The American School in Switzerland’s talented Class of 2016 performed remarkably well in the college admissions process, with students receiving 65 acceptance letters from universities ranked in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, including one to Imperial College London (#8), three to University of California, Berkeley (#13), three to University College London (#14), two to UCLA (#16), one to University of Pennsylvania (#17), two to Cornell University (#18), two to Duke University (#20), one to London School of Economics (#23), two to University of Edinburgh (#24), one to Northwestern University (#25), and six to King’s College (#27). TASIS students also received good news from two top-10 American liberal arts schools: Bowdoin College (#6) and Davidson College (#9).
The 2016 class continues an upward trajectory that has seen TASIS students gain admission to 425 schools in 20 different nations over the past five years. Much of the credit for this wave of success is owed to the School’s outstanding faculty and a strong curriculum that includes International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement programs, but it’s crucial to not overlook the role played by a first-rate College Counseling Office, a group called upon to balance an enormous amount of responsibilities and deliver strong results year in and year out.
Experience and continuity breed success
The three counselors who lead the TASIS College Counseling Office combine for nearly 100 years of experience in education. Greg Birk, Director of University and College Counseling, has spent the past 35 years in either college admissions or high school college counseling; Howard Stickley, UK College Counselor and IB Coordinator, has occupied a number of roles in a career at TASIS that has spanned 35 years; and Carroll Birk, College Counselor, has devoted 27 years to education, including the past 14 in college counseling.
Each member of the team has also occupied his or her current position at TASIS for at least six years, representing an unprecedented stretch of continuity in the School’s 60-year history. In a field that is often marked by short tenures due to high levels of emotional exhaustion and burnout, keeping a team in place for so many years has been transformative.
“There was constant turnover for years,” said Mr. Stickley, who has been in his current role for the past eight years after serving as an administrator, Science Department Chair, and EAL teacher. “But now we have this whole integrated program.”
Covering all the bases
The integrated program begins as soon as a student enters high school, and each year is characterized by a particular theme: Awareness in grade nine, Discovery in grade 10, Directions in grade 11, and Decisions in grade 12.
In grade nine, the primary goal is to provide students with information that sets them up to be as successful as possible as they move through TASIS. Students complete learning style and career aptitude surveys on their own, and through class meetings, individual appointments, and evening presentations for parents, students and their families learn about the many different post-TASIS educational opportunities and their varying entrance requirements. Students begin to establish a four-year academic and extracurricular plan and explore activities, community service, and summer opportunities that may advance their future candidacy.
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In grade 10, students learn much more about the amazing variety of post-secondary options, gaining an understanding of the different types and categories of colleges worldwide and discovering how to meaningfully research college options with an open and curious mind. Class meetings are also held to inform students about more specific topics, such as the nuts and bolts of the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs.
In grade 11, all students attend mandatory college planning classes, and the College Counseling Office holds group and individual sessions that guide students through a process of self-assessment designed to help them determine a list of colleges to thoroughly research. Students also develop a standardized testing plan and identify their strengths as a college applicant. Both students and parents are invited to attend informative sessions with both the College Counseling Office and visiting college admissions officers.
Grade 11 builds upon the critical work done in grades 9–10 and is a defining year in the college application process.
“Students are not in a position to come up with a good list of school names until they’ve gone through the preceding steps,” said Mr. Birk. “We encourage them to have an open mind, explore, and research broadly. The goal here is direction. By the time they come back for their senior year, they have a clear direction with their application plans, and they are ready to make their first decision, which is where to apply.”
In grade 12, the College Counseling Office helps students refine their lists of colleges under consideration to a list of colleges to which they will apply; provides guidance, feedback, and support for the successful completion of all college application materials, including application essays; and helps students make a final decision from the list of colleges to which they’ve been admitted.
Students who have diligently followed the process find themselves well-prepared for a senior year that can be packed with a rigorous course load, numerous extracurricular activities, and apprehension about the future.
