Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Unlocking the Mysteries of May 1

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

May 1 has been the center of conversation in the school counseling community this year, thanks in large part to Michelle Obama.  The former First Lady and founder of Reach Higher established May 1 as College Decision Day, a day for high schools to celebrate the decisions seniors are making about their lives after graduation.  The idea came from the national signing days held for athletes when they announce what college they’re attending.  Mrs. Obama’s reasoning is, and was—if it’s good enough for athletes, it’s good enough for everyone.

May 1 was selected in part because it’s also the day many colleges require students to submit a deposit, letting the college know the student plans on attending college in the fall.  This may seem like a simple idea, but it isn’t—or it’s too simple, and people want to make it harder than it is.  Either way, let’s review.

Do all colleges require students to deposit on May 1?  No.  Generally, the only colleges that do are those colleges receiving more applications than they can admit.  This is one way to sort out who’s really coming, and it can give the college a chance to pull additional students from their waitlist if they need to, in order to fill their class.

If I’m on College A’s waitlist, should I deposit at another college?  Yes.  Colleges don’t usually admit students from their waitlist until after May 1.  If that’s the case with College A, it may be May 5 or 6 before you find out they didn’t take you from their waitlist—and by then, it’s too late to deposit somewhere else.

But what if College A does take me from their waitlist, and I deposited somewhere else?  At that point, you can deposit at College A, as long as you call your other college right away and tell them you aren’t coming after all.  You can also ask them for your deposit back, but it’s unlikely you’ll get it.

Do all colleges require you to tell them you’re coming by May 1?  Again, no.  It’s always a good idea to tell a college once you’re sure you *aren’t* coming, but if you’re choosing among two or three colleges that don’t require a deposit or notification, you can take the whole summer before deciding.

Can I deposit at more than one college?  The real answer here is no.  Colleges have to build budgets and schedules, and that takes time.  If 100 students deposit at State U in May, then decide just not to show up the first day of school because they deposited somewhere else, State U loses a lot of money, and has to cancel more than a few classes—especially if State U is a small school.  You might not care about that if you aren’t attending State U—but what if this exact same thing happened to your college, requiring them to close your dorm, cancel two of your  classes, and offer no meals on Sundays?

Two deposits is like asking two different people to the same prom.  It isn’t illegal, but it is a horrible idea.

I want to talk about College Decision Day.  Why just celebrate the students going to college?  The good news here is that most high schools include all seniors in their CDD celebration, honoring those going to college, entering the military, or heading into the world of work.  If lots of seniors still have their future plans up in the air, some high schools will delay the celebration, putting it later in May, or building it into graduation.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Handy Hints for College-Bound Parents

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Last week, we talked about things students and counselors should keep in mind as we continue the march towards May 1, when most students will finish up their plans for attending college.  We certainly didn’t mean to leave out parents—we just ran out of room!  Here are the key roles, and key ways, parents can make the transition to college a smooth one.

Call the financial aid office  There’s been incredible media coverage in the last two weeks about financial aid offers—specifically, that many parents can’t read a financial aid offer, and if they can, they can’t compare financial aid offers, since no two are written the same way.

I’m sorry to say this is absolutely true.  Even parents of college seniors have a tough time sorting out what part of the offer is grants (and doesn’t have to be paid back) and which part is loan (which does.)  If the parents who have been at this for four years still can’t make sense of these forms, what are newbie parents to do?

Simple—call the financial aid office.  Parents are scared to do this, because they think that if they say something wrong, they’ll lose their aid, or get their child kicked out of school.  This won’t happen—in fact, while the folks in financial aid have a reputation for being about as warm as The Wizard of Oz, the truth is, they want to do everything they can to make sure students come to campus in the fall.  Getting them to call is going to take some work, but it really can be more than worth it.

Jump starting Mom and Dad to make that call is easier if you give them a head start.  Tell them to call, and simply say, “We’re thrilled my child is coming to college in the fall, and I just want to make sure I understand the financial aid offer.”  At that point, they tell the financial aid officer what they see, and ask them about the things they don’t know.  The aid officer will do everything they can to make sure all parts of the package are clear.  That’s their job.

If this doesn’t convince the parents to call, this should.  The moment a parent calls a financial aid office, the first thing—THE FIRST THING—the officer does is open the student’s file, to determine if the college has any new funding to offer the student.  Other students have called the college to say they aren’t coming after all, and if those students had grant money, that grant money can now go to someone else.  Most of the time, it tends to go to those who ask.  This is free money, waiting for the asking.  All you have to do is call.  Just ask the parent who made a call, asked one question, and got an extra $10,000 in grants.

