Teach For America (TFA) has become increasingly selective. Last year, there were 48,000 applicants to TFA for only 5,800 spots. Further, 12 percent of seniors at Ivy League schools applied to the organization in 2011, making it the most applied-to company for students from top-tier schools.
Preparation is the key to success in the application process, yet potential applicants do not all have access to the same amount of information. My conversations with members of the TFA selection team illustrate the implications of this information gap:
"I wish I could have selected a couple of the interviewees, but they just didn't hit enough of the points. If they had been better coached, they would have gotten in."
"Everyone should have the same information. That way, I'd know I was selecting the best people for our children."
"I can definitely tell the difference between a candidate who was recruited and one who was not."
Sometimes you have to hear it from the source itself. It's no surprise that this significant discrepancy among TFA applicants drastically affects admissions decisions.
Now, TFA is a nonprofit organization, so it doesn't have the budget to recruit on every college campus. The recruitment team has to focus on areas with the highest concentration of high-achieving individuals -- primarily prestigious private colleges and state universities. It is, therefore, not surprising that these students tend to be the most "coached." The problem is, this leaves at a disadvantage incredibly talented and motivated individuals who were not recruited, people who would bring remarkable value to the program and who might be even more invested than traditional applicants.
As a TFA alumnus and proponent of education reform, my goal is to help you, as a prospective applicant, join the movement. To start, you must build those experiences that the organization values most. Then, structure your resume and write your letter of intent strategically, formatting both to highlight critical leadership roles. Finally, tackle the interviews with confidence by using a series of tangible preparation tools.
TFA's selection criteria revolve around "potential for leadership." Selectors need to know that you have the ability to lead a classroom of children to remarkable academic gains. Therefore, if you are a junior in college or younger, start looking NOW for leadership opportunities, both in organizations or companies with which you are already involved and with new ones that excite you. Find ways to manage people, raise money, or oversee projects -- anything that forces you to make decisions that affect others.
You should also get involved with something at least loosely aligned with TFA's mission. You will gain enormous insight by tutoring in a local school or volunteering at a community center. This does not have to become your main extracurricular activity, but even occasional volunteering will help you decide whether TFA is a good fit for you and give you a relevant experience to reference in your application and interviews.
Submitting the Application
There are countless strategies that will help you craft an exemplary TFA resume and letter of intent. The most important one is to present your accomplishments quantitatively and with sufficient detail.
As an example, read the following two responses describing an experience:
First Response: "I led an economic development project in Costa Rica to help develop sustainable micro-financing options for local villagers. Ultimately, we negotiated loans and repayment schedules for a number of farmers."
Second Response: "I spent six months leading a team of 11 others in Costa Rica to develop sustainable micro-financing for a village of 5,000. Ultimately, our team was responsible for helping negotiate loans and repayment schedules totaling $33,000 for 18 of the biggest farmers."
The second response is much more impressive because TFA selectors are drawn to numbers and detail. When describing your accomplishments, be as quantitative and thorough as you can be.
Preparing for the Interviews
The best way to shine in the interviews is to actively prepare as much as possible beforehand. This will allow you to stay confident, an important quality of a leader.
First, read up on TFA and education, including both the mission of the organization and recent trends in education reform. In doing so, start to internalize the unique reasons why you want to join the movement, and be able to explain those reasons clearly and concisely.
Second, make sure to practice the parts of the interview you can predict. Anticipate interview questions and have a friend "interview" you using those questions. For the final interview, create a strong lesson plan and teach it in front of friends and family members.
Everything here boils down to communicating your leadership potential and your passion for the program. Our kids need the best leading their classrooms -- this could be your time to "Teach For America."
For additional advice and resources, visit Destination Teach for America.