Wednesday, September 16, 2020

It’s Really a Brand New Year

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A local teacher was once the recipient of a prestigious national teaching award.  When asked about his secret to success, his response was fresh, original, and surprising.  “It’s simple” he said.  “After I’m through teaching a particular lesson, I take the notes I painstakingly researched, tear them up, and throw them away.  That way, when I teach the same lesson again, I have to start from scratch.”

If there’s ever a time to apply that lesson to college counseling, it’s this year.  While much of our work is based on past actions—which students got into which colleges with certain credentials—it’s pretty easy to see why this year is going to be different.  This freshness certainly isn’t going to destroy all the axioms we know to be true—there will be certain colleges where a 3.9 student is pretty much going to get in no matter what—but there are enough factors in flux that allow us to throw out some of the rules of the past, and offer new insights into students this year.

Who’s applying  It’s been a challenging year for colleges, as they scramble to meet the needs of admitted international students who can’t get the paperwork they need to be on campus.  A different problem with the same result exists for students whose college funds saw rocky times during the recent stock market upheaval, or those whose families have health or employment issues requiring them to put college on the back burner, at least for now.

Combined with the predicted downturn in the number of high school graduates, these new factors could open up some application options for students.  It’s worth asking the colleges if their recruiting projections are changing at all as a result of these new factors.  No matter what they say, this may make more applications worthwhile for capable students.

What they’re reading, Part I  The best known change is the incredible number of colleges that aren’t requiring test scores this year.  In many ways, this makes sense.  Some students simply aren’t going to get a chance to test, while others may have one set of test scores that was supposed to be a first effort—but now, it’s all they have.

Students need to understand that a college will look at scores that are sent, even if those scores put the student in an unfavorable light.  Some students are convinced colleges will ignore low test scores that are submitted, but that’s not really the case.  To them, that would be like ignoring the D in Algebra 2—once you know it’s there, you have to keep it in mind. Make sure students understand the best time to send test scores, and how to send them in a way that works to their advantage.

What they’re reading, Part II The absence of test scores puts greater weight on the other parts of the application.  At many colleges, much of that weight will get picked up by grades, while other places will look to the essays for a better understanding of the students behind the paperwork.

This means students will want to write as comprehensive a picture of who they are as possible—and that means going easy on the COVID narrative. The pandemic has left a big change on all of us, to be sure, but if all three required essays are all about COVID, colleges won’t help but wonder if there’s anything else in the student’s life.  We wouldn’t have students write three essays on baseball—this is the same thing in many ways.  Make sure the topics of the essays are thematically connected, but individually diverse.

This may not be the first time we’re applying to college, but it’s the first time our students are—so the rules would be new to them, even if they were the same rules as used in past years.  Use this mutual freshness as a springboard for quality advising, even in uncertain times.  As long as students know much of this year is unknown, we can prepare them for whatever lies ahead.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Key Questions to Ask Your College Reps

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A very different school year requires a very different approach to getting updates from your favorite colleges. In other years, it was enough to ask a rep, “What’s new?” as they set up for their high school visit with your students. This year, they aren’t coming to your high school—and that’s just the start of things that are new!

Keeping track of the changes this year requires a more systematic approach. Try this simple checklist for starters:

How has the admissions process changed? It may be tempting to just ask about the college’s use of test scores in admissions, but there’s typically much more to any changes the college has made in reviewing applicants. Asking this broader question gives the rep to address all the changes related to admissions, including:
  • Any change in the use of ACT and SAT scores—do they still require them? Remember, many schools that are test optional in admissions are still, mysteriously, requiring test scores for scholarships.
  • How they will review a file that that doesn’t have test scores. Some schools are weighing the other parts of the application the way they always used to, while others have changed the value of the other parts of the application in ways they think best address the way to read an applicant with no test scores.
  • Deadlines for all applications. This is especially the case with Early Action and Early Decision schools, many of whom have decided to push their due dates and response rates well into January. That’s a big deal to students who had hoped to hear from their Early schools in December, so they wouldn’t have to apply to the Regular schools with January 1 deadlines.
  • Deadlines for particular programs. The Business School may be taking applicants later, while the Music School may still be auditioning in January. Make sure you know.
What do you want to know about academic rigor? Many colleges will still emphasize the importance of how hard the classes were (and are) that students took last year and this year. With many schools changing to online or remote learning last spring, that meant some of the more challenging courses were graded differently- if at all—and it could mean changes to this year’s classes, too, including the number of high end courses students have access to. Asking about the best way to convey that information will lead to an important discussion about rigor—and it’s likely to bring very different answers from different colleges.

