By Allison Hoffmann and Lauren Plaxa, Merion Mercy Academy College Counselors
On local news, on social media platforms, and at family gatherings, the excitement of “getting in” to the nation’s most prestigious colleges can preoccupy our conversations. Searching for “#collegeadmissions” on TikTok will yield countless videos of young people anxiously opening email from highly selective colleges and universities and consequently experiencing the unmitigated joy or the heartbreaking despondence that will greet more than 95% of applicants to Ivy League schools.
Notably, we could not find any TikTok videos about preparing to thrive intellectually and personally in college – the topic does not seem to have the same trappings of social media virality – but this mission must rest at the center of a truly college-preparatory high school education. When we hear a high school is “college preparatory,” we assume it offers rigorous academics and opportunities that allow students to be successful in higher education. However, there is a distinct difference between preparing a student to gain admission to college and preparing them to succeed once they get there. The moments, days, months, and years that come after that admissions email are most significant for students, who will need the same qualities and skills to succeed in college, whether that college was their initial “dream school” or not.
The inaugural Purdue Gallup Index, a survey of 30,000 released in 2014, found that a college graduate’s workplace engagement and well-being in life after undergrad was not determined by where a student went to college, but by how they went: students who connected with professors, found a mentor on campus, and who took on an internship were far more likely to report feeling positively about their well-being and meaningfully engaged at work than students who did not, regardless of their alma mater’s selectivity or institution type.
The stories of our graduates affirm the findings of this survey. For decades, Merion Mercy alumnae have routinely flourished in colleges nearby and far away, large and small, regionally-known and internationally-recognized. They began preparing for their journeys to and through college as soon as they set foot on our campus, long before they submitted a single college application, by building strong relationships, leadership skills in their extracurricular activities, and successful academic habits in rigorous classes. Our school prepares students for a successful life after college acceptance and the commitment that success requires in several key ways:
Encouraging the exploration of wide and varied academic areas
Finding the right future college major requires academic exploration. Merion Mercy students can pinpoint their specific interests and strengths across all content areas by taking a wide variety of rigorous courses, including honors, Advanced Placement, and college courses. Our extensive elective course offerings also ensure that our students explore the academic world outside core content areas. It is not uncommon at Merion to find future Biology majors enrolled in Honors Art Major, future business and marketing majors enjoying their Renaissance Revels course, or future pre-law students enrolled in our Economics & Entrepreneurship course with the University of Delaware. Our students emerge from Merion prepared to excel in – and enjoy – a variety of core college classes and their more specialized major courses later in college.
Facilitating deeper learning through experience
Just as college students choose a major, Merion Mercy students who elect to earn a Diploma with Distinction first determine an interdisciplinary concentration of interest, and then spend two years engaging in specific courses, co-curricular activities, and a capstone project or internship related to their concentration. This multi-year commitment, similar to a college major, encourages deeper learning in multiple contexts, and gives students personal connections to professionals in their field and experiential learning opportunities that can inform their future plans. As a result, Merion students who earn a Diploma with Distinction in Law & Justice, for instance, will enroll in their college political science classes with an enhanced understanding beyond what is traditionally offered in high school social studies classes.
Promoting strong relationships with small class sizes and caseloads
The Purdue Gallup Index highlighted the influence of relationships between professors and college graduates as a significant factor in a student’s future success. Merion students learn early the value of establishing strong relationships with faculty, many of whom teach students for more than a year and in more than one course. Small class sizes, and small caseloads for college counselors, ensure that faculty get to know their students, and many times their families, very well, allowing them to anticipate and provide individualized support based on students’ needs, strengths, and interests. Our faculty’s knowledge of our students shines through in letters of recommendation: this year, 28 faculty members wrote over 300 pages of glowing letters of recommendation for the Class of 2024, each letter personalized and as unique as our students themselves.
Whether they become a Penn State Nittany Lion (joining 40,000+ peers), or St. John’s College in New Mexico (about the size of Merion Mercy), our graduates enter college knowing how to collaborate with their professors and peers, building relationships with them and seeking out their support.
Fostering leadership and self-advocacy skills
Whether they attend a private or public college, a college student who takes advantage of co-curricular opportunities and available campus resources is more likely to experience happiness on campus, and postgraduate success, than a student who does not. Our school culture reinforces the academic and personal enrichment that stem from participation in school life outside of the classroom, with a great majority of our students participating in at least one activity or sport, and many of our juniors and seniors holding leadership positions in our 70+ clubs and 9 honor societies. Merion students also routinely take the reins to advocate for themselves, whether by utilizing our counseling services, seeking additional support from teachers via office hours, or working with the Office of Student Life to start a new club or affinity group.
Building lives with purpose
Organizational psychologist Paul Fairlie points to meaningful work – that with social impact, or that which results in the realization of personal values – as a significant factor in employee satisfaction and well-being. Meaningful work abounds at Merion via service opportunities. Our students routinely engage with our five critical concerns: Immigration, racism, women, nonviolence, and earth, and are prepared to advocate for causes they care about in their community. They gain a true understanding of the value of service through our annual Mercy Girl Effect program, raising awareness and funds for causes like access to water, school supplies, and safe transportation in other countries. Our students can immerse themselves in service in our local community through our clubs like Blue Key Society and Mercy Mission Corps, and through our immersive summer experiences in places from West Virginia to Philadelphia. These experiences develop the skills needed for students to impact their college campus and larger community through service.
While a deluge of acceptance letters and an impressive list of matriculations at graduation are exciting features of Merion Mercy students’ journey to college, they do not constitute the whole, or even a large part, of our mission as a college-preparatory school. Authentic “college-readiness” cannot be minimized to a stellar SAT score or an Ivy acceptance recorded on TikTok; it is demonstrated in daily practice over four years, with the cooperation of our whole school community, in the unfailing belief that a Mercy girl will bloom wherever she plants herself.