“The thing that we talk about with students all the time is that you’ve got to go through all the steps,” said Mr. Birk. “It doesn't work if you start out with decisions before you've done these other steps. That’s a formula for a stressful, anxiety-filled senior year.”
Advocating for each and every student
One of the five pillars of the College Counseling Office is to serve as the strongest possible advocate for each student throughout the entire application process, and this includes writing a reference letter for every senior—123 in the case of the Class of 2016.
Overworked counselors in understaffed schools are often forced to write boilerplate references for many of their students, but Mrs. Birk is adamant that each letter the TASIS office produces must be highly personalized.
|"We need to understand who they are and what they want to achieve."|
“We’ll often have 20 students applying to the same school,” she said. “Colleges will notice if the letters aren’t customized, and we’ll be doing harm to our students’ chances.”
All three counselors have a method they use to ensure that they can write a strong, personalized reference letter for each and every student.
“It’s a process that we start in the college planning classes,” said Mr. Birk, who along with Mrs. Birk works with every student applying to schools in the United States. “And then one of the mandatory tasks for students in the second semester of their junior year is to have an individual conference with a college counselor. We need to understand who they are and what they want to achieve.”
Mr. Stickley works closely with all students applying to schools in the United Kingdom, and he gets to know them quite well as he guides them through the personal statement process.
“I really enjoy talking to students about personal statements because you get to know an awful lot about them and what’s really motivating them, and that allows me to write a much better reference in support of their application,” he said.
Crafting a dynamic personal statement
Students applying to British universities do so through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), and a critical piece of their application is a personal statement in which they must spend up to 4000 characters describing the ambitions, skills, and experience that make them suitable for the course of study they wish to pursue.
The personal statement can make or break an application, and TASIS students are quite fortunate to have the assistance of Mr. Stickley, who begins working with students on their statements in grade 11, providing them lots of examples and leading many discussions in the college planning classes. The personal statement has very clear expectations, and students can easily go astray if they aren’t guided properly.
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“Even though they can come up with formulaic personal statements that check all the boxes, in the beginning many students don’t really know how to personalize them—how to give their statement that certain spark that is necessary to make it an attractive read for the people responsible for making the admissions decisions,” said Mr. Stickley.
Mr. Stickley employs a tried-and-true technique to help students move their statements from the general to the specific.
“The early drafts tend to be rather formulaic and very dry, and so the first thing we do is try to get them to think about the sorts of things they haven’t considered,” he said. “One of the little tricks is to present them with the situation that they’ve been invited to a university for an interview and there’s only one place left in the program. They’re in a waiting room with ten other people, and they know that they’ll have one minute to persuade the person why they should have the last spot. We give them a few minutes to think about it, and it’s incredible how often the answer they come up with is something they haven’t put in the first draft of their personal statement. But it’s usually the real reason why they want to study the subject, and it ends up forming a nice core for developing themes within the personal statement.”
A strong personal statement can separate an applicant from students who have posted similar scores on IB exams.
“I received great help from Mr. Stickley in writing the personal statement and would not have gotten into Cambridge without him,” said Pavel Artemov ’15, who is now studying Biological Natural Sciences at Corpus Christi College, one of the oldest and most prestigious colleges in the University of Cambridge.
“The College Counseling Office tremendously helped me in finalizing and correcting personal statements that had to be sent to the universities,” added Edoardo Italia ’16, who applied to six schools—Imperial College London, McGill University, University of Manchester, University of Exeter, University of Birmingham, and Loughborough University—and received offers from all of them.
Mr. Stickley’s expertise stems from thousands of conversations with students in which he must find a way to get them to express their passion for the subject they wish to pursue and identify how they are prepared to study for it.
|"The biggest challenge is making them realize that the education experience they’ve had at TASIS does make them special and that their life experience makes them very different from the run-of-the-mill applicants."|
|- Howard Stickley|
“They need to make their personal statement stand out from the ordinary,” he said. “The biggest challenge is making them realize that the education experience they’ve had at TASIS does make them special and that their life experience makes them very different from the run-of-the-mill applicants. Often they don’t realize that because this is the only life they know—their multiple languages, exposure to different cultures, international upbringing, travel experiences, and diverse family backgrounds. They’re typically more mature and independent than their peers elsewhere.”
