The Evolution of College Admission

The argument that has always been an issue is, should students go to college or not?

This episode we speak with Dr. Belinda Leon, a college advisor at Downtown Doral Upper Charter school in Doral, FL.

Dr. Leon shares how the college admission process has evolved over the past 30 years, what schools are looking for now, and how parents can best equip their children for life after graduating high school.

Dr. Belinda Leon at Downtown Doral Charter Upper School


Kevin Oates 0:01
About 20 years ago, my brother made the decision not to go to college after graduating high school, this was absolutely absurd in our culture at the time, as it was basically a must for every student to attend college, whether it was right for them or not. Our parents, though, supported it, because their reasoning was, if you’re not passionate about it, or you don’t know what you want to pursue, why spend the money. Now, this is not always the case for every family. But this is the case for ours. And it was the best decision by far for him. He worked all around the world and had life experiences that I never even thought of, and now is one of the leaders of Dirigo Collective, the company that produces this podcast, the argument that has always been an issue is should students go to college or not? Well, I am absolutely no expert in this discussion. So I turned to someone who is,

Belinda Leon 0:55
I would love for every single student to go to college, because it’s not just the education. It’s the experience of being on your own for the first time living with a bunch of people and having a different type of interaction with a college professor versus a high school teacher. But having done this for many years, I can tell you that it is true that college is not for everyone.

Kevin Oates 1:23
This is Dr. Belinda Leon, and she is a college advisor at the Downtown Doral Upper Charter School outside Miami.

Belinda Leon 1:30
there’s plenty of students that they need to just graduate high school and start working in a field and something maybe more technical, that I have students that are very gifted, and it might be very gifted with their hands, their mechanics, I have students that are musically inclined. And they need to just get out of high school and start to exploit that talent and start working on it. Because that can take years for them to be successful. And I get that

Kevin Oates 1:59
I asked early on why some students shouldn’t go to college right away.

Belinda Leon 2:04
Some of these students need to go out in the real world at work for a few years and realize all I do need to go to college because I need to learn this or I need that piece of paper to advance. Everybody’s on a different on a different path. Not everybody accepts that. It’s not an easy decision for parents to make when maybe you have that child that needs a few more years before they can go to college or college is not for them. And that’s a very difficult decision to make. So there’s definitely a percentage of students out there that college is not for them. But some type of education, whether it be just an associate’s degree, or a certificate program, some type of employment training, or just life experience that will get them to where they need to be in life.

Kevin Oates 2:57
Dr. Leon was a hard working student in her high school years. She loves school, she got good grades, she pushed herself and even really kind of tackled her own college admission process. And well, that led to her getting into NYU.

Belinda Leon 3:10
When I applied to college, I had no guidance whatsoever. I’m the child of immigrants, they still don’t speak the language. I did not have the best guidance counselor when I was in high school. And I didn’t know I mean, I didn’t grow up in an environment where we talked about college and what you needed to do in high school to get there. But yet, I did want to go to college. And I remember that I applied to NYU. I don’t think I even use a typewriter for that application. It was probably hand written. And I got in, I got into NYU, I was offered a scholarship. I have no clue how that happened. I really don’t. I guarantee you. If I were to apply in the same way as I did back then today, and that was over 30 years ago, I don’t think I would get it at all. Because it’s become much more sophisticated, much more planned, you have to be very strategic. Because when you get to high school, you’ve got to take certain courses. And I mean like others courses, AP courses, perhaps an International Baccalaureate program, you’ve got to do really well in your courses, and then choosing those courses and then getting the right grades, doing the write extra curricular activities. You’ve got to do all of that correctly in high school so that you can get into that school that you like. And sometimes the path of what you take in high school starts as early as third grade, or even fifth grade. When did that happen?

Kevin Oates 4:49
So much has changed clearly over the years as we look and view college now for students. We have all these online universities we have online classes and courses kids can take But we also look at it we don’t want is the right school for a student if they do want to go to colleges, so I asked Dr. Leon, you know, what are the options out there?

Belinda Leon 5:08
With each year, more students that are very stressed out, and they have anxiety about the whole college process. Now? Are Is there a college for everyone? Absolutely. We still have community colleges out there, we still have very small liberal arts colleges, we still have private colleges, there’s a college for everyone. But because of the competition, of going to a school that has a certain name or a certain reputation, we tend to forget that that they’re out there. But it’s, and it’s part of that, I want you to succeed, I want you to have a good job and want you to make good money that will come. We just need a little bit of time, but it’s definitely become a health issue. But we can manage that. And if we can just take a step back and breathe and realize you know what, maybe he’s not going to go to college next year, I’ll give him a few years, he doesn’t need to go to that top college, he can go to a local school, there’s always an option, there’s always an option. But we fail to see that sometimes. And that’s I think that’s just a matter of re educating not just the students, but also the parents that there’s so many options out there and it’s going to be fine, they’ll find a job, they’ll do something with their lives.

Kevin Oates 6:26
A lot of our culture focuses on students getting into Ivy League schools and get the best of the best. But based on this next story from Dr. Leon, maybe that’s not always the best option.

