Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Peer pressure is an amazing thing.
There haven’t been two months of school in many states, but some seniors are already convinced everyone is ahead of them in the rush to college. “I’m all through with my applications” beams Jennifer. “I’ve narrowed my Early Decision college down to two” boasts another student. “I’m almost done with my first application” crows a third, “my essay is all that’s left.”
Seniors, it is October 20. College doesn’t start for 10 months. No college has closed admission, and one isn’t likely to until November 30. After that, there will only be, oh, about 3000 other colleges to choose from. Many of them don’t require test scores or essays, most don’t let students apply Early Decision — and they totally rock. So there’s time.
But enough about them. Let’s talk about you.
When was the last time something good ever happened to your life when you took a snapshot of somebody else’s life and assumed it was wonderful? Jennifer may be finished applying to college, but maybe that’s because her mother was holding the car keys hostage until the apps were done. Does that make for great college essays — especially since essays due January 1st should be reviewed December 15th, just in case the first four months of senior year have changed you, the way you look at the world, or what you want to do with your life?
And your friend who’s choosing an Early Decision school — does he understand this is like marriage? Sure, more ED students get admitted (by percentage) than students who wait — but if your one ED college accepts you, you have to go there. Done, Decided. Welcome to the Family.
If your friend has doubts about both of these schools, maybe it isn’t time to book the bachelor party just yet. Instead, he should find some other colleges that have the best qualities of both schools, apply to all of them as a regular applicant, and see what feels best eight months from now.

As for our applicant who needs to finish her essays, she is probably stuck on her essays. If so, it’s likely she is trying to write them Tuesday night at 10, after a full day of school, band practice, homework, and a dinner that involves microwaved pasta, no lettuce, and little family time.
If this describes your friend, here is her antidote — no essays on Tuesday. Carve a two-hour block out of Saturday or Sunday (or both), work on your applications then — and only then — and forget about them during the week. That way, you get to study and learn, work on the homecoming float, have a great senior year, and write great college essays to boot. Plus, your applications will be done by Thanksgiving, so you can spend Christmas break with your family, not with your computer.
The root of all bad living lies in thinking someone else has it better than you — it can make you feel trapped, confused, and unworthy. Funny thing is, that isn’t because of pressure a peer is putting on you; that’s because of pressure you’re putting on yourself.
It’s time to deflate. Be happy Jennifer’s mom is off her back, tell the bridegroom ED doesn’t have to be, and make sure your pal with the essays gets a real meal next Tuesday. You’ll be happier, they’ll be happier, and you may find your first college application will be easier to complete than you thought.
On Saturday.
(Oh, right. What’s another reason your friend might not be able to write her essays?  Click here.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Role of Texting in College Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

One of the biggest challenges school counselors face is keeping in touch with their students.  This is especially true when it comes to advising students about college plans.  With all of the choices, and all of the steps that have to be taken, and all of the forms that have to be completed, how can counselors help students keep things organized, and make sure they stay on task?

One way many counselors have met this needs is by using a group texting program like Remind.  These programs allow counselors to set up texting groups on a computer, where counselors can invite students to join the group.  Student cell phone numbers are never revealed to the counselor, assuring security, but the counselor is able to reach out to students with timely information on college application deadlines, scholarship information, and more, using the medium most students prefer to use.

The success counselors have realized through texting has been noticed by the White House, which has recently announced a texting program designed to help keep students on track with their college plans. What’s Up Next sends out regular texts for students with tips on all facets of the college selection and application process, and includes tips on paying for college.  This program is free, and students can sign up at Counselors planning on sharing this opportunity with their students are strongly urged to sign up for the service as well, since this is the best way to make sure the messages students are getting from What’s Up Next align with the goals, deadlines, and messages counselors are sending to students about college.

