Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Topic of Your Choice as a College Essay. Just Because You Can...

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Hello, James. How are you?”

“Well, I was doing OK, until I heard you wanted to see me.”

“Why,  James—is it my breath?”


“Yes, well. James, I heard from Tartar College today.”

“They turned me down already? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Their admission percentage is equal to the Federal Reserve benchmark rate.”

“James, your diffidence is astonishing. No, they haven’t turned you down, but...”

“So, I’m in?!!”

“...they had some questions about your essay.”

“My essay?”

“Yes. What did they tell me the title was? Oh yes. There’s No Place Like With Homeboys for the Holidays.”

“Oh. Yeah. That essay.”

“They said it really had some touching moments in it, as well as two consecutive prepositions in the title, but it didn’t say a lot about you. They also wanted to know a little about its origins.”

“Well, I—- hey, wait a minute. Are they saying someone else wrote that essay? Because if they are, they’re dead wrong. That entire essay was all me.”

“You have no idea how little that comforts me, James. Actually, they were wondering about timing.”


“Yes. When did you start writing the essay?”

“When did I start, um—“

“Right. When?”

“De—cem—ber 29th.”

“I see. And the deadline was?”

MidnightDecember 29th.”

“You did it again.”

“Actually, I started this one at two in the afternoon.”

“Well then, plenty of time for multiple drafts.”

“And I finished in time to watch Home Alone with my cousins.”

“That would include Cousin Kate, who gave your dog Felix the beef jerky under the mistletoe?”

“Wait. I thought I took that part out.”


“OK, OK, I did it again—I ran myself out of time. I was in the middle of a round of Apples to Apples with my cousins, when my mother said I had to finish my Tartar app. All I had left was my essay, so I looked at the prompts, picked “Write on the topic of your choice”, and put down the first thing that was on my mind.”

“Which was the joy of having family around you at the holidays, the mysteries of egg nog, and the discovery that the person who wrote The Christmas Song was Jewish.”

“Wow, Dr. O’Connor. Did they read the whole essay to you over the phone?”

“”I’ve seen essays like this one a million times, James, all by students who were hoping the adrenaline of the deadline would inspire them to produce an epic Topic of Your Choice essay, instead of...”

“...Instead of taking the time to think about what the essay was saying about me, thinking about using the structure of a different topic to help me focus, and presenting rough drafts to my counselor or English teacher in advance.”

“The exact words I shared with you when you wrote Halloween: A Memoir on October 31st for your November 1st application.”

“But I really do love my family, Dr. O’Connor.”

“I know that, James. You’ve told me about the conversations you’ve had with the cousin you’ve driven to physical therapy for the last three months, the grandfather who stood next to Eisenhower on D-Day, and the other cousin you teamed up with when you were both lost on the Appalachian Trail.”

“That was Kate.”

“But none of that was in the essay. Instead, Kate is on record for her poor meal choices in caring for a golden retriever.”

“You were right, Dr. O’Connor. Topic of your choice is pretty tricky. With a little more self-discipline, I could have done myself proud and written a great family essay.”

“Well, there’s some good news, James. The praise you received in the letter of recommendation from your English teacher has led Tartar College to ask me if they can look at a graded paper you’ve written for an English class. If I can submit one today, they’ll use it in lieu of your, um, essay.”


“Any ideas come to mind?”

“Well, I did write this paper in December, using O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a vehicle to compare the struggles of the protagonist in The Odyssey to those of JD Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.”

“You wrote that in December?”

“Yeah. Got an A on it.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to submit an annotated version of that to Tartar College as the topic of your choice?”

“Oh. Wow.”

“That’s a perfect reason to use topic of your choice, which Common Application has reinstituted as an essay option next year. If, for some reason, the other prompts don’t give you a chance to do an intellectual deep dive, then—and only then—do you go to topic of your choice.”

“And instead, they got a description of my Uncle Earl’s singing trout tie that has a Christmas hat painted on it.”

“I’ll check with your English teacher, and send the paper over this afternoon.”

