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4 Things I Learned at the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions

by Marley Spooner, Director of Business Development, Story2, on Jul 9, 2019 4:00:00 PM


“When I was applying to schools myself, Harvard and Yale weren’t even options. Now, I can send my female students there with confidence.” I listened with rapt attention; the woman next to me had been working in college access for 26 years. Everyone at the table had a common goal: to support first-generation and underrepresented students in their efforts to access highly selective colleges.

That’s what brought us to the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admissions, now in its 59th year. The Summer Institute is a week-long gathering of nearly 100 guidance counselors, higher ed admissions officers, and representatives from CBO’s (community-based organizations) focused on college access. Throughout the week, we connected about the experiences and needs of students who have faced access barriers on the road to higher education.

Here are 4 takeaways from my experience at the Institute that I think are useful in discussions about college access:

1. Don’t underestimate the impact of letters of recommendation

During one of our sessions, we went through an exercise of blind college admissions case studies. The deciding factor on whether or not students were accepted was the letter of recommendation. In a post-Varsity Blues era, the decision-makers in the office of admissions are looking at that letter as a symbol of trust. So, if students don’t get the buy-in from their teachers and counselors, they are at a disadvantage.

This becomes a challenge for counselors. One person in the session has to write 170 letters of recommendation and wants to put 100% into all of them. However, she realistically only has time to put 100% into about 17 of those letters. That’s why it’s so critical that counselors have adequate support. As she emphasized, when it comes to letters of recommendation, “We give [students] one chance.” That chance has to count.

2. Any tools built for counselors should make their lives easier

“I don’t want any more heavy lifting; I want something’s that’s actually going to make my job easier.” Counselors work incredibly hard--18-hours-a-day hard--to make sure their students, many of whom who have never seen a college campus before, can access the opportunities they deserve. They need a place where they can collaborate and benefit from collective resources and insights, so they’re not isolated. The importance of their role cannot be overestimated, and the college guidance gap puts an untenable strain on students and their counselors.

3. College & career readiness go hand-in-hand

I sat down for the CBO meet-and-greet, expecting a small group of people. At first, there were only a few organizations represented. But as the minutes passed, more and more chairs were added to the roundtable-style setup until over 28 organizations were in the room. I was thrilled to run into a CBO representative from Red Hook who works with young adults reentering the workforce after periods of incarceration, students transitioning out of foster care, and other groups of non-traditional high school students.

When we connected about her school using Story2 services years ago, she told me, “I need this for my young adults. They’re getting the door shut in their face because of their past.” The dynamic she described is exactly why we have offerings for both college admissions and careers.

The director of admissions and recruitment at LEDA, who herself was a first-generation student, said, “I had to work two jobs to get through Stanford. If anyone had told me to get one job that paid me enough, and that I could get that with my experience, that could’ve been game-changing.”

If students can get the career information they need as high schoolers, they can write a great resume in addition to writing a personal statement. That means that they might not have to work two or three jobs to get through school. Learning to tell stories using the Moments Method® provides skills that last a lifetime.

4. Student voices should be at the center of college admissions

During a lunch break one gorgeous, sunny day, I walked with two other attendees to an Italian seafood restaurant in downtown Boston. Both were young women of color who were just starting their careers in college access. Both had come up through college access orgs themselves. As we talked about our experiences as first-generation and underrepresented college students, they asked if I would speak with their students as an example of someone who has walked in their shoes and forged a sustainable, purpose-driven career path.

I was so touched that they asked. What I heard over and over at the Institute was that students need to have a voice in the college admissions process and they need to know how to use their voices to achieve their educational goals. That’s what makes my job so rewarding—the opportunity to empower students to use their voices so they can say: “I can be at any of these schools because I am capable.”

Topics:college admission