Why you should care
Dyllen Nellis wants to provide every student with stellar college application tutoring, no matter their income level.
Getting into college can be brutal. First, there’s the dreaded standardized test and, depending on your score on the SAT or ACT, you might have to take it multiple times. On top of that, there are grades, sports, extracurricular activities, jobs and volunteer work to juggle. But the real kicker is the college essay. Next to all those letters and numbers that are meant to define who you are and what kind of potential you possess, the essay is the one piece of the application puzzle that’s entirely under your control. It’s your chance to hook the admissions officers and convince them to select you from among the thousands upon thousands of applicants — in around 650 words. And should you decide to apply to schools that don’t use the so-called Common App, you’re looking at possibly having to write a slew of personal statements, each with its own unique prompt.
When Dyllen Nellis, one of this year’s OZY Genius Award winners, applied to college in 2018, she wanted some guidance while writing her essay but couldn’t afford a private consultant. So she turned to the resources at her California Title I high school. “They never explained how to write a college essay,” says Nellis, now 19. “I was shocked because I was at the top of my class, and I had big dreams but zero guidance.”
After doing extensive research into the college application process, Nellis discovered far more than a checklist of what to do and when to do it. “College applications became this really invigorating activity that inspired me to learn about my identity and values. It’s about learning about yourself and understanding yourself.” When it came time for Nellis to write that all-important college essay, she wrote about her family’s experience caring for her grandfather with Alzheimer’s disease, and she ended with a proposal for an app that would provide helpful resources for families facing similar challenges.
During her first year at Stanford University, Nellis decided to post a few videos about what she’d learned from her college journey. Since then, she has uploaded nearly 100 YouTube videos and has been working with college-bound students to help them tackle the process. It’s all part of her desire to “do something big to help people,” she explains, by bringing college counseling to low-income students. How? “The Ultimate Guide to Craft Your Story,” an online course consisting of 13 chapters geared toward helping students design a narrative that will dazzle admissions officers. There’s a chapter on brainstorming essay topics and another section on self-reflection and personal values, plus a workbook filled with actionable steps to help students move through their essay process. Nellis’ OGA-paired mentor, Charles Levy, calls the project one of the most impactful ideas he’s ever seen in his years working in financial services. When he first learned of the course, Levy responded that for Nellis, “This was such a natural progression.”
The most surprising thing about the experience for Nellis is the number of people who’ve used her online course and called it a “lifesaver.” One student from Texas wrote, “I was so worried about the application process because I had no idea how to write a college essay. . . . I am so grateful for the program and all your advice that helped me get into all six schools I applied to.” Another commented, “I just want to say you have been BY FAR the MOST helpful resource I’ve gotten throughout this college process. Like you, I didn’t come from a family with money to pay for a college counselor, and I’ve spent months and months researching on my own. Your course has helped me really dig into my values to create essays that speak to me.”
As a newly minted OZY Genius Award recipient, Nellis plans to use the grant to offer her program for free to 10,000 low-income students. There will be hurdles ahead — Levy wonders about the “scalability of the project” — but for now, Nellis is focused on the positives. She’s thrilled that the program has helped students gain admission to top schools, but it feels even better to hear how her course has helped them figure out who they are and what matters most to them. As for what matters to Nellis, that’s crystal clear: She’s determined to do what it takes to “bridge the information gap and help high-achieving, underprivileged students earn acceptance to their dream schools.”