Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Dangers of College by Checklist

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


My client just couldn’t understand what went wrong. They had earned great grades in some pretty challenging classes, and had earned test scores that would be expected for someone working in the classroom at a high level. They had secured letters of recommendation from two of the most respected teachers in the school, both of whom knew the student well, so they were able to write with great regard and particular focus on who the student was. The student’s extracurricular list was peppered with leadership and accolades that clearly indicated the student had gone more than the extra mile in their out-of-school pursuits, and summers had been spent in fascinating programs. Still, when the admissions decisions came in, the student had been denied admission at their top choices. What, they wanted to know, had exactly gone wrong?

Welcome the world of College by Checklist, the natural conclusion that’s too easy for students—and particularly parents—to make if they take their college guidance from mainstream media. While it’s better than it used to be, too much coverage of applying to college is focused on the mechanics of forms, lists, and scores. It’s also far too focused on the thirty or so colleges thought to be the most desirable institutions, the ones where a student would be thought a fool if they were admitted, and opted not to attend. These places are promoted as the Golden Ticket, and best of all, the ticket is easy enough to obtain with the right recipe of numbers, achievements, and name-brand classes. 

What’s missing from this calculus of college admission is, of course, the soul of the student. It’s certainly true that a good amount of the history of holistic college admissions—where colleges ask students to write essays and submit letters of recommendation along with their grades—were designed in part to limit college access to certain groups of students. Happily, a good many colleges have flipped those purposes on their head, and see the same mixture as an opportunity to understand the student beyond their grades, and past their achievements. It’s a rare college applicant who successfully reveals what it is that makes them tick—indeed, it’s rare to have an eighteen-year-old who understands what makes them tick. Still, when an application shows a strong glimmer of something more than just a score and the obligatory responses to Why Us, admissions officers clamor over each other to bring that student to their institution, and rightfully so. More than just another doer, that college has found an actively engaged thinker.

It was clear that what was missing from the client I was talking to, who had only sought my advice after they had applied to college. The client had ample good choices from colleges who knew the student would do well enough at their institutions and serve the school with distinction, but all the student’s top choice schools were places looking for students interested in turning over the rocks and wondering what lay underneath. That was something the client had never bothered to consider en route to what he thought was fast tracking his way to a top school.

A television news magazine once interviewed a judge for one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions, and the interviewer’s first question was simple—what are you looking for that separates the best performer from so many qualified performers? It’s simple, the judge said—it’s what they do with the notes. Everyone knows the notes once they’re at this level, he said, and sometimes they don’t always hit them in any given performance. But the notes only go so far; after that, it’s what you do with them.

As we begin our work with the next classes of college seekers, here’s hoping they will embrace the opportunity as something beyond a checklist.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Your Alumni Dad Can’t Help You Get into Johns Hopkins Anymore—A Look at Change in College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


At first, it seemed like a monumental moment of change, the kind of shift that comes out of nowhere but changes things forever. Conveyed by a photograph on Twitter, the small paragraph on John Hopkins’ admission page simply indicated that, in the interest of creating a class as rich and diverse as possible, the storied college was no longer using legacy status in admission. In other words, it no longer mattered if an applicant’s parent, uncle, or other relative had gone to Hopkins; that was no longer a factor in their recipe for admissions soup. 

It’s easy to see why so many people see this as a big deal. Giving special consideration to the next generation of applicants is as much a part of selective college lore as elbow-patched corduroy jackets and secret societies, a part of doing business that encouraged alumni to be actively engaged in the life of their alma mater, both in and around the development office. Even when studies suggested legacy admissions had little effect on the bottom line of a school’s donation ledger, it was seen as a way of engendering a sense of community and continuity.

It’s certainly true that institutional memory is needed to keep the traditions and quirks alive that distinguish one school from another (I’m looking at your Hey Day as an example, Penn), but do next-generation students fill a special niche in that memory? If so, is that a role that’s worth restricting a good percentage of scarce seats in the class, for students whose high school credentials alone might not be enough to garner the admissions committee’s attention? Hopkins evidently decided it was not, and a new day in college applications emerged. 

But for those who are convinced this move was made at a moment’s notice, take care. Subsequent research has shown Hopkins has diminished the use of legacy for about ten years or so, using the data to confirm what many have long suspected. To be sure, the college still admits students who have family ties, but the percentage of legacies is down substantially—by about 75%—now that it’s not a part of the admissions algorithm. Further, no reports exist of declines in alumni giving, the area seen as the chief beneficiary of legacy admission. That’s not to say every Hopkins alum is thrilled with this change, but those concerns, at least for now, seem to be more personal than institutional.

