Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Early Returns Suggest Students are Courting Colleges

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It won’t be long before colleges that have Early Action and Early Decision programs will start notifying students with decisions. This group of applicants is of particular interest this year, because colleges who offer early programs usually take a high percentage—as much as 60%—of their admitted students from these early programs. Given the hesitancies brought to college applications due to COVID, there has been speculation that this might be an unusual year for the early programs, one way or the other.


(If you need some help remembering what these programs are, you’re not alone—try this quick reference.)


We’re about two weeks away from hearing decisions, but news about the number of students applying early is out, and it’s uneven. As a rule, the most highly selective colleges in the country are seeing a significant increase in the number of early applications. This has been the case for the last several years, so this could represent business as usual; it could also mean students want to secure a spot in the class while they are still available, should changes in the COVID situation over the winter lead to an increase in students interested in applying to colleges away from home.


This is less the case with the selective colleges—still tough to get into, but not as crazy tough—which are generally seeing early applications even with last year. Since COVID is everywhere, it’s hard to say why colleges that admit 25% of their students aren’t seeing more early applicants than colleges that admit 7% of their students, but the differences in application data between these two sets of schools has always been a little mind boggling, since both schools have far more applicants than they have room to admit.


We’re all now waiting for the next shoe to drop, to see just how many of these record or average classes are going to be admitted through early programs. Conventional wisdom suggests colleges with Early Decision programs will, in all likelihood, admit a large percentage of their class early. ED programs have always helped colleges navigate uncertain times, since a yes to an ED applicant means the student must attend that college. It also earmarks financial aid money early, giving the college earlier insight into its budget.


EA decisions may have a little more flex in them this year, since saying yes to an EA applicant doesn’t lock them in to a firm commitment—it just gives the student an early answer. The plus to colleges with this program has traditionally been data saying students are more likely to attend a college that says yes early in the application process, but given the economic uncertainties that accompany COVID, affordability may trump that tendency this year. Without the promise of some kind of early incentive—scholarships in particular—EA programs may be the wild card this year.


The only heightened risk ED colleges may take on is also economic. Colleges must meet the financial need of all admitted ED applicants—if they don’t, the student is free to walk away from the commitment. But what happens if the college meets that need in December, only to have a spring shakeup in the economy redefine just how much ED admits really do need? Is there a moral requirement for colleges to meet these genuinely higher needs, or have they honored the spirit of ED by meeting the demonstrated need at the time of acceptance? Either way, if the end result is an increased number of students who abandon their ED commitment, the face of college admission could be in for a significant change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Different Thanksgiving, Sort Of

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We all kind of figured we would be in a different place this Thanksgiving, but we really had no idea it was going to be this different. Last Thanksgiving, we were speculating how different college admissions would be, now that the Justice Department told NACAC it could no longer enforce a code of ethics that was counted on to keep students sane and colleges on the straight and narrow. We wondered if the Harvard decision, allowing the use of race in college admissions, would change very much—or would the ruling itself be changed by the US Supreme Court? And, on the lighter side, we wondered just how many cable movies it would take before The Hallmark Channel made a Varsity Blues Christmas show.


I don’t know about you, but I’d gladly have those be my biggest concerns now. Our profession saw radical change right before St. Patrick’s Day, when college campuses were closed, SAT tests were cancelled, and students with plans to demonstrate interest in a college had to do so without ever setting foot on campus. We college admissions folks are an inventive bunch, so we’ve taken to the airwaves to meet students and show off colleges, reduced the value of standardized tests, and asked students to talk about what the quarantine has done to their college plans. In a profession where change is glacial, we turned the Titanic on a dime and dodged most of the major icebergs—and wow, are we tired.


Thanksgiving has always been an important time for most of us to put our feet up and consider the big picture, and thank goodness that hasn’t changed. Once you catch your breath, consider where we need to head as we look at our new reality:


Numbers look bad, especially for low income students. The stock market lost a third of its value in March, as families watched their college funds literally fall apart. The market rebounded in time, but the job market didn’t, and neither did the confidence of many families in colleges’ abilities to take care of their children. This was particularly true for low income families, as FAFSA filings dropped 16 percent last year, and the number of students requesting Common App fee waivers this year is down about as much, as of now.


