Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Three Keys to a Successful National College Signing Day

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

High schools are making a pretty big deal out of National College Signing Day, which comes up this Friday.  Long established as the official end of the college search process, May 1 is the day most college-bound students must send a deposit to the college they will attend in the fall. 

In the last few years, high schools are using National College Signing Day as an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of their seniors. This is often done with a senior breakfast, a school assembly, or simply encouraging seniors to wear college gear on Friday, but the idea is the same—honor the hard work of the students who will soon leave high school, and show the community everything young people are capable of achieving.

These celebrations usually go off without a hitch, but not always, or not for everyone.  As you blow up your balloons for this coming Friday, keep an eye out for students who may be seeing National College Signing Day  a little differently—especially those who:

Decide that National College Signing Day is plural There is a sense among counselors that more and more students are deciding to keep their college options open after May 1 by putting enrollment deposits in at more than one school.  This may seem like a great choice for the student, but colleges see it as a nightmare. Colleges A, B, and C all think Susie will be on campus in the fall, and when she calls Colleges B and C in mid-August to say she won’t be there, they can’t fill that seat.

If that happens 20 times at even a large college, that can lead to cancelled classes, fewer student services, and a less enjoyable college experience for all—and it can easily happen at College A, where 20 other students have done unto Susie what Susie did to Colleges B and C.

It’s time to end this collegiate version of mutually assured destruction.  Tell your students to make only one deposit, and to make that deposit on May1.

Had no choice with the decision they made  This is a very exciting time for students who have finally sorted through the multiple college offers they received—but less so for some of the students where their several college applications returned only one offer, or none.  For many of these students, it was hard enough watching everyone else’s joy when admission offers were received. National College Signing Day could be an occasion for them to relive that disappointment all over again—and that’s no way to head into graduation.

This doesn’t mean a school should cancel their plans, but it is a reason to stay alert.  Ask your teachers to keep an eye out for seniors who are unusually quiet on Friday.  They may be struggling with something other than their college choice, but no matter what it is, you need to know.

Have a future that doesn’t include postsecondary planning Most high schools have expanded this Friday’s celebration to include more than students who are going to a four-year college, adding students going into skilled trades training, community college, and more.  That’s a good start, but it can leave out those who are heading into the military, those apprenticing, and those going directly into the world of work.

Statistics may show that college training leads to better salaries, but you aren’t celebrating statistics this Friday; you’re celebrating students, and they all need the loudest cheer you can offer as they enter a world that’s tricky at best. Make sure everyone feels entitled to a piece of cake.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Picking a College? Don't Do This

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It's getting down to the wire for members of the Class of 2015, who have until May 1 to put down a deposit at the one (and only one) college they'll be attending. I tell my students there's only so much data they can use in this decision, and they should turn off the data sources around April 20 and follow their well-informed hearts. To support that point, here are a few final ideas on what not to consider in a college decision.

A major you made up in the first place. Now that it's over, you can tell the truth -- you really don't know what you want to study in college. You said it was going to be Archaeology because that's the first thing that came to mind at your college interview, or when Uncle Jim asked you in front of everyone at Thanksgiving, and, well, you couldn't really say "I don't know," right?

If you've somehow ended up with three colleges that offer little else besides classes like From Darth Vader to Indiana Jones: A Family Tree That Needs Pruning, it may be time to re-evaluate your list, since archaeology isn't your true calling after all. Yes, this may raise the ire of your parents, but better to tell them now than after you've earned a year's worth of credits that won't transfer.

Undecided is the most popular major for college freshmen, and with good reason. If you need time to sort out your future, pick a college that gives you that time. Uncle Jim will be pleased in the long run -- more important, so will you.

Where your high school sweetheart goes. I know exactly how you feel. You can easily see the two of you together when you announce your run for the White House as the high school sweethearts whose love lasted forever. That would be great.

