Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making the Right Decision About Decision Day

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It started out as a pretty simple idea.  High school seniors would celebrate their admission to college by wearing a T-shirt or sweatshirt from their college on May 1, the day college-bound seniors place a deposit at the one college they’ll be attending in the fall.  It was informal, it was fun, and it was a way for small groups of friends to celebrate all they’d done in high school, now that high school was coming to a close.

In just a few short years, the idea has taken on a life of its own.  Spurred in part by the National College Access Network, school counselors and principals are now organizing formal events that include everything from morning breakfasts sponsored by the PTA to all-school assemblies where college decisions are announced.  Some high schools set up an announcement board where every student—college bound and otherwise—put up a message about their future plans, and say a word of farewell.  That board often stays up for a full year, inspiring next year’s seniors to reach for their dreams—until a new board gives them the opportunity to share their dreams to inspire others.

In typical leading-edge fashion, the Michigan College Access Network has accumulated some of the best College Decision Day practices and presented them in a new publication for other high schools to use.  These resources are by no means limited for use by Michigan high schools, and they’re available for all to use at 
 (Full disclosure: I am on MCAN’s board of directors.)

I collected some of the examples used in the guide, and there are three perspectives that surfaced in my conversations with school counselors. First, nearly every counselor that sponsors some kind of Decision Day activity includes every senior. College is a great experience for students who want to pursue it, but every senior has a future to fulfill. It’s vital to organize any Decision Day activity by remembering the goal of the day—honoring each senior’s choice for what’s next in their lives.

Second, some counselors wonder if Decision Day can really meet its lofty goal of inspiring every senior.  If Decision Day is about achievement, how would it be viewed by seniors who weren’t admitted to their dream school, or by seniors who weren’t looking forward to their future?  Others counselors shared personal stories of the Decision Day they experienced as a senior, experiences that sent them off to life after high school with self-doubt and discouragement.  Still others wondered why high school students couldn’t just celebrate being in high school; after all, isn’t Commencement already a day to celebrate new beginnings?

Finally, one counselor sought middle ground by moving his school’s celebration to late March.  Knowing many admissions decisions are released April 1, this counselor scheduled a senior lunch (no parents, no teachers) the week before students heard from their schools.  Since the “Yes-No-Maybe” mania hadn’t started, this lunch gave seniors a breather from the early spring rigors of senior year and the gentle agony of application anxiety.  Seniors had a time to be themselves, and to be together as a class one last time before college news made embracing the future—and leaving the past-- a little more real.

Supporting young people is a careful mix of nurturing their soul and nudging them to a sense of life that’s bigger than self.  Whatever your school plans for Decision Day—if any—do as Stephen Covey suggests, and keep the end in mind. Once you have a clear goal for the program, the MCAN publication can help get you there.

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