Belinda Leon 6:36
I had a student that she’s like, My dream is to go to Harvard, I said, fantastic. And she had, she had the potential to do it. But she wants to study, like either international business or international relations, which is a wonderful thing. But Hartford doesn’t offer that. They don’t have it on the bachelor they have it at a masters level. But as I said, but I want to go to Harvard, like what for? They don’t have what what you want, let’s focus on what you want. What do you really want to learn about? And let’s figure out who offers that. And then which school that offers that can be your best match, so that you’re going to be happy there and what you’re studying. And then if we can get that list to about I don’t know anywhere from 12 to 20 or so colleges, then that’s what we start to get into the nitty gritty of well, what are your numbers? And by that, I mean, okay, do you have that SAT score? Do you have that GPA? Because if you can be in the range of if you can hit the numbers that that school wants, okay, let’s, let’s keep it there. Let’s let’s work towards that. If you don’t have the numbers, let’s just cross it off the list.

Kevin Oates 7:46
Even if a student knows what they want to do find the right school has the grades gets accepted. Sometimes it’s the campus that can really not sell it for a student.

Belinda Leon 7:55
I remember I had a student that wanted to premed, she wanted to study medicine. And she got accepted into John Hopkins, which phenomenal school, she had never, but she had never visited the school. So finally, she she goes on a college tour, she gets to the school, she walks around, and I remember she came back to like it was a group of us. Looking at colleges, she came back and everyone was so excited for how was it? Did you like it? Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it got there. And the look on her face. She’s just like, What do you mean? She’s like, you know, I just, I didn’t like it.

Kevin Oates 8:33
So far, we really kind of focus on getting into college and the college experience. But let’s kind of backtrack for a second and focus on what’s missing at the high school level preparing students for college and life after college specifically.

Belinda Leon 8:47
I think that’s something that’s missing is that when you graduate college, and you go out into the world, and you start working, regardless of what you study, regardless of what it is that you want to become. You you learn through life experience, that it’s all about the relationships that you build with other people. It’s it’s who it’s who you know, but it’s people that you work with people that you get to know that you partner with that work with you. And that somewhere down the road when you need a job when you need a service when you need a product when you need a recommender, when you need help with something. It’s the people that you’ve built those relationships with are the ones that get you through that door, or get you the help you need. And that’s we don’t learn that in college. We don’t learn that in high school, quite honestly, I think most of us have learned that just through trial and error and life experience. And after 51 years of life, I’ve realized how important that is. But if someone had shown me or explain that to me, when I was in my early 20s what a difference That would have meant,

Kevin Oates 10:01
What’s one of the best ways a student can really struggle, learn these real world skills and figure out what is the best fit for them and how to grow those professional and social skills?

Belinda Leon 10:11
Internships, that’s another perfect way to get an idea of what the real world is about in terms of that social skill, talking to people how to answer a phone, how to answer a phone, and to be polite, and to take that message, and to get back to that person. But that’s all part of social skills, that we’re not teaching. But it’s pretty easy to teach, maybe college is not for you, or you’re not ready for college. But if you’ve got that skill, you could dominate the world, right out of high school.

Kevin Oates 10:47
What are some of the skills that are not being taught anymore at the high school level that are crucial to a student’s success in the professional world?

Belinda Leon 10:55
Something so basic as typing, you know, we don’t offer typing. So even though we have students that are that know how to do everything on the computer, or on the phone, or on an iPad, but you’re dealing, you’re doing everything with your thumbs, or you’re doing this, and something that simple, we don’t teach. And it’s those those skills that we’re not doing in college we’re not doing in high school. And and, and I’ll go further, it’s those everyday life skills of, you know, how do you change a tire? How do you change the oil on a car? Or how do you open up a bank account? What do you know what, what is the purpose of having a savings account? What is did you know that they take Social Security out of your check? It’s these little life things that we’re, again, we’re not teaching, it’s not a big deal to teach them. And it saves us from making so many mistakes, once we get out into the real world. And if you just make life a little bit easier, there’s there’s room for so many more success to come about.

Kevin Oates 12:02
Dr. Leon has the great opportunity at Downtown Doral Upper Charter school to serve students of every demographic, and prepare them for college, or whatever’s afterwards.

Belinda Leon 12:12
One of the great things about my school, we’re Downtown Doral Charter Upper School. So I in my building, I have 6 through 12. And because it is a as a charter, a public charter, we can take students from any area. So you could you have all levels of income, all different backgrounds, and yet you’re getting the same education. Now, what happens in terms of that college advisement process that you’re talking about? And let’s look at this nationwide. Are there more organizations that exist right now that can offer support, guidance, and resources to say minority communities? Absolutely. They’re absolutely out there. But we but we still have the same problem that I had when I applied to college. And that’s one of the reasons that I got into this career. Because, again, when when I was a senior in high school, and again, the process wasn’t anywhere nearly as complicated as it is now. But when I was a senior in high school, a child of immigrant parents, no call it I didn’t have college educated people, in my family or necessarily around me, you know, we were working class neighborhood. I needed more information, I somehow figured it out.

