Wednesday, October 17, 2018

How Do Colleges Know Mom Wrote the Essay? Beats Me

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Back in the days when young people used Facebook, a wild rumor burst on to the college counseling scene:

“Did you know admissions offices look at the Facebook accounts of their applicants?”

Given the number of applications a college gets, I didn’t see how this was even reasonably possible, but I thought I’d reach out to a few college colleagues and see what they said.  Most of them said something like “Are you crazy?”, or “Who has the time to do that?”, but the most interesting response I got was this one:

“If I did, do you think I’d tell you?”

I had a flashback to that moment recently, when I read a story that proports to tell parents how college admissions officers can tell if parents have written their children’s college essays. It’s fairly well known many students get significant help writing these essays, either through parents, tutors, or writing coaches. While many of these helpers know the difference between advising, editing, and doing the writing for the student, colleges say a growing number of application essays clearly are being written by someone other than the applicant.

I haven’t read the piece, other than to notice that it isn’t written by someone who works in a college admissions officer.  That’s very comforting, since the knowledge admissions officers have of the way their school reads applications is sacred, at least to me. 

I’ve been helping students get into college for a long time, and I’d like to think I can at least tell if a student has a reasonable shot at getting in to a school. But I also know what I don’t know.  I don’t know how many volleyball players the D-I champion college is looking for this year.  I don’t know if the 8 kabillion dollar capital campaign is going to lead to an increase in special case admissions this year.  I don’t know how a college chooses between a Straight A student who went to a school that offers no APs, and a Straight A student who took every one of the 10 APs her school had to offer.

And I don’t want to know.  Where some counselors think this information will help their student decide where to apply, the inside baseball that guides the admissions decisions this year won’t be the same next year.  Like the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future earnings potential.  Or, like the rep from a DI hockey school once told me, “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a hockey goalie, your chances of getting in just went up.  On the other hand, if we just admitted three hockey goalies last year, and you’re a hockey goalie applying this year, your chances of getting admitted just went down.”

It’s the same with college essays.  Colleges value original thought, and if you’ve signed an application saying the ideas here are yours, you’re going to be toast if they aren’t. End of story.

I can support that without knowing how colleges know the essays are fakes, and I can support it even more if colleges don’t tell parents how they know.  Tipping your hand to Mommy and Daddy only makes college admissions more of a game than it already is, and that serves no one. Telling them you know is warning enough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Where Are the Students?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


It’s early in the college application season, but college admissions officers are reporting a trend that could have a major impact on the way they recruit students.

College admissions folks refer to fall as “travel season”, the time when they leave their cushy college offices and head for the high schools of the students they serve.  Reps will schedule presentations for individual high schools, community-based presentations in hotel ballrooms, and family-based meetings through college fairs organized by individual schools and their districts—all in the name of getting to meet the students.

This long-standing approach appears to be losing some of its luster.  School counselors are reporting record drops in the number of students who ask to attend the high school-based meetings, choosing to remain in class instead of meeting with the reps.  Similar reports are coming from college fairs, where reps are reporting light turnouts of parents and families—even when the fair is held in the evening, or on the weekend.

What seems to be the culprit behind these low numbers?  Several counselors are claiming these events are the victim of “application creep”, where seniors apply to college earlier and earlier in the school year.  10 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for many seniors to apply in February of twelfth grade year.  Now, students are rushing to complete online college applications as soon as the portals open in early August, hoping to have their applications complete before school starts, in part so they can focus their fall on doing well in school and enjoying the rites of passage that come with senior year.

This approach to time management sounds downright mature—why risk rushing through college applications and studying less when you can take your time to apply in August, and have all the time you need to ace Physics?  On the other hand, counselors question if this practice is leading to hasty college decisions.  Can seniors make thoughtful college choices without talking to college reps, and doing the one-stop comparisons a college fair has to offer them right before they get their diploma?

Other counselors are already trying to respond to this trend, and their ideas are rather ingenious.

Hold a mini college fair at lunch  Some high schools decided a long time ago to schedule all high school-based college visits at lunch, so students wouldn’t have to choose between missing class and making college plans.  College reps hate these visits, since students are generally too shy to break away from their peers and ask questions, and the lunchroom is too noisy for reps to make general information sessions.

One proposed solution is to schedule more than one college for lunch visits at the same time.  Creating a mini-fair leads to strength in numbers, making it cool for students to get up and ask their questions.  This also makes it possible to put the colleges in a separate but accessible space—say, the library—where students can come and go, and reps don’t have to worry about flying French fries.

