Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Applying to College? Watch This Video

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is the week when applying to college gets hard. The first few weeks of senior year are all about basking—basking in the glory of being a senior and Ruling the School, thrilled at the great colleges you’ve discovered that have so much to offer, and totally jazzed knowing you will never take another SAT in your life.

That’s sure the fun part, but now we’re in application mode, and it’s time to do the work that brings the college dream to life. This part isn’t always viewed as fun, especially when you have to fill out lots of application forms that ask for the same thing (there’s an easy solution to that, by the way). Once you’re done writing down your name, address, and high school code for the umpteenth time, you run into the essays, questions designed for the colleges to get to know you. 

That should seem like a good time—hey, I finally get to talk about me!—but too many students overthink the essays, and turn them into stilted speeches, not ideas that inspire. Trouble is, once you get stuck on the essays, thinking about them just seems to make things worse, less fresh—less you.

Take a look at this. It’s a clip from the 1943 film Stormy Weather, and the dancers are brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas [dance begins at 1:32]. Dance was hugely popular in the forties, and movies were rich with some of the biggest names in popular dance history—Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Ginger Rogers, and more. After this film came out, the biggest name in popular dance, Fred Astaire, called this performance by the Nicholas Brothers the greatest recorded dance performance in the history of film. Even today, historians make the same claim, Michael Jackson notwithstanding. 

What makes this performance so incredible, besides the fact they somehow defy gravity about six gazillion times? What you see here is the first take of the performance. In fact, it’s the only take. They didn’t shoot a second take, and there was no rehearsal beforehand. They got up, danced, and sat down.

This is exactly what your college essays need right now—more you. Get yourself in front of a keyboard, and write down what you want the college to know about you. Don’t worry about how well it answers the question, or how well constructed the sentences are. The colleges want to see you on paper. Do that.

Here’s the part where we have to be a little less like the Nicholas Brothers. Now that you’ve got some of yourself in writing, it’s time to focus, expand, clarify—in other words, fine tune your ideas. It’s easy to see how this can be drudgery. That’s why you print out what you just wrote before you change any of it. What’s on that page is your goal. What do you have to do to make sure that’s clearly stated?

Once you think you’re close, it’s time to show it to someone else. The Nicholas Brothers may not have rehearsed this piece, but this wasn’t the very first day they ever danced. When it comes to writing, you’re still working on that “getting up from doing the splits” thing, so it’s important to get some help before you hurt yourself, or your chances of getting into college. Find an English teacher who knows you, and who gets that this is a personal essay, not a book report, and they will gently guide you to even greater clarity.

It’s hard to say if someone will be talking about your college essays 75 years after you right them, but the Nicholas Brothers weren’t thinking about that when the band started playing in 1943. They found the joy in their hearts, and connected it with the joy of the moment. Do that, and you’re going to college.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

How to Provide Better Financial Aid in Five Minutes

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We’re coming up on an important counseling anniversary, and there’s something you can do to celebrate it. It’s been two years since students applying for financial aid have been able to file their forms October 1 of their senior year, instead of January 1. The three-month head start has been a real help for cost-conscious families, since the FAFSA provides an estimate of what the family’s share of college costs will be. Combined with the ability to check a box to complete the required financial information, FAFSA use has increased significantly, and this year promises another year of growth.

Counselors know that some growth comes only with challenges, and it turns out that’s the case with FAFSA. It’s great news more students are applying for aid—thanks in part to the smartphone app that allows you to track FAFSA—But more applicants means more people to serve, more facts to double-check, and more students whose claims need to be verified. Add in an increasing number of low-income students whose parents didn’t file a tax form, and it’s easy to see how these improvements create opportunities for more headaches—but also, for more improvement.

Enter the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Senior senators on the committee have introduced a bill that would allow the IRS and the US Department of Educationto share more financial information about FAFSA filers. These changes would speed up the verification process for thousands of FAFSA applicants, and it would make it easier for non-IRS filers to get through verification as well. Other changes would speed up approval for more people to use income-based repayment plans, reducing the paperwork and hassle often associated with paying off student loans.

This is where you come in. The bill has passed the Republican-led Senate, and is now awaiting action in the Democratic-led House. Democrats tend to be champions of easier, more responsive government, so it’s not clear what the holdup is—but you can help break it. This websiteallows you to enter some basic information that’s used to craft a letter to your Representative, urging them to pass this bill and make further improvements to financial aid. This will likely take five minutes—about the time one of your students currently needs just to start their FAFSA. Write the letter, urge four of your friends to do the same, and let’s move financial aid forward in another important way.

