Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The After Thanksgiving College Talk

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Thanksgiving is a time to step back and take in everything you’ve done this school year.  This is especially important with college counseling, where it’s too easy to get caught up in the minutiae of transcripts and letters of recommendation and forget about the reason behind all of that e-documenting—to make sure students have a new school next year where they can continue to learn, live, and challenge themselves.

Thanksgiving gives us a chance to come back to the office after the break and review students’ college lists with the big picture in mind.  The process for this post-Thanksgiving review is easy:

·         Review each senior’s post-high school plans.
·         For those heading to college, review the list of colleges they’ve given you, and make sure there is at least one school that is a likely admit.  For purposes of this review, a Likely school is one where the student’s GPA and test scores are at, or above, the average GPA and test scores of the college, AND the college admits more than 20 percent of their applicants.
·         If the student doesn’t have a Likely college on their list, it’s time to take action.
·         Ditto if the student has a Likely college on their list, but hasn’t yet applied there.

In most cases, the next step is to send a thoughtfully-worded e-mail .  “I had a chance to review your college plans.  You have some wonderful schools on your list, but they are all extremely competitive, and it’s important you add some other schools soon.  Please let me know when you can meet this week.”

By calling the student’s list “extremely competitive”, you aren’t commenting on the student’s qualifications; you’re focusing on the college’s limitations.  They’re going to run out of seats before they run out of great students, and the student needs to make sure they have strong college choices available in the spring.

Even the best-phrased “Let’s Talk” e-mail is going to rattle some students, especially those who know their college list is ambitious, but can’t quite come to terms with the idea that their dream schools may be out of reach.  This is why they may not come see you; it’s also the reason they don’t have any Likely schools in the first place.

This requires a thoughtful approach once they finally make it to your office.  Focusing on the limitations of the college (not the student), try to get the student to talk about the qualities of the demanding colleges they’ve chosen, and suggest Likely colleges that offer the same qualities.  The student likes small classes?  How about the residential college at the local state university?  The student wants to live on campus all four years with the same group of students?  An online college search will show a list of colleges that offer that option. 

Once a few additional colleges are discovered, the student and counselor set a deadline to apply to those colleges, and the student is reminded that, if all goes well, these college options may not even be needed—but if they are, they’ll be available.

To be sure, this work is time consuming, and it is also a little humbling, since this kind of review could mean there’s a student or two with college plans that don’t line up with their goals or abilities.  That’s a tough thing to admit, and a harder thing to discuss, but it’s in the student’s best interests, and ours, to gird up our courage and take action now, while the time still exists to maximize student choices.

That’s something we can all be grateful for.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

College Application Myths That Just Won’t Die

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Leave it to Thanksgiving to bring out the panic in people.  Colleges with early application deadlines are busy reading essays and talking about students, while a vast majority of colleges are still waiting for students to apply—and these are the students who, for some reason, are convinced applying to college is harder than it really is.

In the interest of saving the college plans of seniors and the holiday plans of their counselors, here’s a quick rundown of what to do, what not to do, and what is really, absolutely untrue about the college selection process:

You can’t send your test scores until you apply to the college. If anything, the exact opposite is true—if you are going to apply to any more colleges this year, send your test scores now.  Depending on the college, and depending on the test company, scores might not arrive at the college right away, so waiting to send the scores could actually delay the review of your application, or eliminate you from consideration, if your application is incomplete.  Colleges put the test scores in a special place if they get there before your application, and if you never apply, the scores are securely destroyed in the summer.  Order them now.

Counselor and teacher letters should be sent after the student applies.  This is a really bad idea for any college you’re applying to.  If teachers and counselors had to hold off sending transcripts and letters until you apply on, say, December 29th for a college with a January 1st deadline, that would put the application system on overload, risk your application being deemed incomplete, and drive your teachers and counselors crazy.  They can, and should, submit your materials now, when the system is wide open, and no deadlines can threaten submissions.  It’s fine for you to wait until vacation to apply; your teachers and counselor don’t have that choice, since they will be, well, on vacation. Let them do their job, while they are on the job.

Colleges don’t want your application until the day it’s due.  I don’t know how to break this to you, but most colleges that have a January 1st application deadline are closed on New Year’s Day.  Their computers are still on, so you can still submit applications that day, but no one is in the office keeping track of who submitted, and when.

Since the only risk you run with an early application is that it might be read early (and is that really a risk?), you have nothing to lose by sending your application now.  If you have four college applications to complete, do one a weekend, and you’ll be done before Christmas, while still having Thanksgiving weekend off.  All-nighters are fun, once you’re in college; pulling one to apply to college could ensure that you won’t get there.

Your counselor finds out your admissions decision before you do.  A few colleges are nice enough to let your high school know who was admitted, but that list usually comes a month after you find out.  Don’t leave your teachers and counselor in the dark; let them know what the college decides as soon as you hear.  This not only helps them support any college plans you may have to change—it’s also a great feeling to share good news with them.

