Thursday, November 17, 2011

Effective College Counseling is Just Eight Minutes Away

By Patrick O'Connor

School counselors have a new reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving season, thanks to a report released yesterday on the state of school counseling.  Sponsored by The Kresge Foundation, the College Board’s Annual Survey of School Counselors measured counselor attitudes on a number of issues.

Two quotes draw important attention to the area of counselor readiness.  As the report states,

Although the majority of counselors have a master’s degree (73 percent) and important prior work experience (58 percent were teachers of administrators), only a small minority feel very well trained for their jobs (only 16 percent rate their training as a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale). Nearly three in 10 (28 percent) believe their training did not prepare them well for their job and more than half (56 percent) feel only somewhat well trained.

The report adds counselors have sought out additional training in a number of specialized areas, with college and career counseling the single largest area where counselors sought more training.

This same theme of preparedness is bluntly addressed in the conclusion of the report, with a recommendation to

Align Counselor Education and Training Requirements with the Needs on the Ground.  Counselors indicate that their preservice training, while somewhat satisfactory, does not adequately prepare them for the realities they are facing in schools.  Course requirements should be updates to reflect this reality, including mandatory work on advising for college readiness, access and affordability.

(The full report can be found at

The College Board report provides further evidence of the yawning gap between education theory and the reality of working with real students with real needs, a gap unrecognized by most counselor educators and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).  Trained school counselors know the name of the behavior that clings steadfastly to an incorrect view of reality.  It’s called denial, and while counselor educators are able to teach graduate students to recognize this trait, they are evidently not able to do so themselves, at least when it comes to their own attitudes about improved training in college counseling.

The College Board report may be the tonic that leads counselor educators to acceptance-- but like all clients going through the five stages of grief, their recovery is best supported with the help of a wise counselor…

…and that’s where you come in.  Now that College Board has joined Public Agenda and other studies in calling for counselor training reform, school counselors must show their gratitude for this work by taking action. Five minutes is enough time to e-mail the director of your counselor training program and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (go to and call on them to put the real needs of students first by adding a required, comprehensive college admission counseling class to their master’s programs.

Another three minutes is all it takes to contact the American School Counselor Association (<>) and CACREP (go to to ask them to end the circular blame game where counselor educators feel bound by CACREP standards, and CACREP leaves  the standards as is because counselor educators aren’t demanding they be changed.

College Board has harvested a bumper crop of counselor opinion, leaving counselors an opportunity to sow seeds of meaningful change in the way future counselors are trained in college admission counseling. As busy as we all are, eight minutes is all the time you need to be a hero and not a turkey; since we all know what students and counselors really need, and what happens to turkeys at this time of year, the choice couldn’t be clearer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What’s Best, or Whatever?

By Patrick O'Connor

I was working on some last-minute college applications today, and nothing was going to distract me from them.  Students who came by to see me were asked to come back later, and phone calls went straight to voice mail.  Nothing was going to keep me from getting these applications out early, but then an ambulance siren blared up to my office window and cut out abruptly, meaning it was in the school parking lot…

…and suddenly, the applications could wait.

Fortunately, everything was fine—but school counselors everywhere are feeling that way about their work this week, as the headlines unravel two human relationship stories that give everyone in our profession pause.  A presidential candidate and football coaches are accused of everything from bad judgment to blatant abuse of others, and suddenly the college applications, the report card reviews, and the study skills seminar are on hold—there are other issues to consider.

The headlines are beyond our influence, but they serve as important reminders of the duty we owe our students, our parents, our colleagues, and our community.  While requirements vary from state to state, all school personnel are held to high standards when it comes to reporting suspected abuse of any kind—verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual.  If you can’t remember the last all-building meeting—not a memo—on the topic of Duty to Report, it’s time to head to the principal’s office and set one up.

There are three important factors to consider.  First, this has to do with all school personnel—not just teachers or certified school counselors.  Depending on the state, anyone who works in a school—secretaries, janitors, bus drivers, college counselors, lunch workers, and yes, coaches who come to work after school-- are all required to know the law and act on it.