What’s that, you say? You were hoping I’d say something about the changes to the US News rankings? Since they still don’t talk to students, they’re still completely irrelevant, so in my mind, they haven’t changed at all. How’s that?

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Fall Commencement Address: Thank You, Gene

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The ink isn’t even dry on all those schedule changes, so graduation is probably the last thing on any counselor’s mind. Still, as we begin another school year, it is time for us to recognize someone who’s achieved something pretty wonderful, as they move on to new opportunities.

I met Gene Kalb via email in 2010. I came across High School Counselor Week through the recommendation of several colleagues, whose praise for what Gene had created knew no bounds. Gene understood the need for counselors to stay current in the field, but he also knew our time is at a premium. HSCW met our need to be informed in a timely way like nothing else, a simple, brilliant solution.

Gene and I spent about a year tossing around the idea of my writing a column for HSCW, and the first column came to print in 2011, a gem of a piece about students and social media that still has some relevance today. From there, Gene gave me free rein to talk about everything from Websites that helped counselors work with students, to the need for improved counselor training programs, to the essentials of good writing in a college application, and more. I was initially disappointed at the lack of comments that were added to a column, but Gene reminded me that the reason HSCW existed was because counselors were busy people—too busy to write comments, but not too busy to appreciate the column.

Thanks to Gene’s offer to do this work, I can honestly say HSCW has made a difference in our profession. One piece was published the day after Michelle Obama announced her campaign to increase college attainment in the United States—it was my response to her remarks. Within a day, the piece was spread across the Internet, and was picked up by The Washington Post. As a result, the topic of improved counselor training in college counseling became a key element of the ReachHigher convenings held in 2014. While much remains to be done in this area, many counselor training programs are seeing college counseling in a new light, all thanks to Gene.

It’s always nice when your writing makes a national impact, but the real success of the column, and HSCW, are the changes that quietly occur in counseling offices throughout the country. In raising issues of concern, Gene was able to give counselors a heads up on issues they may not have considered. This gave them the opportunity to respond accordingly, developing programming and communication with their students to make sure counseling services were timely, updated, and comprehensive. There was never a single story in HSCW about how Gene’s work improved the lives of our students, but it did, and it made us all better professionals as a result.

Gene has handed the reins of HSCW over to new leadership this fall, after a successful merger that makes sure some 60,000 counselors have access to the latest news in our field. It’s hard to see Gene go, since his easygoing manner and patience with missed deadlines made him such a joy to work with, and such a wonderful person to know. But if anyone should be thrilled to see someone move on to new chapters, it’s a counselor—that’s what we do. Gene, as you head on to whatever’s next for you, you take the gratitude of a profession changed for the better with you, as well as the thanks of a counselor whose writing has found a home it never would have known without you.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

College Counselor to Parents: Relax

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It must be September, because the parents of high school seniors are panicked about college. As a high school counselor, I did everything but give away free gas to get parents to visit me in the spring, but usually to no avail. Now, I'm buying my groceries in the next county because so many parents want to solve their senior's college woes in Aisle 6 of the corner supermarket.

The stress of applying to college is not lost on me. But unlike running from a burning building or scoring tickets to a hot concert, stress doesn't help the college selection process. If you feel you're behind, the best thing to do is forget about the stress and start talking to two important college experts.

The first expert is your high school senior, the person who will be going to college. You may have missed the February college night for juniors and the college fair last May, but chances are your child has picked up more than enough information to bring you up to speed – plus, they know what they're looking for in a college.

Of course, this might not be easy. Teenagers often seem feisty, uncommunicative, and embarrassed by your every move. Ask them about college plans, and you may as well be doing the Hokey Pokey at the bus stop. You need an approach that shows respect for them as independent people, interest in their opinions, and an understanding of their values.

So go buy a pizza.

Sitting down with a pizza creates a common interest (food), a relaxed atmosphere, and something to do in the event of an awkward silence. In the middle of their second slice, tell them you want to help them apply to college, but you don't want to hassle them. As a result, you'll sit down once a week for 20 minutes to talk about college, and unless they bring it up some other time, that will be it.

The 20-minute weekly meeting is the only time you nudge them about application deadlines (NOT on Friday night as they're heading to the game), and ask how college plans are going. In return, they use the meeting to ask if you wrote the check for the application to State U., or why you asked that embarrassing question when you visited a college last week. You get the information you need, they don't feel you're invading their turf, and everyone gets a snack. VoilĂ !

After about two or three of these meetings, you're ready to meet the second expert, your child's school counselor. If you haven't met the counselor before, don't worry; the goal here is to make sure everyone knows how to help your child find a college that's right. Since most school counselors have far too many students, the challenge is to reach that goal in a short period of time – about 18 minutes. But since you've found a way to talk with your senior about college and not look like a dork, you can do anything.