“Thanks, Dr. O’Connor. You know, if you could wait a day, I’m almost finished with my next English essay.”

“Oh. What’s the title?”

Losing the Big Game: Sports as a Metaphor for Life.”

“James? Two things. First, I love you. Second...”

“...get out of your office?”

“And don’t the let door hit you, lad.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mr. Obama, We'd Like To Reach Even Higher

By  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

Mr. Obama, I’ve written you from this space on more than one occasion to thank, beg, and plead for your support
for school counselors when you were President Obama, and the profession of college counseling received more support from The White House than ever before. Since I just received a letter from you to thank me for writing, it’s an honor to know you listened. More important, it’s a privilege to be part of a profession that has grown in depth and breadth of service in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible without your and Mrs. Obama’s support. I am grateful; much more important, the families I serve have greater hopes and lives, thanks to all you’ve done.

I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve now started a foundation, and you’re asking for answers on where the foundation should devote its energies, by having individuals answer the question, what makes a good citizen? At the risk of running afoul of a request of the former leader of the free world, I answered the question by urging the foundation to continue the work started in The White House through the ReachHigher Initiative.

I know much of this work is being taken up by BetterMakeRoom, there’s more than enough work to be done in college access to keep dozens of foundations and non-profits busy for quite some time—and, to be honest, the profession would be greatly enhanced with the active presence of the very caring couple who brought school counselors to The White House for the First. Time. Ever.

As it turns out, there’s a college access project that would be a great first step back into the field of college access. The state of Colorado has developed a pilot project to add more counselors to schools in need, and given the high number of students most counselors serve, that need is fairly big.

These four year grants allowed schools to train these new counselors and get them familiar with the building. After four years, the dropout rate fell from 5.5 percent to 3.7 percent; college access increased at a double-digit rate, and participation in career and technical education programs more than doubled, according to one report.

The change in the dropout rate meant that each school received more money in their budgets, so the counseling positions more than paid for themselves. In addition, since these students are completing high school, Colorado saved more than $300 million in social costs—far more than the $20 million they invested in the program.

Several other states are looking at this model, to see if it would work for their schools, including Michigan. We certainly get the attention of legislators when we tell them we have a program that makes the state money, but something tells me they might pay even more attention if this information was being provided by, say, a more familiar face.

I can’t guarantee that every state will realize the success Colorado has, Mr. Obama, but I can tell you that having more counselors is the issue in our profession. Now that we’ve found a way for those positions to pay for themselves, all we need is help spreading the word.

Can we count on you, sir?

Oh, one more thing. After I sort of hijacked the question on your foundation’s Website to advocate for college advising, I urged a few colleagues to do the same thing. Some told me they did, and others have said once they hear you’re on board, they’re game to offer support.

Right now, the count is up to a couple of hundred.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

5 Questions to Ask When Visiting a College Campus

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

As we finish most of our college work with the Class of 2017, members of the Class of 2018 are making plans that include college visits. Often built in as part of a family vacation, campus visits can give students a chance to see a college that’s otherwise too far away to visit. It might also be the only chance a student can get away to see campuses at all, especially if they have a demanding senior year schedule.

Fall visits are still the best (when the campus is in high gear), but no matter when you go, it’s important to make the most of each visit by preparing a list of questions ahead of time that are based on your interests — and that includes admissions questions. ACT and College Board offer a nice set of starter questions, but you’ll want to add these five questions to any list you build:

Does my major affect my chances of admission?Students often gauge their chances of admission on college-wide information, like average GPA and overall percentage of students admitted. But some colleges limit the number of students they’ll admit to specific programs, and that could include the major you’re interested in. Engineering, honors colleges, and accelerated professional programs are the usual suspects, but the only way you know History is wide open is if you ask — and if your major is limited, ask what they’re looking for.

Do you offer residential programs? Many big colleges know some students thrive best in smaller classes where they can get to know their professors — and that’s why they offer residential programs, or living-learning communities. Often based by major, these programs typically hold classes in the student’s residence hall, which is where their professors have their offices, and many offer research opportunities students wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It’s the best of a big and small school, all in one campus.

