major.
“I see AVMP as an alternative to the trend of students and their families paying thousands of dollars to private college consultants to help them with their applications,” said Vivienne, who wrote about for Pleasanton Patch.
“I don’t think students should have to pay for information that they deserve for free,” she said.
To that end, free of charge, this year’s 17 mentors volunteered to guide 18 high school seniors through the college application process.
William and Vivienne said that in the program’s first two years, organizers have had the manpower and networking capabilities only to recruit from their alma mater, Amador Valley High School.
But they hope to grow the mentor program to include participants from both and Amador.
During the application process, AVMP organizers collect detailed personal information from each high school Senior interested in the program. Soon thereafter, mentors review the anonymous set of mentee profiles and provide feedback to organizers as to which student(s) they may be best suited to mentor.
Once students are matched, the work – and fun – begins.
- Begin email correspondence with mentees early in the school year.
- Get to know mentees well enough to suggest colleges mentees may want to consider.
- Make recommendations on essay topics.
- Critique essays; stimulate applicants to create fresh ideas in essays.
- Mock interviews: This week, William Chen gave Dev Richi a mock Harvard interview and Andrea Deng a mock Princeton interview.
- Offer advice when applicants are waitlisted for college acceptance.
- Host events and meet-ups during common breaks to provide guidance and Q&A sessions.
- Help mentees navigate college acceptances.
- Help mentees prepare for college life before school begins.
All this work takes place while during high school seniors’ challenging first semesters college students’ busy lives.
In the first semester this year, mentor Vivienne Chen took English - Reading Poetry; American Literary Tradition; Quantitative Analysis (Psychology Statistics); Creative Writing Fiction with Jeffrey Eugenides; and Intro to Gender Studies, all while devoting herself to a work-study job with the LGBT center, volunteering with the LGBT task force and peer education program, participating in activities with the press club, and attending events with the Princeton Ballroom Dance Club.
Meanwhile, her mentor program cohort, William, pursued top marks in Statistics 210 - Probability Theory; Mathematics 122 - Algebra I: Theory of Groups and Vector Spaces; Computer Science 50 - Introduction to Computer Science I; and Culture and Belief 34 -Madness and Medicine: Themes in the History of Psychiatry, all while co-directing the Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament, co-founding CollegeRay.com; directing the Futuristic General Assembly at Harvard Model United Nations and participating in Harvard’s Ballroom Dance Team.
Funded by Sweat Equity and Passion: Grants Welcome
This year, the Amador Valley Mentor Program received a $200 mini-grant from the Chinese American Cooperation Council, which conducts a Chinese School weekly on the Amador campus.
“We're hoping to use the funds that we receive to continue contributing to shared (goals) amongst our membership,” said William Chen.
Initial funds allowed the group to form a small library of advice books and to provide food and drinks at a widely attended gathering over the Thanksgiving break. William hopes the group can raise additional funds to continue to make meet-ups and workshop fun and productive.
“It turns out that having food provided at our meetings increases attendance and makes the meetings last longer, and hopefully be more helpful too!” he said.
During the December mentor meeting at Café Main, Amador seniors Dev Richi and Cary Yang asked several questions while reviewing essays and interview techniques with Vivienne and William.
Talking points ranged from finding ways to find compelling ways to make individually unique arguments (“Dig in personally. Show what make you who you are.”) to essay structure (“This part you wrote is excellent. I’d love to see it closer to the beginning.”) and interview techniques.
Before January 1, Richi, Yang and other mentees submitted applications to schools such as UC Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, University of Illinois, U Penn, Carnegie-Mellon, and more.
Interactions between mentors and mentees display trust, confidence and respect – key ingredients of teamwork that Vivienne and William say help bring out the best in college applicants.
More information: This spring, the mentor program plans to reach out to this year’s Juniors and gain a social media presence. Patch will provide contact information for prospective mentors and mentees as soon as it becomes available.