Kevin Oates 13:43
So even we have the right resources. How can we better serve our students and preparing them for college, whether they are a rich upper class family or immigrant family just coming to America?

Belinda Leon 13:56
We have all these organizations, we have the internet, you know, unlimited resources on the internet. But I find that there are still students that are making the same mistakes that I made. And there’s no excuse for that. But what happens is that we still have every day, immigrants that come into this country, parents that finally do well enough with their lives, that they can afford to send their kids to college. But that doesn’t mean that they went to college, or that they that they were in this country to begin with when they went to college. So there’s still this big void. So we’re all we always have another generation that’s coming up. That is missing that information, even though we have so many resources out there. But you don’t know what you don’t know.

Kevin Oates 14:47
What have you seen as the trend with colleges in this generation, and what they’re looking for?

Belinda Leon 14:54
You have this thing called the passion project, which is like the new the new thing that is happening. Now with college application with a passion project is that you have students that decide in high school, I’m either going to open up a nonprofit, or I’m going to open up my own business. And they go out there, and they do these wonderful things. Not everybody can do that in high school. But yeah, you have some students that are very successful. But by throwing themselves into that passion project, they they stand out. So now, if you get good grades, if you’re you’re volunteering at the local hospital, you pick up a couple of AP courses, a couple of college courses, it’s like, that’s not good enough. Now, you’ve got to go out and create this, this nonprofit that that saves puppies in your neighborhood. And it’s it’s become, it’s become almost a business. There are some college consultants out there, that that’s their specialty, that they’re going to work with your student to create a nonprofit to show off to the colleges. And the colle ges think that if now what this shows to the college’s that you’re mature, you’re independent, because you’ve managed to run this type of a business, whether it’s profit or nonprofit, but look what you’ve been able to pull off. But that’s not everybody, you still have a lot of good students out there that are not unnecessarily an entrepreneur, but they’re a good student, and they can go to med school, and they can go to law school, and they can go to business school, or they can become teachers, but they’re not out there, creating these these brand new organizations. And I keep seeing that. And like I said to me, I just keep waiting. One is that this craze or this phase going to be over right now. This is big, and it’s not that wasn’t around, say 10 years ago, 10 years ago, it was like you got to do good on your essay t you’ve got to do good in your classes and get a good GPA. And let’s write a nice essay.

Kevin Oates 17:07
What are the best next steps for parents to support their children going in to this college process and getting them ready for life after high school?

Belinda Leon 17:17
I think that as a parent, you have to really know your child. And that’s easier said than done. But you need to understand, do I have an academic child? Do I have a child that is artistic? Do I have a child that schools school is just not for them. And and I’ll give you the example of my children. I have one one daughter, that reminds me very much of me. I do not consider myself a genius or anything like that. But I did really good in school because I liked school. I like to study I liked to learn. So I put in the effort. And by putting in the effort, I got the good grades, because I like getting good grades. And but it was but it was it was work, I had to put the work in. So I have one child that if she puts the work in, she will do well. That means she can go to a good college. But I even I would love for her to go to an Ivy League. I don’t think that’s really her path. She just needs to go to a good college where she’s going to put the work in and she’ll do fine. But then I have another daughter where she’s so quick. She’s so smart. I mean, she’s so much smarter than I’m ever going to be. And I have to manage her differently. Because that’s, that’s that child that that’s she’s up here like on the stratosphere. And those are the kids that will do good at Ivy League because they learn quickly. And it just, it just comes so easily to them. And you’ve got to be that smart and that bright. If you’re going to go to some of these top schools, because it’s hard. But you’ve got to you’ve got to know who your child is, understand them and accept it. And if you can accept that and make peace with it. Okay, if you can make peace with it, then you’ve got to stop it. Okay, what is the academic path for my students?

Kevin Oates 19:23
So if you are a parent, and you have your kid going off to college, you know, learn from the best, ask questions and understand that these professionals who know what they’re doing, they also went through this process and they also made mistakes along the way, but they figured it out and worked hard.

Belinda Leon 19:39
That path that I took and those mistakes that I make. They’ve led me to a point where I am today that I can use all of that to now help other students if I hadn’t made all this makes all those mistakes. I wouldn’t be able to advise parents and students on what they’re doing today.

Kevin Oates 19:57
To learn more about how you can help your children for your students to go off to college or compare themselves, you can find Dr. Leon’s episode page at Renegades & Mavericks is a production of Dirigo Collective. Hosting of scripting by Kevin Oates and project management by Claire Closson. And once again, my favorite time, it’s time to thank a teacher.

David Gogel 20:21
I would like to thank Mr. Gowin, my high school chemistry teacher. His passion for teaching and the unconventional way he approached the subject inspired me not to study chemistry, but to find what I loved as much as he loved teaching chemistry.

Kevin Oates 20:35
If you want to submit your thank you to a teacher, you could email your recording to