Do you ask what other colleges I’m applying to?  Students are often surprised when colleges want to know where else they’re applying — and while most colleges don’t ask, it happens often enough that students should be ready for the question. If a college of interest tells you they do, don’t be shy; ask them what they use the information for. They may just use it for statistical purposes, but it may play a role in your admissions decision or scholarship package. It’s better you know.

Does your net price calculator include merit scholarships?  The U.S. government requires all colleges to have a net price calculator on their website (can’t find it? Search for “(Name of Your School) Net Price Calculator”), but not every calculator takes the same factors into consideration when giving you a price tag. If you think a college will offer you merit money(check here to see what your college might offer, and scroll to the bottom of the page), make sure you know if that’s part of the calculation, or bonus money.

Do you consider ability to pay when reviewing my application?Colleges would like to give all students the aid they need to attend, but school budgets just don’t allow for that. As a result, some schools will look at the financial need of an applicant as part of the admissions process. This changes from year to year and varies from school to school, so make sure you know what the policy is for each of your colleges—and if you get an answer you don’t understand, your very appropriate follow-up question is “what does that mean?”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Before Moving Forward, A Look at Where We’ve Been

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The last couple of weeks have been filled with accolades and gratitude for all the Obamas have done to move the college access agenda forward in the United States—and with good reason. Even the most partisan of audiences can agree that the support the Obamas have given for the encouragement and expansion of college access is unprecedented from any White House.

As a modest measure of just how far we’ve come, I’m presenting the letter I sent to Mrs. Obama that was first published in HS Counselor Week in 2013, the day she first spoke of her desire to expand college access at a Washington DC high school.  The letter was later picked up by The Washington Post, and offers insights into all the last four years have brought, as well as hints on where the movement may go, now that the work of the ReachHigher program has been transferred to Better Make Room.

Mrs. Obama, your remarks this week to Washington DC sophomores were inspiring, both to the students, and to those who work with students in choosing a college.  By highlighting the White House’s progress in making college information accessible to the public, you’ve encouraged students to make the most out of College Navigator and College Scorecard.  In emphasizing the importance of daily homework habits and making the most of every opportunity available to students, you’ve inspired them to build the study skills and interests that will serve them well in high school, college, and beyond.
It is also encouraging to know this was the first of many conversations you’ll be having about college access—and as you build your schedule of college conversations, I hope there will be time for one about counselor readiness.  College experts recognize school counselors as uniquely situated to make a significant difference in the college plans of every student.  We see the students in school, we know their strengths and interests, and we take every opportunity to help them make strong choices about college.
But just like the statistic you cited that puts the United States 12th in the world among college graduates, school counselors know they could do better helping students make good, personalized college plans.  We’re well aware of national surveys where young adults report their counselor was of little help with college selection, and while it hurts when at-risk valedictorians call us “pretty lousy” and “incompetent”, we understand where they’re coming from.
Two years of College Board survey results show counselors wish we had been better prepared for college counseling when we were trained.  Only 30 of the hundreds of counselor training programs in our country offer a course in college counseling, and only one or two require it.  We had to learn this skill on the job, and given the crisis-driven nature of school counseling, there just isn’t time to learn college advising skills while we’re putting out so many fires. We need a better foundation.
There are some professional development opportunities for counselors to learn more about the college selection process, but our students need more—and quite frankly, so do we.  Because college programs are very slow to change, it would be most helpful if you would call on all counselor training programs to develop a course in counseling in the college selection process, based on the essential college counseling proficiencies identified by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. These courses already make a difference in the lives of counselors and their students, as counselors feel empowered to help students with college counseling facts and programs they had never been able to use before, because they never knew they existed.
Asking colleges to offer this class would create opportunities for some counselors and their students, and requiring colleges to offer this course would impact all students and families. President Obama has put a high value on a college education; an Executive Order directing all counseling programs to include this course as a degree requirement would send a clear message that the United States is determined to help all students attain the highest level of college awareness and readiness, and significantly advance us towards the 2020 objective.
School counselors have a rich tradition of supporting the goals and needs of our students, a record that helps us realize the importance of asking for help– especially when we need it ourselves.  We long to be of greater service to our students and families by being better trained in college counseling; your support will help us attain that higher level of service.