Visit campus Once the financial picture is clearer, it would be great if Mom and Dad could invite their student to take another tour of campus.  This isn’t always possible, but it can go a long way to make everyone more confident about the student’s college choice—and that’s never a bad thing.

You don’t have to take the official tour, but if you haven’t, it’s not a bad idea.  If they have an admitted students program, that’s a great way to get to know the other families who will be part of the college community.  But even an informal visit can go a long way to reinforce the idea, this is really happening.  And that’s pretty great.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Talking to Anxious Juniors About College

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Almost every junior I talk to this time of year is convinced they are behind in the college application process.  They’ll tell me about the five college campuses they visited over spring break, and how those visits have led them to conclude they’re looking for a medium-sized college with a strong honors college that’s located close enough to a city to have good sushi—but they feel they’re behind in the college selection process.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m delighted they’ve thought about college this much, and they’re starting to understand that there are some colleges where they are more likely to find the right mix of opportunity, challenge and support.  On the other hand, students who have thought this much about college who are convinced they are doing nearly enough to be college-ready makes me wonder if they’re seeing college essay prompts in their sleep—or if they’re sleeping at all.

Not every student feels this way, to be sure, but those that do have an awfully hard time of things right about now, as the newspapers again report record highs in applications and record lows in admit rates.  Throw in the media coverage that’s convincing everyone there’s no point in applying to college unless your parents have a spare 4 million dollars to give the college, and it’s easy to see why even the most conscientious student is thinking twice about their preparedness.

What’s the best way to create an opportunity for these students to seize a new perspective?  Try this:

Identify your goals for them  The energy and angst students bring in to your office can sometimes be enough to make you forget that you are the adult, and the expert in college admissions.  Since you’re both, step up to the plate and address the banshee in the room.

“Just so you know, you’re in great shape.  For our students, we hope they get to the end of junior year having visited about three or four college campuses.  We hope they’ve taken the SAT and ACT at least once, and we hope they’ve asked two academic teachers from this year to write their college letters.  You’re right on track to do all of that, so things are looking great.” (Your school’s expectations may be different, and that’s more than OK.  Just let them know where they stand.)

The message here is a clear invitation to come back to reality, and most are grateful to accept.

Tell them what comes next  Most of the time, students feel they are behind in the college selection process because they haven’t started filling out college applications.  They shouldn’t be right now, and they know they shouldn’t be—but try as they may, they just can’t shake the feeling.

There’s a couple of ways to get at this.  First, tell them when it’s normal to start filling out the forms.  “I’ll be sending you an email in early August with some suggestions about when to start applying to college.  There are a lot of different factors behind when you start, but most of our students will have the basics—name, address, list of extracurriculars—done before school starts.  That gives you the weekends to work on essays during the school year, allowing you to focus on your studies and other school activities during the week.”

If the student isn’t comfortable with this answer, encourage them to start filling out parts of the application now.  Some online applications, like The Common Application, are open now, and while the essay questions for many colleges will change next year, the basic identification questions won’t.  Students can save those answers, then complete the application in the fall.  For now, they get to tell their friends and parents (and more important, themselves) they’ve started to apply to college.

61.  If some cold facts about the application process doesn’t snap them out of it, tell them that only 61 colleges admitted 25 percent or less of their applicant pool in 2017—and that the vast majority of colleges admit about two-thirds of their applicants.  Even if their plans are to apply to these low-admit schools, the fact that so many more are easily accessible usually gets them to consider college from a new point of view, and allows them to breathe.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What to do When a College Says No

