Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ From left Zachary Offutt, Azariah Morrow, Abria Robinson and Kevin Resch share a laugh during a mock college admissions exercise that illustrates that there is more to getting into college than just your GPA. Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn was keynote speaker at a free half-day conference for high school students, parents and educators on college admissions and preparing for college. The event was held at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's University Center on Oct. 19, 2019.

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Financial aid, essays, test scores, cost of attendance, letters of recommendation — the college admissions process can be daunting.

Picking a college to attend and a program of study can be difficult for any student. Finding a way to pay for it and getting admitted to a school in the first place can be even more difficult, and for some students, especially those from low-income households and first-generation students (or the first person in their immediate family to attend college), it can be overwhelming.

That's why college admissions experts and representatives from the Public Education Foundation (PEF) of Chattanooga, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Tennessee Department of Education came together Saturday to host the annual College Goal Tennessee Conference for high school students and their families.

"If postsecondary access is important we need to be intentional in doing these types of events so that students [can] get more information and not feel singled out and be comfortable asking those questions," said Jeff Rector, STEP-UP Chattanooga business partnerships manager for the Public Education Foundation.

In one session, Sarah Malone, the lead college and career advisor for Hamilton County Schools, and Stacey Lightfoot, vice president of college and career success for PEF, led students through an interactive session on what college admissions officials look for when they are reviewing applications and selecting students to admit to their school.

"When college admissions are looking at their applicants, they are trying to see who and what they want to build their freshman cohort with. They're building a mini-community, so they look at several different things," Malone said.

More Info

What are admissions counselors looking for on student applications?

Advice from a College and Career Advisor for Hamilton County Schools:

— A challenging schedule: Grades matter, but if admissions officers see a student who earned an A in a regular class or a B in an advanced course like an honors or Advanced Placement course, they’ll choose the B student, said Sarah Malone, lead college and career advisor for Hamilton County Schools.

— Grades: Grades and class rank do matter, but in relation to what type of courses a student takes. If a student has an extenuating circumstance and has a poor grade in a course, Malone advises students to reach out — write a letter to the admissions officers and explain what happened. “They are people too,” Malone said.

— Test scores: Study study study before taking the ACT or SAT, Malone said. Not only do high test scores benefit student applications, they also open students up to scholarships opportunities that could be worth thousands of dollars.

— Well-rounded extracurricular activities: Director of the Gospel Choir at church? Led a significant volunteer event that benefited dozens of people? Find your passion and invest time into it, but don’t spread yourself too thin by joining every single club or organization you can. Quantify your volunteer time and provide details or data to show the impact you had, officials advise.

— Letters of recommendation: Don’t ask teachers who barely know you or are going to call you out to write a letter of recommendation for you, Malone said. Build a good relationship with your teachers, bring them copies of your transcript, talk to them about your goals, strengths and weaknesses so they can write a well-informed letter for you.




Students lined up at the front of the room holding a sign with a hypothetical grade point average (GPA). At first, the students ranked themselves in order from highest to lowest, but as Malone called out different potential aspects of an essay, some would move up or down in the line.

Participating in a significant community service event or holding leadership positions in organizations or extracurricular activities, taking rigorous courses like honors, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, being a first-generation student or applying to a school where your parents attended — especially if they are big donors to that school — can all make it more likely that a student will be accepted to that college.

Submitting a poorly written or plagiarized essay, not knowing what you want to major in or selecting a very popular degree program or not taking any rigorous courses can all make students less appealing, even if their test scores and grades are good, Malone said.

"We talk about numbers so much and we get so involved in the numbers game, but these kids aren't numbers," Malone said at the end of the activity. "They are people and the college admissions process takes that into account. So be authentic."

Lightfoot was real with students. Some schools are more selective than others, she said. Other schools, like Tennessee's own East Tennessee State University and Middle Tennessee State University, will automatically accept students who earn a certain score on the ACT or have a certain GPA.

"If you know you have lollygagged all through high school, but your test scores show that you are academically-capable, you might want to consider a school that cares about that one thing that you can highlight," Lightfoot said.

Abria Robinson, a student at Red Bank High School, said she came to Saturday's conference to get a better idea of what to expect.

"I came to get a look at the spectrum of what college life would be like and what to expect in my transition to college," she said.

Robinson and her friend Azariah Morrow both previously participated in another one of the Public Education Foundation's college access programs, CAMP College, a summer program that brings together economically disadvantaged students from across Hamilton County and aims to equip them with the knowledge and resources they need to successfully apply, enroll and complete college.

Both girls already have an idea of what they want to do after high school. Morrow wants to go join the U.S. Marines to get funding for college and law school and Robinson is interested in attending several universities including Auburn, Duke, East Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn also made an appearance Saturday at the conference in Chattanooga. She shared her vision of what the role of K-12 public education is in preparing students for life after high school.

Instead of focusing as much on testing and assessments as the department has in the past, Schwinn said she wants to focus on ensuring students will be successful in whatever post-secondary environment they choose after they graduate from high school.

"We need to educate our students so that when they graduate with a diploma that means something so that two years after they graduate they are on a pathway to reach whatever goals they've set for themselves," Schwinn said.

More Info

10 factors to consider when choosing a college from Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn:

1. Degree programs

2. Learning environment

3. Campus life

4. Distance from home

5. Location

6. Type of college

7. Size

8. Student body

9. Cost

10. First impressions



Tennessee offers a lot of options for students when it comes to getting a postsecondary education, Schwinn said. In recent years under former Gov. Bill Haslam, Tennessee has launched a variety of programs to help students pay for college, whether through the Tennessee Promise program, which pays for two years at a community college or technical school for recent high school graduates, or Tennessee Reconnect, which helps adults who never earned a degree return to and pay for school.

"Tennessee has so many different opportunities available for students that is so different from so many states and the rest of the country," Schwinn said."We have the ability to offer greater financial aid support for our students as they are entering into postsecondary opportunities [and] we have as much alignment between our higher ed intuitions, our TCAT and P-12 education, [as possible] so that we have clear, articulated pathways, and students can see that."

Schwinn also shared her top factors to consider when choosing a college, including: the degree programs, campus life, distance from home, cost and the student population.

She also encourages students to not be afraid to ask for help, whether it's while trying to choose what college to attend or once they get on campus.

"One of the things I worry about in our P-12 system is that we are so focused on teaching independence that we sometimes make it not OK to ask for help," Schwinn said. "It's OK to ask for help."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.