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.Orange is the New Black

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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Steph Curry and The Road Not Taken

CURRY-PROFIf you have been watching TV lately, or listening to the radio, or interacting with other humans, you know the NBA Playoffs are heating up. We’re not going to talk about the Hawks here, so don’t fear. (As an Atlanta native and longtime resident I’ve come to peace with the fact that all of our pro franchises are good enough to make the playoffs but lack the talent to advance from the first round. Literally all of them…for decades.) These days the hottest name in the NBA is Steph Curry. Curry is a uber-talented point guard for the Golden State Warriors, and he was recently unanimously named MVP of the league, which he also won along with the NBA Championship last year. To look at him now you’d think he has always lived a charmed life– beautiful wife and daughters, worldwide star, commercials with President Obama (himself a transfer student from Occidental to Columbia), and the list goes on. But interestingly when he was graduating from high school the big time college programs around the nation were not interested. He was crushed and ultimately decided to stay close to home in North Carolina and attend Davidson College.

Curry’s experience got me thinking about Robert Frost’s  poem “The Road Not Taken,” and the fact that our national consciousness is still largely focused on the traditional freshman entry process. Often news media and families do not look at the transfer route “as just as fair/ And having perhaps the better claim,” even though 1/3 of students graduating from a four year college began elsewhere, or that 1/2 of all undergraduates nationally are enrolled at a community college. At Georgia Tech, we annually enroll 850 transfer students (approx. 1/4 of our new undergraduate students). Thankfully, the press and perceived value of transfer options are improving, due to increasing political discussion surrounding college cost, value, and access, and Mrs. Obama’s Reach Higher initiative.

National Student Clearinghouse data shows that in 13 states over 50% of four-year university graduates began at a two-year school. Much of this is because public universities have established articulation agreements with colleges in their state or region geared toward enrolling transfer students. Florida is certainly a state with a strong history in this arena. The University of California system, which boasts five of the top 10 public universities also has a deep commitment to the transfers. In fact, UC-Berkeley brought in well over 2000 transfer students last year. As Tech has become more selective on the freshman side, we see more students going to another college or university for a year or two and then re-applying to earn a Tech degree. This year 1/3 of admitted transfer students applied as freshman. Five years ago that number was 1/5.   In an effort to provide students with a variety of avenues to all academic programs, we have developed a transfer pathways, including Dual Degree Engineering Program and our Arts and Sciences Pathway Program, which complement our regular transfer admission process. 

A Turning Tide?

On the private side, and particularly among elite institutions, transferring is less prevalent. Princeton recently announced they will begin enrolling transfer students for the first time since 1990 (a year when Wilson Phillips topped the charts) and Stanford and MIT enrolled a combined 30 via this route last year. While not all schools are as invested in this space, frankly that’s the beauty of a diverse system– and the importance of understanding particular institutional missions and philosophies on education. However, I do speculate that in the decade ahead, due to the increasing access to and promotion of college courses in high school; the proliferation of accredited, non-profit, credit-bearing online options; and the desire of colleges to augment geographic, ethnic, and socio-economic diversity, we’ll see more private school players in this space.

An Affordable Pathway

Type of College Average Published Yearly Tuition and Fees
Public Two-Year College (in-district students) $3,347
Public Four-Year College (in-state students) $9,139
Public Four-Year College (out-of-state students) $22,958
Private Four-Year College $31,231

This table is from BigFuture (an excellent resource for students researching colleges and looking into financial aid).

It is important to note that these figures are based on published tuition costs vs. ultimate net price. Financial aid and family need largely impact ultimate cost, but it’s clear that pursuing schools locally for the first year or two of college is often a viable financial route. We often hear from transfer students that will select a college close to home following high school, so that they can work, attend class, and live at home to save money and avoid debt. Increasingly, we are seeing  students who are offered freshman admission making these decisions in order to reduce debt upon graduation.

An Alternative Avenue

Each year we read recommendation letters and review student transcripts that describe “late bloomers” or students who did not get excited about academics until late in high school. It is also common to learn of students who had tough life circumstances: parent divorces, multiple school moves in high school, and serious health issues that diminished academic success inside and outside the classroom. If you are graduating high school and this has been your experience, I sincerely hope that you’ve been admitted to a college that you’re excited about attending. If you’re an underclassmen and this is your current experience, you should always be sure to include “special circumstances” into your applications, so that schools utilizing holistic admission processes can get a full picture of your background. Either way this is the beauty of the transfer option. It is a clean slate when you start college, because typically universities do not look back at test scores, course selection, or grades from high school when they are enrolling their transfer classes.

road less traveled

A Final Word

Whether transferring is an affordability strategy; a necessary path to your ultimate goal due to circumstances; or you wake up in a cold dorm room next November wondering “Why did I pick this place? I gotta get out of here!” think of Frost’s roads–“both that morning equally lay.” Unlike the poet who bemoans a permanent separation, the roads of transfer and freshman students converge and ultimately cross the same stage– same school name and credentials on your resume and diploma. Steph Curry held on to his  dream of playing in the NBA. He harnessed the initial setback to be his motivation at Davidson. It fueled him. It drove him to push harder and to prove himself. And ultimately, like many students who transfer colleges, it is that road “that has made all the difference.”

Key Resources: NACAC’s Transfer Knowledge Hub, College Affordability Guide, National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, Kid President on Robert Frost (notably Frost did not graduate from college but holds 40 honorary degrees).