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.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Fixing College Admissions: If There Was Just One Thing…

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t have to tell most of you November 1 is a pretty big deal in the world of college admissions. With more and more students applying Early Decision and Early Action (you know the difference, right? RIGHT?!), many high schools report they are sending more transcripts and college applications out in October than they are for the rest of the year combined. This surge in early applications leads many counselors to wonder if students are still making thoughtful decisions about where to apply, now that they feel this need for speed to get their applications in. Is it really true that you make a weaker decision if you get less time to think about it?

The larger issue for many counselors is the unintended advantage this early application mania gives to students who go to high schools with more counselors. More counselors, the theory goes, means smaller caseloads, giving counselors more time to meet with students and fine tune college plans. Does that mean students with fewer counselors lack the understanding or resources to apply early—and if colleges take as many as 60% of their students early, does that put these students at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to applying to college?

It turns out, this is just the start of the conversation about the fairness of college admission. Long ago, college counseling guru Jon Boeckenstedt pointed out how something as innocuous as the teacher letter of recommendation can give an advantage in the college application process to students in wealthier schools. I’ve since taken that theme and shown how similar advantages exist in test preparation, essay help, interviews—just about every part of the college selection process. Colleges are only well too aware of these inequities, but how they adjust for them as they wade through a mountain of applications is another issue. Does every admission officer understand how unbalanced the system can be?

This question seems to be on the minds of more than a few of our colleagues. This week, NACAC announced the formulation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Leadership in College Admission. Among their other charges, the Committee will look at the existing college admissions process and simply ask—how can we do better? The announcement of the committee has already generated a lot of buzz among counselors, as this is the first time in recent memory NACAC has looked at the current state of admission as a construct.

Of course, NACAC is by no means the only group asking this question. This upcoming weekend, the Facebook group Hack the Gates will be convening for their first group-based effort to consider what college admissions should look like. The first answer, of course, is “different,” but this weekend’s convening (if you go to the webpage, you can find out how to participate online) is the first serious effort to put meat on the bones of this proposition of change.

Early indications suggest this desire to develop new admissions methods could be fruitful. In the last few years alone, test-optional schools, schools that allow self-reported grades and scores, and colleges developing alternative admissions methods have seen unparalleled growth, with each change making access to the process easier. Changes in issues like affordability (Is there really such a thing as free college? Would colleges give up the financial benefits of Early Decision programs if doing so increased access to college for all?) and completion rates may prove to be thornier propositions, but the “one piece at a time” approach in the admissions process itself suggests there is a hunger to find a better way for higher education to serve all students.

This is an exciting time to be a counselor.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Gentle Art of Applying to College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counseling offices across the country are reporting an uptick in college application activity this time of year. What used to be the “big rush before Christmas” has now become the “big rush before Halloween,” as more colleges are offering early admission programs, and special scholarship incentives for students who apply early. Convinced that earlier is better, students are taking the colleges up on these offers in record numbers, hoping to score an offer of admission or extra scholarship that cements their future.

Much of the colleges’ rationale for doing all this is based on data. Research continues to show that a student is more likely to attend a college if the college is the first, or at least among the first, to offer the student admission. Combine that with an “unexpected” scholarship offer, and it’s easy to see how a student can get caught up in the moment. First admit, plus extra cash, makes an offer just too good to be true.

But that’s where students, and our profession, need to be careful. Getting excited about college is a natural and expected part of the process, but excitement isn’t a data point; it’s a feeling. The minute the college selection process ventures into the affective domain of seventeen year-olds, all bets are off. A college that costs less isn’t much of a bargain if it doesn’t offer the right mix of support, challenge, and opportunity. This isn’t to say every day of college is a life of bread and roses, but if a college student’s biggest daily challenge is working up the energy to get up, perhaps they’re in the wrong place in the first place. If only they had more time to think.