Patrick J. O’Connor, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of College Counseling, Cranbrook Kingswood School
Past President, National Association for College Admission Counseling

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Texting Students into College? OK, But…

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s been a busy news week for school counselors—and it isn’t even National School Counselor Week yet!  The cycle of attention began last week, when First Lady Michelle Obama honored the School Counselor of the Year at a White House Ceremony. As is generally the case, her remarks moved all those in attendance, and inspired our profession in ways no other First Family has been able to match.

The public focus on college access continued with ample social media coverage of a New York Times article on the challenges low income students face when applying to college in general, and to highly selective colleges in particular.  Citing studies that are fairly well known by school counselors, the article places special emphasis on the role cell phones play in helping these students attain their college goals.  By creating a system of support through text messages, school counselors, college access professionals, and others, are able to reach out to low income students in ways that drive the message home to apply to college, complete the FAFSA, and finish the steps necessary to enroll in college.  Early studies show these texting programs work especially well in keeping students on track in the summer months, when school counselors aren’t on hand to offer reminders to check emails, pay tuition, and submit essential documents to the college.

It’s heartening to see the creation of a communication system that touches students and gets them to close the college deal, but the good intentions of these programs call attention to questions that require some serious reflection.

Why aren’t the colleges texting the students?  There’s a lot to be said for having school counselors text students.  Even if their caseload is typically astronomical, counselors are more likely to know the students than the student services division of the college, and that familiarity can increase the chance the student will pay attention to the text.

But the college’s lack of familiarity with the student is going to be a problem sooner or later, and summer is the best time to fix that.  By supporting high school counselor’s efforts to help students stay on track, college student service offices would be texting specific information to students on what they need to do, when they need to do it—and, most important, who the student talks to at the college if they run into a problem. It’s one thing for a high school counselor to text a graduate to sign up for college orientation; a follow-up text from the college with the link that allows the student to do that builds an essential bridge to a new support group, and a new dimension of autonomy.

What prevents school counselors from solving these problems during the school year?  Everything in life has a “last minute” nature to it, and that’s definitely true when it comes to teenagers applying to college.  That’s why our offices are always the busiest before a college application deadline.

The need for some summer help getting ready for college will always be with us, but that need would be greatly diminished if counselors’ time during the school year was focused more on preparing students for the transition to college, and less on tasks that have nothing to do with counseling.  Schedule changes and test organization are administrative tasks that counselors receive little training in, and whose insights are rarely needed.  If schools really want to help young people create bright futures after high school, they should make the most of the time and talents of the counseling professionals trained to do just that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why Are College Apps Due January 1?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Your holiday travel plans probably didn’t include Arlington, Virginia, but you should be really glad a few folks were in that bustling city this weekend.  About a dozen very loyal college access champions spent their New Year’s Eve at the headquarters of The Common Application, where they answered questions and resolved technical issues from the thousands—that’s thousands—of students applying to college just in time to meet the January 1 deadline.  It’s estimated that Common App processed 700 applications in one minute, just before the major deadline of midnight Sunday, January 1. That’s almost 12 college applications per second. (Full disclosure:  I’m on Common App’s Board of Directors, and can attest to the incredible commitment of the entire CA team.)

Of course, many counselors were also at work this holiday season, checking email and sending transcripts for last-minute applicants, even though schools were shuttered and counseling offices were dark.  It’s unlikely any of these loyal counselors clocked their work in at 12 applications per second, but like those very noble Common App workers, the result is the same—if it weren’t for their steadfast support of the college selection process, far fewer students would be thinking about college today.

The commitment of everyone who spent some time over the holidays poring over SAT scores and pdf files is cause for thanks and admiration, but it’s also a reason to ask an important question:

Why are any college applications due January 1?