Texting plays a major role in combating one of the biggest challenges in the college selection process, summer melt.  A Harvard report suggests that 10-40% of all students who graduate from high school with plans to attend college end up not attending come fall.  One of the biggest reasons seems to be a breakdown in communication over the summer; students stop reading emails the colleges send that tell students about important deadlines for enrollment and financial aid, and there are no counselors around to remind students that they still have work to do to get ready for college.  As a result, students don’t get enrolled, or worse, they lose their financial support, and they don’t know how to get back into the college track once they’ve fallen out of it.  That’s summer melt.

The best way to avoid summer melt is to make sure counselors play a key role in the lives of students over the summer- - and that means texting.  By using either a texting program or a disposable phone, counselors can reach out to students with 1-2 texts a week with simple messages (“Check your email for college updates?”, “Did you sign up for orientation yet?”) that will lead to students following up or keeping on track. 

Counselors will want to do a little planning ahead of time to line up the texts in an order that moves students toward college in the right sequence, and they’ll likely have to follow up some texts answering emails to students that have specific questions. It’s also a good idea to contact the Student Services department of the colleges attended by many of your students, to see if *they* offer a texting program your students can subscribe to.  This is a great way for colleges to take over the guidance of the students that will soon be on campus.

You’ve worked hard to get your students into college.  A little more work with your thumbs can seal the deal.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

College Readiness Checklist Fails to Make the Grade

By; Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

While we’ve been away this summer, the School Superintendent’s Association (AASA) has released a series of National College and Career Readiness Indicators.  These three checklists can be used to determine if students will succeed in their chosen postsecondary path of college or career, along with one checklist to determine if they are, according to the Website, ready for life.

AASA calls these research-based metrics, but doesn’t manage to site the research on their Website or indicate the involvement of counselors or college admission officers in the creation of the lists.  They go on to state “the campaign is a response to dismal college and career readiness scores reported by standardized test makers that fail to portray a comprehensive picture of student potential.
The comprehensive picture AASA has drawn for college readiness reads as follows:

GPA 2.8 out of 4.0 and one or more of the following benchmarks:
Advanced Placement Exam (3+)
Advanced Placement Course (A, B or C)
Dual Credit College English and/or Math (A, B or C)
College Developmental/Remedial English and/or Math (A, B or C)
Algebra II (A, B or C)
International Baccalaureate Exam (4+)
College Readiness Placement Assessment*

The College-Ready list then goes on to site minimum scores on the ACT, as well as “other factors” that contribute to college success, including completion of the FAFSA.
The stated goal of the indicators is to prove “Our students are more than a score”, a slogan that seems to refer to deciding a student’s college readiness based exclusively on the ACT or SAT.  Given the list they’ve created, AASA seems to be suggesting students are indeed more than just one score; they are  three scores.  If the list is an accurate indicator of college readiness, students are ready to take on the rigors of college as long as they have a minimum score on the ACT; a minimum GPA, and a C in any class from Algebra II to an AP course.
This is undoubtedly a great relief to school counselors and college admission officers, who have long been under the delusion that college readiness is a much more intricate construct, and never determined by just one score, or by just three.  Directly involved in the college selection process, these educators are under the impression that a student is more likely to be college ready if they’ve taken rigorous classes across the curriculum, not just one AP class. 
In addition, a number of colleges are convinced that a C in an advanced class suggests the student is unlikely to succeed in college, since average college grades are typically one full grade level below what a student earns in college.  Given that data point, is AASA really willing to say a student with a C in Algebra II is a success if they earn a D in their first year of College Algebra, or if their high school GPA of 2.8 turns into a 1.8 at university? This would rebuff years of institutional data that has been created and verified by thousands of colleges, data that includes the role of personal maturity and socialization as measures of college readiness.  Knowing college readiness is something as easy as following this checklist clearly makes these follow-up studies pointless.
In addition, this college readiness list will undoubtedly lead parents to reconsider what they thought they knew about choosing a college.  Since the list doesn’t answer the question “Ready for which colleges?” parents will now safely assume that the college readiness list will prepare their child to succeed in any curriculum at any college, from community college to research universities to the Ivy League.  I for one can’t wait to return to the office and get the first phone call from an ebullient parent who advises me that I was wrong about Johnny’s college prospects, since the Superintendent’s Association has decided that Johnny’s 2.9 GPA and C in Algebra II really does make him ready for Yale, no matter what I think.
Helping students with the very personal experience of discovering colleges that are best suited to advance their goals, talents, and dreams has never been an easy thing to do, if it’s done well.  A vast majority of school counselors and college admission counselors will readily admit that the many Best Colleges lists haven’t helped that cause, since those rankings are based on factors that either have little to do with a student’s college experience, or don’t take the unique needs of each student into account when creating the list. Counselors and college admissions officers do that; lists don’t.