Early Application Numbers are Down. Many colleges are reporting double-digit drops in the number of Early Action and Early Decision applicants, leading many to wonder if colleges are still going to take a disproportionately high percentage of its class from these programs, or open up more slots to students who apply on a regular deadline. The answer is the first—colleges jones on Early programs like you get a buzz on Aunt Marie’s oversalted stuffing—but given the uncertainties of the economy, that could in turn lead to more Early defaults, if students get to this spring and find they just can’t afford their first choice.


Juniors are in need of some guidance—er, counseling. Many colleges made ACT and SAT scores options for this year’s seniors for one simple reason—not enough seniors could take the test, since test dates were being cancelled with the last-minute panache of an absent-minded valedictorian. With December testing cancelled in most of the US, juniors are wondering if they’re going to get the same assistance, not having to choose taking a test you say doesn’t matter this year over, say, their health.


These issues won’t need answers by December 1, but they will need the benefit of fully recharged hearts and minds, just the kind of break we’re used to getting at Thanksgiving. Family and friends may be quarantining this year instead of gathering around our hearth—or, sadly, gone from us too soon—but there is still much to be grateful for.


Justice Department or not, ours is largely an ethical and thoughtful profession, not because it has to be by some code of ethics, but because we choose it to be. This is the same reason why efforts to diversify college campuses will continue in every legal way possible, no matter where the appellate path of the Harvard case may take us. And, happily, there is no sign of any Christmas movie trailer where Taylor Swift is holding a Fiske Guide.


So let’s take a page from a different Christmas movie, and be grateful for the chance to right some new wrongs, and know we are there for each other as we move forward. Aunt Marie’s stuffing may have to wait, but our gratitude for our ability to change the world in our work makes a pretty nifty meal all its own.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Why Johnny Can’t Remotely Learn

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There is nothing—and I mean nothing—more mind numbing on this earth than educational data. Don’t believe me? Answer this question:


Your country is humming along, business as usual, when a worldwide pandemic knocks at your door. Thinking it might be a good idea to make sure your children are safe, you close the schools for a while, but keep teaching the students. Some students are now learning online, and some are learning through remote lessons they pick up and drop off, but one thing is certain—they have never, ever, learned like this before.


Here’s the question. Do they learn as much from this new way as they do from the way they’ve known for their entire life?


Take your time.


Right. This is kind of like asking, would you score as many points if you bowled with your other hand? And yet, now that data is out with average grades and test scores (yes, they are lower), the wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain corners of the world would lead you to believe this issue is the pandemic, not one of its byproducts. Just what, the critics shriek, were we thinking?


Happily, since we’re talking education here, there are two answers. First and foremost, we were thinking we didn’t want to kill our students. Even if the testing and the grades are right, and America’s future doesn’t have as tight a grip on the Pythagorean Theorem as we’d like, we still get to see their smiling faces at dinner, and tuck them in their beds at night. So there’s that.


The second answer is a little less obvious—we weren’t thinking. In what couldn’t be a better example of how NOT to do something, our educational complex was so busy converting everything to remote instruction, no one stopped and asked, Are the students gonna know how to use this stuff?


If you don’t think that’s important, think about what would happen if all bakeries in the US had to start using the metric system. In a day.


Are you going to buy bread there for a while, or wait until they worked things out?


Never mind that most teachers have never taught remotely (that’s a huge factor) and we were asking them to start doing it and be great at it in a week. At what point did we sit the students down and say “Part of this will seem the same, but most of it is different. Here’s how to handle that.” When did we say the same thing to parents? Nannies? Elderly neighbors who watch the kids while the parents cling to their jobs?


But wait—it gets better. Not only did we not think of this last spring; it also didn’t occur to us over the entire summer. Knowing most schools were going to still use some kind of remote learning this fall, did we convene blue ribbon panels on best practices for remote teaching and offer online seminars to all teachers for free? Did we secure the support of movie stars who have lots of time on their hands and produce social media products on TIkTok and YouTube, showing students the importance of how to learn, not just what to learn? Did we produce 30 minute seminars that offered gift card giveaways for students to try these skills out before they actually needed them?


And we’re worried the kids don’t know the Pythagorean Theorem.


The tough part? Experts already exist in these fields. We’re a couple of phone calls away from organizing a dozen online conferences that can produce meaningful change in remote learning and teaching in a matter of hours. Handel wrote the Messiah in three weeks. The late great funkmaster Rick James allegedly wrote a million selling album overnight. We’re about 20 hours away from turning the educational tide for the better, and what’s really on our minds? Who the next Secretary of Education will be.


