When she meets with students early on, she asks what classes they’re most interested in and helps them find summer internships and volunteer opportunities. They map out a four-year curriculum and talk about when to build in SAT prep and Advanced Placement courses so everything isn’t happening at once.
“A mantra we have here is ‘Bake the cake, then ice it’—get what you need to get done, and then add,” she says. “Don’t do this backwards and find that because you are doing so many things, you are sitting down to your homework at 10 at night. That’s bad planning.”
Perhaps most important, meeting with kids early gives Marks time to help them create what she calls “hooks”—areas of interest, skills, or qualities that differentiate them in the eyes of admissions officers. A hook can be an academic specialty such as engineering, a sport, or a musical instrument. For international students or kids from small towns, it can also be where they’re from. But you don’t have to be a musical prodigy or from a dot on the map in South Dakota to develop a convincing hook—it can be an interest in volunteer work that led you to start a club at your high school or a love of animals that culminated in an internship at the National Zoo.
It’s crucial, says Marks, that the hook be authentic: “I deeply believe if you twist a young person into a pretzel, sooner or later they untwist. They need to be themselves.”
Although Marks might not put it this way, she’s essentially teaching kids how to market themselves—helping them create a narrative they can tell to admissions officers.
Colleges don’t want well-rounded students—they want well-rounded classes full of students with different backgrounds, interests, and talents. So it’s a waste of energy for students to play three varsity sports, take part in school government, perform 100 hours of community service, and load their schedule with AP classes. Instead, Marks encourages them to find something that genuinely captivates them and pursue it with passion.
Once a student finds her hook, Marks and her team design an application strategy. To be a top candidate, the student must offer what the college values or needs—and that’s where knowing each school and understanding the changing dynamics of admissions comes in.
“Most savvy adults understand that when you’re making a significant and maybe expensive choice, you study the landscape carefully,” says Marks. “You look at comparables. You differentiate each opportunity. We tell kids that this is also the way to think about college.”
As frequently happens, Nina Marks is rattling off the names of top colleges: “Barnard, Boston College, Brown, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Dartmouth . . . .”
She’s speaking to a roomful of affluent Washingtonians at the Willard hotel. But she’s not here to tout the accomplishments of her Marks Education clients. She’s wearing her other hat, as president of Collegiate Directions, a nonprofit she started with her husband in 2005. And she’s naming schools that accepted Collegiate Directions scholars last year.
Marks says part of the reason she left NCS and went out on her own was so she could offer counseling to students at the other end of the economic spectrum. Now she splits her time evenly between Marks Education and Collegiate Directions.
Each year Collegiate Directions partners with six Montgomery County public schools—Wheaton, Walter Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Springbrook, Paint Branch, and Einstein—to find about 25 high-achieving, low-income kids who would be the first in their families to go to college. Marks and her colleagues work with the students for about six years, from junior year of high school through college graduation, offering everything from college counseling and help negotiating aid packages to guidance about courses to take.
With help from Marks Education tutors, Collegiate Directions scholars see their SAT scores improve by an average of 203 points. This year, each student was awarded an average of $30,000 in grants and scholarships—not loans—for freshman year. Ninety-eight percent are on track to graduate from college in six years or less, compared with the national average of 11 percent for low-income, first-generation-to-college students.
Marks drew on her connections—especially those from NCS—to launch the nonprofit. “It was extraordinary,” she says. “We raised a couple of hundred thousand dollars in a couple of months.”
The program for this year’s benefit at the Willard included such connected Washingtonians as Nancy and Robert Carr of the real-estate family, businessman Robert Haft, philanthropist Katherine Bradley, and former World Bank vice president Armeane Choksi. Washington Post Company chairman Donald Graham delivered the keynote.
Nancy Carr, who chairs the board and whose two daughters went to NCS, calls it a “no-brainer” that people who know and have worked with Marks would rally around her cause. Says Carr: “She’s a legend.”
Marks urges students to try new things and step outside their comfort zones, a lesson she learned when her parents sent her to boarding school in England at age 12. “Difficult as it was,” she says, “it’s a decision and an opportunity for which I have blessed my parents ever since.”
After high school, she was headed for Oxford, where her father had studied, but she decided to take a year off first. During that year, she met Margaret Clapp, the former president of Wellesley College, who was working in India.
“It’s wonderful to follow in your family’s footsteps,” Clapp said to Marks, “but have you thought about doing something different?” With Clapp’s encouragement, Marks applied to Wellesley and Harvard and was accepted at both.
“That process,” she says, “reinforced for me how important it is to own your own decisions.”
And that’s something that’s gotten lost in today’s frenzied and high-stakes college admissions, she says—fewer kids today take risks or try something different because they’re afraid of failure, of marring their transcripts. Instead of pursuing what genuinely interests them, they do what they think college-admissions officers want. And it backfires. “We see kids who are just overwhelmed,” Marks says. “They begin to feel like a gerbil on a treadmill.”
Helping them slow down and think strategically—understand their options, ignore their peers, and spend time doing what they’re good at and passionate about—is the secret of Marks’s success.
She often reminds students that she’s not getting them into college—they get themselves in. “There’s very little magic in college admissions,” she says. “Don’t ever confuse getting the right support with not having done it yourself.”
This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.