Move high school visits to Spring.  Other counselors are toying with the idea of having the colleges come in the spring, where they visit with juniors.  This would be a better fit with the current timeline of students gathering college information sooner, but it could still pose a problem with students wanting to miss class.

It’s clear students are making college decisions sooner.  It will be interesting to see how colleges respond to this trend in ways that make sense for the developmental needs of students.  


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

News from the NACAC Conference

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The 74th annual convention of The National Association for College Admission Counseling was held in Salt Lake City, providing counselors with announcements, discussions, and new ideas to consider when working with all of their students—those considering college, and those looking for other equally bright paths after high school.

Common App and Reach Higher Combine Many organizations use the NACAC conference as an occasion to announce major initiatives, and that was clearly the case this year, as The Common Application announced its acquisition of Reach Higher, the college access/college readiness movement initiated by former First Lady Michelle Obama.  Common Application offers students the opportunity to apply to over 800 colleges and universities with one basic college application, while Reach Higher’s message of college opportunity is primarily aimed at underserved students, including students of color, students who would be the first in their family to go to college, and students in rural and urban areas.

While no new initiatives were announced as part of the merger, the education community can look to an expanded presence of the “college is possible” message to all students. Many counselors at the conference noted that Common App and Reach Higher have a “can do” attitude in their business philosophies that is contagious.  Here’s hoping that’s true.

Harvard Lawsuit Spurs Discussion About College Admission  A great deal of discussion at the NACAC conference centered on the lawsuit filed against Harvard, claiming that the school’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian Americans. While the lawsuit was filed in 2014, it has finally cleared its last legal hurdle, and will begin in earnest in the next few weeks.

The lawsuit is of interest to school counselors for two reasons. First, it involves the use of affirmative action, and its use in discriminating against a racial minority— a remarkable claim, given that the purpose of affirmative action is to prevent such discrimination. 
Second, the case brings into question all elements used in the college admissions process of holistic review—the idea that students should be admitted to college on factors beyond grades and test scores.  Observers suggest that a finding against Harvard could advance efforts to eliminate the use of test scores in college admissions, while others suggest it may require colleges to pay more attention to grades and tests scores, even though recent studies suggest these measure can contain their own racial biases.

A Film About Counseling Debuts  NACAC was also the ideal location for a movie to debut that focus on college access.  Personal Statement follows three low-income students through the college selection process, and will soon be shown on PBS. It was well received in the initial screening at Salt Lake City, as counselors said it drew a realistic picture of the challenges low-income students face when applying to college. The director of the film was in the audience, as was one of the students featured in the film, making the conversation after the screening insightful and spirited.

NACAC Membership Changes Tabled  The NACAC conference tends to be more student-centered than NACAC-centered, but one major exception this year was a proposal for sweeping changes in the membership categories offered through NACAC.  An initial proposal was sent to all members earlier this year, and subsequent feedback led to significant changes in the proposal even prior to the conference.

The changes weren’t enough to sway those in attendance at the membership meeting, with some elements of the proposal seeing amendments to the amendments of the amendments.  With further discussion, it was determined the membership proposal needed further review.  Look for it to reappear at next year’s NACAC conference in Lousiville.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Increased Funding Could - That’s Could—Help Counselors. Here’s How.

By:  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

Educators across the country are breathing a sigh of relief, as Congress is almost done with
the Federal budget before heading off to get re-elected.  This is the second year the Trump administration asked Congress to cut the budget for the Department of Education (also knowns as ED), and it’s the second year the budget itself was going to eliminate several popular programs, dedicating more funds to programs focused on school choice.  For the second year in a row, Congress is on its way to denying both requests. 

If this all strikes you as good news, just wait—there’s even more.  Congress is actually on track to increase education spending, including an increase is known as Title IV funding, or Title IV A funding.  Title IV funding can be used for any resources related to Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE).  That creates all kinds of funding opportunities, including technology upgrades, STEM programs, AP testing—and school counseling needs.

Yup—the Federal government is about to give you more money for counseling, including the hiring of school counselors.

The counseling community is abuzz over the prospects of what this money can do for counseling programs.  Since part of the rationale for the funding increase is the need for safe schools, it won’t be too hard to make a data-based argument that counselors make a difference in creating safe, positive school climates.

At the same time, it’s not like we’re the only ones who know this increase is coming.  Title IV funds have been around for a while, and many states have long-established ways of allocating the funds to all kinds of programs.  It’s certainly true that Title IV dollars could be used to hire more counselors, but that would require a state to spend most, if not all, of its increased funding on a single area.

