Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Counseling Students at College Decision Time

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s hard to believe, but early April is nearly here—and with it comes the final college admissions decisions.  Many of these are first decisions from highly selective colleges, but students will also be hearing back from colleges that may have asked for senior grades earlier in the year.

This makes for a great deal of different kinds of news, all coming to different students, who will all handle the news—differently.  Here’s how to help them receive the news in the best possible way, even if you’re swamped with other things to do:

Set the Right Tone  It isn’t too late to shoot out an e-mail or put together a PA announcement reminding everyone in the building—students, parents, teachers, and administrators—that college decisions aren’t character indictments.  Colleges admit students for all kinds of reasons, but they don’t admit students because they are better people.  That message is in every part of your college counseling curriculum, but a clear reminder right now will go a long way tin keeping everyone grounded when decisions come out.

Tell Seniors What to Do  Many colleges now send admissions decisions by text or e-mail, and some have the incredible insensitivity to send this information during the school day.  Colleges may see this as “fun”, but they aren’t in a classroom where only one student was admitted to the college that just denied admission to five other students in the same room.  Seniors may not listen, but tell them anyway— read your college decisions at home, alone.  Once the decision sinks in, you’ll be able to share the news with others in ways that are comfortable for you and them—and that’s the goal.

Ask Teachers for Help  College news spreads fast this time of year, and you just can’t be everywhere.  This is the time to ask teachers to pitch in; ask them to keep an eye out for seniors who just don’t seem their usual selves, and let you know.  It could be the student was turned down at a dream college; it could be they have too many good offers to choose from; it could be that it finally hit them they are leaving high school.  The teacher doesn’t have to sort that out—they just have to let you know, so you can help the students sort it out themselves.  (And please remind the teachers not to announce college decisions in a class; it makes for bad banter, no matter what they think.)

Adjust Your Schedule  With college decisions in, at least 10% of your seniors now have questions, concerns, or confusion—so the paperwork is going to have to wait.  Open your door, and keep it open; if you’re willing, tell the seniors you have open office hours after school, so they can drop by to talk without an appointment.  See if the PTA will provide cookies or soda (OK—or fruit), and you’re all set to handle whoever comes in the door.  This small welcoming gesture can bring in students you would least expect.

Review Your Awards Policy  Communities want to celebrate all the good students have done—so why do some schools only honor what they consider to be the “best” good?  Counselors insist that each student has their own path; make sure your honors convocation reflects that value.  Not every achievement is the same, but every achievement is an achievement.  Your challenge is to make sure everyone understands that, with college decisions, awards, and more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Defending the SAT. Really.

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Even after College Board updated the SAT in 2005, critics called the test irrelevant. That version continued to test students’ understanding of arcane words students didn’t know.  In addition, the essay portion added to the 2005 test was ridiculed for rewarding students to write in ways that are contrary to effective writing methods for college, including the use of facts the student simply makes up.

This month, College Board said, fair enough.  The essay is now optional, and made-up facts get no credibility.  The penalty for guessing is eliminated.  Uncommonly used words are out, making ignominious feeling even more ignominious. Students who can’t afford SAT test prep will be able to use College Board-approved test prep for free on Khan Academy, and any student who gets an SAT fee waiver will also get waivers to pay for four college applications. 

And what say the critics?  These changes are only being made because the SAT is losing market share to the ACT. The changes have nothing to do with education; this is all about looking more like the ACT.  And, even with the changes, the SAT is still irrelevant.

It’s absolutely true more students are taking ACT than SAT.  Several states require all students to take the ACT, even if they aren’t going to college.  Since that includes Michigan and Illinois, that’s a huge advantage in users; beyond that, students often tell me they find the ACT easier to understand than the SAT, so they take the test they feel is more comfortable.

If College Board is motivated by being #2 in the college testing market (and they haven’t said that), then second place is a plus. Competitors in any consumer-driven economy want their product to be more user-friendly for all kinds of reasons.  If the changes made to the 2016 test put the students more at ease, that could lead to scores that more accurately demonstrate what students know.

This relates to the idea of SAT-ACT sameness.  Past changes to SAT (originally an aptitude test) have made it a little more like the ACT (an achievement test), and these new changes are likely to make it even more so.  If these changes really make them alike, that will lead to fewer students taking both, leading to less time on testing and test prep, and more time on going to school.  That’s a win.

Finally, I can’t say if the SAT is relevant or not, because I’m not a college president.  Hundreds of colleges no longer require either the SAT or the ACT as part of the admissions process.  These colleges concluded that testing doesn’t tell them much more about a student than the grades, essays, and letters of recommendations students already submit when applying (and this study shows they’re right--—so why bother requiring the tests?

That’s great news for students applying to those colleges, but many colleges still require testing.  Since that means students will still be taking the SAT, why not make it a more user-friendly exam, and give students free help to get ready for it?

I am a huge advocate of test-free admissions policies, and I truly hope this round of SAT revisions will inspire every college to conduct a data-driven review of its use of standardized tests, to see if they really add to the decision-making process.  But if a college makes a data-rich conclusion that standardized tests are relevant to their admissions decisions, and you disagree with that conclusion, your issue is with that college, not with the test makers. Your demands for accountability should be addressed to them; by all means, do so.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How the New SAT Must Change Your College Advising Program

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Last week’s announced changes to the SAT have brought a mixed reaction.  Many school counselors welcome the news that the 2016 version of the test will no longer penalize students for guessing, and most counselors cheer the news that the required essay and its counter intuitive grading system will now be optional.

