My Path to Virginia Tech

Posted 23 Sep 2020

My name is Emily Haggard, and I’m a senior in Computer Science at Virginia Tech. I didn’t get here the conventional way, and the short version of the story is that I was rejected from the Engineering program twice, despite having a 4.2 GPA in high school and a perfect score on the Computer Science AP exam.

My theory has always been that my SAT score did me in – a 1370. I did not take the SAT seriously then, and I still don’t think the test has real value, but the College Board will not be asking my opinion anytime soon. I do not believe I was wrong to spend my time during high school reading fantasy novels instead of taking SAT prep courses. High schoolers have better things to do than studying for a bizarre test of mental endurance, like learning useful skills and enjoying the freedoms of childhood.

For those who graduated in 2020, you have been robbed, and I am sorry. But there is a silver lining: many universities are making SAT scores an optional part of the application process. I hope the change sticks. So, in my senior year of high school, after being rejected both from the engineering programs at both Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, I had two paths left: an internship that I’d started the summer before, and community college. I was very fortunate to have two mentors throughout high school: my Computer Science teacher Rodney Snyder and Loudoun Codes founder David Bock. They have always encouraged my curiosity and found new opportunities for me to grow. When I approached Mr. Snyder about an internship, he pointed me toward American Public University System (APUS), an online university based in Charles Town, West Virginia. By that time, I had been competing in a cybersecurity competition known as Cyberpatriot for several years and had taught myself basic network engineering concepts and tools. At the internship, I was able to demonstrate these skills, and eventually joined the Network Engineering Team as an intern. By the time I formally graduated, I had already signed a full-time job offer.

While this may seem like an extraordinary string of luck-

It wasn’t.

I will always be grateful to Mr. Snyder, Mr. Bock, and many people at APUS who believed in the nerdy, 18-year-old girl that carried an ethernet cable in her backpack. But the opportunities I had were because I was passionate about Computer Science, and I put in the work to teach myself and others. If you are feeling discouraged, if you are feeling like you cannot possibly catch up to your peers, please do not give up. I felt that way as a junior in high school, coding for the first time, worried that I started too late and would never measure up. There is always time. Everyone has their own path, and yours will not look like anyone else’s.

That’s the strange thing about college: your friends go into completely different majors, and they learn about a part of the world that you may never see, just as you will for them.

While working full-time as a Junior Network Engineer, I took courses through Northern Virginia Community College. It was an absolute nightmare and I do not recommend multitasking like this, as it leaves no time for Dungeons & Dragons. My freshman Data Structures class met from 8am-3pm on Saturday and was a 40-minute drive from my house. That year, the rest of my classes were online. (More on that another time.)

I am aware that some people turn down their noses at community college, but I sleep easy knowing I saved $60,000 in those first two years. NOVA gives you a real degree while also sparing you from crowded dorm life. In the COVID-19 era, this is an especially practical choice. Side note: if you attend Virginia Tech, your dorm will probably not have air conditioning.

There were a few hiccups in my experience at NOVA, mostly due to the number of AP credits that I walked in the door with. An unfortunate reality of their Computer Science program is that it assumes little to no math knowledge, and precalculus is a part of the graduation requirements. If you test out of the lower level math classes like I did, you may end up taking multivariable calculus and other high-level courses to meet the minimum number of credits needed to get your degree. While that may sound ludicrous to substitute a multivariable class for a precalculus one, if you do not take it at NOVA, you will need to take it at Tech anyway. There, it will be more expensive, and in the lab sciences and calculus the class sizes can be upwards of 300 people.

Here is a list of classes that I recommend you take at NOVA before you enter the Computer Science program at Tech: Chemistry, Physics 1 & 2, Calculus 1-3, and Linear Algebra. You should also consult the list of courses that the Engineering college recommends you take before you apply to transfer, particularly if you do not intend to complete the Associate’s Degree. (This is where my second rejection comes in- I applied to transfer at the end of freshman year, just to see what would happen, but I had not taken Chemistry yet, in a futile attempt to avoid the class forever.)

The tricky thing about transferring is that the onus falls on you to make sure your courses will transfer to VT and line up with their degree requirements. You can contact the registrar’s office at VT, but they may only be able to provide limited help. I recommend you review the graduation requirements for your chosen major when planning your classes at community college. These requirements can vary by graduation year, so you should account for your bachelor’s degree taking between 2-3 years if you transfer with a completed associate degree. Please understand it is very unlikely that you will graduate in two years after you transfer, but this does not mean you are a bad student. You can find the requirements for Computer Science majors here. You can also check how your NOVA courses will transfer by searching for them in the transfer credit equivalency database.

You should know that guaranteed transfer to VT is contingent upon your GPA at NOVA. The College of Engineering has a separate admissions agreement with slightly higher requirements, you should read it and understand what is expected of you.

Getting into the Computer Science major

As a transfer student, you will be enrolled in General Engineering for your first semester and technically you will be classified as a freshman. This is frustrating, and a mouthful to explain to recruiters at the career fair, but don’t let that stop you from applying for internships. Treat this round of career building events and interviews as a practice run to build your confidence. If you are a short woman like I am, don’t let any tall, male upperclassmen push you aside or cut in front of you. Square your shoulders and make your presence known. It’s hard to feel brave when your posture doesn’t say so.

For this first semester, your advisor will pick your schedule for you. You will be taking 15-16 credits, and if you completed your associate degree, you will be enrolled in CS 2114 (Software Design and Data Structures). That may seem insignificant, but it will set you back a bit from the other juniors in CS. For this reason, if you want to graduate sooner, you will probably need to take summer classes.

At this point, you may feel that you can relax and enjoy college life a bit more. Do so with caution. As a student in General Engineering, you are normally not allowed to take CS courses, but an exception is made for first semester transfer students taking CS 2114. If you fail this class and are not admitted to the CS program, you will lose that exception and you will have difficulty registering for the class due to high demand. Do not put yourself in that situation. You will fall behind and may be forced to pick a different major. Fortunately, if you have already completed NOVA’s CS degree, the course will be a walk in the park with almost no new information. You will just need to stay on top of your assignments.

To transfer into the CS major at the end of your first semester as a student in GE (General Engineering), you need a 3.0 GPA. This score guarantees you your first-pick major. Note that only your classes at Tech will factor into your GPA once you arrive. Here is a document explaining all the requirements (it is more than just your GPA). From there, you need only worry about meeting the requirements for the CS degree and performing well in your classes. Best of luck! I hope you take part in the clubs and student organizations at Tech as they are plentiful and a great way to meet new people and network with employers.

*One final note: I had some difficulty getting my associate degree included in my academic record at Virginia Tech. It is important to iron this out with the Registrar’s office because it will allow you to waive many of the general education requirements at Tech. Walk the piece of paper with your Official NOVA transcript into the office if you must.