Wednesday, May 27, 2015

School Counselors, as seen by a College Admission Officer

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

College admission officers work hard, long days.  Fall brings many days far from home, visiting five or six high schools a day, and meeting students and parents at college fairs at night.  Winter finds them reading student applications, a labor of love to be sure-- but a challenge when you have to work through up to 30 files a day.  By the time spring comes around, and you've finished your last phone call with a student who didn't get in, it's time for a well-deserved rest.

Unless you're Jessica Fowle.  An associate director of admission at Kalamazoo College, Jess launched a private practice in college counseling this spring, guiding students and families through the college selection process, and helping them find colleges that meet their individual needs.  Jess is doing this work in addition to the many hours she volunteers doing work for the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling, and her work at Kalamazoo. While she's just getting started, Jess has an impressive number of clients, and can work with students from around the world, thanks to the power of technology.

What would inspire someone to take on this demanding work on top of a busy professional life, and what does that say about our work as school counselors?  Jess explains.

It is spring, and commencement is in the air--the season of new beginnings, of change, of emerging from a chrysalis and spreading one's wings to embark on new adventures. This year, in the midst of my fifteenth year as a college admission professional, I find myself stretching and embarking on a new role as an independent college counselor.

This evolution comes from a personal desire to work with students and families in a more meaningful way than I can as an admission representative for a single school, but also from a recognition of the dire need for great college counseling. As this column has addressed many times before, the nationwide student:counselor ratio is 471:1; in my home state of Michigan the ratio is even higher at 706:1.  These numbers mean that however well-prepared and passionate, counselors only have a few minutes per year to meet with each student. Even when (and I say when with eternal optimism) our education system is able to move the high school counselor caseload down to the recommended 250 students and ensure that these counselors are adequately trained in college and career counseling, there will be students and families who want or need more focused, individualized, personal attention.

My new role provides an eye-opening new view into the world of college admission. From the outside it is an overwhelming web of nearly 4,000 institutions from which to choose, and a population of high school students who have no frame of reference for what being a college student is actually like (romantic comedies about fraternity parties and cheering at Big 10 football games notwithstanding).

In a flood of emails and brochures from colleges, overdramatic media articles instilling terror about being admitted to and then paying for college, and intense questions from Uncle Billy at the Thanksgiving table, it's no wonder that an inherently anxiety-ridden process becomes completely overwhelming.

From my perspective as an admission counselor, it both frustrates and amazes me that students and parents don't read official communication from our institution about important things like scholarship and financial aid deadlines. "How can they ignore opportunities for more money? They tell me this is their top choice, but don't respond to my outreach to meet with them!" My internal and water cooler dialogue is frustrated and impatient with "kids these days."

As a college counselor, I get a whole new perspective of how little preparation students and families have for this onslaught of information and pressure, and how little time they have in their busy lives to assimilate, absorb, and triage this information into a coherent plan for the college search. The language in which I am fluent--that of rolling and precipice deadlines, superscoring, and loan default rates--is nearly incomprehensible and definitely overwhelming even to the savviest high school student.

The college counselor serves as a port in the storm, translating this new language, helping students tune out the external noise to focus on their strengths, personality, learning style and preparation. To help weed through those 4,000 colleges to find a manageable number for consideration, and then walk them through whittling that number to the one that they choose to attend. As an independent counselor with many years of admission experience under my belt, I have the luxury of really focusing on each student's individual situation, laying out a plan for both the nuts and bolts of the college visit and application process as well as the deeper moments of self-reflection. It is a joy to help these students navigate this path, which is much more varied and personal than the path I traveled with them as an admission counselor.

Jess invites you to send your thoughts and comments to

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The “Other Duty” That Tests a Counselor’s Nerves

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

High school counselors across America are breathing a sigh of relief, as they say goodbye to the May chore they like the least—supervising Advanced Placement testing. Brand new counselors know this is the biggest job that falls under the contractual obligation of “other duties as assigned”, but they can’t really understand the demands of alternate testing, pencil sharpening, DVD tracking, and test administration reports, until they live through at least one May, where they commit the College Board phone number to memory.

Counselors understand the importance of relevant testing and assessment, especially since it plays a vital role in career and college counseling, as well as course placement.  But knowing what the results mean and organizing the logistics of testing are two different things, and only one is an appropriate use of counselors’ time.  If you’re trying to figure out how to replace your one-on-one testing manual time with more time for students, consider one of these strategies when talking about this important issue with your supervisor:

Agree on the duties you do and don’t have.  Counselors often swear their job description is being made up as the school year goes along, and depends on which teachers are absent that day, or how bad the weather is.  Every educator needs to be flexible, but if math teachers can be confident they’ll be teaching math every day, aren’t counselors entitled to the same assurance?

That’s where the Annual Agreement comes in.  Designed by the American School Counselor Association, the Annual Agreement is a document completed by a school counselor and their principal that outlines the counselor’s duties every year.  From outlining the hours the counseling office will be open to allocating percentages of time to various duties, the Annual Agreement gives principals and counselors a chance to create an overview of the counselor’s role in the school that’s based on planning, and not reaction. Type in Annual Agreement - ASCA National Model in your search engine, and it will pop up.

Explore the administrative support you need.  It helps if administrators see the big picture of what counselors do; it helps even more when administrators offer support that advances the work counselors do.  I did some research in 2000 that discovered five key areas where counselors want administrative support for their work—and a tool exists to measure just how much support you’re getting.  29 questions will help you get a better understanding of the support your administrator is getting, and how you can begin to get more support in the areas where it’s needed.  A self-scoring copy of the questionnaire is available at no charge; e-mail me and ask for a copy of the administrative support questionnaire.