I thought about all this as I was reading some counselor comments about the high levels of stress students are experiencing, not only in applying to college, but with life in general. Reports (again, back to data) tell us students are using college mental health programs (now back to feelings) like never before, and the number of students turning to opioids and vaping to relieve the pain of growing up surpasses anything we’ve seen in substance abuse usage. The point of the counselor comments basically boiled down to this: In our interest to be “first—in the hearts and minds of our students, in the rankings, in the media—are colleges putting too much pressure on students?

Two students come to mind. The first one was wise beyond her years, someone who glided through the college selection process without a care in the world. She’d started visiting college campuses in ninth grade, and while she wasn’t obsessed with choosing a college, she thought about it often enough to make sure she was doing everything she needed to do to keep her college options aligned to her interests. She took the tests and completed the applications with time to spare. By mid-October, she was back to being a high school student. By January, she’d been accepted to the five colleges she applied to early.

The second student saw applying to college as more of a performance art experience. Every step of the process was a life and death decision, a surprise, something they hadn’t thought about until it was almost too late to think about it. Applying to six colleges (without having visited any of them) was an experience that dragged out through after Christmas, and choosing among the three colleges that offered admission in April almost required an all-school assembly for them to decide what to do. Throughout their meetings with their counselor, their mantra was all too familiar—“The college application process is killing me.”

Thankfully, the student wasn’t speaking literally—but the differences between the two approaches are telling. What are we, as school counselors, doing to make sure students have the opportunity to pursue their college interests more like the first student, as an attitude one embraces, as a natural part of growing into self? Media portrayals of the Angst of Senior Year may seem to be the more popular approach to college choice, so much so that students may feeling they’re missing out on something if they aren’t in there, freaking out with everyone else. But are they really?

Counseling offices throughout the country are looking forward to a little down time next week, and rightly so. As we catch our collective breaths, November might be the time to consider how our existing counseling curriculum treats college choice—is it more a natural part of who students are, or is it an event thrust upon them, ready or not? Doing what we can to make it a more gradual, gentle experience may be the best thing we can do for all involved.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Advising the Transfer Student

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s National Transfer Student Week, a great time for students and counselors to remember that the college where you begin doesn’t have to be the college where you graduate, as long as you have an effective plan.

That last point can’t be emphasized enough. I typically hear from one or two of my students this time of year, students who graduated last June and made a strong college plan, who somehow find themselves on a college campus without much of a plan at all. Using phrases like “This isn’t quite what I thought it would be”, or “they sure didn’t tell me about this when I took the tour”, these students are turning to their counselor to once again be their compass. Do they stay and stick it out? Do they go somewhere else? Do they stop and try some other path, hoping a life experience other than college might give them some sense of direction?

As is the case with all college counseling questions, the answer lies in exploring other questions.

Why are they unhappy? There’s very little in life that can compare with the buzz and energy of a college campus in the fall. Returning students are eager to get back in the routine they love, freshmen bring in the energy that makes them, well, fresh, and there’s this air of new starts and possibilities that’s nothing short of empowering.

Then along comes October, with the first round of exams, a few rainy days, and the realization that maybe the football team isn’t going to go all the way. This makes it easy for the newness of the year to feel a little old, making college seem more like a routine than an opportunity—and let’s face it, that’s not as much fun.

For some students, the absence of that start-of-the-year excitement is what they’re missing. The school may have everything they need, but what they really want is the thrill of a fresh start at a new school—not realizing that the high of the next new start will fade as well. Students wanting to transfer because they fear the routine may need some counseling about the purpose of school, and the nature of long-term commitments. On the other hand, if they simply say they hate the place, a new start might be just the thing for them.

Where do they want to go? This question has its own share of tricks and turns. On the one hand, a student who has researched other options may have an answer for this question based on what’s missing from their current school. “I had hoped to do research as an undergraduate, but I can’t really do that here” shows a student who is looking with purpose to go somewhere else, while “I don’t know—anywhere but here” suggests a need to explore more of what they’re looking for in a right fit.

Either way, be especially careful if the student wants to transfer to a school where they applied as a high school senior. In many cases, the desire to go to that school is based on the high school friends who are going there, and the student is assuming that transferring there will guarantee a return of the good times of senior year. Those days were great, but they are now past. It’s time to think ahead.

