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Advocacy is the New Application

Advocacy is the New Application

This week we welcome Admission Counselor Mikala Bush to the blog. Welcome, Mikala!

School counselors and teachers, this blog’s for you!

Over the summer our staff prepared for the upcoming recruitment and application cycle. While we were certainly busy, we also had time to have fun, share ideas, and enjoy being together. We had a huge list of must-see movies and TV shows on our whiteboard to check off before summer ended. A few of my personal favorites include Ladybird (which should have won every Oscar!), Waiting for Superman, and Precious Knowledge (especially if you’re into educational documentaries), and most importantly the phenomenon known as O.I.T.N.B.

I’ve joined the millions of binge watchers who are currently hibernating with the newest season of Orange is the New Black, an Emmy-award winning show. In its sixth season, the theme is all about advocacy. The characters are advocating for themselves, for each other, and for better conditions while serving their time.

Are you in(mate)?

Advocacy, in most situations, is giving voice to those who do not have one or expanding/amplifying someone else’s story. In college admission, students certainly have the opportunity to advocate for themselves (in their essays and supplemental questions), but they also rely heavily on school counselors and teachers to do this for them through recommendations. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Advocacy is the New Application (see what I did there?).

Before starting in admission at Georgia Tech, I was a college adviser at an amazing public high school here in Atlanta. In that time, I often wondered how best to advocate for applicants.

As admission counselors, our advocacy looks a bit different but we still fight hard for your students. We highlight their self-awareness, passion, grit, perseverance, and we defend the setbacks that are out of their control. We ask where did this student start in the race and how have are they finishing? Each student is given full analysis with respect to their high school – be it the culture, policies, or the community that surrounds it.

Now that I’m on the inside (get it) I’m here to help you highlight important elements of a student’s story in your letters of recommendation.

What are you in for?

Letters of recommendation can be extremely helpful in the review process when they provide insight into a student’s story. Unfortunately, the majority of letters sound like this:

Johnny is a caring, charismatic, courageous student. He has a 4.0 GPA and a 34 on the ACT. He is involved in X, Y. AND Z activities. He would make a great addition to your campus.

While all of these characteristics may be true, admission readers have seen this information elsewhere in the application. A recommendation letter should highlight something new. If you are a teacher, highlighting a project that a student completed, how they interact with others in class, how they react to challenges, or the insightful questions that they bring to the discussion can really help tell a more complete story. Your voice is invaluable to us because it represents an on the ground angle that we simply do not hear anywhere else in the application.

If you are a counselor, ask yourself: How is this student different from others in the class, grade, school, etc.? How is this student perceived by peers and faculty? What might this student undersell or not see in themselves that I can highlight? Addressing these questions will ultimately lead to a better letter that shines a new, broader light.

Your past crimes don’t define you.

One of the subtle points students, and recommenders, forget is that we, as admission counselors, are human! We don’t expect perfection. When I worked as a school counselor, I once hosted a college visit in which I noticed there were more students in the session than had registered for the event. I then realized five students skipped class to meet with this particular college. I made a stern announcement about visit protocol and how to participate with the approval of teachers. Of the five, only one came up to me after and said “Ms. Bush, I was one of those students who did not get permission to come today. I am sorry and promise it will never happen again.”

This student showed courage to admit her mistake, apologized, and corrected it rather than slipping off quietly like her peers. The situation spoke to her character, which I was happy to later write about and advocate for in her recommendation letters.

Give yourself permission to write about students as humans – beautiful, flawed, and improving over time. I realize vulnerability and imperfection may seem contradictory to a process that is supposed to be about putting the best foot forward, but providing somewhat sensitive, yet unquestionably authentic information in your recommendation letters allows you to highlight growth and potential—and to both celebrate the student’s past and advocate for their future!

Are you a supporting witness?

Teachers, before you agree to be a recommender, help them answer these questions: Does this person know me well? Can they speak to my personality and character inside, and ideally also outside, the classroom? Have I spent quality time with them? Will they be an enthusiastic advocate? Remind them that often the teacher who can write with the most clarity and excitement is not necessarily the person in the academic area they plan to pursue in college.  That’s right–sometimes the best recommendation for a future physics major is the drama teacher!

My One Free Call…

Finally, I want to take a moment to say, as a former school counselor, to simply say, “THANK YOU!” Thank you for service to students. Thank you for your time, concern, and sacrifices. Thank you for writing and counseling these kids. Thank you for your advocacy!

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