Anna and Emma Henderson to have their college educations fully funded.
The goal of each GPS senior is to find the right college. The goal of each college counselor is to help her find the perfect school that fits her requirements. The goal of each family is to ensure their daughter enrolls in a school that meets their expectations, and many times the cost to attend plays a major deciding factor.
When you have twins enrolling the same year, financial concerns become two-fold.
Tammy Combs heard about QuestBridge when her older daughter, Olivia, was applying to college, so she explored the possibility of using the national nonprofit to help with college costs. The family didn’t meet the financial parameters, but Tammy remembered the organization for this year and registered her nieces, Anna and Emma Henderson, with QuestBridge so they would know when to apply.
Based in Palo Alto, California, QuestBridge connects talented youth with leading institutions of higher education. Currently 42 highly selective universities across the U.S. utilize QuestBridge as a clearinghouse of sorts to find high-achieving students to apply to their programs. Top liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Pomona, and Williams and exceptional research universities such as Columbia, Duke, UChicago, Stanford, and Yale participate. Once offered a Match Scholarship, students receive a generous financial aid package provided by the college that covers the full cost of attendance, including tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and travel expenses for eight semesters.
This year QuestBridge received approximately 18,500 applications and named 6,885 finalists. Of those finalists, 1,464 students (about 8%) were matched to a school among the participating college partners. Two were GPS seniors: Anna and Emma Henderson; Anna matched with Rice University (Houston, Texas) and Emma with Hamilton College (Clinton, New York).
Tammy says, “It’s like winning the lottery.”
Except more than luck plays a part in getting matched to a college. The girls started the application process in early August and, once they became finalists, they began submitting essays and supplemental components—even optional ones, according to Emma—for their applications to the 12 schools they each selected.
“It was basically like applying as early decision to 12 colleges,” Anna says. She and Emma attended seminars and did virtual tours—often during dinnertime—and both girls conducted interviews with schools that requested them via Zoom or FaceTime.
Support Is Key
Anna and Emma were chosen to attend Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts this summer (which, of course, went virtual), and they submitted portfolios to the colleges that requested them—Anna for graphic design and Emma for art. Assisting them with their submissions were their teachers Mr. Lee Wright and Mrs. Debbie Glasscock, respectively. Dr. Brandon Noel and Ms. Katy Berotti wrote Emma’s teacher recommendations, and Mrs. Sonya Steele and Ms. Callie Hamilton wrote Anna’s.
“Their teachers checked in with them along the way and were really sweet when they heard the girls were matched,” Tammy says.
Their college counselor, Ms. Susan McCarter, provided input on their lists of schools and submitted required transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores. “They worked hard to share the story of who they are and were rewarded for it,” Ms. McCarter says. “What an honor for both of them to have this opportunity. They are both really talented artists, and it’s great to see them go to universities of this caliber.”
QuestBridge’s decisions were announced on Dec. 1. The girls were at school when their aunt texted them to let them know their status on QuestBridge’s portals had been updated; she had been checking throughout the day. “I asked if they wanted to look at it or did they want me to,” Tammy says.
The girls looked for themselves; Anna checked moments before Emma. “We couldn’t believe we both matched,” Anna says.
Anna and Emma’s mom, Sherry Henderson, (Tammy’s sister) lives in Mississippi. Emma and Anna moved to Chattanooga to live with their aunt full time six years ago and started as sixth-graders at GPS. Their cousin Olivia graduated from GPS in 2019; cousin Julia is a junior, Class of 2022. Tammy coaches the GPS Mock Trial teams along with Judge Brian House.
Encouragement Along the Way
“Tammy was really supportive, and she knew we were good enough even when we didn’t,” Emma says. “Without her we wouldn’t have done it. She kept telling us we were going to match.”
“We all knew that the number of applicants was high, but we knew it was worth trying,” Tammy says. “Once they became finalists, they became believers.” Tammy says applying to 12 colleges is a tremendous amount of work. “Everyone else who applies early decision does it only once, but it was fun because it allowed us to sit down and talk about difficult but important things.”
Once college begins in the fall of 2021, Anna will move to Texas as Emma heads north for New York. While the twins have never been apart, they are both eager to launch out on their own.
Emma mainly placed colleges in the Northeast on her top 12 list because she wants to leave the South and because Olivia attends Brandeis University (Waltham, Massachusetts), and she fell in love with the community on a visit. “It felt almost like GPS, and I knew attending a small liberal arts college would allow me to get to know my classmates and my professors to know me,” she says. Hamilton College’s current enrollment is about 2,000.
Anna has never been to Houston but is excited about heading west. “My mom is a little anxious for us to be so far away—from her and each other—but we have a family friend in Houston, and I wasn’t planning to stay in Tennessee.” She is hoping to visit Rice University soon. “I’m so glad I got matched.”
Emma and Anna also joined a QuestBridge Facebook group during the application process and are in group chats with others who matched this year with their respective colleges, so they’re already building their communities.
Hard Work Pays Off
While at times the application process felt daunting, both of the girls learned a lot about themselves along the way.
“This whole process taught me that I can write about myself,” Emma says, “and that I can talk about my strengths and what I am good at.” Getting into her first choice also boosted her self-esteem. “Hamilton was the last interview I did, and I feel as though I was much more confident about what I had to say at that point.”
Anna has similar takeaways from the experience. “I didn’t know I could produce so much content, and my confidence in myself is so much better,” she says. “The fact that Rice University chose me is amazing, and it feels so good to be done with the college process.”
Like Anna and Emma, the majority of this year’s QuestBridge Scholars—in fact 78%—are among the first generation in their families to attend a four-year college in the United States and come from 48 states, including the District of Columbia, as well as the territories of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico.
Since 2003, the QuestBridge National College Match has successfully connected over 8,850 students with full scholarships at college partners. The 2020 Match Scholarship Recipients become the first QuestBridge Scholars for the Class of 2025. Based on previous years, an estimated 2,000+ Finalists will be admitted to QuestBridge college partners later in the year through early and regular decision processes; those admissions may include scholarships of varying amounts.
As for the Combs-Henderson household, it’s about to get a lot quieter. With Olivia in college, the twins leaving in a matter of months, and then Julia next year, Tammy’s nest full of girls will soon be empty. “It’s pretty awful to think about,” she says, “but I’m so very proud of them all.”