When do they want to go? This can be a pretty telling question. A student who plans on finishing the term out where they are is more likely to have thought out their reasons for why they want to make a change. Students who answer this question with some version of “I just want to go home now” are more likely reacting to a setback they haven’t completely processed. That setback may be more than enough reason to decide it’s time for a new start, but the student needs to consider the time, energy, and money they’re invested in their current college. Are things really so unbearable that you’re willing to extend your time in college by walking away with no credits and more debt?

Thousands of students transfer colleges every year for healthy reasons, seeking new opportunities based on their desires to grow as a person and as a student. Supporting those students is important, and easy; making sure that’s the posture of all transfer students might take a little more work on our part, but it’s more than worth it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Oktoberunrest: Completed the Application, But Won’t Hit Submit

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Did anyone else have a weird week? Just as I was getting used to managing the college counseling crisis du jour—anxiety over wealthy parents inventing odd ways to get their child into college, major changes in the way students are recruited by coltleges, and a testing giant doing a 180 on their long-standing policy about superscoring—the world of college counseling experienced no major changes last week, leaving me with no other choice but to—you know—do my job.

I have to admit, I was kind of at a loss. But then a parent called with a crisis, and I was right back in the saddle.

“I don’t get it” she said, “he’s written wonderful essays, gone over his activities list three times, and secured what I know are two great letters of recommendation (Note: I decided not to ask how Mom was so certain of this.) But every morning, I ask him if he submitted the application, and I get the same answer. ‘Nah. Tomorrow.’ What’s going on?”

Welcome to mid-October, the time of year when Homecoming, homework, and home expectations about life after high school turn even the strongest of seniors into quivering masses of uncertainty. Six weeks ago, they were ready to rule the school. Now, two Physics tests and word that some seniors have already been admitted to college have students wondering all kinds of things:

Am I really ready for high school to be over? This is when some seniors start to see this year as a series of lasts—last school picture, last big game against the crosstown rival, last fall dance. Mentally, they know there’s a lot to look forward to; emotionally, they wonder if it’s going be as good as it’s been. In this interesting scenario, high school starts to end the minute they apply to college. If you don’t hit submit, there’s still time to live out the good.

Could I have done more? For other students, this time of senior year isn’t about the end of the good times—it’s about wondering if the times could have been better. It isn’t uncommon for students to want higher grades or more awards when they see their accomplishments in writing-- Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I study longer? That leads to a pretty natural next question—am I really ready to make the most out of college, if I didn’t make the most out of high school? If not, why apply?

What am I doing with my life? Still another version of Oktoberunrest lies with students who aren’t wondering in the least about what they’ve done, but start to doubt what lies ahead. Imposter syndrome runs rampant this time of year, and seniors who want to avoid being “called out” with a college rejection know there’s only one way you can’t possibly get outed; don’t apply.

It’s easy to understand why parents are flipping out about this dearth of college activity, especially if everyone was Just. So. Buzzed. about college a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, parent responses sometimes miss the larger point, and their well-meaning responses—“But you love this college”, and the highly dreaded “The longer you wait to apply, the harder it will be to get admitted”—can actually do more harm than good.

Our task is to get everyone back on the same page. Give the student floodtides of reassurance. Senior year will not end tomorrow, and if it does, there are class reunions; the good you’ve created may not be perfect, but it’s still good; that good will be part of you forever, and is something you can build on to make an even better life in college.

If that doesn’t work, there’s this. Hold up the nicest writing instrument you have in the office, and say “I have to sign a form as part of your college application that says I recommend you for admission. If I didn’t think you were ready, I wouldn’t sign it. But I’ve got my pen, right here.”

Mom and Dad come next. Tell them what happened when you met with the student— and make sure that meeting occurs without any parental presence—then give them the inside scoop. They may not understand right away (“He’s had such an easy life! Why does he see this as hard?”), but ask them if they ever had doubts about the big decisions in their lives. That makes it real.

Nothing earth shattering happened in the world of college admissions this week, but we still have a chance to make a world of difference in college admissions this week. Let’s help some folks move forward.