How has the delivery of classes changed? Many colleges are still changing their minds about how to deliver classes this Fall, while others have made commitments to the online/in-person question that are scheduled to last the entire year. We’ve already seen many campuses change this answer to this question in the last week, but it’s still important to ask—there may be plans for this year and next year that will affect your students’ chances of admission, or their interest in applying.

How will deferred students affect admissions for next fall? More students who were supposed to start college this Fall took one look at things and said “Maybe next year.” Does an increase in delayed starters mean fewer of this year’s seniors will be admitted? Will financial aid resources be changed—of housing promises? It may be too early to tell, but more schools are thinking about this already.

What’s the best way to get in touch with you? Many office phones are being left unanswered, so this could be a year when email becomes more important than ever. Ask, just in case.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Gearing Up for an Uncertain Fall

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Welcome back from a summer that, well didn’t quite seem like a summer, did it? For many, the annual trip to the lake or the sojourn to Aunt Ida’s house was put off for a year, and there weren’t quite as many nights to be a concertgoer, since there were far fewer concerts to go to, at least in person. Still, the summer did offer some time off to ponder, reflect on the big picture of the world around us, and determine how to best support our students in their efforts to make sense of a world that is changing daily.

For as much as the world has changed since school was last in session (remember that?), it’s important to keep in mind how much hasn’t changed, especially when it comes to school safety. A majority of schools plan on starting the school year offering most, if not all, instruction online, a plan that creates special opportunities for counselors to offer support in new and exciting ways, across all aspects of the school counseling curriculum:

The nature of learning itself —For better or worse, this is usually the time of year when helping students make strong school progress means making sure they’re on track to graduate, a task that often requires counselor involvement with schedule changes. That task is probably still with most of us unfortunately, but the very nature of online learning brings its own set of counseling needs. Isolation from peers, reduced access to teacher intervention, and online sessions that are either too short or too long can provide new stressors to students, along with the pressures some students feel of learning from a home that is far from supportive. This ASCA checklist can help you review the resources and strategies you put in place last year on the fly; now that you have a little more time to plan, it’s a great document to build on.

Social-emotional development One of the biggest arguments for reopening schools this fall was the importance of face-to-face interaction between students as it relates to both cognitive and affective development. Clients who worry about “fitting in”—and sometimes, clients who don’t worry enough about fitting in—take up a good part of a school counselor’s day when everyone is in the same building. Is this issue less important when instruction occurs online? This article from Ed Week has stood the test of time when talking about how educators can make sure social-emotional learning is still part of the online lesson plan. Given how much time students spend on social media, it’s more important than ever to understand how to provide online guidance for growth in this crucial area.

Postsecondary planning The major changes K-12 education has been called on to make the last six months pale in comparison to the shifting worlds students must prepare for after high school is over. Soaring unemployment and uncertain medical conditions make the paths for postsecondary employment more hazy than ever, while colleges are faced with the challenge of providing quality education for their students, all while safely housing and feeding them at the same time—provided colleges aren’t also starting the year with online instruction. As this article points out, some colleges are still changing their fall plans, so you can expect some of last year’s graduates to be in touch, asking for help.

Online presence While everyone wants schools to open in the fall, way too much of the conversation in education circles is talking about when K-12 learning goes back online, not if. Since a strong online presence is key to an effective counseling office all the time, now is the time to review the Webpage, simulated online office, or other tech-based outreach you have for your students and families, and give them the upgrades they deserve. This article is one of many that will show you how to use Bitmoji to create an online office appealing to younger students, but whatever you use, make sure it’s accessible, and includes the resources students are asking for most. They can make a huge difference when you’re out of the office, or when the virtual line to see you is longer than you think.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

What We Aren’t Learning From the Quarantine

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s a little awkward to say crisis brings out the best in us, but history is replete with examples of exactly that. A country in depression with one of the worst air defense systems in the world leads the Allies to victory in World War II once half of the planes needed to fight are made—by a car company. The polio epidemic is stanched by a researcher who finds a vaccine for the disease, then refuses to protect it with a patent, so more patients can benefit from it. You name the crisis, we know how to turn it around.

This is why hopes were running so high at the start of our current quarantine. Within a week—sometimes within a day—of governors closing schools, K-12s and college responded with remote versions of learning that were far from perfect, but not too shabby. Their value has started to fade as spring arrived, but then again, name a physical classroom where instructional quality was better in May than it was in March.

Hopes ran high for even greater successes as a result. If we can put learning on remote platform this quickly, the thinking went, imagine what we can do if we see this pandemic as a chance to right the inherent wrongs of our educational systems, rethink the whole thing, and finally have our educational act together by fall of 2021.

