Photo by Jeremy Fredricks.
WCHS senior Jessica Xue knew the college admissions process would be difficult. From determining what to write her essays about to narrowing down her list, she had a lot of questions. First, she turned to her parents, but soon realized that she needed someone – or some group – that understood the process better.
“I couldn’t get as much advice from my parents since their college application process was completely different because they were international students from China decades ago,” Xue said. “I definitely felt more comfortable with [Mission: Mentor] as they were more relatable.”
Mission: Mentor is a free college preparation service, founded by former WCHS student Robert Wachen. A member of the Class of 2020 at WCHS, now studying at Harvard University, Wachen wanted a way to streamline the often-confusing college admissions process.
“Part of it came out of frustration with the admissions process,” Wachen said. “I was always on YouTube or looking on Reddit for information on all these things, and it just seemed really decentralized. I was just surprised that no one had gone and centralized everything.”
That lit a spark in Wachen’s head, leading him to add a virtual college counselor to his list of ideas. He recruited a couple of his friends from Harvard and started working on his idea, beginning first by building a database of scholarships. Wachen realized there was a need for it, and soon expanded the team to include non-Harvard students. They made a website and advertised it on TikTok, quickly getting 2,500 users — within the first week. He also increased the amount of time spent on it, currently spending 80 to 100 hours per week on the project.
In August, Mission: Mentor released ‘Operation College Application,’ a 13-part events series, hosted entirely online. More than 2,000 students participated in the interactive programming, which featured admissions officers, college counselors, representatives from scholarship organizations and online influencers who had recent experience with the admissions process.
“We wanted to figure out a way to make it interactive as well, so you know, we did a bunch of brainstorming on how to design the curriculum, and it worked really well,” Wachen said. “People are really looking for this high-quality expert advice.”
Wachen is currently participating in Harvard’s Prod Program, which works with 20 seniors from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to turn their ideas into ventures. This year, it was based in Mexico City and the core team of Mission: Mentor — which included a senior from MIT — has been working to update their website. They have added a waitlist, which has over 5,600 people on it, as they build a system that will recommend scholarship opportunities and remind users of their deadlines.
Wachen still maintains a strong relationship with the WCHS community. He says the guidance staff forwarded him resources when he was first starting out and it made sense to publicize it to the community when it launched. Many of Mission: Mentor’s first users came from WCHS and even some interns, like Xue. She had previously worked with him on another project and when he reached out to her, asking for the voice of a high school student, she said yes.
“I was an operations intern so I worked directly with Robert to organize and promote Mission: Mentor’s first event series ‘Operation College Application’,” Xue said. “My favorite ones were where they featured speakers that were previous admissions officers and gave tips on filling out the common app.”
Wachen says the students from the Class of 2022 are inspirational because they are pursuing their interests in unique ways. The mentality is more of what can users do to boost their real-world experiences, moving away from the approach of just being a member of a school club relating to the passion to actually gaining experience.
“We’ve seen people get patents for things, start new organizations, we’ve seen students fundraise for nonprofits…as well as just generally seeing students feel more confident,” Wachen said.
While there are plenty of other groups working to make the college admissions process simpler for students, there is nothing quite like Mission: Mentor. Wachen said he does not know of any other group led by college students. Interested students can sign up for their waitlist, where they can also subscribe to the bimonthly newsletters, which are separated by grade and include tips, scholarship information and fun facts.
Mission: Mentor is helping students in the WCHS community and abroad. They have been able to promote equity through their online opportunities — which Wachen calls “the great equalizer” — as more Americans have access to the internet than ever before.
“It can be a real game-changer. A lot of the time you have really talented, qualified students that can do really well that just don’t know what opportunities are out there or don’t know what they should be doing…there’s a lot of untapped potential that’s being wasted,” Wachen said.