The approach Hopkins used here is reminiscent of the approach many colleges took when deciding to make the ACT and SAT optional parts of the admissions process. Rather than wake up one morning and simply flip a switch, most of these college approached the question through data gathering, discussion, and review of the college’s mission. What additional information did test scores provide that weren’t part of other sections of the application—and even if there was some gain, did that come at too high an institutional price, or at the cost of the well-being of the students? The test-optional movement has made incredible gains over time, but it is more the result of deliberate engagement of key questions than the snapping of fingers.

The test-optional movement and the Hopkins decision serve as strong reminders to those eager to make sudden shifts in higher education policy that there is sometimes an upside to change being glacial. A ten-year deemphasis of legacy gave Hopkins alumni the opportunity to embrace the change and celebrate it, and the thoughtful approach colleges have used to review the role of testing in admissions has led to few, if any, colleges going back to requiring the tests once they made the change. Progress can be infuriatingly slow at times, but these changes are reminders that, more often than not, slow but steady is a powerful element in lasting change. The key is to begin, and to persist.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Word About December Vacation—Did You Really Get One?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, because I don’t want to sound as if I’m telling you what to do with your job or how to work with your students—counselors don’t tell anyone to do anything, so I’m really not interested in doing that. At the same time, my social media reading over the holiday break revealed some disturbing posts that lead me to ask an important question:

Exactly how much did you work over the holiday break?

I ask this because I’m a pretty strong advocate that vacation time is, well, vacation time. “Vacation” comes from the root word “vacate”, which means to leave behind in its entirety. You don’t get to take part of your apartment with you when you vacate it, nor should you; the same is true for vacating a job. When you’re done, you’re done, if only for the weekend—or for the time you aren't working.

This leads me to wonder just how much serious vacating went on in the last few weeks. My social media posts were flooded with remarks from counselors like “Student sent me her college essays on New Year’s Eve (sigh)” and “Student said they had to know if they passed their Algebra midterm.”

This doesn’t remotely sound like vacating, my friends, and that’s not good. It’s not good for you, because there are other parts of your life—and most important, other people in your life—who get short changed when you work over a holiday. One of those parts is your mental sanity. You work too hard for too long, and bad things happen—and if you’re thinking “but I only spent five minutes a day on email,” go back and think about how much time you devoted to responding to that five minutes of email, or thinking about what you’d have to do with that email once you go back to work. No matter where you were, you were mentally back at work—and that’s not vacating. 

I’d also argue this state of perpetual availability isn’t all that great for students. The student needing to know if they passed Algebra can just as easily ask the teacher on the last day of school as they can email you over break, and the student writing college essays could knock out rough drafts the weekend before vacation and send them to you then. With a heads up from you that says you’re offline for two weeks, students get to develop self-care and time management skills that are essential to being healthy adults. That’s part of our job, too. 

Counselors give two kinds of pushback when I urge them to consider using vacation for vacation. The first is that the students need counselors, and we should be there for the students. That’s certainly true—but just how much do students need us over break? Classes aren’t in session over break, so there’s no real need for academic guidance. Any college application that’s due January 1 can be submitted by the student without a transcript. As long as the student asks you to send the transcript once school reopens, they’re going to be fine.

That leaves supporting students emotionally. It can be hard to leave a student in need on their own for a couple of weeks, especially if it’s clear there are no other resources for them to lean on over break, or if the holidays themselves will likely be a stress-inducer. At the same time, other mental health workers find ways to take breaks, and make contingency plans for their clients while they’re away. With a little advanced planning, you can provide a list of resources for your students to use in case they’re needed, allowing you to take care of yourself and those in your personal life.

The second argument is a contractual one, where a supervisor or a contract requires you to do some kind of work over a break. I’m raising this point now so you have time to fix that. Provide some data to your boss showing just how much you weren’t needed over break, or negotiate a change in your contract that allows counselors to take turns checking in over holidays, leaving the task of being “on call” to just one counselor, instead of all of them. 

Our students need us, to be sure, but we need us too. There’s a way to support both in meaningful ways when school’s out. Let’s add that goal to our list of New Year’s resolutions.



Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Why This Year’s College Decisions Are Different

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students are starting to hear back from the colleges they’ve applied to, and the early results aren’t all that different from recent years—lots of admits, a few denials, and more deferrals, where colleges want to see the most recent grades from an applicant before making a final decision.

