(Note: This is the second in a series of six stories and videos highlighting the opportunities available to Mobile County Public Schools students in the six pathways to college and career readiness, as defined by the state of Alabama. Read the first installment HERE and look for more stories in the series to be posted in the coming weeks.)
Mobile County Public Schools graduates aren’t just graduating college and career ready. Many of them are graduating ready to seize opportunities at the country’s top institutions of higher learning, like Harvard, Princeton and Columbia – each of which will be attended this fall by a 2016 MCPSS graduate.
To qualify for these schools and others, students must not only build a strong grade-point average and take part in extracurricular pursuits, but also take and excel on the ACT, the country’s primary college admissions test. Proficiency on the test is required for admission to practically every college and university in the country.
For students like Murphy High School’s Lily Gulledge, excelling on the test can open the door to possibilities once thought unattainable. Gulledge, a rising senior, posted a composite score of 35 on the ACT last year – just one point off a perfect 36 – and that now has her thinking of elite academic schools like Columbia and Vanderbilt.
“Before this, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s my dream school, but I’d never get in,’” Gulledge said. “Now it’s like, ‘That’s my dream school and I’m actually going to apply.’ I have a chance.”
The ACT, one of the six pathways to college and career readiness as defined by the state of Alabama, is different than many of the others in that it’s one test and not a full course of study. But Gulledge said all the knowledge she’s gained on a daily basis at Murphy funnels into success on the exam.
“So much of it, you’ve been prepared just by going to school and your teachers teaching you things,” she said. “Just by being a student for 11 years before this, I was already prepared for it.”
Other tips for ACT success, Gulledge said, are to take practice exams “because I think the most important thing is to be prepared for the format of the test and the time amounts we have,” and to take the test as many times as possible.
“There’s no test prep that can help prep you better than just taking the test,” she said. “Take it multiple times and you’ll definitely improve.”
All Alabama public high school students now have at least one opportunity to take the test with the customary fee waived during their junior year, as it has replaced the high school graduation exam as a benchmark for high school students. Students on free or reduced lunches also have two other opportunities to take the test for free.
Murphy senior guidance counselor Paula Estes said it’s a better barometer of students’ college readiness than the old graduation exam.
“To me, it’s a better judge because we are teaching the skills and the standards that the colleges are requiring that the kids know before they even step on their campus,” Estes said.
A score as high as the 35 posted by Gulledge is rare, though Estes said Murphy may have two or three a year. While the score will not guarantee acceptance at Ivy League schools or other elite universities, it will help make Gulledge a competitive candidate.
“Basically, any state university and private university in the state of Alabama, she basically has a full ride to,” Estes said. “It does not guarantee admission to some of the Ivy League schools, but it does give her a step up.
“I see Lily doing great things and going to big places, so I really do see her going to one of these Ivy League schools. It’s just that we’ve got to find the right one for her and make that fit.”
Gulledge said she plans to study either biology or English in college, as she is torn between the prospect of attending medical school in order to become a neonatal physician and the idea of becoming a writer and editor. She’s hoping a summer of volunteer work at Providence Hospital will help with her decision.
In the meantime, she’ll prepare for a senior year in which she’ll also serve as an Azalea Trail Maid, and go through her stacks of mail from the colleges interested in having her as a student.
“I probably get about 10 letters per week,” Gulledge said. “Sometimes it’s more; sometimes I’ll get five or six a day. And my email box is constantly full. … I do definitely have plenty of options.”
And though she knows it’ll be difficult to top the score she’s already made, Gulledge said she’ll take the ACT again to take one more stab at perfection.
“It’d just be a wasted opportunity not to try,” she said. “I might as well give it a go.”