Jordan Nixon has received 39 college acceptance letters so far, all without celebrity parents or $500,000 bribes. It just took years of planning, a private college adviser, 50-plus applications and the unwavering support of family.
“I don’t have money like the celebrity parents,” said Angelia Nixon, mother of the 17-year-old senior near Atlanta. “There were no bribes going into this.”
As the nation’s largest-ever college admissions scandal surfaces this week, with celebrity parents and rich CEOs accused of cheating to get their children into prestigious schools, the Nixons are navigating college admissions like the rest of us. But they’ve found extraordinary success, discovering how the journey to college remains daunting – yet possible – in 2019.
For the Nixons, the multi-year process entailed early college visits, regular check-ins with her adviser, ACT and SAT prep, careful budgeting and essay after essay after essay. The result? Schools from across the nation welcoming Jordan and $1.6 million in scholarship offers.
Jordan has always been a “high achiever,” her mom says. She won elementary school spelling bees as a child and her poetry ran in Highlights for Children. The mom knew if she invested in her daughter’s process early, she’d see results.
The college tours began during Jordan’s sophomore year. Angelia Nixon talked to admissions advisers and filled out info cards. They made a broad list of schools. Jordan set sights on a major – international business.
The private college adviser began her junior year. That’s when things really picked up.
Jordan worked with Cynthia DeBerry Flowers, of Atlanta-based CollegeForSure, on every aspect of the college application process. Jordan’s mother wanted her to receive more attention than her school district was able to provide, so they looked into hiring a coach – an uncommon move in their district.
Private college advisers the Nixons reviewed ran from $3,000 to $9,000 for total services, the mother said. Angelia Nixon, an insurance broker, and Jordan’s father – Arthur Nixon Jr., a police investigator – ended up paying somewhere in between, she said.
DeBerry Flowers touched base about two or three times a week, Jordan recalled. They did resume prep. They set SAT and ACT goals. They worked on essays. Oh, the essays.
“I didn’t realize how important essays were until the moment I had to do more than 20,” Jordan said.
Jordan wrote at the kitchen table, laptop open, her parents editing over dinner. A calendar on the wall listed every school application date and whether Jordan would apply for early action – an option that gives students an early heads-up on acceptance.
Jordan and her adviser firmed up her list of schools. A process of elimination began, looking at U.S. News and Forbes rankings, activities offered, graduation rates. The college application frenzy peaked in October and November.
“Stressful, to say the least,” Jordan said
Some applications cost as much as $80, Angelia Nixon said. When college fairs offered free applications, they filled out every one. They also used the Common Application and the Common Black College Application, both of which let students apply to tens of schools at once.
“So much easier,” Jordan said.
The ease of the all-at-once platforms let Jordan apply for 68 schools, her mother said, plus another three from college fairs and elsewhere.
Jordan’s senior year unfolded. She stayed busy with extracurriculars – cheering co-captain, a leadership academy – as the acceptance letters landed. The first, Grambling State University, in July 2018. The most recent, Xavier University, arrived this month.
Jordan has until May 1 to make a decision. “I’m definitely still in the process,” she said.
Here are three pointers on the application process, from Jordan’s family and expert advisers:
Apply to the best fit, not the best school
“Here’s the thing: It’s a very, very competitive process,” said Lisa Guss, an independent college counselor and co-author of “The Essential College Admissions Handbook.” She tells her clients this: The best schools may not be the best schools for you.
Ivy League schools may require applicants to have “everything and then some,” but the majority of colleges just want a student to show growth. That could mean tackling more rigorous course loads each year or zeroing in on extracurriculars over time that show deeper involvement in a specific area or cause.
Those less stringent schools that embrace a student’s growth may often be the better fit.
“I try to encourage my clients to find a school that just makes them happy, where they feel good about themselves,” Guss said, adding, “When we find a place we feel we fit in, I think we excel.”
Touch base beyond the application
All-in-one platforms like the Common Application let students apply for multiple schools at once. And that means way larger applicant pools for many schools, said Shari Kramer, a college consultant who co-authored “The Essential College Admissions Handbook” with Guss.
“There are so many talented students competing for the same spots in the freshman class,” Kramer said. “The pressure mounts for students to differentiate themselves in some way.”
One way a student can differentiate is by showing interest outside the application process, Guss said, which many colleges track as “demonstrated interest.” That could look like a campus visit, a personal email or even opening an email from a school – an act many schools see and note.
Partner with teachers and your child
Deep partnerships with schools and teachers proved critical for Jordan’s success, her mom said.
“Know what your child is doing within the classroom, their strengths and weaknesses,” Angelia Nixon said. “If you know they’re weak in math, get tutoring and help for them to strengthen their scores for their standardized college tests.”
Open communication with Jordan about her schooling also proved critical, she said, letting her know – and advocate for – her child better.
“You will not be able to tell people anything about your child unless you know who your child really is,” she said, adding, “If you get to know your child as a person and not just a child, you see them from a different point of view, as an adult.”
Follow Josh Hafner on Twitter: @joshhafner
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: I got into 39 colleges without cheating: What applying to schools looks like in 2019