Wednesday, November 20, 2013

College Applications and Thanksgiving

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

This holiday season brings plenty of good news for high school seniors. Thanksgiving is as late as it possibly can be, creating one more week to complete college applications before the holidays begin. This also gives you one more week to hear back from colleges that have your completed applications, increasing the chances you can share good news with the relatives you see once a year.

But a late Turkey Day date also brings a few challenges.  If you’re thinking you’ll have a few days after Thanksgiving to submit college applications with a December 1 deadline, look again.  December 1st is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, so it’s easy to see there won’t be much time to do quality application work on a holiday weekend.

In addition, one more week before Thanksgiving gives you one less week after Thanksgiving—calendars can be harsh that way.  This means any plans you have to apply “later” to colleges with a January 1 deadline may be counting on time you really won’t have, even if you work through the night before Christmas or the eight days of Hanukah.

The key to good college applications is the same as the key to good holidays—plan ahead.  Follow these steps, and you’ll make sure the only turkey you deal with is the one you eat on Thanksgiving, not the last-minute college essay you have to send in on a tight deadline.

Count your colleges and your blessings. Start by writing down the number of college applications you still have to complete.  Now, organize them by due date—not by the number of essays they require—and re-write the list in that order.

If you have eight or fewer applications to complete, you’re in great shape. Most students can complete an application in two hours, especially if the basic part of The Common Application is now complete.  If you set aside a two hour block every Saturday and Sunday between now and December Break, you’ll find you have time to do homework and activities during the school week, give yourself ample time to write quality college essays on the weekends, and…

Take Thanksgiving Weekend Off.  Completely.  Think about everything you did last Thanksgiving—parade, football, shopping, listening to Uncle Mike talk about how LBJ is the best president ever. All of that’s going to happen this year—and you don’t want to miss a minute of it.

If family gets to be a little too much (hey, it happens) you’ll want to plan on some quality screen time, or friend time, or taking-a-breath-from-three-AP-classes time.  All of this is perfectly understandable, and perfectly healthy—and this break will actually help your college applications.  If you complete a few applications before Thanksgiving, then take off one weekend,  you’ll regain your focus when you start again the weekend ofDecember 7th,  and write better essays than you would if you were trying to “squeeze in” some writing time during Thanksgiving.  Believe me—this works.

Cut Your Relatives Some Slack.  They’ll sigh when they find out you haven’t heard from your colleges, and look at you blankly when you name a school they’ve never heard of.  They don’t doubt you—they love you—and they want to know you’ll be OK.  Show them you are OK, and college will be great—live in the moment, let college go for a weekend, and let Uncle Mike win the wishbone contest, while you tell him he’s just as strong as Lyndon Baines Johnson.  It’s all good. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A School Counselor's Request to Michelle Obama

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

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, November 6, 2013

Ideal Gifts for That Special Counselor in Your Life

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

In case you missed it, your local drug store is stocking candy canes this week—and that puts them a couple of weeks behind the local big box store that’s had Christmas trees up since mid-October.  These commercial displays remind us that a season of gift-giving is upon us; if you have a spare minute or two, you may want to add these professional resources to your wish list, just in case someone asks.

NOSCA’s Principal-Counselor Toolkit provides strategies, worksheets, and other tools to create a strong working relationship between you and your supervisor.  The toolkit covers everything from the right use of data (a staple when developing a strong relationship with a principal), effective communication practices, leadership, and taking your practice to the next level.  This series of downloads is free, but since busy counselors don’t have time to stand around the printer, the toolkit is the ideal gift for your school-aged, tech-savvy children to give  you, nicely wrapped in your favorite-covered binder.

Dr. James T. Webb’s  new book expands the understanding of the gifted.  Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope talks about ways to help the bright students in your school who sometimes struggle when the challenges of reality clash with their strong, clear vision of what their world—or our world—can be. 

About 30 years ago, the American education system decided to treat gifted children the same way it treats students who get straight As, glossing over the important differences in the psychological make-up of students who are achievement oriented, and students who are focused on sharing their very personal vision of the world.  James Webb has been trying to articulate the needs of the gifted for over 40 years, and critics are hailing Searching for Meaning as an ideal guide to help gifted students understand themselves and the world around them.  It’s the perfect book to save for a quiet winter day—and if you don’t have his classic Guiding the Gifted Child, make sure that goes on your gift list as well.

Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go To College explores a different group of students, and offers a more solemn but important message to school counselors. Alexandria Walton Radford studied the college choices of high school valedictorians, and discovered that the two factors preventing low-income valedictorians from attending top colleges were the lack of college awareness of their parents, and the lack of knowledge and support of their school counselors. 

The author pulls no punches in her assessment of the students’ experiences with school counselors—the students used words like “pretty lousy” and “incompetent”—and matches that description to the irony that these high-achieving students are actually more likely than their higher-income counterparts to be admitted to top colleges and enroll in them, provided the adults in their lives guide them to the right information and the right financial resources. This may not be the ideal page-turner to read in those days of renewal during the holidays, but it’s the perfect book to keep in mind when it’s time to make that list of New Year’s resolutions that fuel our desire to make things better for our students.

Finally, a nifty little tool from Levenger is the ideal stocking stuffer for counselors who still clip articles from print magazines and newspapers. The Single Sheet Cutters allow you to save that article in the middle of the page without mangling the rest of the paper, and since Levenger has frequent 20% off sales before the holidays, it’s a thrifty decadent splurge.