Here's the thing -- not all high school sweethearts go to the same college. They go to different schools, find a way to share those experiences with each other, graduate from college, and start their life together. Two different lives that are one.

It can work that way for you, too. If nursing school is their thing, you can support them -- but you don't have to go there, too. I mean, they were in marching band while you ran cross country, and that worked out, right? They follow their passions, you follow yours, and you have a rich life together through the trust you have in one another. That's the basis of a good life, a good relationship, and a good college choice.

Money only. College A and College B both have great majors, and each campus gives you the right blend of comfort and challenge. College A is $20,000 less than College B, so you pick College A. Great.

College C is offering your buddy a full ride, but doesn't offer either of the majors your friend wants, is in a part of the country they don't like, and has a campus that gave them a bad feel. College D isn't perfect and involves some debt, but your pal loves it -- it's just that College C is such a bargain.

Except in this case, it isn't. It costs a lot of money to go to college, but it costs a lot of everything else to go to a college that gives you neither a promising future nor an exciting present. Think carefully about the money, but make a choice that wisely balances long-term financial debt with short-term personal sacrifices. Too much of either is a bad deal.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April Showers Bring—Data?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s something about mid-April that inspires school counselors as nothing else can. For many, it may be that students have an extra spring in their step, now that they have shed their winter coats.  For others, the growth they’ve seen in their students is starting to come forth, and it’s clear they’re ready for the next grade, college, or the next phase of their lives.

Many counselors are also inspired by flipping their calendar two pages and realizing it will soon be June—and that “inspires” them to think about everything they need to get done in the next eight weeks.  Now more than ever, that will include some kind of data-driven assessment of the counselor’s year—how did things go, how could they be better, and how does this year shape what next year needs to look like?

The issue of data-based counseling has been covered completely by the work of Trish Hatch, and if you don’t have her book The Use of Data in School Counseling, use the last of your holiday gift cards to buy it for a fascinating summer read. Until you get to this detailed analysis, let these three questions guide you in your quest to generate thoughtful data over the next eight weeks of your wrapping up the school year:

What do you want to know about your program?  Data is only valuable if it answers a key question, and in this case, that question is “What does a successful counseling program look like?”  This could be the number of students you worked with, and it could be the number of students who are heading to college—but it could be something far more than head count, like change in school climate, a shift in attitudes about bullying behavior, or a change in the way teachers see the counseling office.  Ask yourself what you want to know—chances are, they’ll be a way to generate data to help you get the answer.

What do others need to know about your program?  It’s good to have data help you learn about your program, but it’s just as important to have data help others learn about your program—especially if those “others” are decision makers.  Take a moment to consider what your administrators, parents, and public want to know, and should know, about your program, and consider the role data can play in telling your story.  As you consider these audiences, remember to include any reporting you are required to make, to either your administrators or your state.  Some of this mandatory data may not mean much to you, but delivering it in a thoughtful, timely fashion is a statement of support of your administration, and that can be a powerful message all by itself.

What would you like to know at the start of next year?  More than one counselor gets to the end of the first marking period in the fall and says, “If only I had known more about this year’s incoming students/seniors/new students.”  If that was you, now is the time to think about the data reports that can give you the information you need in the fall to make your program run more smoothly.  From test scores to family income, baseline data can come in handy--  especially if you break it down to specific cohorts.

There’s still a lot to do to help students make the most out of this year, but thinking ahead to your end-of-the-year data needs can help shape your remaining school time in thoughtful, productive ways. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

SAT or ACT: Which Should Juniors Take?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The debate over the new SAT rages on, as both counselors—and, interestingly enough, colleges—debate the merits of what test to take. For the counselors, it’s a question of which test their students should take; for the colleges, it’s a question of which test they’ll accept.

The question of “which test to take” has been with counselors and students for a long time—and the only reason it’s ever discussed is because most students don’t seem to like the answer:

If the goal is for the student to demonstrate their best ability on a standardized test, the best thing to do is to take each test once; evaluate the results on each, and take the one most comfortable to the student a second time.