That’s an uphill battle, so you’d better be armed with effective tools.  If your plan is to get more counselors in your school with Title IV funds, line your data up.  You’re going to need to show the needs students have—that’s the needs students have, not the needs counselors have—that research shows counselors can meet.  Work with your state and national counseling association to build your data base, and to find out what other schools are doing to build effective strategies.

Once you have your facts together, get some friends.  There’s a good chance you don’t know the person in your state department of education who oversees writing the grant for Title IV funding.  That’s someone to get to know.  See if you can get copies of previous grants—they’re out there—to see what other programs are likely to ask for more funding, too. Build a team of support in your school, and in your district.  Principals, superintendents, and board members are the voice of your school at the state level, and they’re going to use that voice to advocate for something.  How can you get them to advocate for you?

It’s also important to remember that Title IV funding only lasts for one year.  Safe schools are of big interest this year, but if something else matters more next year, this year’s Title IV funds could disappear.  That’s why it might be wise to take your data-rich argument to your state legislature, to see if they can find state funding for counseling positions.  Colorado did this, and within four years, the positions paid for themselves, and saved the state $300 million. If they can do it, you can too.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Testing, Testing. Testing?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


School counselors report that their summers seem to be getting smaller and smaller.  That may be the case, but some pretty big news occurred on the standardized testing front during the few weeks counselors were off the clock.  These changes affect everything from college applications to K-12
assessment, so let's catch up:

Colleges Drop Writing Test Requirement  In addition to the traditional
multiple choice testing formats, both the ACT and SAT have offered students
the chance to receive a Writing score by staying after the other sections
are complete and putting together a writing sample based on a prompt.  The
Writing test is offered for an additional fee, and can stretch the testing
day near, if not over, the five hour mark for some students. 

Critics have long questioned if either Writing test really told the colleges
all that much-and it looks like the colleges were asking themselves that
question this summer.  That's when a remarkable number of college announced,
seemingly spontaneously, that they would no longer require the Writing test
when students apply for admission.  Some of the colleges cited the extra
cost as being burdensome on low income students, while others seemed to
acknowledge that a writing sample students have produced in about 30 minutes
doesn't reflect the process, or product, of college-level writing.

This leaves the number of colleges requiring the Writing test to about 15.
Look for them to reconsider their policies by next fall.
Subject Tests Also Falling Out of Use  A number of colleges also dropped
their use of SAT Subject Tests, the one-hour exams designed to measure what
students know about specific topics taught in school (History, Biology,
etc.) Since most colleges requiring Subject Tests also require the ACT or
the regular SAT, it's a safe bet that this reduction in testing is based in
part on the cost of the extra testing.

This also brings the number of colleges requiring Subject Tests to about 13,
with 9 of those colleges making up the University of California system.
This makes it more than likely that one meeting of the UC Board of Trustees
is all that's keeping the Subject Tests to go the way of the dodo bird, New
Coke, and campaign finance reform.

University of Chicago Breaks Away Access and opportunity were the clear
reasons The University of Chicago announced its plans this summer to become
a test optional school.  Once considered a ploy to increase applications,
test-optional schools now cite data-based evidence showing SAT or ACT scores
gave few additional insights into applicants to their schools.

Chicago's announcement is notable, since it is the most high profile college
to go test optional.  While their announcement hasn't led to similar
decisions from Ivy League or Ivy-like colleges, keep an eye out a few years
from now, if Chicago's student profile is more diverse and just as strong as
in years past. 

K-12s Going Test Optional?  Debate over the merits of test-optional college
admissions continue, but the idea seems to be spreading.  Politico reports
that the US Department of Education is offering states money to review their
statewide testing program, and come up with "more innovative exams."  While
the call for proposals suggests the goal is for states to develop new tests,
it wouldn't be unreasonable for a state to use this opportunity to develop a
research-based assessment that looks more like a portfolio than a
paper-and-pencil exercise, a common practice for test-optional colleges.



Wednesday, September 12, 2018

A Life Beyond Us Versus Them

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Something pretty great happened a couple of Saturdays ago your students need to know about.  The University of Maryland was playing The University of Texas in football, and when Maryland’s offense came on the field, they started with only ten players.  Football requires eleven players, but Maryland did this on purpose, leaving a position blank for Jordan McNair, a Maryland player who died this summer.

It’s a pretty remarkable show of respect when a team is willing to play with one less player they truly miss, but the referees didn’t exactly see it that way.  When they counted ten Maryland players where eleven should have been, they penalized Maryland five yards for delaying the game, because you have to play football with eleven on the field.  The penalty would have put them in a little bit of a hole, but Maryland didn’t seem to care.  The head coach for Texas quickly figured out what was going on and even though his team would have clearly benefitted from the penalty, he declined it, and the game went on.