Staying on top of everything
Another major objective of the College Counseling Office is to ensure that all information sent to college admissions offices is accurate, complete, and timely—a significant challenge considering that the Class of 2016 submitted nearly 900 applications to 283 different schools.
A less experienced group would have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applications, but the TASIS office has learned how to manage this onerous task as efficiently as possible.
“We put a lot of emphasis on process and procedures so that we don't have things falling through the cracks,” said Mr. Birk. “We use the Naviance database, and that gives us the opportunity to manage a class and the 800–900 different applications from 120-plus students applying to all kinds of schools through all different sorts of platforms.”
The key is to stay on top of every deadline and to make sure students are well-informed every step of the way.
“I’m sure many of them get tired of our constant reminders, our rigid procedures, and the tight line we insist they follow, but in the end it’s critical to keep them all on track and make sure they don't miss deadlines,” said Mr. Birk. “This isn’t like high school where you may get away with handing in an assignment a day or two late sometimes. These are real deadlines. We can't change these deadlines.”
Students may indeed be irked by the stringent procedures and endless reminders in the moment, but they inevitably have a different perspective when they reach the finish line.
“During the application process, it was very helpful to have the college counselors keeping me informed, on track, and conscious of the many deadlines,” said Paulina Gazin ’16, who is heading to the University of Pennsylvania.
“I applied to various schools in the USA, England, and Canada to diversify my options,” noted Jonathan Xie ’16, who eventually chose UCLA. “The college counselors gave me the resources to complete college applications in a timely and productive manner. Their constant reminders helped me meet oftentimes obscure college deadlines.”
“The College Counseling Office helped me organize the deadlines and learn the logistics of the US application process,” added Carmen Alban ’16, who is now at Duke University.
Seeing is believing
Inviting college admissions officers to hold forums on campus and creating opportunities for students to visit schools around Europe are pivotal pieces of the Discovery stage for 11th-grade students. No trip has a greater impact than the UK university visits offered by the College Counseling Office during the Academic Travel period for each of the past eight years.
Last February the college counselors took 28 students to visit universities in and around London, including University of Cambridge, London School of Economics, City University, King's College, Hult International Business School, University of Exeter, University of Reading, and Royal Holloway. The group visits as many as three universities per day on the trip, which typically departs on a Sunday and returns the following Friday. (This year’s trip may also include two days in the Netherlands.)
“It’s certainly a very intensive trip,” said Mr. Stickley. “It’s not a sightseeing, pass-by-a-couple-of-universities sort of trip.”
“It’s breakfast at 7:15, out the door at 8:00, and you don’t get back to the hotel until 9:00 at night after being on your feet all day,” added Mrs. Birk.
Students are also given some time to explore London and the surrounding area. “The idea is not just to see the universities but also to see the places around the universities and get to know more about what it would be like to live in the UK,” said Mr. Stickley.
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The college counselors split students into groups according to subject interest and take them to different universities to see how specific programs operate.
“The idea is to show them a range of universities—big, small, private, state, central London, a green campus in a small town miles and miles from the city, and so on,” said Mr. Stickley. “The really interesting part is seeing students go through all these mental steps of matching themselves with a certain type of university and course, and you can hear them talking to each other about it. We’ll be standing in line waiting for a bus or a train, and someone will come up and start a conversation with us about a decision they’ve made to apply to a particular school because that's the one they really like.”
Those who take advantage of the opportunity to attend the trip vault to an advanced level of the Directions stage.
“They begin to grasp the whole UK university scene,” said Mr. Stickley. “They realize perhaps how little they actually did not know about it beforehand. The trip really kick-starts the entire process, as it happens just a month after we’ve begun talking with them about the specifics of the applications process.”
“It becomes real for them after they go on the trip,” added Mrs. Birk.
