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What is positive advocacy?


Posted by Jay Watson on Thursday, October 10, 2013

Since I joined the OUA in June, I have learned a lot about the world of college admissions. I now know more about how admissions publications are designed and created, more about the extensive travel that admissions counselors undertake each fall, more about the financial aid and merit scholarships available at Vanderbilt, and also more about my new colleagues’ tastes in music.

With applications rolling in, I’m excited to learn more about the upcoming selection process too. During my first week on the job, I sat in on a talk in which John Gaines, director of Undergraduate Admissions, discussed the selection process with prospective students and their families. One of the most interesting points he stressed was the idea of “positive advocacy” – the idea that, when reading applications, admissions counselors are looking for reasons to admit students rather than reasons to deny them. In this mindset, he went on to explain, admissions counselors aren’t tallying up typos or nit-picking spelling mistakes. Instead, they’re actively looking for signs that a student will be a great fit for Vanderbilt, and building a case to advocate on the student’s behalf. As selective as admission to Vanderbilt is, we still maintain a positive advocacy framework as we review applications.

Intrigued, I asked a few of my new colleagues about their view of positive advocacy.  “I think students imagine me with a red pen, sitting in a room with a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, circling problems on an application and subtracting points,” Jan Deike told me. “But I open every application with a very positive attitude, and I find reasons to admit students in every application.” Summing up her view, Alexandria Lovelace said “Positive advocacy is always the focus of our review process – we are always looking for ways to admit students and we are very good at finding them!”

Both Alexandria and Jan mentioned that they find it helpful in their advocacy when an application is rich in details. “We look for the nuances, the subtle things that make students unique and tell their story,” Jan said. This student-focused approach is a hallmark not only of Vanderbilt’s admissions philosophy, but also of Vanderbilt’s overarching view of undergraduate education.

As someone who is relatively new to the world of admissions, I find this a refreshing perspective, and one that I think may help many applicants feel more relaxed about the process. It’s certainly a perspective that would have eased my mind when I was applying to college. It’s also a perspective that can help you put together a better application. Since you know that admissions counselors are looking for reasons to admit you, give them reasons. Help them build a case for you by putting together an application that highlights your best points. As Carolyn put it in her post about writing your personal essay, “This is one time when it’s okay to be self-centered.”  As advocates, the admissions officers are only as good as the material you give them, so don’t be shy.

And relax. Whether you’re in the middle of the application process or you’re awaiting a response, know that you have an advocate in your admissions counselor.


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