This reminded me of the time President Obama went to visit New Jersey a few years ago, after Hurricane Sandy destroyed an incredible amount of property there.  Chris Christie was the governor of New Jersey, and he and President Obama toured the damage together, discussing how the state and federal government were going to work together to help the people who had lost everything.  Governor Christie was a Republican, and when he was asked why he was working so closely with President Obama, a Democrat, he said “This is what adults do.”

It’s doubtful many teachers will ever share these stories with their students, but they should.  Maryland and Texas are both very proud of their football teams, and once Texas declined the penalty, you’d better believe both sides fought hard to best the other side.  The same is true for Republicans and Democrats, in ways no one has to point out to anyone.

Even in the midst of these fierce rivalries—one in the name of sport, one in the real world—competitors realize when something more important calls for a response, something more than a win, or bragging rights, or lording  your success over others. It may not happen often, but when it does, it moves us in ways we just simply understand to be right, and we dwell in that sense of right because it is just so strong.  Like the football referees and the press accompanying Governor Christie, it might seem like others don’t understand what’s going on, but that doesn’t it make it less right—or less important—to act on that intuition to step up.

Our students are being raised in a society where people seem to be paying less and less attention to those moments.  The “he said she said” and instant judgement that too easily pervades adolescence is more intense than ever, thanks to social media outlets young people just can’t turn off or away from.  These same outlets become centers of cynicism when genuine moments do occur, with voices claiming someone is only trying to increase their Likes or Hits by pretending to be human.  It’s as if no one can tell the difference anymore, or at least doesn’t want to.

That’s where we come in.  The tape of the Maryland-Texas penalty isn’t even a minute long, but there are enough life lessons there to fill a class period.  See what you can do to advance the cause of civility in your school, this week and every week.  It’s what counselors do.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Welcome Back to School Letter from A School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Have you ever wondered why only the principal gets to write a “welcome back to school” letter?  Why not a counselor—better yet, a counselor who works for the US Department of Education?

My work with the Department is almost up, so here’s my one and only effort to welcome back every student to school.  Share widely, OK?  And welcome back!

Patrick O’Connor is in his thirty-fifth year of service as a school counselor.  His work as the inaugural school counselor ambassador fellow with the US Department of Education ends in October.

Some of you have been in school for a month now, so it’s a little late to say Happy First Day of School.  Still, now that nearly all of you are back in the classroom, I wanted to offer three pieces of advice for the coming year.  You may have already heard them from your own school counselor, but just in case, I hope you’ll keep this close—in your locker, on your phone—to help make this year a great one.

Keep wondering Many students get the message that the main reason they’re learning whatever it is they’re learning is only because it will get them ready for something else.  We learn to read in first grade so we can learn to read more in second grade.  We take French in eighth grade to take more challenging classes in ninth grade.  High school gets us ready for college, or a job, or something else.

My hope is that you’ll never feel that way this school year.  It’s important to be ready for what comes next, but everything you learn—everything—is an idea all by itself, something someone first thought of that no one else had considered.  There was a first person to think about what keeps plants green, how courts should make sure laws are fair, and how to make The Twist different from a waltz.  The first step in wondering about something new is taking the time to look at something you know, and think about how it got here.  Keep doing that—it will encourage you to keep asking the questions you want to have answered, and that is important to all of us.

Step forward  Kindergarten classrooms are pretty amazing places.  When the teacher asks a question, a million hands go up in the air and wave around like crazy.  Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter what the question is—students just have something to say.  Remember when your kindergarten teacher asked what day it was, and the student they called on said “My dog had puppies?” That’s really putting yourself out there.

For some reason, students in older grades often think they don’t have anything to say anymore, or what they have to say doesn’t matter.  If your teacher didn’t want to know what you think, they wouldn’t have asked you a question—and if somebody else laughs because they think your answer isn’t perfect, that’s about them, not about you.  Live your life.  Use your voice.

Know you aren’t alone  Not everything grows in light.  Doubt, frustration, anger, despair, disappointment—all thrive in darkness.  In fact, they like the darkness so much, they’ll do whatever they can to keep you isolated, so no one can help you end the darkness by turning on the light.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re not sure what to do.  Friends, neighbors, teachers, counselors, and parents are all there, waiting to help the best way they can.  Something inside you may say “no one can help”, but that’s the same voice that says it’s OK to eat cake for dinner—it’s never helpful.

Finding the right helper may take a couple of tries, but keep at it. Thomas Edison thought he could make a lightbulb, and a thousand failures later, he finally made one—he’d found the right combination to turn on the light.  There’s a million light bulbs in you.  Reach out, let others help you light them up, and watch them shine.