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Journey to College Acceptance: Interview with Mr. Sanjay Mitchell, Director of College and Alumni Programs at Thurgood Marshall Academy

For the second installment of our series, Journey to College Acceptance, we talked with Mr. Sanjay Mitchell, the Director of College and Alumni Programs at Thurgood Marshall Academy, to gain his perspective on the current college landscape. We will be talking with Mr. Mitchell about what students should look for in a college or university; challenges they may face in the research and application process; and his own personal thoughts on where Stewart Gray should attend in this fall. For students and parents, keep this advice in mind and share with any friends or family members who are currently involved in this process!


SUNY Albany alumni Mr. Mitchell representing his alma mater!

How long have you worked at TMA in your current role?

I have worked at TMA since the beginning of the 2009 school year. I chose to work at TMA after spending five years in the Undergraduate Admissions; I wanted to work more directly with students. Admissions provided me the vehicle to really assist students with their dreams of getting into college, but working on this end really gave me the opportunity to work more directly with students from earlier on to ensure their college and future success.

What are the challenges that minority and/or low income students need to be aware of when applying for colleges?

Money! Money will be the biggest challenge this population needs to overcome. Although there are many fee waivers available for things like application fees, testing registrations, score reports, etc., you only receive a few. For example: students only receive two SAT fee waivers, and will only be able to send free electronic score reports to four colleges. So if you are planning to apply to more than four schools, be prepared to pay around $12 for each school after the initial four.

If you decide to take the ACT, you have to know the schools you are planning to send your scores to at the time of the test to receive the free score reports submission.

You also have to be aware of the admission deposit fees, which can range anywhere from $0 to $850 depending on the school. Many schools and programs can help defray most of the cost, but you also have to prepare and have a contingency plan in place for those scenarios where you are unable to receive a waiver.

What makes TMA’s college counseling different than other schools?

What really makes us different is that we have invested in a college counselor. It is important to note that as the college counselor, my primary focus is college counseling, not discipline, not scheduling, not testing, but primarily college counseling access and information. I am also on staff here, so teachers, administrators, and family can access me as they would any other staff member in the building.

Also, we have a senior seminar college which pretty much makes the entire college and financial aid application process a part of the senior curriculum. Seniors have full time access to the college counselor and learn to develop and build relationship with the college counselor through these classes.

I should also say that everyone is invested in the college going culture here at TMA. It is exemplified through our aesthetics, our classroom structure, and our projects and grading requirements; it is part of our culture.

What do you look for in a college from the perspective of an adviser?

From my perspective, I look for a college that will have an open and welcoming environment for my students. I want to ensure that students are going to be successful and this is demonstrated through the types of support services they offer to students of color and first generation students. I look for the success rate for students of color, demonstrated by statistics such as graduation rates or job placement. Anecdotally, I look to see if students generally happy to be a part of their community. I also am focused on how committed a college or university to providing financial assistance to students as well.

What are the top 5 things you tell seniors to look for in making a decision regarding where to apply and which school they should choose?

The top 5 things that I tell the seniors to look for are, in no particular order:

1. Fit – Is this school a good fit for you? Is it where you would like to live for the next 4 years?

2. Academic Qualifications – I encourage students to challenge themselves by applying to schools that are above your GPA & SAT ranges, but do so within reasons. However, don’t set yourself up for failure by applying to schools that may be too far above your academic rigor. On the other hand, don’t fill your application list with all schools that you have far superseded the academic requirements. Challenge yourself, but also be reasonable with that challenge.

3. Financial Aid (once admitted, not before) – can you afford to attend for four years. Remember, the cost of attendance is not just one year; you have to factor in what it will look like all four years of study. If you are comfortable with the financial package offered then go for it, but if you have reservations/hesitations, then I recommend that the school be on your short list.

4. Location – Although most students will say that they do not care where they attend school, many will go away and realize that New York is too far away from home in Washington, DC or Maryland is too close to Washington, DC so they either get home sick or spend their days and time day dreaming about being farther away from home. Therefore, I encourage students to really know where they would like to go and assess how they felt being away from home for a summer program or vacations, etc. This will help in ensuring that a student has a great college experience.

5. Major/Career interests – this usually stays low in my top 5, but is still important to consider. Students change their majors on average 3 times before graduating college, so it is not necessary to be wedded to any particular college based on your major or program of interests. Of course, if you are steadfast and committed to that major, then this should be important in considering a school, but if you can be easily swayed into something else, then it is best to choose a college that has a wide variety of majors and programs that you can choose from or allows you to enjoy them all.

What is it about Stewart Gray that you think will lead him to be successful?

The buzz word going around is grit. Stewart has grit, he is steadfast, curious, ambitious, and as cliché as it sounds, he works hard. He is very diligent and he is constantly in competition with himself. Stewart would take the time to write a strong personal statement or essay and it would be spectacular; however, Stewart would not just rest on this, he would still take the time to rewrite and edit always trying to make sure that he presents himself well and puts his best foot forward. In my opinion, those are the keys to success; the ability to always want to strive to be better than the person you were a day, a week, or even a year ago.

Out of the top schools Stewart applied to, do you secretly have a favorite one in mind that will best suit him? Why?

My standard counselor response is: I want Stewart to go to a school that would be the best fit for him and a school that will allow him to grow intellectually, compliment his unique talents, and provide a superb college experience. My off the record response would be either Stanford University or Yale University – Stanford because he has already identified this as the ideal campus life for him since he participated in a college program the summer before his senior year and Yale, well, because I think he would fit in well and it would be an excellent preparation for life.

Students are sure to be anxious and nervous while waiting to hear back about college acceptances. What advice would you give to help calm their nerves?

At this time, you have done all that you can do and provided all the information you can possibly provide in order to have a full evaluation of your application. Remain confident and optimistic that you will get into a college, so don’t be disappointed about not hearing a decision as of yet. Furthermore, you will get into the college that is best suited for you. Just have faith and hold on.