No offense, but if you’re looking for educational leadership, start by looking in the mirror and picking up the phone.


Or not.


Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Bearing Witness to the Birth of a Dream

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

High school students have this interesting way of announcing themselves. Most of them stop at the office door, say hello to me by name, and wait to be invited in. Those that don’t do that tend to simply hover, hoping their mere presence will inspire me to look up from my computer screen and see them there. (One or two—all boys—simply walk in to the office and sit down, saying nothing. This only happens once.)


That’s why I was expecting to see an adult when I looked up to see who was knocking on my office door—what 17 year-old knocks? It was one of my high school seniors, a fabulously bright, good-natured girl, who never caused anyone any trouble. She usually didn’t knock; combined with the way she was clutching her books tightly about her, it was clear something was on her mind.


I pushed aside the paperwork that was engaging my time—a school administrator once told me this is way to show someone you are paying attention to them—and the senior started with her story.


“I sent my application into State U, and I still haven’t heard anything from them. I know it’s only been three weeks, but some of my friends have already heard, and I was wondering if…you could check on my status.”


My caseload was insanely high that year, but I remembered this student for several reasons. Her grades were immaculate, and her test scores were about twice the average for State U, so I knew she was going to be admitted, or I was going to have to walk the 80 miles to State U and kick some sense into someone. I also knew that her being incredibly bright was news to her, which meant it was killing her and her awful self-esteem to ask for help like this.


That was all the reason I needed to support her wish. This was a time when we could pick up the phone—a rotary dial phone, thank you—and call the secretary of the admissions office, who would gladly tell me anything I wanted to know about any student, provided I knew the student’s Social Security number. The FERPA police would have a field day with all of this today, but back then, that’s how things got done.


And so it went this time. I told the secretary why I was calling, and my student perked up considerably when I asked her to provide me with her SSN, three digits at a time.


“Let me see” the secretary said, tapping her way through a couple of computer screens, until she evidently found one with the student’s grades and test scores. “Oh my yes, I would think… let me see if they’ve… yes, they read her file yesterday, and we’ll get her welcome letter out in the mail tomorrow.”


This entire transaction took about 90 seconds, and I have to admit, the results were so predictable to both me and the secretary, my heart didn’t exactly skip a beat when she told me State U was smart enough to admit this student. Instead of being a gushing counselor-cheerleader, I hung up the phone and turned towards my file drawer to pull out this student’s record—but in doing this, my back was now to the student. “OK” I said over my shoulder, eager to keep up with the paperwork of her file, “Congratulations. You’ve been admitted.”


The only sound in my office for the next few seconds was that of my pen scraping against the tagboard form in her file, the one where college decisions are recorded. It was broken by a voice even too meek to be hers, and yet it was.


“R-really?”


I turned to see two full tears streaming down her cheeks, and a self-effacing smile that told me, her best dream had just come true. I put down my pen, and we just sat there, basking in the glow of acceptance for a while.


I was always in less of a hurry to keep up with the paperwork when working with students after that. Sure, her grades and scores told me she was going to college, but that was my job, while this was her dream. How often does anyone get to bear witness to the birth of a dream?


Fast forward, and I came home from work one day, where my wife greeted me with some news. “We’re invited to a graduation party. It’s this Sunday, and the invitation is from Lisa, your student.”


I have to admit, the food didn’t appeal to me much—too many vegetables and way too much eggplant. But the look on Lisa’s face made the day worthwhile, and I was humbled by the chance to join her in wishing the very best to the guest of honor. The party was for her daughter, about thirty years after that day in the office. She was heading to nursing school, the next generation in her family to go to college.


My name is Patrick O’Connor, college farmer, dream weaver.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Two Phrases That Kill a College Application

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Seniors, your counselors are reporting the use of two phrases in your college applications that are causing them concern. It's likely you're using one of them because you think it shows some exceptional quality. I can't honestly tell you why you're using the second one, but it isn't helping you all that much, either—and since both of them remind me of a classic movie scene, it's likely time to do something about this.

 

“I'm a really hard worker.” 


This phrase is turning up in college essays and counselor meetings at a level that has never been seen before. It's likely showing up so much because students think it shows some level of commitment—school means a lot to me, so I work hard at it. This  also suggests the student using the phrase is expecting some kind of payoff. Americans are raised to believe that, with a little hard work, they can do anything. OK—so, if you're a hard worker, it's time for you to win your prize in the form of an acceptance from your dream school.