Well-meaning as it may be, this checklist of college ready attributes does little to help the cause of college readiness.  It may be news to some superintendents and principals that there’s more to being ready for college than a good score on the ACT, but that’s only because those school leaders have never had a serious conversation with their counselors about the purpose of college, and the process of creating a successful college fit between student and school. 

The creation of this college readiness list may create that opportunity, as administrators may use its rollout as an occasion to advise counselors how to “do” college counseling.  School counselors are going to want to be ready for that conversation with armloads of data and the insights of college admission officers.  If they are, that conversation could lead to new levels of support for college counseling program—the only possible outcome of the creation of these checklists that could be considered a plus.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

College Application Season Brings Changes

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

If you’re a high school counselor, you probably don’t need to be told that there have been a lot of changes made to the college application process over the summer—and some are still taking place.  As schedule changing season winds down, and college application season heats us, here’s a reminder list of what you need to watch out for:

Testing, Part I    Some of the biggest news this summer is the number of colleges that no longer require SAT or ACT results as part of the application process for most students.  This shift to test-optional admissions usually comes when one of the major tests makes changes; colleges look at the role test scores play in admissions, decide they don’t add that much information, and decide it isn’t worth putting students through all the stress of taking the test.

An updated list of test optional colleges can be found at , and since colleges were just added last week, it might be a good idea to take a peek.  Keep in mind that some colleges still require test scores for some admissions cases—it’s still required for students who want to play interscholastic sports at Division I and II schools, for example.  Other colleges will still ask for test scores once the student is admitted, to use them for scholarship consideration or placement into freshmen classes.  Students should check the admissions Website of their colleges for more information, and if a student’s test scores are above the college’s average, it’s probably still a good idea to submit the test scores anyway.

Testing, Part II   Another big change that came this summer is in the highly selective colleges.  Many of these schools required students to submit either the ACT or the SAT, plus two or three SAT Subject Tests results as well.  A number of these colleges looked at these requirements over the summer, and realized this may be a little too much testing.  As a result, many highly selective colleges are now recommending students submit Subject Tests, or describing them as optional.

In some cases, Subject Tests are only optional if the student submits the ACT with Writing, but other colleges are making them optional if any other test is submitted.  It’s wise to double-check the college’s Website.

More Early Applications  The five year trend of colleges encouraging early application continues this year, with more schools offering more versions of Early Action and Early Decision than ever before.  All of these new programs make it more important than ever for students to understand that Early Decision programs require the student to attend that college if they are admitted under an Early Decision program—so if they apply ED and the college takes them, their college search is over.

Look for an increase in the number of Early Decision II programs.  These work just like Early Decision, but they usually have a later application deadline, typically in January.  This gives students more time to consider their choices before deciding to apply ED to a school.  It also allows them to apply ED to a second school, if their first choice ED school doesn’t admit them in November.