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The real March Madness is pretty much over, as some of the most selective colleges have released their admissions decisions. For parents looking for ways to support students who may receive an unexpected rejection, here are some important facts to share:
* Most selective colleges are reporting a huge increase in the number of applications.
* Since this also happened last year, many colleges enrolled too many students last fall. They’ll have to make up for that, so many colleges will be admitting fewer students this year....
* ....and wait-listing more students. This increase means fewer students will be admitted from the wait list come May—and if they are admitted, financial aid will be scarce.
Then again, if none of that does any good, just say this:
* 850.
No, this is not the high score on some new version of the SAT. 850 is the number of valedictorians recently rejected from one of America’s most prestigious colleges. These students represented the best in their high schools; they did everything they were “supposed” to do—and yet, they didn’t even get to the wait list.
When students hear this, they usually think one of two things:
1. “Wow, they put in all of that work for nothing.”
2. “Geez, if they can’t get in, I don’t stand a chance.”
It certainly had to be hard for those students to be turned down by a school they loved—but did all of that preparation really lead to nothing? Given everything these students had learned, the many ways they had grown, and how they overcame adversity and embraced creativity in making Plans B, C, and Q, did they really get nothing out of it?
If so, they have every right to be unhappy, but not with the college. They should be unhappy for letting the sun rise and set 1307 times from the first day of 9th grade to the day the college said no, never once appreciating all that each of those days had to offer in and of themselves.
They should hang their heads a little to realize, just now, the difference they’ve made to their classmates, their teammates, and the people they served in the soup kitchen.
And if they look back with a little regret on the many times they blew off a compliment from a parent or a teacher, that’s more than OK. They now know it was at that moment that the goal of fully living each day was conquered with a flourish. Understanding that will make each day all the richer at the wonderful college that admitted them.
This leads to point 2, about the student you’re talking to, and their application. Colleges are looking for great students who have done wonderful things with their lives, and will work nicely with the other students that are coming to campus. That blend goes beyond test scores and class rank—it goes to who the student is, what they care about, and how they see the world.
The thing to focus on then is not who told them no, but who told them yes. If a college wants them but runs out of room, that’s the college’s fault; if the college doesn’t see the student for who they really are, well, maybe that’s not the place for them after all. Either way, the student’s contributions will be greatly admired, and badly needed, by the college that has the good sense to tell them yes—which means any no, from any college, simply cannot touch them.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Few Reminders as College Decisions Come Out

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


This is the week students hear from the rest of their colleges.  Since these colleges include

the Ivy League schools, this week gets a lot of attention from the press and parents, which can lead to a rise in the anxiety levels of most students.

The best way we can support students through this challenging time is to remind them of three things, and remind ourselves of three things.  First, for the students:

It’s a college decision, not a character indictment  It’s always easy for someone else to tell you not to take a college decision personally—after all, this isn’t about them.  But the truth is, ninety percent of the students who apply to a college could do great work there; it’s just that these colleges run out of room before they run out of great students.  If they said no, that’s their loss, not yours, because…

Every college you applied to is a first choice  You may have ended up liking one college more than the others you applied to, but that doesn’t make the others a second choice.  You did your research, liked what you saw, and know you can do great things at all of them.  As long as some of them said yes, you have the privilege—the privilege—of choosing among great options.

You can keep looking  More than a few students get to April and feel the need to start over.  The National Association for College Counseling has a College Opening Update will be up soon—most likely early May—so you can see what colleges are still officially taking students.  If you can’t wait that long, call the college and ask.

For those of us working with students:

Cast the net far and wide  You won’t have to look hard for the students who are elated with their college choices—they’re the ones wearing the Exact. Same. College. Swag. Every day from now until graduation.  The harder search are the students who aren’t happy with their choices who have given up on themselves, who think bothering to ask for help is pointless.  Alert your teachers and administrators to look out for seniors who have a sudden change in temperament, either more quiet or more outgoing than usual.  Chances are, something’s up with them.

Get ready to work the numbers  This week’s joy will become mightily muted for some of your students, as they eventually get past the first page of the acceptance letter, and peek at the financial aid offerings for the first time.  Aid offers are hard to read, and some families just won’t call financial aid offices no matter what.  Be ready to check in with the students who are likely aid candidates, and get ready to make some calls.  It’s best if Mom and Dad do it, but they’ll probably need help. 

Avoid the trap of May 1 There’s a movement underway to celebrate the college achievements of all high school seniors on May 1, the day many colleges ask students to send in an enrollment deposit to one—and only one—college.  There’s nothing like a good celebration, but May 1 isn’t the end of the college search season for many, many, MANY students—especially students attending community colleges or public universities, or students whose financial aid packages are still up in the air. If you have lots of students who fill this bill, consider moving the celebration to later in the month, or build it in as part of graduation.  The goal is to celebrate everyone, and May 1 may be too soon to do that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The College Counselor Who Left His Own Children Alone

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

When it comes to dealing with the key moments of my daughter’s life, I’ve always had my hands full.  The first one came when she was not even two years old, and decided it was time to climb up on the playscape all by herself, just like she’d seen her older brother do.  It didn’t matter that her legs were about half as long, and the diaper she was wearing significantly limited her mobility.  It was time, and that was that.

As she eyed the situation, I was about twenty feet away, clearing some brush, and holding a chain saw, of all things.  There was no way I could drop the chainsaw without her noticing it, and not even the slowest gait towards her would do anything but convince her I didn’t think this was a good idea.  All I could do was stand there and watch, poised on the balls of my feet to spring the twenty feet in the event I needed to catch her.  She didn’t exactly look like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but she made it up, in her own way, safe and sound.

