Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You Can't Go to College If You Don't Have the Money

Patrick O’Connor is a past president 
of the National Association for College 
Admission Counseling and author of t
he book College is Yours in 600 
Words or Less
I hope I'm not the only counselor who has problems getting students to apply for scholarships.  I know seniors are pretty wiped out at this point, and really don't want to write one more college essay about what they will contribute to campus or how much Animal Farm really meant to them, but it's still my responsibility to get them motivated to write the essays, since the essays can lead to the money they need to actually go to college.

Once I get a grunt of acceptance, the rest is pretty easy.  Here's what I tell them:

Unlike looking for a college, this hunt is really pretty easy.  First, go to look for scholarships that meet your interests, talents, and backgrounds. Your school counselormay have a different site they like more, or a neighbor may have found college cash somewhere else, so ask and look around.

Next, scope out your high school counseling Web site or ask your counselor about the list of local scholarships that are available.  This is the most neglected source of scholarship money, because most people think the $200 or $500 scholarships from the local VFW or the Kiwanis club aren’t all that big. Fair enough—but if it takes an hour to write an essay for a $200 scholarship, that means you’re making the same hourly rate as Perry Mason, and you’re way younger.

In addition, remember that local scholarships have a smaller pool of applicants.  Anything you find on is being seen by tens of thousands of eyes; if you’re in the only high school in town, how many students are really going to apply for the Good Citizen scholarship?

Once you hit these sites, look for scholarships that evolve around the same theme.  For example, a number of scholarship center on patriotism.  This increases the chances that you can write one well done essay on, say, America’s future, apply most of it to six or seven essays, and be a serious contender for each one.  Suppose 3 of those scholarships come your way—you’re now up to $600 an hour.

You’ll also want to ask your counselor if you can fill out one application for all of the local scholarships.  Counselors know it’s a pain to complete so many scholarship applications (and the VFW gets discouraged if only 3 kids apply for their scholarship), so they create their own version of the Common App for local scholarships.  You fill out one app, make enough copies for each scholarship, write a specific essay for each one, and voila!

The last paying for college thing you’ll want to do (you’ve already complete the FAFSA, right?) is take one more look at your college list.  It is wonderful and important to apply to every college you love and dream of, but if they all cost more than the median household income of the US, it may be time to look at more budget-friendly options.

I encourage students to do this in the fall, but if you haven’t done so, now is the time.  It’s way too easy to get caught up in admit letters in April that come with financial aid packages where four years of loans will cost more than a Volt—but instead of being shocked, you’ll say “Oh, this is just too wonderful.  I’ll find a way to pay for it.”

It’s certainly true that things can work out in amazing ways, but when your college payment options boil down to starting out your work life with a car-payment sized student loan or hitting the Power Ball, filling out one more college app now creates a Door #3 that will seem like a deal come April.

And it probably doesn’t require an essay.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Counseling Advice Your Teachers Will Love

By: Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D

Counselors often have to work with students who know they need help but don’t quite come out and say so, and the same thing can happen with adults, including our teaching colleagues…

…like right now, when students are asking for higher grades so it will “look good to colleges.” 

I sent this out to my students last week, and copied the teachers in my building.  I haven’t heard a peep from my students, but the faculty can’t thank me enough for giving them some support to deal with what seems to be a trickier problem every year, and your faculty is probably feeling the strain. Feel free to pass this along to your students (take out the last paragraph if you’re not on trimesters), and be sure to send it on to your teachers—they’ll thank you for meeting a need they never even mentioned. 

Even as we speak, students and parents across America are opening backpacks, tearing off envelope tops, and downloading files to discover that homecoming, the weekend spent at the Harry Potter film festival, and a hint of Thanksgiving senioritis have taken their toll on last semester’s grades:

“A B+ in Physics?”

“A C in Calculus?”

“A WHAT in AP English?”

Welcome to grade groveling season, the time of year when parents across America look at their senior’s laundry and say “What are these stains on the knees of these pants, and how did they get there?”  From buttering-up to begging, from outrage to despair, seniors will spend the next couple of weeks planning, scheming, and hoping that they can squeeze just one little grade bump from 3 or 4 teachers, largely because they are certain colleges will take one look at these grades and say “Yeah, well, no.”

I suppose this is where I’m supposed to offer words of solace and encouragement, and outline some approaches towards importunacy that will succeed.  OK, here goes:

Good luck with that.

I know you feel badly, much like the point guard who sinks the winning shot after the buzzer sounds, or the junior who finally understands the writing prompt on the ACT on their drive home from the test center.  This isn’t easy to live with, and you were so close, but it just didn’t happen.

“But sensei” says you, “college is on the line, and I can fix this, because time hasn’t run out.  I’m still in high school, and I still have the same teacher.”

True enough, young grasshopper—but look at the calendar, and see who’s behind.  It’s second semester, and that grade was forfirst semester.  On the time-space continuum, the jig is up—and if you don’t understand that, maybe you really did deserve that low Physics grade.  Just sayin’.

If that’s not enough to get your head out of the rear-view mirror, keep in mind that a small bump in one class grade—say, from a B to a B+—raises your GPA by about .008.  Combine that with the advice a college rep gave me—“one grade alone will never sink a student”—and I’d say it’s time to leave your teachers in peace…

…which leads to my last point.  Unlike Aunt Midge’s socks, grades aren’t gifts given by someone else—they are earned by you.  If you have some reason to believe your grade was calculated incorrectly, find out what the formal process is for a grade appeal at your school, and follow it. 

