1724 words. Originally published Feb. 20, 2012 in The Daily Princetonian.
The winter of junior year is traditionally a time of high stress for many Princeton students, between independent work, leadership in campus organizations and interviews for summer internships that may turn into jobs. Starting this year, juniors will have yet another postgraduate option in the mix: Teach for America.
TFA is launching an early acceptance initiative that would allow students to begin the application process in February of their junior year. The national nonprofit organization, founded by Wendy Kopp ’89 and proposed in her senior thesis, sends college graduates to underserved school districts for two-year teaching terms.
TFA has been a popular postgraduate option for seniors at Princeton and many other schools in the last few years. The program has experienced a “huge boom” in recent years, Wilson School professor and education policy analyst Stanley Katz said. The corps has grown from 3,100 members in 2003 to 6,200 in 2008, according to the TFA website. Nationally, the program saw 35,178 applications in 2009.
The current TFA application consists of an online application, completion of an online activity involving questions about a video clip, phone interviews and a final round of in-person interviews. Students can apply for a series of deadlines, the earliest of which is typically in mid-August of a student’s senior year. The full process usually takes a few months between the initial submission of the application and the final decision.
The early acceptance initiative offers this year’s juniors a new deadline, Feb. 27, for submitting their online applications. Juniors will complete their online activities March 1–5, go through phone interviews March 3-6, take part in the final round of in-person interviews March 21–28 and be notified of the decision on April 27.
Juniors will have until November of their senior year to commit. They will graduate on time, as members of the Class of 2013, and will go through certification tests and the program’s summer preparation program, known as Institute, in the summer after they graduate.
Stephanie Bonovich, the current campus recruitment manager for Princeton and former TFA corps member, says the initiative is aimed at students from schools with unusually late fall semester start dates like Princeton. The goal, Bonovich said, is to keep students from “missing the memo” on application deadlines that pass long before they have returned to campus in late September.
“You might be abroad senior year, you might have a summer internship that might turn into a full-time job, you might just want to nail down your post-grad plans early,” Bonovich said. “We want you to be able to consider TFA on the same timeline as all your other options.”
Juniors at any school are eligible to apply, but TFA is focusing junior recruiting efforts at Princeton, Stanford University, Brigham Young University, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, University of California at Berkeley and Spelman College, where 27 percent of last year’s senior class applied. Bonovich said the initiative is being “actively publicized” at these schools because they represent a diverse pool of applicants. TFA also wants to see whether or not the initiative would work for students across the country.
TFA stressed that the new deadline should not translate into pressure for students to apply early. A handout on the junior acceptance initiative passed out at the Summer Internship Fair last Friday cautioned students to apply “when you believe your application will be strongest,” reminding them that corps members are admitted “based on leadership potential and other criteria.”
“It’s just another option, just another deadline,” Bonovich said. “Juniors should apply when they feel the most prepared. There’s no pressure.”
Despite Bonovich’s reassurances, some students said the early deadline does create pressure or expectations for students interested in TFA.
Brittany Kelleher ’12 applied for the corps last August after interning at TFA’s New York City headquarters over the summer. She will be teaching in St. Louis this upcoming fall.
Kelleher, who is a member of Students For Education Reform, said the decision to apply is not to be taken lightly. It took her “numerous discussions” with her summer mentor before she finally made the decision to apply. Once accepted, she spent some time “agonizing” over the decision to commit.
“I think a lot of people walk into TFA wide-eyed,” Kelleher said. “They want to make a difference, but they’re not really aware of what they’re in for.”
Kelleher said that had she been given the opportunity to apply in the spring of her junior year, she would not have taken it. “TFA is not the only road toward a career in teaching or education, and I would have wanted the opportunity to explore and apply to these other options,” she said in an email.
It took a semester abroad in Cuba for Micah Joselow ’12 to be sure that TFA was what he wanted to do. “Being away from the country for almost five months made me put my life in context, and after studying the Cuban education system for my [junior paper] while abroad, I knew that there was nothing I could see myself doing at this stage in my life [other] than teach,” Joselow said in an email.