When the meeting comes, you and your child greet the counselor and you ask these questions:
  1. What should my child focus on as a student this year? The counselor can talk about your child's schedule, what teachers think of your child, and what they think your child should do to grow as a person – it's wide open.

  2. Can we tell you a little about our child that we think would help you with their college plans? This is a forced question few counselors say no to, and they shouldn't. If you talk about your concerns and interests for just a few minutes (practice at home), the counselor can ask questions, and really get to know what you're thinking about for your child's life after high school.

  3. Does my child have a realistic list of colleges? Your child should drop a copy of this list off to the counselor three days before the meeting – that way, the counselor can prepare a solid answer.

  4. What are the deadlines for submitting applications to you? This is probably in the school's college handbook or website, but ask (and write down the answer) so everyone knows the deadlines.

  5. What's the best way to get in touch with you? Most counselors are either e-mail or phone people, so here's their chance to share their preference, and your chance to further respect their time. Two big no-nos here for parents are asking "quick questions" if you see the counselor at a school function (or the supermarket) and dropping in at the counselor's office without an appointment. Counselors want the chance to serve you well; give them that chance, and send the quick questions in via the counselor's preferred way. 
Feeling bad about getting a late start on college won't help your child. Instead, use that energy to consult with two local college experts, and the rush will make you want to do the Hokey Pokey.

Just not in front of the children.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Six Words About College That Disappoint Parents Most

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I had a chance to discuss the bigger world of college admissions with some local counselors at a recent college breakfast, where admissions officers from five colleges gave us brief updates on life at their campuses.  They opened up their presentation to questions at the end, and it’s my habit to ask them about advice for parents—if colleges could give one recommendation to the parents who have to watch their children apply to college, what would it be?

I’ve asked this question of many college admissions officers over the years, and the response is always the same—Let the Child Drive the Bus.

Long before the helicopter/snowplow/lawnmower parent, it was clear to colleges that many students were applying to college in name only.  It was easier to tell this when all applications were filed on paper, since the handwriting of many students—particularly the boys—looked remarkably like that of their mothers’.  Most applications are online now, but that doesn’t mean colleges can’t sort out when parents have played too big a part in the application process.  And according to most colleges, any part parents play in the completion of an application is too big a part.

Colleges urge parents to let their child take charge of the application process for one simple reason—it’s the child who is going to college.  A student who’s “too busy to apply” (a favorite excuse parents use to fill out the form) is making a statement about what they’ll be able to give to the college experience, and the student who’s “too shy to talk about themselves” may get admitted thanks to the bolder tone of the essay a parent writes—but that isn’t the voice the college will hear in classroom discussions or in community activities.  Colleges use the application to understand who they’re getting if they say yes to the applicant, and they take plenty of shy or busy students.  They just need to know that’s who the student is.

A second reason colleges want the student to own the college application process is because of the training it provides for college.  Applying to college is typically more than just filling out a form.  It’s about conveying information, brainstorming essay topics, editing ideas, organizing others in the submission of teacher letters and transcripts, meeting deadlines, seeking help from a counselor on the direction of your college search, and honoring the integrity of the process by being honest in all of your answers.  Since these are many of the same skills that will lead to successfully negotiating the college experience, the college application is a test drive of a big part of college.  Your transcript may tell colleges you can pass tests, but your application is supposed to tell what the experience behind all that test taking has taught you.

This “student first” attitude is just as important in any communication with the college.  Parents hoping the counselor will “put in a good word” for the student don’t understand that colleges much prefer hearing from the student than from the counselor, and parents who pester the college admissions office with questions are certainly making their child memorable, but in the wrong way.  There’s nothing wrong with speaking up for a student who may get lost in the shuffle, but assuming that’s going to happen from the start speaks volumes about the parent’s faith in their child, and in the college.  They didn’t become a state champion soccer player by having Mommy or Daddy kick the ball.  Applying to college is no different.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

College Advice for Next Year’s Seniors

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


Graduation has come and gone, and the Class of 2020 is now prepared to rule the school.  Since life as a senior means thinking about what comes next, what can this year’s college admission trends tell us about next year’s application season?  More than the headlines reveal:

Double check your “sure bet” colleges  It’s not unusual for juniors to spend part of this summer building a list of 4-6 colleges they’d like to attend.  In most cases, this list will include at least a couple of schools where the student’s GPA and test scores are above the average GPA and test numbers for the college.