It’s too soon to speak with any authority whatsoever about what’s going to happen fifteen months from now—what teacher imagined what would happen on March 15 if they had been asked about it January 15—but the early signs are suggesting a longing for business as usual. A recent poll of college presidents shows 50 percent of those asked are working on a plan to have campus-based classes this coming fall, and K-12 districts are diligently working on some kind of plan where remote learning plays a minimal role in instruction.

Neither group can be blamed; colleges know there’s really no reason for parents to spend $50,000 to have their kids take online classes from the family living room, and K-12 remote classes only work in large part due to the presence of parents working from home, a situation that can’t last forever. But these plans are largely based on the assumption that we’ve looked at how we’re teaching our students, and decided that the best way to move forward is to stay anchored in the past, an assumption that wasn’t as universally accepted before the pandemic.

It’s clear the strategy for this Fall then, is a combination of Ford’s answer to World War II, and Jonas Salk’s cure of polio—let’s use a completely remote learning model (something colleges were never meant to do) to kill time, hoping that some research chemist will find a cure for the virus, and be willing to give it away for free. With that in place, the plan for fall of 2021 comes into focus—we can finally go back to the way we used to do things.

If that’s the only lesson we’re going to learn from school from afar, we’ve earned a failing grade. Remote learning has required those with less to fall even farther behind, and our clinging to dated models of what college is continues to be a disservice to the 60 percent of college students who neither live on campus nor go right to college once they’re 18. 

If these experiences aren’t enough for us to try and make something better out of this time of crisis—this opportunity for growth—it makes one wonder what it will take for us to decide something better in the classroom really matters.

Here’s hoping time proves me wrong.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Early Advice for Juniors Applying to College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Leave it to our friends at Common Application to provide a little good news—and a lot of stability—to the college application world, just when both are desperately needed.Last week, Common App announced the addition of another essay question to this fall’s application:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

This 250-word essay is completely optional, and applicants won’t be penalized if they choose not to use it. Still, the presence of this space meets two needs at the same time:

  • Juniors can talk at length about any disruptions they’ve had in their college search as a result of the quarantine.This gives them space to talk about first (or second) test dates that got cancelled, summer plans for classes or internships that had to change, campus tours that never happened, any impact this has had on their grades due to changes in the way classes were delivered—and more.
  • It gives them the chance to answer the remaining essay prompts without referring to the quarantine.One of the rules of good essay writing is “if it’s somewhere else in the application, don’t write about it.”Once a student provides a full accounting of how the quarantine has required them to reroute their college search, they can use the other essay topics to get back to the business of showing colleges who they are, what they think about, and more.With so many colleges going test optional next year, these narratives will become more important than ever.Thanks to Common App, that importance doesn’t have to be watered down.

The key to using this new prompt successfully is to make sure juniors understand how to make the most of it.This isn’t the space to talk about poor ninth grades, or spraining a wrist during sophomore softball season.Neither of these events were affected by the quarantine, so if they end up in the application, they go somewhere else—students should not see this as an extra 250 words to talk about whatever they wish.

The harder challenge will more likely lie in having students minimize their discussion of the quarantine in other essays.Mentioning the quarantine too often has the potential of weakening the impact of the student’s response to the quarantine prompt; it can also give the colleges the feeling that the student has no real answer for the other prompts, if all they want to talk about is the quarantine. The focus of the other essay questions remains the same—showing the college who the student is.It’s vital that they understand how, in a season of great change, this goal remains the same.

Some counselors are also considering sharing this Common App prompt with all their seniors, including those who may not be applying to college through Common App. By getting a written response from all students, the counselor has the option of including the student’s response in the counselor’s letter to the colleges. This emphasizes the effect of the quarantine to those colleges that require Common App; it gives all other college the context needed to evaluate the applicant’s college readiness. Either way is a win for the student, and for the college—the more information they can share with each other in this uncertain year, the better.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Budget Cuts Are Back. Here’s What to Do.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A new threat is building on the counseling horizon, and you’re going to need to get ready for it. The good news is that this is not a new nemesis; we’ve seen it before, we know what it does, and we’ve battled it before. The bad news is, it’s back and bigger than ever.

Yup. Budget cuts.

Congress is working hard to support states and schools with supplemental grants designed to take the sting out of all of the changes they’ve had to face during the quarantine. Unfortunately, many of these funds are earmarked specifically for tasks like distance learning, and the remaining money isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost states have to deal with when there’s an increased need for social services (when people lose their jobs) and a loss of revenue during a depression (due to stores and restaurants closing.)

The results can leave you breathless. The chair of a key budget committee in Michigan has said the state’s per-pupil budget allocation will need to slashed by 25 percent to balance the state budget. That isn’t the entire education budget, but it’s a big enough chunk that it isn’t hard to see where this is going. Budget cuts to schools, at a time when social distancing practices are already calling for smaller class sizes. That means you can’t lay off classroom teachers—so where do you cut?