Joselow applied for the August deadline, “under no pressure,” he said, because he knew TFA was what he wanted. He will be teaching in Washington, D.C., in the fall.
When Drew Frederick ’07 was a senior, he applied to the second deadline during senior year because his materials weren’t yet ready for the first, in August. “I remember kicking myself for not getting my application together in time,” he said.
Frederick said students feel pressure to apply as early as possible regardless of the exact deadline. “If the option to apply early is there, to not have applied would be extremely stressful,” Frederick said, who taught social studies to middle school students in Washington Heights in New York for two years before entering law school at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There’s already a lot going on junior year. To have to think about applying would definitely increase stress for students,” he said.
Kelleher said she did think the “threat of earlier applications” would push students to apply to TFA in the spring. She said TFA’s popularity and reputation among Princeton students tends to “eclipse other lesser-known, but equally transformational opportunities.”
Kelleher says that while Princeton students may be aware of these other opportunities, students at other schools might not be. “On a less-informed campus, I have no doubt that a new deadline may have an ever greater pull,” she said.
The new deadline might also push students who may not have considered TFA to apply early out of job anxiety. Katz, who in addition to lecturing on education policy in the Wilson School works with the University’s Teacher Preparation Program, said he sees the initiative as a “very shrewd” way for TFA to capitalize on the drop in job prospects for Ivy League graduates in the last few years.
“Two years of public service perhaps does now look more appealing than it did a decade ago,” he said. “Some of these students might have gone directly into finance or consulting, but if they could get rid of that job anxiety that early on, I can see how [TFA] would seem like a more and more attractive option.”
Katz added that he thought many students saw TFA as a public service commitment. “It’s a lot like the Peace Corps was a generation ago,” he explained.
Frederick and Kelleher also said they see the initiative as a way for TFA to get to job-seeking students before other options can.
“This is a really smart move on TFA’s part,” Kelleher said. “Its selectivity will encourage many students who are committed to their mission to apply early while guaranteeing that those students are not swayed by other job offers.” Those other job offers, Frederick said, come mainly from banking and consulting.
The initiative is the latest in a trend of earlier and earlier overtures made by TFA recruiters, part of what Kelleher called an “incredibly effective, ingenious model.”
Recruitment managers like Bonovich are placed at college campuses to identify and reach out to students who would be good for the corps. Bonovich said students often come to her by way of recommendation from alumni in the corps or simply by taking the initiative to reach out to her.
Once accepted, students stay in close contact with Bonovich. Kelleher said Bonovich became “like a friend” during her deliberation process. “There’s a risk in that, because I’m texting my friend, but it’s her job. She’s not going to tell me not to do TFA,” Kelleher said.
Frederick recalls he had “just two weeks” to accept or decline his offer. “It’s a major decision to make in two weeks, to commit two years of your life to an incredibly stressful but highly rewarding job,” he said.
Frederick said he sees major benefits in the six months juniors will have between the April acceptance and November commitment deadline. Bonovich said the new timeline will give juniors a “super nice” summer to deliberate.
Students will not, however, receive additional training or development in the time between April and November, apart from the reading materials all committed students receive before entering Institute.
Adoley Ammah-Tagoe ’14, also a member of SFER, said the lack of additional training strikes her as “very strange.”
“It would make sense if they were getting Institute or other professional development in that summer, but they’re not,” she said. Ammah-Tagoe said the early timeline may just be a way for TFA to secure corps placements earlier, although she said many schools have no way of knowing what they need a full year in advance.
Frederick said the lack of additional training speaks to TFA’s motives. “It sounds like there’s no benefit in terms of TFA training people because of an earlier deadline,” he said. “The motivating factor [behind the initiative] could very well just be competition.”
Whatever the motivating forces might be, Bonovich said the response to the initiative has been “mostly positive.” A number of juniors have already come to her intending to submit early applications.
Kelleher is not surprised. “Teaching is not glamorous. It’s hard, emotionally trying work,” she said. “But there’s now a sexiness to TFA that makes it okay.”