Finally, note that more Early Action colleges are trying to limit the number of other colleges students can apply to Early Action.  Usually known as Early Action Single Choice, these programs give students until May 1 to pick their college—but they can’t apply Early Action to any other college.  This requires students to also make some important choices; make sure you walk them through all of their options before they decide.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Skilled Trades Tale of Two Senators

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

As Michigan students head back to school, Michigan families need to take a minute to contact two state senators, to thank one for looking out for their kids, and to urge the other one to start to do so right away.
The topic is skilled trades, a world of work that was supposed to die during the Great Recession and never come back. Evidently, someone forgot to tell that to the plumbers, pipe fitters, and other skilled tradesmen, whose annual salaries average$41000 a year—and these fields have openings they can’t fill now.
Getting information about these opportunities to young people has been a bit of challenge, and that’s where Senator Ken Horn comes in. Rules governing the skilled trades have been added here and there for the last thirty years, creating a patchwork of state law that made skilled trade regulations confusing, and sometimes contradictory. By introducing the Skilled Trades Regulation Act, Senator Horn has taken a well-meaning mix of skilled trade regulations and made them as easy to understand as reading the newspaper.
In introducing the Act to the public, Senator Horn said “Creation of the Skilled Trades Regulation Act will update and revise the relevant laws into one universal code that would ensure they meet the highest standards for enforcement and efficiency.”
This is excellent news for everyone in Michigan, especially students who like to work with their hands. The Skilled Trades Regulation Act is one legislative effort that will help students understand the strength and viability of many important career paths in the skilled trades, and most of them are attainable with two years or less of training after high school. When it comes to creating options after high school for students, Senator Horn’s innovative thinking is leading the way, as this bill has already had one round of Senate hearings.
The same cannot be said for another bill that would do even more to help students shape their futures after high school. House Bill 4552 makes sure Michigan students and families are working with school counselors that have the latest information on career and college opportunities in Michigan. Many of Michigan’s school counselors report they receive little training in college advising, and even less in the skilled trades. By including this training in their existing requirement for professional development, House Bill 4552 would help counselors understand the latest trends in career and college opportunities, information that’s been shown to be needed by students as early as age 10.
This bill passed the House by a wide margin, and with bipartisan support, in January. Since then, it has languished in the Senate Education Committee, even though the bill has received the support of business leaders, law enforcement officers, counselors, and retired military officers. Members of the Senate leadership have indicted the bill will easily pass the Senate floor, but it has yet to even be scheduled for hearings by the Senate Education Committee, which has not met to discuss any issue in the last six weeks of legislative session.
All of Michigan’s students deserve an opportunity to understand all of the career and college options that await them after high school, and your voice can make that happen. Take a moment to contact Senator Ken Horn’s office to thank him for helping Michigan’s students, then contact the Senate Education Committee and urge them to take up House Bill 4552. In this time of incredible postsecondary opportunities, our students deserve easier access to all of them.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

College Advice to High School Ninth Graders

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It always happens during schedule changes.

“Excuse me, are you my counselor?  My name is Josh, and I’m a new ninth grader, and I’d like to talk to you about applying to college.”

Because you’re a counselor, your response is partly one of support and compassion.  Because it’s the first day of school, and you’re up to your eyes in schedule changes, your response is also one of exasperation.

But support and compassion win, and you tell the student you’re swamped with schedule changes, but if they leave their e-mail address, you’ll get in touch.

And then, you send them this:

Thanks for coming by today to talk about your interest in college.  It’s important to think about the future every day you’re in high school, and learning more about your college options is a big part of building that future.  What’s great about learning about college as a ninth grader is that discovering more about college means discovering more about yourself.  That’s why it’s important to focus on these three goals in high school as part of being ready for college.

Learn to Be a Good Student  It’s likely at least one of your ninth grade classes is going to challenge you in ways no class has challenged you before.  Some students will see this class as hard—but good students see it as an opportunity to learn more about themselves, and more about their study skills.  That’s one of the key skills you’ll need in college—when faced with a challenge, how do you respond?

The first step in learning to be a good student is to pay more attention to how you study, and less attention to your grades?  Why?  Because there are many smart students who will get As in classes where they never have to study.  They just let their natural talent guide them to a high grade, without really thinking about the answers they put down on a test, or comparing the new ideas they’re learning with the old ideas they’ve always believed. 