Ask about your administrator’s counseling goals.   Many counselors would rather talk directly about their concerns, and there’s an easy way to do that with your other duties.  By asking the principal to outline their goals for the school counseling program, the counselor understands what parts of the program are valued, and which may be misunderstood.

Once you know what your principal is looking for, you can gather data to show them how well those counseling components are or aren’t working—and then have a discussion how those results could be even better, if only you had more time to focus on them.  This can get your administrator’s attention and support in ways surveys often can’t—and it makes your counseling challenges more real to them.

These approaches have led to great growth for counseling programs.  Consider the one that would best work with your administrator, and give it a try. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

First Ever Standards Created for College Counselor Training

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It may not seem like summer is just around the corner, but the month that comes after a May of awards assemblies, testing, and graduation audits will bring graduation, longer days, and weather warm enough for ice cream.  Evidence of June’s anticipated arrival is starting to show up in your e-mail, where announcements are cropping up for summer professional development opportunities in everything from bullying prevention to making the most of a new scholarship tracker.

The good news is that more and more of these training opportunities relate to college counseling—and not a moment too soon.  College Board surveys show about half of all school counselors felt their graduate school training in college counseling was insufficient; more important, polls of recent high school graduates felt show they felt their high school counselor was of little or no help in the college selection process.  It’s certainly true that high caseloads and other duties (like testing and awards assemblies) make it more challenging to talk about college with students—but, as one counselor told me, even if your caseload is 25, you still need to know what you’re talking about.

Summer training in college advising can fill the void, but only if the content meets your needs.  If your graduate school training is like that of most counselors, you may not know what you don’t know—and that can make choosing the right college training hard to discover.

That’s where the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling steps in.  Realizing counselors will have many choices in professional development, MACAC has adopted a list of content standards for professional development course in college counseling.  Based on the work of  counselor trainers Bob Bardwell, Trish Hatch, and your truly, this is the first set of competencies believed to be passed by any counseling organization that helps counselors evaluate the quality of training in college counseling by listing the competencies the course should address.  There may be a number of ways to teach college counseling, but at the end of any of the approaches, counselors need specific skills.  MACAC’s list attempts to help counselors evaluate their professional development opportunities by focusing on outcomes that will help them be more effective college counselors next fall—that’s the best way to make the most of your training time next summer.

The document is by no means complete,  but it’s a start, and complete enough to let counselors know that if the college counseling training you’re considering doesn’t address these crucial outcomes, it’s time to keep looking.  Here’s the list:

Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling
Content Standards for Courses in Counseling in the College Selection Process
General competencies
·         Understanding and application of various college admission choice theory
·         Knowledge of psychological and family issues that may be present in the college admissions process
·         Understanding the relationship between models of comprehensive school counseling programs (i.e.: ASCA National Model) and the delivery of college admission counseling
·         Understanding of the importance of creating partnerships with faculty, school administrators, community leaders, and community-based organizations in delivering quality advice in college admission counseling
·         Awareness of the wide array of different kinds of colleges, including community colleges, research colleges, and liberal arts colleges
·         Admissions requirements for community colleges and public and private colleges/universities
·         Understanding of alternatives to college, including gap years, postgraduate years, and deferrals
·         Ability to discern when to discuss postsecondary options other than college with a student
·         Knowledge of college application timelines and deadlines
·         Knowledge of the unique needs of special populations going through the college search and application process(i.e., multicultural populations, international students, students with disabilities, gifted students and student athletes)
·         Ability to find resources available to counselors in the college admissions process (i.e., print materials, software, web sites and organizations)
·         Awareness of college admission testing options and the use (and misuse) of standardized testing
·         Ability to write effective letters of recommendation for multiple purposes – two year, four year, vocational training program or employment
·         Ability to support teachers in the writing of effective letters of recommendation for these same purposes
·         Getting the most out of the visiting a college campus
·         Establishing strong relationships with colleges and college admissions officers
·         Hosting a successful high school visit by a college admission officer
·         Awareness of legal and ethical issues confronting the college counselor
·         Knowledge of financial aid applications and process, including the role of the FAFSA
·         Ability to collect, analyze and synthesize college admission counseling data on the individual, school, state and national levels
·         Being able to identify, close and eliminate the opportunity and achievement gaps for all students in regard to higher education
·         Understanding the professional organizations and resources available for school counselors
·         Being aware of and to discuss current trends, issues and controversies in college admissions
·         The ability to develop, implement, manage, and evaluate a college admission counseling curriculum that meets the needs of the students and families served by the school
·         Knowledge of how to evaluate the efforts of a college admission counseling program, and how to share those results with a wide variety of audiences

Specific competencies:
·         Assist a high school student through the college search and application process, including the online application process
·         Assist a student and family to complete the FAFSA, other required financial aid forms, and searches for funds for college.
·         Work with a student who has applied via various types of admission decision programs, minimally early decision, early action and restricted early action
·         Coordinate and organize a college tour, college fair or educational program for students and families
·         Work with a student from an underrepresented population (i.e.: student of color, low income, special needs, LGBT, homeless or undocumented)
·         Use college or high school specific data to inform decision making
·         Apply the ethical guidelines of the Statement of Principles of Good Practice of the National Association for College Admission Counseling
This list was originally developed by Bob Bardwell of Monson High School (MA), and enhanced with suggestions by members of the MACAC Executive Board.

Approved by the MACAC Executive Board, December 11, 2014.