In addition to hearing from admissions officers at each university, students also have the pleasure of meeting with a TASIS alumni at nearly every school. Artemov, for example, organized this year’s visit to the University of Cambridge and set up a presentation with an admissions representative and two other Cambridge students. TASIS students had the opportunity to ask questions in both a formal and informal environment and walked away with a much better understanding of what it takes to succeed in such a rigorous academic environment.
To add a new wrinkle to this year’s trip, the counselors organized a networking event for TASIS alumni living in the London area. Held at New College of Humanities—a small, private university in central London—the reunion was attended by 28 current TASIS students and 27 alumni, most of whom were recent graduates from the Classes of 2014 and 2015, but some of whom were working professionals from the Classes of 2002–2004. Following a panel discussion in which alumni discussed the college application process, college life, and life in the UK in general, students had the opportunity to socialize and ask more specific questions through individual conversations.
The reunion and the discussions with alumni that are rolled into university visits are a critical part of an ongoing collaborative effort between the College Counseling Office and the TASIS Alumni Office (headed by Yvonne Procyk since 2009) that began eight years ago and has gained steam in recent years. A concerted effort has been made to establish stronger ties with young alumni and to create channels in which current TASIS students can benefit from their wisdom and experience.
“We’ve worked together to do a better job of keeping track of where all our students end up,” said Mr. Stickley. “Our current students can benefit greatly from these connections, and it’s always interesting for our students to hear about the different journeys our alumni have gone through,” said Mr. Stickley.
It’s all about finding the right fit
The exhaustive efforts of the College Counseling Office have paired TASIS students with every type of school imaginable. Confronted with an overwhelming number of options in the beginning, students who complete all the steps required in the Awareness, Discovery, and Directions stages of grades 9–11 are well-equipped when the all-important Decisions stage arrives in grade 12. While the College Counseling Office has guided them throughout, they’ve also been reminded time and again about the primacy of their own responsibility in this process.
“One thing I always say to students is, ‘I don’t make your decisions. I provide you with as much accurate information as I possibly can to help you make your best decisions, but I am not the decision maker,’” said Mr. Birk. “And while I may not be the one to make the decision, I do feel responsible that they make an informed one.”
One of the counselors’ biggest challenges is trying to overcome the myth that there is a very limited number of good colleges, a belief held by many students’ families.
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“I try to get them to broaden their view in terms of understanding the many outstanding educational opportunities they have after TASIS,” said Mr. Birk. “The challenge is that there are about a dozen schools that everybody has heard of in the world, but the list of excellent institutions is deep. I think there are 200–300 schools that provide an undergraduate education at a caliber in regard to quality with outcomes that is equal to the schools with the most recognizable names. And every institution is distinctive too, so just because you've heard the name of the school doesn’t mean it’s the right place for you. What matters is where you will be the best fit and most happy and most successful.”
Although many TASIS students gain admission to top-ranked schools each year and the college counselors always encourage students to aim high, their decades of experience in admissions have taught them that it’s important to sometimes be hardened realists. In today’s ultra-competitive world of college admissions, there’s often a gap between where students aspire to go and what their actual qualifications are, and it’s the office’s job to sometimes temper expectations and point students toward schools they have a reasonable chance to get into. This is especially important for UK applicants, who are limited to five applications through the UCAS.
“Some students remark that we should challenge them to stretch higher and really go for the best,” said Mrs. Birk. “But we do, and that’s often what they don’t understand. We are challenging them to go for the best for them.”
Students who engage fully in the process and take advantage of all the office has to offer are rarely displeased with the results.
|"What matters is where you will be the best fit and most happy and most successful."|
|- Greg Birk|
“The College Counseling Office took great care to get to know me on a personal level, not just as another statistic,” said Mindy Chen ’15, who posted a 3.93 GPA in her freshman year at the University of Southern California. “I am extremely grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Birk for helping me through the college application process, particularly in helping me realize what I was really looking for in a university. I know I for one was too focused on university rankings; at the end of the day, your experience is what you make of it, so if you embrace the opportunities that come your way, you will be happy regardless of where you end up going.”