The results may be different, but that doesn’t mean the students aren’t surprised. Thanks to an armload of media articles about the declining birthrate, some students made college choices based on the assumption that most colleges would welcome their application with open arms, and throw in a scholarship just for good measure. Fewer births in 2001 means fewer seniors in 2019—so what’s keeping a college from admitting every student who applies?

There are a couple of factors at play here. First, remember that the most selective colleges admitted less than ten percent of their applicants last year. This isn’t a lot of colleges, but most of them are the ones the media spends far too much time focusing on. This gives the impression that whatever is going on with these schools must be going on with every school—and if that’s the case, why didn’t my first-choice college take me?

This is where math comes in. Let’s say a college admitted 5% of its applicant pool last year, and had 25,000 applications. That means they admitted 1250 students.

Now, let’s say the birthright has a pretty extreme effect, so the college has 10% fewer applicants this year. That means they have 22,500 applicants. In order for that college to still admit 1250 students, they do indeed have to take a higher percentage of students—this year, they’d have to take 5.5% of their applicant pool, instead of the 5% they admitted last year. Not exactly a massive increase.

It’s also important to remember that birthrates and application numbers are two different things. We may have seen fewer babes eighteen years ago, but parental expectations about college continue to grow, and the choices parents had as high school students often aren’t seen as good enough for their children. That means more families break through self-imposed limitations every year, and decide their child is going to Go. For It. when it comes to applying to college. The increase in applicants at selective colleges has exceeded the increase in the birth rate for these last few years. What makes us think the decrease in birth rate is going to change that?

If anything, the changes in admission rates we’re expecting are much more likely to show up in the colleges that have long admitted many, if not most, of the students who apply. That might lead to a big increase in the number of admitted students, but if it does, that’s not much of a surprise. Most of these colleges have had empty beds for the last several years. If the birthrate scare finally forces more of them to start looking for more students in new parts of the country (and the world), most would argue that move is overdue—only being done by necessity.

Media coverage of the birthrate decline may seem to give students new reason to hope for admission to the school of their dreams, but a quick run of the calculator shows students are still better off understanding the limits of college dreams, and the necessity of college plans. You may be seeing more dashed dreamers in your office in the coming weeks. Go easy on them, and resist the temptation to lead with the calculator. Tissues are still the counselor’s best friend.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Washington Needs Your Voice. Here’s How to Use It.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Politics really drives me crazy sometimes. It wasn’t two years ago that groups from all walks of life were begging, pleading, demanding something be done to create safer schools—and the fervor was so huge, there really was a sense something might get done this time.

That was then. Ukraine came along, and suddenly, it’s even a miracle that the recent school shootings got any coverage in part because the casualty counts were so small. So little attention is being paid to this issue that a bill funding approximately 10,000 new school counselors is sitting in a House committee, going absolutely nowhere, in part because no one knows anything about it. 

If you’re wondering what you can do to try and get Washington to pay more attention to the needs of school counselors, have I got a program for you. The US Department of Education just opened applications for the next round of School Ambassador Fellows, educators who keep the Department informed of issues of interest and concern in the field. These teachers, administrators and educators work with the Department to offer programming, seminars, and other events designed to improve education. They also offer counsel on policy development and changes that will meet more needs of students, families, and educators.
This program is in its twelfth year, but it’s only been open to school counselors for the past three years. I had the privilege of serving as the inaugural School Counselor Ambassador Fellow, and I can tell you, our work is cut out for us. I spent most of my time talking with policy makers about the real world of school counselors—the gap between what we really do, and what we’re supposed to do, the students who need more help from school counselors and why, and the training school counselors receive that does (and doesn’t) get them ready for their work.

I’m pleased to say I met with nothing but receptive audiences when I talked about the needs for school counselors. This included a couple of meetings with Secretary DeVos, who expressed unconditional support for the need to make sure all students leave high school with a comprehensive understanding of all of the options available to them after high school, a goal that has long been part of the counseling community. Policy proposals to advance that goal were well received while I was there, and the current Counselor Ambassador is building on that start in impressive ways.

If having a say at the US Department of Education sounds interesting, know that you don’t have to give up your day job to do this work. Thanks to the support of my administrators, I was able to work as a Campus Ambassador Fellow, which meant I still worked as a counselor, but spent 3-4 days in Washington about once every 6-8 weeks. I still supported my work as a Fellow when I was in the office, writing newsletters and memos to support policies and programs. My daily work with students helped keep my advice to the Department grounded, based on real-life experiences that resonated with the team in DC. Of course, if you want to spend all your time in DC, that’s an option too, where you’d take more meetings and have an even stronger voice in policy development.