Students who built their list as juniors are going to want to check that list closely come August.  A number of schools that typically admitted a good number of students with B+ GPAs became incredibly popular this year, and that means many of them could expect a little more from the students they admitted.  Double-check to make sure those schools are still in range to be sure bets—and if they aren’t, check in with your counselor on how to add to your list.

Apply to rolling schools early  This advice has been around for a long time, and it’s more valuable now than ever.  While many colleges—especially public universities—have application deadlines of February 1 or February 15, many of these colleges will run out of room well before that date.  Other colleges with these dates are often willing to take students with slightly lower GPAs in the fall—but once the class begins to fill up, their criterion for admission start to rise.

Keeping your options open usually means starting early, and that’s the case with college admission.  Even if your dream school is on a rolling admission plan, think about applying by October 1.  That can do wonders for your chances for admission.

Complete your FAFSA early as well  This is also true for filing your financial aid forms, starting with the FAFSA.  This will be the third year students can file the FAFSA as early as October 1, and while some colleges are still waiting until February to put together financial aid packages, others aren’t.  You really don’t want to be left behind when the cash train leaves the station.   Once your admission application is done, jump on the financial aid forms.

Send your test scores soon—if you need to  A number of colleges have made a major change in their admission policy, where they are allowing students to self-report grades and/or test scores.  That can be a huge plus, saving students time and money, and more colleges are joining this movement every day.  Check the application requirements of your colleges August 1 to see if they’ve made the switch.

If your college still requires you to send official test scores, get that done by Labor Day.  Colleges needing official scores won’t act on your application without them, and scores ordered after Labor Day have been known to take weeks, if not months, to get there.  Don’t be left behind—jump on the Website where you signed up for the test, and follow the directions to order your scores.

Keep Aunt Becky in mind  I probably don’t need to remind anyone that you shouldn’t do anything illegal when you apply to college, but the real lesson of what went on this spring is bigger than that.  Freaking out about applying to college makes no sense at all.  You’ve devoted time and thought to where you want to go, you’ve made good choices, and your list provides a range of options you’d be happy with.  Apply, keep doing great work in high school, and watch what happens.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Buying a Dorm and the College Board Index—It’s the Same Thing

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


I am worried that our profession is losing its collective mind.

First, we spent a good month in collective amazement over the dirty deeds of Aunty Becky and her team, who tried to buy their kids’ way into several colleges.  To be sure, the amount of money involved, and the methods used to gain influence, were extreme and rare—so that was worthy of some conversation.  But the subsequent discussions around the role of wealth in college admissions seemed to suggest many counselors and college admissions officers out there had never realized the role money plays when it comes to getting into college.

Forgive me, but—really?  All the jokes in a wide range of TV shows and movies about “Daddy buying a building” didn’t give you the clue that a legal version of using wealth to one’s advantage played a role in college admissions?  More important, the articles talking about how wealth plays an important role in preparation for college, in everything from teacher letters of recommendation to test prep seem to go largely ignored, as well as the research showing students from better-funded schools tend to go to college more than their peers who attended underfunded schools.

I was (and am) still shaking my head from the incredible amount of buzz this “wealth increases access” idea was generating last week, when news broke that College Board has created an index that attempts to capture a student’s socio-economic context.  Again, while some of the initial arguments were valid—people wanted to know what factors went into the index—the overall response was one of utter amazement.  “You mean, colleges are going to start taking a student’s background into consideration when reviewing their applications?”

I don’t know how to break this to you, but this is old news—very old news.  Understanding the larger context of an applicant’s school experience—where they come from, the classes they had the chance to take, the community they were raised in—goes back decades, from the time colleges starting asking high schools to provide a profile of their school as part of a college application.  These profiles include everything from median household income data, to a list of the most demanding classes the school offers, to a distribution of test scores, to the famous list of colleges students attend who graduated from that high school.  Colleges might not use profile information to compare one high school to another, but they definitely use it to evaluate how much the student challenges themselves in school, how much they could have challenged themselves, and the resources the student had access to in their educational experience.

This is how some colleges—at least in the past—created weighted grading scales of their own, where a student attending a high school with a rigorous curriculum was given a “boost” of, say .3 when comparing student GPAs.  It’s also part of the basis for colleges who have created their own socio-economic rating scales, many of which have been in existence for years.

There’s plenty to keep an eye on with the College Board index, especially if it ends up being used by hundreds of colleges, creating a “one size fits all” approach to socio-economic context that, by definition, limits its effectiveness. But if the idea shocks you that colleges are starting to consider a student’s background as part of admissions decisions, you may want to consider it’s been around as long as rich people buying dorms to get their kids into college—and how, in many ways, it’s the exact same thing on a larger, institutionalized scale.