“In my meetings with Mr. Birk, I found that even just putting into words and explaining my reasons for applying to the universities I did, allowed me to better understand and think through my own decisions,” added Gazin.
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“Mr. Birk was supportive throughout the entire process and guided me toward picking the school that would be the best fit for me,” said Marianne Tissot ’16, who will begin studying Neuroscience at Bowdoin College this fall.
Jan Vincent Huntenberg ’13 knew early on that he wanted to study music in college, but he credits the College Counseling Office for helping him land at the world-renowned Berklee College of Music, a school Mr. Birk had helped a handful of aspiring musicians gain admission to in the past. “They were a great help in finding schools that would suit me because I had no idea,” he said.
Isabella Piconi ’16 discussed the process that led her to choose High Point University, which was recently named the best regional college in the South by U.S. News & World Report for the fourth consecutive year.
“I knew I wanted to become a teacher at the beginning of my junior year, as I have always loved children,” she said. “My goal was to apply to the best schools for Education that I was able to get into. I believe the reason I was so successful in my college application process was because Mr. Birk helped me find universities that were realistic. The key was matching up my SAT scores to the SAT range of the colleges I was interested in. It also helped to have a list of must-haves: mine were Education, Psychology, Italian, Study Abroad Programs to Italy, and Service Learning.”
Isabella’s case serves as a shining example of the outcome the College Counseling Office hopes for when they begin working with a student.
“The important thing with Isabella was that she was responsible in doing her part of the process—setting her criteria and really going through a lot of self-reflections to determine what were the most important factors,” said Mr. Birk. “And then it was just wonderful that she trusted my knowledge and expertise in terms of being able to generate a realistic group of schools that I thought were great matches for her. To then see Isabella offered admission to every school I recommended was very rewarding. It was clear that all these colleges saw her as a great match as well, which is what we hope happens.”
The TASIS advantage
The college counselors are always looking for ways to improve their practice and forge new connections, so each year they carve out time to attend professional development conferences, visit colleges around the world, and host informational forums on campus. Through the years they’ve built relationships with hundreds of college admissions officers, and one of their favorite questions to ask is how they regard candidates from TASIS.
One theme emerges time and again: college admissions officers love the internationalism of TASIS. With a student body comprising more than 60 nationalities and speaking more than 35 languages, an extensive Academic Travel Program around Europe, and a pioneering Global Service Program, TASIS tends to produce well-rounded students who are cosmopolitan, adventurous, and socially conscious.
“So many American schools now are focused on building an international student body, and what they know with our students is that they’re going to be comfortable in that environment,” said Mrs. Birk. “They’re not going to be uncomfortable if they have a roommate from a different country. They’re used to that, they expect that, and usually they want that.”
“When college admissions officers visit our campus, they’re impressed with our students and impressed that we are, so to speak, the United Nations,” added Mr. Birk. “They see how many different nations are represented in the room and understand that we truly are an international school.”
Mr. Stickley has heard similar feedback from UK admissions officers. “On the last Academic Travel trip we took, one of the admissions officers said that he found our students to be very much more mature than British students of a similar age, and that is a comment I frequently hear from British universities,” he said.
Admissions officers are impressed not only with the sophistication of TASIS students, but also with the overall level of preparation they’ve had in their high school years.
“The message we so often get from the UK universities is that they are particularly appreciative of the preparation that our students have had—their ability to work independently, to meet deadlines, and to go beyond just regurgitating information and actually use it in novel ways,” said Mr. Stickley. “They tend to be especially well-prepared when it comes to researching topics and writing papers. And I think that comes from our students too. When we speak to our alumni in the UK, many of them say that frankly when they get to university, they feel a bit underworked the first year.”
Mr. and Mrs. Birk were chaperones on a service trip to Nepal last spring.
Mr. Stickley has led a service trip to Southern Africa since 2006.
|To see more profiles of TASIS students, visit our recent graduates page.|