 

Unfortunately, this phrase just doesn't do much for college admissions officers, or college in general. One admissions officer told me the phrase is a turnoff to him, since it could mean the student has to work incredibly hard just to keep up with their classes in high school. It's easy to see that as a limitation rather than a good quality. If you're working at full capacity in high school, what does that say about your ability to do harder work at college?

 

The other use of the phrase is just as bad. If you see college as a payoff for working so hard in high school, what does that say about your interest in making the most out of the opportunities college will bring you? Now that the prize is won, will you just sit back and rest on your laurels, treating college like a four year hiatus from reality, where you do just enough to get a degree, party like mad the rest of the time, and then head off to the world of work? Colleges tend to have loftier expectations from their students, and if your language suggests you might not share them, it's likely you won't be studying anything at that particular school.

 

“I really want to go there.”


The use of this phrase in a college application is nothing short of a mystery. It tends to be used by students whose grades or test scores are under the averages for admitted students. The apparent hope is, the fervent desire to attend that college is more than enough to make up a few points in GPA or test scores. It's either that, or the student is hoping the admissions office has just read another application where the student said “To be honest, I don't care if you take me or not.” If that's the case, your enthusiasm may make the difference you hope it will—but that doesn't happen too often. 

 

Most of the time, this phrase rings pretty hollow, a classic example of what colleges mean when they say they want the student to show them, not tell them. You really want to come here? Great. Why? What do you know about our school that makes it more special than others? What have you done to show this high level of devotion-did you attend an online information session? Send your questions about the school to an admissions officer? Look at the college website past the first screen? It's great to want something, but it's even better to put that hope into action. That's what separates the doers from the dreamers.


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Freaking Out About College? Don't Do That

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Peer pressure is an amazing thing. 


There haven't been eight weeks 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 18th. College doesn't start for 11 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, September 30, 2020

Do This to Improve Your College Options

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

October is the busiest month in the college application process. Most public universities review applications on a “first come, first serve basis,” so it helps to apply now. Many private colleges will tell you before Christmas if you apply before Halloween, so it helps to apply now. Anxiety goes up when you run out of now — and that’s what October can be all about.


To ease the anxiety, students often turn to their college list for inspiration — but that can just make things worse. Every college you’re applying to has an acceptance rate lower than Congress’s public approval rating, and while most legislators will get admitted to the institution of their choice for next year, that can’t be said about everyone applying to the colleges you worship, including you.


So what can you do? Think about Plan B.


You know — those schools your counselor talked about last spring? The ones that have most, if not more, of the qualities you’re looking for in a college? The ones that may actually offer you money to attend? How many of those schools have you applied to?


Thought so.


Since this is a busy time, your counselor can’t remind you of the importance of this list — so here goes:

  • It makes perfect sense to apply to a college you love, but no matter how strong you are, colleges don’t take everyone — students with perfect grades and scores hear “no” all the time.
  • Applying to 17 colleges that each has a 5 percent chance of admission does not mean there’s a 105 percent chance you will be admitted to at least one — it’s still 5 percent in each case.
  • These schools run out of room before they run out of great students. That isn’t your fault — but you’ll still need somewhere to go to college, and it should be some place you like.

Thinking about these schools now can seem like picking out a frozen pizza at the Piggly Wiggly when you have your heart set on Pizza Papalis. And while you appreciate everything your counselor is doing, it doesn’t help that they give these schools a title that sounds like, well, Second Prize. Safety Schools. Fall Back Schools. Just-In-Case Schools.


Fair enough.


It’s time to stop thinking about getting into college, and start thinking about going to college. Do the schools on both lists offer the same majors? Have about the same class size? Do the students at all schools care equally about learning, or thinking, or Friday night? If someone took you blindfolded to the campus of one of the colleges on your list, would you be able to sort out which list it was on, if you only heard students talking in its classes, and not the admissions office talking about its rankings?


Everyone has their first choices in the world, and pursuing them with all your worth is as important as eating well and looking both ways across the street. But considering other choices at the right time broadens your options, enriches your perspective, and requires you to look more closely at the real value of your top pick — and now is the right time.


It isn’t easy to look past something you love and may never have, but doing so creates an important byproduct. It’s called humility, and since it’s in short supply, more colleges value the real thing. The end result? By looking past your first choice college, you’re more attractive to it —and if the college says No, you’ve only lost one opportunity you love, while building many opportunities you like an awful lot.


So. About Plan B.