Our profession is making some great headway in the national conversation about student health, and our next Ambassador in Washington is going to play an important role in moving us even farther. To find out more about how you can make a difference, take a look here—and don’t think for a second you’re not good enough to do this. The deadline is December 31.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Counselor’s Holiday

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s not exactly a mix of students you can predict. Athletes have holiday practice, so are rarely represented; students from coastal colleges are typically overrepresented, and the valedictorian isn’t usually in sight. Yet, there they randomly gather, about a dozen of them, starting around 12:30, smart enough not to come for lunch, but eager to get caught in the milieu of lunch period changing into the next class period that feels like a hero’s welcome to them.

They are last year’s seniors, coming back to say hi at Thanksgiving.

The first thing you notice is how grown up they seem. Sure, they’re still students, but they don’t seem as ragtag as they did last year, wearing more sweaters, and more corduroy. At least one guy is sporting facial hair, which he desperately hopes speaks for itself. At least one woman has stopped shaving her leg hair, which she brags about with a delight that is especially liberating, both for her and you. Nearly all of them are keen to say college food isn’t really all that bad, but more than one of them will be surprised how empty their parent’s refrigerator is. “I can actually see the light bulb in the back of the top shelf. Didn’t they know I’d be coming home?”

Some of their stops are expected. They pay homage to the English 12 teacher who begged them to find empathy for J. Alfred Prufrock (“I’m reading Langston Hughes now in Freshman Comp, so I finally get it”), and the Algebra II teacher who taught them just enough to place out of the collegewide math requirement seems to get more hugs than they know what to do with. The elective teachers still have their fans, particularly the choir teacher (“I thought of you when we sang Britten’s ‘Requiem’ on Veterans Day”) and the Psychology teacher, who is told by all of them that they’ve taken an Intro course, and are changing their major next semester.

A healthy number of them manage to find their way to you, including some students who needed very little help getting into college. They intuitively remember how exhausting November is for you, so they’re kind enough to remind you of their name, and where they’re going. Some will reassure you their minds are being expanded (“I’m seeing things in The Federalist Number 65 that were never there before”), they are surviving their roommates (“but she’s only changed her sheets once”) or they remember a piece of advice you offered them (“You were sure right about me and eight o’clocks. I should have listened.”)

ALL of them will have ways you can be a better college counselor. “Tell them to apply sooner. No—Make them apply sooner. Especially the financial forms.” 

“Get the school to run a bus on Saturday so they can go visit a campus. It’s so different seeing it in person.”

“Tell them not to blow off senior year. I forgot everything I knew about studying, and it’s been rough.”

Many boys will try to shake your hand when they say goodbye, most squeezing far too hard. Most girls will not hug you, but they will thank you, turning their heads ever so slightly to the side when they speak to add authenticity. They’ll all make a point of leaving ten minutes before the last bell sounds; it’s their version of skipping school, or reminding you—and themselves—of their freedom from this bastion of hall passes and puppy love.

Industries have been founded on the notion that holidays are noisy things, moments that demand consecrated time, resources, and recognition. Each year, on the last day before Thanksgiving vacation, I hear the voices of our youngest alumni fading down the hallway, and realize a quiet sense of completeness that cannot be brought by the shiniest of one-day delivered boxes. 

And hope is kindled anew.



Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Parents: Before You Yell at Your School Counselor

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

You’ve worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.

Until they got the e-mail.

“Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application.”

At this point, you’ve decided this is personal, so even though it’s 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.

Boy, did you just blow it. Here’s why:

Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn’t said “Forget it”; they’ve said, “We need something.” You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up—so the transcript might not be in your child’s file, but it is in the college’s application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor—the one you just called incompetent—sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don’t want another one. If the transcript is already in the college’s system, they really don’t want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child’s file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it’s their application), but it’s likely you want the school counselor to call. You know—the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.

This isn’t to say they won’t help you and give your child their full support, but if you’ve just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you’ve now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don’t know what you’re doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you’ve just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?

You’ve just left an impression you can’t erase. Let’s say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child’s file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they’d like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is—you guessed it—the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child’s ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that’s what the counselor has experienced. This isn’t about a grudge; this is about their experience.

It’s easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.