Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How Much College Help Can You Really Give?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This is the time of year that truly tries a high school counselor’s soul.  Sure, it’s busy, but when isn’t it busy in a high school counseling office?  We may have to deal with college applications and testing now, but financial aid will come next, and just when the college application process is dying down, we’ll get to pick up the scheduling responsibilities we have as part of those “other duties as assigned.”

So the break-neck speed of our work isn’t killing us; frankly, it’s the kids.  Consider these real-life situations, taken from conversations I’ve had with colleagues throughout the country:

  • Since August, a school’s newsletter has reminded students they must send ACT and SAT scores to the college, and it will take 2-3 weeks for the college to receive them- yet, a student comes to the counseling office the day before the application is due, asking the counselor to send test scores.
  • A student e-mails a counselor for an appointment, telling the counselor with joy that her application for State U is almost ready to be sent.  The student is referring to the application that was due in the college counseling office three weeks ago.
  • A student tells a counselor the student will be applying Early Decision to a college, and wants to know if the counselor can read their essays that were due three days ago.  Students have been told essay review takes a week; the student wants them back the next day—and the e-mail is being sent on Sunday.

The good news in each of these cases is that the student is applying to college.  This is very important to remember; there are many students who look at the myriad applications, deadlines, and requirements, and say “Forget it.”

On the other hand, this set of “almost forgot to apply” students create their own challenges, since a lack of help from the counselor suggests a lack of interest from the counselor.  That isn’t the case, but “you missed my deadline” is of little help to many students, and almost all of their parents, when an application isn’t submitted on time.

Amid the flurry of activity, it’s easy for counselors to hope there’s a magic switch to flip that will make these last-minute problems go away.  If you’re looking for ways to make sure more students get the message about the importance of deadlines, answer these questions:

  • How do you let students and parents know about application deadlines?  E-mail? Newsletter?  Text Message?  Posters?
  • What resources exist to spread the word that you aren’t using now?  PTA meetings? Back-to-School Night? Sporting Events? Teachers?
  • Do students and parents understand why you have to know about an application well before the college wants it submitted?  Is there a better way to tell that story?
  • If you have a “tell us first” deadline, is it as late as it can be?  Are there logistical tweaks to be made that can get transcripts and counselor letters out sooner?
  • If something’s going to be late, are there some colleges that will give you the benefit of the doubt?

These are all key ideas to consider in trying to help students be timely—but remember, all you can do is help.  If a thorough review of your policies and communication approaches leave you with the conclusion that you really have done everything you can, chances are you really have.  Feedback from parents and students may help you see something you’re missing, but when all the analysis is over, there are some kids that are just late—who will need some careful guidance developing Plan B. 

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