Other changes are leading to more questions.  How will the paper version of the new test be normed against the online version of the exam? Who will pay for the four college application fee waivers College Board is offering to all students who qualify for an SAT fee waiver?  Will the free Kahn Academy tutoring make a difference for needy students?
Some of these questions will only be answered over time, but the changes create a rare opportunity for school counselors to grow their college program:

9th grade families will demand more college readiness activities The new SAT debuts just in time for this year’s ninth graders to take the test in 2016, but the announcement has sparked an interest in college readiness and college awareness that goes far beyond the test.  College is now clearly on their minds, and counselors can expect there will be more inquiries about what classes to take to be ready for college, how to make the most out of campus visits, paying for college, and more.

If you were waiting for an opportunity to expand your college counseling curriculum, this is it. Ninth grade parents are eager to learn more, and more than a few will express that desire to your principal.  Anticipate the need by reviewing your current 9th and 10th grade college curriculum, and design no less than five new events, lessons, and programs to meet the need.  Most counselors already know what they would do to grow their college program, but if you’re looking for ideas, try this resource from the National Association for College Admission Counseling ( , and this information on College Application Week from the Michigan College Access Network (

This desire for more information will follow them through high school 
 Once the Class of 2017 hits grades 11 and 12, they’ll need more college information to build on the foundation of the stronger program you’re creating for 9th and 10th grade.  After you meet the immediate need, NACAC has other materials to help you create a comprehensive 9-12 college counseling curriculum.  This might also be time to take a college counseling class, where you can set new goals for your department and your students (find a class at

Review the data you gather to evaluate your counseling program  The increased demand for counseling services can lead to more time and resources, but it’s likely to come with a price.  Administrators wisely support new initiatives parents demand, but over time, school leaders will rightly ask, “Is it making a difference?”  Unless you have proof of your program’s success, administrative support will dwindle when parental outcry fades—and that proof will have to come in the language administrators understand, which is data.

This gives you an opportunity to review how you are measuring success in your entire counseling program.  The best place to start is with counseling data guru Trish Hatch’s latest book, The Use of Data in School Counseling:  Hatching Results for Students, Programs, and the Profession.  If you’re looking for an approach to college-driven data, look at MCAN’s Dashboard for College Success at .  This may not be perfect for you, but it’s a place to start.


The change in the SAT offers a fresh start for counselors.  Make the most of it.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Spring Cleaning for School Counselors

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It isn’t news to any school counselor that, as a whole, the number of students each counselor has to support is up—in some cases, way up.  The national average in 2010-11 was 471, with California reporting a stunning 1016 students per school counselor (all states can be found at
Increased student ratios means students - and counselors - have had to do more with less, a challenge that understandably leaves counselors feeling unsupported and limited.  But just like we respond when students feel they have nowhere to turn, it’s time to develop a strategy that looks past coping with counselor cuts, and seeks ways to help students even more, without adding to our sense of burden.

It’s time to toss the ugly urn.

You know the one I’m talking about.  The, um, gift from a well-meaning relative, you displayed for a week, only to realize it really wasn’t quite your taste.  You kept it in the closet, but displayed it when that dear gift giver came to visit; but there was that one time you got busy, and the spot was bare.  She noticed, and you knew it, but what could you do?  It’s now found its way to the back of the closet, behind two water bottles and some old Girl Scout cookies, even though it would be best to pick it up, dust it off, and head to the resale store.

Every counseling program has a few ugly urns, no matter how much you’ve had to trim in the last few years.  Examples?  Sure:

Individual scheduling appointments You probably finished this already, so look back and think about how many times you really had to work on class selection for a student.  Most of them knew what to choose, and those that didn’t will be looking at a round of changes once the master schedule kicks them out of three of their top choices.

There’s a better way. Ask each student to submit a completed schedule three days before the appointment.  When their time to meet comes up, review their schedule by yourself; if it makes sense (and most will), call them in to congratulate them on a job well done, then spend that time talking about college, bullying, study skills—some other part of the counseling curriculum.  Better yet, put a dozen well-scheduled students in a thorough group presentation that lasts 30 minutes; the 120 minutes you spent scheduling now leads to a strong group activity, and 90 minutes to focus on other counseling issues.

Career exploration  You bring 15 students to the computer lab, and spend 15 minutes of a 30 minute activity explaining how the career search program works—to a group of students who can text with the same hand they use to hold their phone.  Develop a 2 minute video with Camtasia using screen shots of the career exercise directions, then use Remind 101 to text the video link to the students.  They then come to the lab with a complete search, giving you 30 minutes to tell them what it means in greater detail.

Lunch duty  A $5 gift card to the nearest Dairy Delight goes to the student who answers the College Question of the Day.  You walk around and pass around copies of the question; they fill out the form, and you put it in the second pocket of a two-pocket apron.  The answer (and winner) are posted at Dairy Delight, which gets more business because the students come in to see who’s won—and gladly provides the gift cards for free as a result.

Got lemons?  Make lemonade.