At the same time, I’m guessing this process has nothing to do with baking cookies for your teacher, following them to the parking lot at the end of the day , or having your parents “accidentally” bump into them at the grocery store—and it really doesn’t involve saying “but a grade this low will keep me out of college.” 

From what I know, that’s not true, and even if it is, the person who gave you this “gift” of a grade isn’t looking at you from the teacher’s desk 3rd period.

They’re looking at you in the bathroom mirror every morning.

Believe me when I tell you, I’m feelin’ it for ya, but it’s time to pull up those socks Aunt Midge bought you and move on…

…unless your high school is on trimesters, in which case it’s time to check your grades, and look two or three weeks down the road to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“I Don’t Know What You’re Doing, But Thanks for Doing It”

By:  Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

It just figures that National School Counseling Week starts the day after the Super Bowl.  The country gorges on guacamole-covered chicken wings on Sunday, and when America’s most misunderstood group of educators asks for three nacho chips and a high five on Monday, the country is too tired to party.
In some ways, we don’t mind.  The last time we made headlines, most people surveyed felt that school counselors were more of a hindrance than a help in applying to college.  Before that, we were the punch line of a car ad – “Your guidance counselor drives a minivan”—or we were known as the washed-up teachers who were given offices close to the principal so he could keep an eye on us.
But Jenny doesn’t see us that way.
Jenny was the quiet, slender girl who didn’t cause anyone trouble, except herself.  When two or three students saw Jenny needed help, they went straight to the school counselor, who called Jenny into that office close to the principal to talk about it in a safe, confidential place.  Jenny got help, and became an even more beautiful person.
Steve doesn’t see us that way either.  Three weeks into school, he had his fifth unexcused absence, and was on his way to flunking a required course.  He told his school counselor he was working late to support the newborn son no one knew he had.  His counselor asked the teacher to give Steve one last break, but never mentioned why.  Steve got it, graduated, and got a full-time job that paid enough to take care of his young family.
If you didn’t know that, you’re not supposed to. When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well.
Of course, we aren’t perfect.  Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number.  Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never—never —trained how to help students apply to college.
I bet you didn’t know that either.
Old habits die hard--  school counselors know that for sure—but if you have a minute this week, stop by and thank your school counselor for everything you don’t know they’re doing, and put in a good word for them with the principal.  We might not score winning touchdowns or drive fast cars, but when the goal is to drive 450 students to win their own big game, the minivan really rocks it. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

School Counselors and Their Classroom Presents

By: Patrick O'Connor 

Maria was one frustrated educator. She’d been an elementary school teacher for about ten years, but she was still considered the rookie in a building where the teaching staff was seasoned, stoic, and not headed anywhere, either in terms of retirement or new ideas.  Every insight Maria gained at a conference or in a journal was met with a patronizing nod when she shared it at staff meeting, and she could feel the life oozing out of her, her classroom, and her teaching.

Unable to communicate with her colleagues, Maria turned to a school counselor, hoping they would listen to her plight.  After a brief summation of her years of frustration, Maria turned to the counselor and asked “Is there anything I can do?”

“What would you change in your classroom, if you could?” asked the counselor.

The fire came back in Maria’s eyes.  Idea after idea came rolling out of her mouth, with vivid descriptions of what the classroom would look like, how each change would benefit each child, and what a more energized classroom would do for the atmosphere of the school, the students, and their families.

“Wow” said the counselor.  “Tell me, just what is it that’s preventing you from making those changes?”

Maria’s stared blankly ahead for a full minute.  “Well, I’m tenured, the changes wouldn’t veer from the school curriculum, and they wouldn’t put the children at risk.”

She then picked her head up and looked at the counselor.  “Nothing” she said, breaking into a broad smile.

One visit was all it took, and  the seeds of change had been planted.  About three weeks later, the counselor overheard Maria’s veteran colleagues talking at lunch about the new level of focus and energy Maria’s students seemed to have.

One of those same colleagues walked past the counselor’s office with Maria a week later, with Maria explaining some of the changes she’d made in her classroom. That’s why it came as no surprise when Maria later led a discussion at the staff meeting about the gains in her student’s interest in learning and performance, and how they were achieved.

It’s often said that teaching is one of the loneliest professions in the world, but it’s very easy to think of one even lonelier—school counselor.  Surrounded by students and duties from the minute we walk into the building, counselors don’t have much down time, but they have even less time than classroom teachers to take a breath, stop and see the big picture, or consult with a colleague at lunch, since far too often, we have no colleagues in the building who are free when we eat lunch—right around 3:00.

That isolation can easily lead us to believe our work has no value beyond the handful of students we see each day—but then along come the Marias to remind us of the opportunities that exist for counselors to support our colleagues in the classrooms. From study skills to bullying prevention to career exploration to simply being there to listen, counselors offer a wealth of skills, resources and expertise that can help teachers make healthier, more productive classrooms, even if we never set foot in them.

Of course, once classroom teachers know what we have to offer, we’ll be invited to come in more often, but that’s not the goal.  The goal is to support better teaching, better learning, and better living, and a host of opportunities await us to bolster those goals, as soon as we stop thinking about what’s holding us back, and start focusing on what we want done.

It works.  Just ask Maria.