Member Voices: The Ground Game

By May 10, 2019 No Comments

Member School Mount Vernon Shares Creative Approaches to College Admissions—And Excitement for the Mastery Transcript

Have you ever asked a student what makes them the most proud? When I worked in college admission, the majority of students quickly responded with some sort of numeric retort: a ranking, a grade point average, a test score. But in most cases, their eyes didn’t shine. It felt automatic. Transactional. Impersonal.

It wasn’t their fault. Those students were responding with the only real, hard currency they had been taught to value in their learning: numbers. The rare students with a fire in their eyes so bright it outshone any possible imperfection on their application were the ones whose applications stayed with me; I found myself fighting harder to get those students on our campus. Their enthusiasm sparked my own. Their curiosities made for the best conversation. And their gumption and grit made their promise of contribution impossible to ignore. But they were the exception, not the rule. More and more, students started reading like carbon copies of one another. All As + AP courses + high testing + service + leadership = the path to college. It made sense on paper, but how could we as admission professionals really translate a student’s experience into two dimensional formula?

Experiences of a High School College Counselor

At some point in their career, many admission professionals find themselves torn between the need to efficiently sort applications, manage institutional priorities, and their personal, unshakable desire to meaningfully connect with others. I found myself at that crossroads, and like so many before me made the decision to switch sides of the desk and become a high school college counselor.

Part of me felt like I was giving up- taking the easy way out. But I quickly realized that by being positioned in a high school, we as counselors and educators have the opportunity to be on the ground level of change. To play a part in the learning revolution and to stoke the fire in our student’s eyes instead of stifling it.  

At Mount Vernon, we believe that curiosity and passion drive learning. How could it not? You may not remember that lecture on the American Revolution from high school, but what if your teacher leaned into the Hamilton craze and led a deep dive on the intersection of hip hop, history, theatre, and the power of movements? Instead of memorizing poetry, what if you studied all forms of poetry and then were tasked in applying the techniques toward writing your own and had to actually publish your work? And biology? It takes on a whole new light when you can hit pause on your Netflix queue because your true-crime obsession is met through the murder mystery you’re solving in class!

If you stop at course titles and projects, you’re only half-way there. When you center your curriculum and assessment around students, that is where the magic happens. You have to give students permission not to work for a grade–and in a world that has conditioned them to rank and file every part of their existence, you have to be explicit about it or it won’t stick. Enter things like narrative feedback, competency scales, and Mastery Credits. Some schools start out this way (they’re the lucky ones) and encounter very little pushback, but for the rest of us we have to manage the tension of stakeholders who are used to the old ways of doing things. It just isn’t always realistic to stop traditional means of grading cold turkey.

Enter the Ground Game

We’ve adopted the school-within-a-school mentality at Mount Vernon through our Innovation Diploma program. Here, we rolled out our first iterations of things like badging, standards-based grading, and narrative feedback. It gave families the opportunity to opt-in and it allowed us to have a test kitchen for things we’d eventually scale to the entire school. The results have been impressive and buy-in from our community has increased considerably.

Throughout the entire Upper School, we’re moving from reporting out solely on a 100-point grading scale to a six-point grading scale, introduced IBL and PBL, established space in the curriculum for passion projects and independent studies, crafted interdisciplinary courses, and are currently living in a modular block schedule which emboldens students to curate more unique learning journeys than they ever have before.

But this didn’t happen overnight. We had to take the measure of our community and be incremental with our vision; we call that tempered radicalism. Some days it feels like we’re moving excruciatingly slow and others we feel like we’re driving a high-speed train. Every single day we remind ourselves who we’re doing it for: the students.

And if we’re honest, we know that our students still want traditional college options. Even though many of them may choose a gap year, to start their own business, or venture into a technical or military route- the expectation of our families is still that they have a four-year college option. It falls then on us as a school to aggressively and enthusiastically share with colleges what makes Mount Vernon students unique. And more importantly, it is imperative that we partner with our colleagues in higher education to ensure that we’re helping students leverage their stories in a way that actually makes sense for how applications are read.