It turns out that standardized tests are pretty different from each other. They may measure the same body of knowledge, but they go at it in different ways, much like two English teachers have different approaches to teaching the same book.  Since different students respond to different approaches—both in teaching and in testing-- with different degrees of success, it’s important to know which testing approach makes more sense to the student. The best way to do that is to take each test once.

Students don’t like this answer because it costs time and money; not only do they have to pay for two tests, but they have to spend time preparing for two tests, and have to give up an extra Saturday to take the same test. Other students will insist they already know which test they’ll do better on, since their PSAT scores were so good—or, in more cases, so bad.

There’s no question the SAT is designed like the PSAT, but there’s no telling how much students have learned in the six months since they took the PSAT- or how much better they will perform on the SAT, now that they know what the test looks like.  It’s certainly true that taking more than one test will cost more money, but fee waivers are available to students who can demonstrate need—and the chance of scoring higher on one test is well worth an extra few hours of sleep on oneSaturday.

Some critics still feel next year is an exception—since the SAT is new, they argue, it’s better to see how the first few test administrations go, and have juniors just take the ACT.  That approach would make sense, if we knew the updated SAT was going to be harder, or in Swahili—but there’s just as good a chance it will be easier than harder.  If that’s the case, students don’t want to miss that chance, so they should still take both—and if they’re looking for some kind of safety zone, take the old SAT in the start of junior year, before it disappears next winter.

There’s also a question of whether colleges will accept the new SAT, since it’s new and, well, untested.  This uncertainty is exactly the reason why students should take both tests.  If colleges find the new SAT is a little rough around the edges, they’ll review a student’s application based on their ACT scores.  If the new SAT turns out to be great, and it puts the student in a positive light, they will likely evaluate the application using the new SAT scores. 

Students don’t have to wait for colleges to decide; plan to take both tests, and know that’s the best way of making sure you put your best foot forward to colleges. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Next Year’s Application Season Begins!

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The 2014 college application season officially ended this past Tuesday, when the last of the highly selective schools announced their decision at the end of the school day.  This has traditionally given school counselors time to mull over the decisions, support the students who received disappointing news, consider the trends and what they mean for next year’s class, and prepare for the senior awards ceremony in peace.

And then, there’s next year.

The same day the last of the decisions were dropped, Common Application announced changed toothier essay prompts for next year (in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Common Application Board of Directors).  The new prompts were expected earlier in this year, but Common Application engaged its members and other in an extensive survey about the current essay prompts, trying to seek direction from those most familiar with them to see what, if anything, needed to be changed.

It turns out the current prompts were doing a pretty good job.  According to a post on the Common App blog, 82% of Members (remember, all members are colleges) thought the current prompts were doing a good job in the application process, and 90% of school counselors and others polled agreed.  That may leave room for growth, but given colleges have the option of adding their own prompts, it’s notably good that 4 out of 5 think the general Common App prompts are doing their job.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth.  Based on survey results and discussions with key focus groups, Common App modified two of the prompts, and replaced the one prompt deemed most ineffective with something a little more precise.  Here are this year’s prompts—changes are in italics:
  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act?  Would you make the same decision again?
  4.  Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma- anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Early counselor response to the changes has been positive, with particular delight expressed about the new prompt, prompt 4.  Early speculation is that this question will really ring a bell with analytical thinkers and STEM students as the other prompts do not.  The prompt also leaves room for the student-philosophers to provide an answer that takes on a more global, humanitarian perspective.

Both colleges and counselors are expressing relief at the removal of the prompt asking students to describe a place where they are content.  Many colleges felt that prompt didn’t reveal enough about the student, while counselors said there were just too many responses that talked about the student’s bedroom, or in many case, the shower.  Perhaps some students will use the new prompt to solve the problem of making the rest of the world as content a place as their bedroom.