At first blush, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Except for the stalwart Common App team, and a few counselors who can’t get enough of email, most support services for college-bound students are closed New Year’s Day, and have been for at least a week before that.  Many students apply to college before the holidays, but with so many colleges sounding the alarm on January 1, it’s easy to wonder how many students would be making better informed choices, and presenting better organized applications, if the deadline was moved to a time when high schools and college admissions offices are open. 

Some may suggest that the January deadline is actually there to help to students.  That argument goes something like this:
·         Students work hard on their classes when school is in session;
·         They need ample free time to write strong college applications;
·         December vacation offers them that free time.
I offered this opinion to a college admissions colleague, who suggested that argument is giving colleges too much credit, calling this theory “discarded bovine digestive material”.  It’s also difficult to assess the truth of this argument, since more than a few teachers fill this “gap of learning” with book reports or project proposals.  In addition, there is the argument that vacation isn’t a “gap of learning”; it’s a time to be with friends and family, time that’s in short supply for most high school seniors, who will be in a very different place, and on a very different schedule, a year from now.

There may have been some logical reason in the past to have January 1st as a college application deadline.  Still, given the advances in technology, and the lack of the presence of the Post Office in the current admissions process, it might be time to rely less on the goodwill of guilt-ridden school counselors and overworked admissions professionals, and consider moving the January 1 deadline to December 15.  Help for students is more readily available, college advocates gain some free time (and respect) by serving students on the clock, and everyone would get to use January 1 to rest, revel, restore, and resolve—kind of like, you know, a vacation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Best of 2016, and Predictions for 2017

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There are two great parts to the last day of school before December Break. The first one is the student who has the poise to wear fake reindeer antlers to school. It doesn’t matter what grade you teach— somewhere in your building, a kid is showing off his best Blitzen. Seek them out, and assure them they will be going to college.

The second great part is that the last day almost always gives three minutes to us, to look back on what went well this year, and to think about what lies ahead. Many people seem to be ready to let go of 2016, but the teachings of Eric Erikson remind us of the importance of choosing Integrity over Despair at the end of a life cycle. Since that’s what a year is, let’s take a look at the good in college admission:

FAFSA Filing Changes instituted this year made it possible for students to find out what a college would actually cost them well before they had to choose which college to attend, making it more like the purchase of, say, everything else. There are still some bumps in the system, but this emerges as the game changer of 2016.

For-Profit Clean-Up It wasn’t very pretty, but actions were taken this year to make sure for-profit colleges were delivering on their promises, and those that didn’t were dealt with and closed. As a result, the world of choice becomes a world of better choice.

States Rediscover Counselors The end of the year finds several states finding and devoting resources to improving school counselor training and ratios, including a report from Colorado showing a modest investment in counselors has already saved the state $300 million. Now that ESSA gives more flexibility to the states, will 2017 be The Year of the Counselor?

College Testing’s Value Questioned Bleak reports of overseas security issues with college tests, combined with incredibly late submission of test results to colleges, put both SAT and ACT on school counselor’s naughty lists. The good came when more colleges used the opportunity to reevaluate the importance of testing in the admissions process, choosing to make reporting of test scores optional for most students.

Given these changes, what can we expect to see in 2017?

Obama Farewell Unless John Harvard had been elected our next president, we all knew 2017 would be a change in the way The White House was going to support college access. Reach Higher efforts will continue with Better Make Room, but the coming year will find fewer messages of “Yes, You Too” from the First Couple. Here’s hoping someone picks up the slack.

College Control and the States Changes in federal law will give more authority and funding autonomy in education to the states. The plus here is that states can now tailor programs to better meet local needs; the potential minus is the lack of federal standards when evaluating value and success. Stay tuned.

Counselors are Ambassadors, Too The federal government has long given teachers the chance to shape education policy directly through the School Ambassador Program. Counselors will be allowed to participate in this program for the first time in 2017, and now is the time to apply.

College Isn’t Just Four Years The Great Recession somehow hoodwinked most people into believing four years of college was the only way to a great job. Data, common sense, and the efforts of many organizations are waking society from that dream, creating more options for The Class of 2017. Expect this trend to grow.

Now, go rest.