And so the ground game continues.

The newest front is the no-man’s-land between fall of senior year and early spring. The time when most seniors in the country are hustling to cram three years of (we hope) life-enriching experiences into a handful of pre-structured digital pages that are read, in many cases, in under 10 minutes per person. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if we could add richness and depth to the way we communicated about a student? That is why we’re so excited about the Mastery Transcript. The ability for each student’s learning journey to drive what they communicate on their transcript instead of the transcript dictating the learning itself shouldn’t be revolutionary–it seems so obvious–but in truth it is groundbreaking. The Mastery Transcript isn’t just about college, either. There are so many applications for our students who want to explore internships or jobs directly out of highschool. But I can’t help reflecting back on my application reading days, and how a tool like the Mastery Transcript would have helped me know students better in a short amount of time. And it gets bonus points that it doesn’t report vaccinations from kindergarten, too!

Higher Education in Focus

While we are no means experts, at Mount Vernon we’ve done a few intentional things to share our story and partner with our friends on the other side of the desk. If your ground game is on the college front right now, consider these three tactics:

Be visible. Get more colleges and universities on your campus. Every person who sets foot in your school is an opportunity to create buy-in. When colleges visit in the fall or the spring, the simple walk from the front desk to where they’ll be meeting with students is a precious moment to share something incredible happening as you walk by active learning. If a school isn’t visiting your campus and you want them to–ask. Make a goal to reach out to a few new schools each year. If anything major has changed in your profile or transcript, take a moment to share that directly with the college rep while they’re there with you. Think, too, about ways members of your team can present at conferences like NACAC, SACAC, or ACCIS. Perhaps in presenting on a panel or attending an engaging session, your school can make a connection they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Let your students shine. Whenever possible, we let our students do the talking for us. Why not have a student meet the college representative at the front desk and walk them to our office? Instead of calling or writing an email on behalf of a student, take the extra moment and coach the student on how to do it themselves–that helps them in the college process and life! And remember, students who are engaged in school have more to talk about in essays, interviews, and any other type of interaction. Find as many ways as possible to get your students involved so they can shine. We’ve found that when a college interacts with a particularly amazing student, they want to know more about the student and the school so they can better understand how to recruit more students like the one they encountered. It is a win-win!

Ask for feedback. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is constantly seek feedback from your university partners. At Mount Vernon, we host the MV College Roundtable each year where our students help to guide admission professionals through a review of some aspect of our transcript or profile. Every year we make incremental changes to the way we report learning because of the program. The results of the Roundtable are priceless: we are constantly getting better at working in the system we have while nudging it in the direction we want it to go. If you want to make a change with something at your school start by asking your local colleges, flare out to your high volume application schools, and then pinpoint some aspirational colleges, too, to make sure you’re covering all your bases. Admission professionals are constantly seeking ways to partner with schools–if you’re bold enough to ask, you’ll reap the rewards.

Last week I asked some of the juniors I’m working with what they’re currently most proud of in their life. Their answers ranged from learning how to change a tire, mastering the art of the macaron, building an entire website from the code up, to shaving a few tenths of a second off an erg time. A few students mentioned something they were working on in class like an upcoming speech or a project that triggered an ‘ah-ha’ moment. Not one student put forth a grade, rank, or a test score. Every single student had a steady fire burning in their eyes as they recounted their recent victories–a stark contrast to what I remember from working in admission nearly a decade ago.

In those precious moments with students, when their enthusiasm is palpable and their curiosity contagious, I am reminded exactly why all the blood, sweat, and tears of the ground game are worth it.

Do you have questions or feedback for Erin? Email her at

About Erin McCubbin

Erin McCubbin is the Head of Academic and College Counseling at MTC member school Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, GA.