Most states are in the early stages of budget discussions, but the size of the proposed cuts should be more than enough to make any school counselor nervous. When 80 percent of a budget is personnel costs, and most of those personnel are classroom teachers you have to keep on in order to make for smaller class sizes, that puts decision makers under some pretty big pressure to lay off non-classroom personnel. And that’s us.
This isn’t exactly the news counselors need to hear, especially since we’re in the middle of moving heaven and earth to support students through all kinds of challenges, with the added challenge that we can’t be in the same room with them while we try to support them.

On the other hand, it’s not like budget cuts are new turf we have to cover. Counselors are one of the groups that regularly survive fiscal scrutiny, and the strategies we’ve used in the past will help us here, too:

Use the data and the power of public opinion The quarantine has featured more than its share of stories about the challenges students and families are facing getting used to online school and life in general, and most of those stories talk about how invaluable counselors are in supporting this transition. You’re going to want to collect these stories, and add your own local examples of how your services have made a difference. Online learning is a delicate system; if getting rid of counselors is going to knock it down, they won’t do that.

Don’t rest on your laurels The programming, seminars, and support systems you’ve set up in the last two months have more than met the needs of many of your students, but “more of the same” isn’t likely to keep your job if money is tight. Experience tells us that counseling jobs are saved when we can show how we’re going to do more with less—so it’s time to put together a plan that would expand existing counseling services, especially now that you have the summer to develop them. Administrators know you already make a difference; now is the time to show them you can make even more of a difference, since that makes investing scarce budget dollars in you all the better of an investment. This isn’t exactly fair, but it’s often the difference between keeping a counselor and a program, and being one counselor who puts out fires at four different schools.

Choose your partners Counselors are often seen as easy layoff targets because the belief is we are independent agents—that the work of others doesn’t depend on our work. Any work you’ve done with classroom teachers or community mental health programs is proof your work affects more than just one student at a time. If you’ve got classroom colleagues and community partners who value what you do, now is the time to ask them to speak up.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

FAFSA Renewals Are Down. Here’s How to Help.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

At a time where school counselors are coming to expect the unexpected, you’d think we would welcome some news we could pretty much predict. Unfortunately, that news isn’t pretty.

A new report from the National College Attainment Network shows the number of students renewing the FAFSA since late February is down about 5%. The news gets worse when the report is dissected by socio-economic status, with renewals down by over 8% among students whose families make less than $25,000 a year.

It isn’t unusual for students to not renew the FAFSA, since many of them are under the impression that they qualify for four years of financial aid by filling FAFSA out once as a high school senior. But that statistic should be relatively consistent from year to year; there’s no real reason more students would assume a “one and done” attitude this year, so that doesn’t explain the decline.

Instead, the assumption this year could be based on other, more serious factors. Students whose financial situations have changed in the last year may not realize the amount of financial aid they receive could increase, provided they tell the college their need has increased. Other students may just feel their circumstances have changed so much that there’s no point in applying, while others may be required to take some time out of school to care for family or other personal situation.

The biggest problem in reaching out to non-renewing students is that school counselors don’t typically interact with most of their students once they graduate high school. The colleges where non-renewers attend are undoubtedly reaching out to the students, but that can easily become just one more email or letter from the college, institutions that can be known to drown students in communications at peak times throughout the year. On the other hand, if a student gets a note from their school counselor, saying “What’s up with the FAFSA?”—that might be unique enough to get their attention.

It’s time for some clever thinking, and we’re just the crew to do that. Try these ideas for initial outreach:

Communicate this need to your current students and parents. You may not see your graduates on a regular basis, but many of them are the neighbors, friends, and siblings of the students and parents you work with every day. If you get the word out that you want to help kids stay in college, that news will spread. Be sure to include your contact information.

Use your old texting trees to reach out. The added challenge of working with low-income students is the lower number who have access to the Internet. Happily, more of them have cell phones—so, as long as you’ve kept your old class lists from your Remind (or other) texting accounts, you can use those to reach out with a “Remember Me?” message. This also applied to any texting trees you have for alumni parents.

Reach out to faculty, too. I continue to be amazed by the number of alumni who are still in touch with their high school teachers. If there’s ever a time to make the most of that relationship, it’s now.

Once you have your plan together, the message you want to convey is simple: Your college wants to hear from you. It’s OK if your finances have changed—tell them how, and they’ll try and work with you. It’s not unusual for finances to change from year to year—that’s why you have to file every year. If you need to change schools, that’s OK—your new school has financial aid, too, but they can only give it to you if you tell them what’s going on.

This is too great a group of students to leave to chance. Reaching out will take more effort, but they are more than worth it.