An adjustable wrench was the tool du jour when the next major transition came.  Wearing a helmet that made her very much look like Toad in the Mario Party games, she decided a cold spring day was the right time to be liberated from the training wheels on her bike.  She straddled the seat with excitement as I struggled to get the acorn nuts to budge.  As  I was turning the last one, I was starting to deliver my best advice on how to negotiate the roads in our neighborhood, and the bumps in our driveway, with just two wheels.

It was too late.  Hearing the last of the training wheels hit the ground, she heaved the bike forward, and without so much as one of my hands on the seat to offer temporary balance, she was gone.  Her journey down the driveway was one smooth line of travel, as if she had done this for years. The only job I had left was to watch and admire her getting elegantly smaller and smaller.

The tool I had on hand in the third transition turned out to be one I didn’t use.  My family had the blessing/adventure of having both my children attend the school where my wife and I worked, she as an elementary science teacher, me as a college counselor—the only college counselor.  By the time she was a junior, my daughter had schooled herself from her older brother’s experiences in postsecondary planning.  Look hard, know what you want, and Dad will be more than happy to send out the paperwork.  Simple.

The sentimental part of me wishes something would have happened with her application that would have created a space for me to play Super Counselor, swoop in, and save the day, but the realistic part of me was proud to see there was no such need.  She had to choose between offers at several schools that all made sense for her in their own way, so I did have the chance to hear a little of her thought process as she waded through them, and made an incredibly sound decision.  But that was about it.

Since I’d been in college counseling forever, it would be fair to say I had more than ample resources at hand to be some combination of a Hovercraft Dad and Helicopter Counselor by picking up the phone and making sure things went smoothly.  Not only was that not necessary; it would have been counterproductive. 

The college selection process is as much a discovery of self as it is a choice of what’s next.  Denying my daughter the chance to take the lead, direct her college selection process, and survey the landscape of options she’d created for herself would have dulled the senses needed to self-advocate in college, discern among the pros and cons of a question with strong answers that were also limited in their own way, and take pride in the efforts of living and learning that gave her these choices in the first place.

College is only a great thing if it prepares you for something greater.  The same is true for applying to college, and to this day, I’m grateful humility ruled the day, and the phone was left in the cradle, so my daughter could take her next step, fully emerging from hers.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Mystery of College Admissions

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

My brother was a pretty mean clarinet player in high school.  He had a good ear for pitch, and a great sense of rhythm, and while he didn’t devote excessive hours to practicing, it was clear he knew his stuff.

That’s why we were pretty confident he was headed for a first place rating when the state music festival came along that February.  We got up incredibly early on a Saturday morning, and headed across town to a community college with pretty bad signage.  We finally found the room where he was to perform—he was the third person to play that morning—and he had plenty of time to warm up, then play the piece to perfection, like he had a million times before.

The twenty minute wait for his score was agony, in part because we hadn’t had breakfast, but it was nothing compare to the feeling in our gut when the score sheet indicated he earned a second place rating. 

We then had one of the quietest breakfasts ever at a local restaurant.  There wasn’t really a state of mourning, as much as there was a state of confusion.  What exactly was missing from his performance that kept him from a top rating?

The answer came several weeks later, when his band teacher met up with the guy who had served as the judge for my brother’s performance.  “Yeah”, the judge said, “it turns out he was actually one of the better performers I heard all day.  I be if I had a second cup of coffee before I heard him, I would have given him a first place rating.”

This isn’t exactly the news you want to hear when you’re a high school musician.  To be sure, my brother didn’t let it get him down.  He went on to study music at college, and had a promising side career as a musician for many years.  Still, it’s hard enough to get through high school without having to sort out the mysteries of adulthood, especially when the adults in your life can’t really explain why things like this happen, either.

A number of students are about to experience this same feeling in the next couple of weeks, and they don’t even play the clarinet.  College admissions experts are expecting record levels of applications at the most popular schools, and since these schools aren’t admitting more students than they did last year, that means they’ll be saying no to more students than ever before.

This can be frustrating to students for a number of reasons.  For starters, it’s likely that a ton of students who will get “no” for an answer from the college of their dreams would have been admitted ten years ago, when fewer students were applying to fewer colleges.  A- students may have been good enough for students back then, but now that there are more A students applying, things have changed, even if the A- students can do the work.

On top of that, students will be left wondering what they did—or didn’t do—that kept them from being admitted.  This kind of thinking is pretty hard on a student, since there is rarely a clear, single reason why a college denies a student with great grades and great scores, who did everything short of cure cancer in their spare time.

The reality is that a handful of schools are blessed with the best of the best as their applicants, so they can be a little fussier when offering admission—but even then, they can’t always tell you why they told others no.  That isn’t easy for adults or students to understand, but the best thing to do is adjust your reed, and keep on playing.