Once a college admits you, your senior grades don’t matter. An offer of admission is a like a driver’s license—you only get to keep it if you keep showing you deserve it. ‘Nuff said. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

First Marking Period Grades, College, and You

By:  Patrick O'Conner Ph.D

First Marking Period Grades, College, and You

There’s been a lot of discussion about the use of data in school counseling, especially as it relates to helping students make good college choices.  If you haven’t bought Trish Hatch’s The Use of Data in School Counseling, put it on your holiday wish list.  Meanwhile, here’s my quick take on what you can to with first quarter report cards to help your students make the connection between grades and college access:

Ninth grade  The biggest part of the college counseling program for freshmen is college readiness—having the study skills, time management mastery, and self-knowledge to become a good student.  Good grades are only part of being a good student, but one thing’s for certain—if the grades are low, there’s room for more growth.

This is where report cards can come in handy, especially if they include teacher comments, or codes that teachers can use to suggest how students could improve—more study time, focusing on tests, paying more attention in class, etc.  A quick review of grades and these comments can give a counselor a clear picture of the students whose study skills most need find tuning.  Better yet, a workshop for all ninth graders can offer tips on how to become better students, using grades and comments as a guide.

Tenth grade  The same relationship among grades, comments, and strong study skills can be emphasized in tenth grade, along with a review of the role grades play in college admissions.  With a year of school under their belts, sophomores will want to know what kinds of college options their grades will create for them.  A group presentation showing the average GPA of admitted students at different colleges will highlight this in a powerful way, along with a demonstration of the options a B+ student has from a B student. 

This is also a good time to discuss the role of merit scholarships.  Using the merit scholarship list from Cappex as your guide, you can show students the economic difference their GPA can create if they can just find a way to lift those grades, as college cash becomes more available to students with higher GPAs.

Finally, this may be the time to remind students that higher grades in tenth grade classes can be a factor in qualifying for Honors, AP, or IB classes as a junior.  Grades aren’t the only factor colleges consider in the admissions process; they also consider the degree of challenge in a student’s course load, and sophomore grades can create more demanding junior year opportunities.  This is a good time to remind students of this.

Eleventh grade  The discussion of rigor, scholarships, and admissions becomes more real for many juniors.  The challenge here is that, with half of their high school career behind them, it is harder for students to dramatically raise their GPA.  Still, a stronger junior year can show colleges a trend of growth in the student.  That may not make a previously all-B student eligible for a highly selective college, but you never know.  Juniors need to be reminded of the possibilities.

Twelfth grade  Many seniors will either need or want to send their first quarter grades to colleges, to show how well they are doing with their most demanding year of high school.  In addition, more colleges are reviewing senior grades as part of the admission process, and rescinding offers of admission to students who lose focus.  Now is the time to check senior quarter grades, and alert students who are slipping of the risk they’re running.  A wise word now can keep more possibilities open come June. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Reading Essays on Thanksgiving? Let’s Talk Turkey

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Colleagues, we need to talk.  A major college application deadline has just come and gone, and based on what I’m hearing, I love you all madly, but things went quite badly.

1.       “She gave me drafts of her Early Action essays on Halloween. Can you believe it?”

2.        “He came into my office Friday to ask where he should apply Early Decision. The deadline was Sunday. What could I do?”

3.       “She e-mailed me Sunday morning with a new application that was due that day.  What was she thinking?”

These comments didn’t come to me as a group, but they somehow seemed to be part of the same quiz—so here are my answers.

1.       No surprise here.  Kids start things late-- their time management skills are, well, raw.  What’s surprising is that she was allowed to do this.  Unless the student is channeling Hemingway, her essays will be underdeveloped and misunderstood.  She needed more time, and you needed your Saturday.

Stop the madness, and give them an advanced deadline that will really help them.  “If you’re applying to a college with a November deadline, I need to know by October 10th.  If you’d like me to read your essays, I need those by October 15th.  This is the only way I can guarantee your transcript will be sent on time, and the only way your essays will get the care they need.  Anything I receive after these deadlines will not be sent on time.  You know that now, so plan ahead.”

2.       Early Decision application programs are designed for students who LOVE a college. So, when a student asks “What college should I apply ED to?” two days before the deadline, they’re kind of asking which person they should marry two days before the wedding.  If they aren’t feeling it, the answer is, Don’t.  If they’re asking that question two days before the deadline, the answer is, Really don’t.

In fact, if they’re asking that question two days before the deadline, the answer is, Don’t let them.

Here’s what your newsletter says. “Just a reminder that if you’re applying Early Decision, you must attend that college if you are accepted.  This kind of commitment requires a lot of thought—so much so that, you can’t apply ED without your counselor’s permission to do so.  If we don’t have a conversation at least two weeks before your ED application is due, you won’t get my permission, because I take my role seriously in this discussion.  You should too. If you forget to make this appointment, maybe the school doesn’t mean that much to you after all.”

3.       She was thinking you would respond, and you did.  When a deadline falls on a weekend or over a holiday, my e-mail is on auto-reply, telling students I’ll be available when school reopens.  I’ve given them advanced deadlines, communicated them to students and parents (and yes, teachers) regularly, and now I’m sticking to them.  If an e-mail suggests I forgot to do something that’s due, I check, fix it, and respond.  Otherwise, the student is suggesting they’re having a college counseling emergency, and those don’t exist. I’ll point that out to them when school starts.

Students from different backgrounds certainly need different levels of support, so I understand if these responses may seem a little harsh.  But college asks a lot from a student, with little advanced notice.  That’s a skill they need to hone, and your job is to help get them college-ready.  Keep that in mind in helping your students deal with deadlines.

Now—about those college apps due January 1.