Good students are always asking key questions, like how does this relate to what I already know, do I agree with what’s being said, or how does this idea apply in the real world. The answers aren’t always easy to find, but in looking for them, you’re learning more than you ever could just studying to get by.

Participate in Extra Curriculars  Too many people think colleges are impressed by students who join twelve clubs, but that isn’t the case.  They see clubs, sports, and other activities of other ways to learn and interact with others.  These are key parts of learning more about yourself, and by focusing on just a few activities (including work, if you’d like), you’re making the most of these learning opportunities, and maybe even taking on some leadership positions.  That’s real growth.

Work in Community Service  Whether or not you’re go to college, you’ll need to understand more about other people, and community service is a special way to do that.  Giving to others gives you a view of the world you just can’t get in a classroom, especially if you’re working to improve the quality of life for others in your own home town. Mission work in another country is important, for sure, but don’t overlook the needs of those nearby.  In addition to making a difference in their lives, you’ll be sharpening your skills to be a member of a community—and a college is really just a community of learning and living.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Financial Aid is Due When?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Counselors often describe their work as exciting, and that can go both ways. The changes in financial aid are supposed to fall under the good kind of exciting, but as we come back to offices , we’re slowly discovering the FAFSA changes might not seem so great after all, since the FAFSA can be filed onOctober 1.
You know—right after schedule changes, right before Homecoming, right in the middle of applying to college?

The approach still makes sense in theory—b what better time to get kids to apply for money to pay for college than right after they’ve applied to college?  Still, the changes have raised anxieties among both students and counselors. Since our job is to ease anxiety, let’s meet this head on.

Issues for Students

·         I’m not even sure where I’m going to college, and you want me to fill out the FAFSA.  This one is pretty easy.  No matter where you’re going to go to college, it’s going to cost money to do that.  FAFSA is the first step to allow the government and the colleges to help you do that.  You want that help, no matter where you go—so filling out the FAFSA makes sense.

·         I’m too busy getting good grades and filling out college apps to fill out the FAFSA.  This is actually a pretty good point.  The good news here is that filling out the FAFSA is more of a Mom and Dad job than a student job.  Chances are, the student can share their FAFSA information over a pizza dinner, while a parent works on a laptop.  Plus, with Mom and Dad focused on the FAFSA, they’ll be spending less time, um, “helping” you complete your college application.

·         I have no idea what “Prior Prior Year” means.  Yeah, the government really blew it when they gave the new FAFSA this title—if you’re filing the FAFSA in Fall of 2016, that means they want your 2014 taxes, right?  You’ll be working with your 2015 taxes.  Think of it that way.

Issues for Counselors

·         I don’t have time to sleep in the fall, let alone run financial aid workshops, Part I.  Believe it or not, you probably do.  If you’re running a College Application Month (it’s like a Spirit Week for college—here’s some information), you already have the support of your teachers and administrators to get college things done, and you probably have a ton of volunteers coming in to help out.  Adding a FAFSA program, and bringing in a few more financial aid experts, is easiest to do right there—and it keeps the college ball rolling.

·         I don’t have time to sleep in the fall, let alone run financial aid workshops, Part II. Another option (not my idea, but wow, what a brilliant one) is to run your financial aid programs in spring of thejunior year.  They may not be going to college in the fall, but by filling out the Spring FAFSA, they can actually walk in to high school as seniors, open the fall FAFSA, check the box that says “I already applied, and my information hasn’t changed”, and you’re done.  Boom.

·         I don’t have time to sleep in the fall…Part III.  OK—don’t.  Most colleges and state funding agencies don’t have their financial aid budgets ready anyway, so in most cases—that’s in most cases—FAFSAs filed in October won’t get processed by colleges until February anyway.  It’s wise to call colleges to double-check, but if you really think this can’t work, it might be able to put it on a brief hold.