Second, this is about suspecting abuse.  If a situation gives you any reason to think abuse could be occurring, you must report that suspicion.  You don’t need stone cold proof; you just need that bad feeling that won’t go away; make the call, so the state has the opportunity to protect that child. If you think there’s more to do, that comes next, but this comes first.

Third—and this seems to be the issue that made headline news-- most Duty laws do not allow you to transfer the obligation by reporting to a supervisor.  If you suspect a student is being abused, most states don’t let you off the hook by telling your boss—you have to tell your boss and report it to the state yourself.  In most cases, this report is anonymous; in each case, it’s an important step in protecting a student and the community.

It’s been too long since the music and film industries surrendered any claim to the title of Builders of Strong Male Minds, and now amateur sports and political leaders are walking away from this same duty.  With so many men embracing all varieties of “Whatever” as their life motto, counselors everywhere wonder how today’s boys will become tomorrow’s men if there is no one to point out the path and inspire them to stay on it.

This week’s news gives them two more reasons to give up hope, but one simple trip to the principal’s office can jump start your school to explore meetings, programs, discussions, and behavioral changes that can point out a better way for them, and for all of us.

You’ve got this article, you’ve got a printer, and you’ve got the same choice the headline makers apparently had.  Which will it be—what’s best, or whatever?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Your Essay Limit Just Got Lowered. OK.

By Patrick O'Connor

College applicants received a cold blast from the East this weekend, and I’m not talking about the snowstorm that created power outages across New England.  This cold front was delivered by the New York Times, which had an article in its Sunday edition on the stress college-bound seniors were feeling.

Common Application, the non-profit that allows students to apply to hundreds of colleges with one uniform basic application, had reinstituted a word limit on the essay seniors can write this year.  The limit was lifted last year, but colleges complained the essays were too long. Common App obliged them by putting the limit back on, and the Times piece focused on students in angst over having to scale their 800 word essays down to something reasonably close to the stated limit of 500 words.

Before you say “so what’s the big deal”, it’s important to know Common App has said all along that the 500 word essay isn’t being enforced, at least by them.  If a student really wants to send an 800 word essay, they can; based on comments from Common App colleges, the Times piece suggested some of them would take notice, and possibly umbrage, with students who went much past 530, but if the student wanted to roll the dice, that was up to them.

OK—now I’ll say it with you.  What’s the big deal?

Don’t get me wrong—it’s easy to see why students would be confused and a little adrift with the announcement that Common App’s essay had a limit that wasn’t being enforced by Common App; to a 17 year-old, that’s like a school having a tardy policy, when the teacher takes attendance at the end of class.  Mix in the idea that a college may enforce the limit in some unknown way with the general tumult of applying to college, and the potion for problems is ready to serve…

…unless, of course, you just follow the rules.

It’s true each college has their own rules, so keeping track of all of them can be confusing, but there’s a way to do that (did you read College is Yours 2.0?)  It’s also true there are some “rules” most colleges will let you bend, like sending one extra letter of recommendation, as long as it really says something different than the others (did you read College is Yours 2.0?)

It’s just as true colleges will be happy to read a 530 word essay that’s great, and they will be less happy to read a 250 word essay that isn’t great.  (Well, there is one exception to this rule—but you’ll have to read College is Yours 2.0)

This last rule has been around forever, and the Times is telling you it’s back.  So write what you have to say and edit it down to around 500 words.  It makes for a better essay (really), it sharpens the editing skills you’ll need in college, and it brings you one step closer to learning which rules are real, and which ones have some flex.  If it bothers you to think someone else is sending in a 750 word tome, think about how they’ll feel when the college rep reading it says, in their own way, “hoo boy.”

College is supposed to broaden your view of the world, and if it’s done well, so should applying to college.  Plan A is now Plan B, and it’s going to help you get into college, not get in your way— in other words, little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting.

So aim for 500.  It’s all right.