Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Who Needs Harvard? We Do!

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The work of high school counselors just got a lot easier, and we have Frank Bruni to thank. His essay   “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness” uses real case studies to show students that life tends to work out pretty well for students whose dream school says no—and sometimes, it’s even better than if the dream school had said yes.

This is the ideal piece to pass along to anxious parents, right before admissions madness hits its peak.  It’s also a good piece to pass along to students, but I have to say, I don’t worry about them as much; they always seem to bounce back from the “no” of a college better than Mom and Dad do.  In any case, it makes for great family reading, so take a look at it, and share with your families, knowing the piece has its limits:
  • First, the piece does share enthusiasm for the “who cares about Harvard?” movement that’s swirling about us, and that’s cause for concern.  Yes, Harvard’s hard to get into—but that’s because it’s a great school, and it plays an important role in the education of more than just the students who go there.

Aspiring hoopsters of varying abilities have pictures of LeBron James on their bedroom walls, and that inspires them to be better basketball players, even though few (if any) will make it to the NBA.  The same is true for the role Harvard plays in the goal setting and development of our bright students; giving their all to achieving a high academic goal ensures they will have the discipline, habits, and perseverance needed to be successful  in whatever college they attend, and the subsequent life they lead.  Without the high goal of Harvard, these students don’t realize all of who they are, and what they can achieve—and that makes us all a little poorer.

  • Counselors wiser than I have pointed out that, while Bruni is trying to point out the value of every college, he doesn’t exactly do that.  His examples of students who went on to other colleges focuses largely on top tier schools, and more than one counselor has said there seems to be a message in the piece that says “Don’t worry—your child will still make their first million before they’re 30.”  This certainly limits the impact this piece can have if you work primarily with students who aren’t looking to Top 25 colleges, but there may be a way to use some of the ideas in the piece that will drive key ideas home about opportunity and achievement. 
  • Parents will want to be careful about the messages they send their child about college.  Bruni ends his piece with a touching story about two parents who wrote a letter of unconditional love to their son the night before his college decisions came.  The letter proved to help the student through the rejections he received, and he was able to move forward and make the most of the college choices he had.

This level of parental insight is inspiring, but that doesn’t mean it should be replicated.  The parents made the right choice for their child—but the same letter, written to a child with a different set of values or level of self-esteem, could have the opposite effect. As we prepare students for Decision Day, let’s keep in mind this individual process is about who they are, not who we want them to be.  If we do that, we’ll know just what to say to make each student look forward to what comes after high school.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Gentle Reminder

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s no such thing as “down time” for school counselors, but if there was ever a “crunch time”, this is it.  Sure, the first round of scheduling is over, but the second round of scheduling is about to begin.  Spring testing is on the horizon for many counselors (why are we in charge of that again?), and seniors are about to get admissions decisions from the nation’s most select colleges.  Once that smoke has cleared, it’s time to get ready for AP testing, award ceremonies, final exams, commencement—and a little more scheduling. Then, just like that, it’s over.

As we get ready to take the plunge, it’s important to hear the perspective of a student who caught her counselor on a bad day.  As I was told the story, the student wasn’t coming to see her counselor; they just happened to be in the hallway at the same time, with the student heading to class, and the counselor heading to another event of part of another busy day.  After seeing the very heavy scowl on the counselor’s face, the student concluded this was not the day to see her counselor—she was clearly in a bad mood.

Fair or not, it’s important to consider this experience from the student’s perspective.  As counselors, it’s easy for us to dismiss the concern with a reminder that counselors have too many tasks to complete, and too little time to do them; that too much of our work involves duties that have nothing to with counseling; that everyone has bad days.  When we put on our counselor lens and our adult lens, it’s easy to look past an inadvertent scowl, and not let it keep us from touching base with a counselor, or asking them for help.

The problem with that thinking is that students—our clients—aren’t adults. It’s certainly true that some of our students in greatest need aren’t the most logical thinkers, and the high emotions of some teenagers makes them impossible to please at times.  At the same time, these same volatile students are the ones who need us most, the ones who need to feel welcome by their counselor when the rest of the world has, at least according to them, given them the cold shoulder.  It isn’t easy to maintain a posture of openness and receptivity at all times, but when we tell students we’re there for them no matter what, that’s what we sign up for—always demonstrating at atmosphere of support for students who may not be thinking with linear precision.

It’s important to be honest with our students, and we don’t do them any favors by trying to portray adulthood as a seamless journey of joy-filled discovery.  But that’s a story we can tell once the student is in our office; the way we hold ourselves in the hallways and complete those “other duties as assigned” can make the difference in getting students in our offices in the first place.  So give a smile to your students, especially when they think they aren’t looking.  It can make a world of difference. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Assumptions Can Kill a College Search

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter in Michigan, even though we haven’t had our share of snow this year.  The blizzard began in early January, when the Michigan Department of Education announced plans to drop the ACT as the statewide college readiness exam. Within hours, school officials—largely district superintendents—were throwing themselves in front of every TV camera in the state, making bold proclamations that all sounded the same:

“Well, if the state is going to require our kids to take the SAT, it’s about time our state colleges started accepting the SAT as part of their freshman application process.”

There is no doubt these spokespersons are sincere, well-meaning educators who are very busy people.  Having said that, how long would it have taken to call someone in their district who works more closely with college admission—say, a school counselor—and ask “The state is changing to the SAT.  Is that going to hurt our kids?”

There is nothing like knowing what you don’t know.

The avalanche has turned into light flurries, but it’s still enough to make a counselor feel snowbound.  Just the other day, a school principal supported the test change by saying “Think of the opportunities this creates for students to look at colleges beyond Michigan”, assuming that colleges beyond our borders had never heard of the ACT, let alone knew what to do with the scores.

This entire test-switching adventure is a gentle reminder of two keys in college counseling.  First, it is always important to challenge the assumptions of our students.  How many students come through our doors having picked up the idea that they aren’t “college material”, making it that much harder for them to understand all of the options available to them after high school? 

This is especially true when it comes to college costs.  Too many students limit themselves to the schools they think they can afford, when a full exploration of college options can turn up scholarships or other programs that make dream schools affordable, as long as the student is willing to look.

Second, it is essential to begin college awareness at an early age.  Attitudes about college costs and the “right” kinds of college begin early in our society; this is why applications for admission always increase at whatever college wins the football national championship. By talking to 7th and 8th grade families about college options and costs, counselors are giving students the tools to evaluate options after high school that put their interests, talents, and needs at the center of the search.  That’s the best way to make sure students are asking assumption-free questions.

Counselors looking for a college curriculum that makes sense to 7th graders can turn to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  Their Step by Step curriculum walks students and parents through the college exploration process from grades 7-11, and includes downloadable Power Points in English and Spanish—all for free.  No curriculum will make sure every student has an assumption-free college search, but NACAC offers a tried and true way to keep most students and families on the straight and narrow, no matter what college test they take.