Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Ivy League Dropout Due to Jeans, Not Genes

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

My first school counseling job was in a rural town, far away from the major city where I was born and the suburbs where I finished high school.  A few years after leaving that job, I heard that a neighboring high school of that rural town had sent their first-ever graduate to an Ivy League college.  The success turned out to be brief, however, as the student came home for Christmas vacation, and never went back.

There are all kinds of reasons students change colleges, but this one is particularly sad, at least to me.  The reason this student left her college had nothing to do with roommates, or classes that were too hard, or even a broken heart.  She came home because the brilliant students at this wonderful college made fun of her rural background, and her lack of worldly ways.  “Everyone made fun of the jeans she was wearing” her counselor told me, shaking his head.

That story came to mind last week, when another counselor and I were discussing Justice Scalia’s remarks at a Supreme Court hearing about the need for many students of color to attend less challenging colleges.  Counselors usually try to give people the benefit of the doubt, so even though this statement was appalling in so many ways, I was trying to figure out some way that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

My colleague assured me it was as bad as it sounded, but then he offered this.  “When I was working at the admissions office at a highly selective college, and we received an application from a student from a very poor school, we only looked for one thing—sophistication.  If we took this student, we knew they were going to be exposed to all kinds of new ideas in the classroom, but they were also going to be exposed to different political ideas, lifestyle choices, foods, and people they’ve never seen before.  Sure, they had to be smart, but that meant nothing if they weren’t sophisticated.”

There are other words to describe this quality—flexible, accepting, resilient-- but I knew exactly what my colleague meant.  It helped me understand more of what that rural girl was feeling when she was being mocked for wearing the wrong jeans.  She had the brains to make it in an Ivy League classroom; she just didn’t have the wherewithal to make it in the Ivy League hallways.  She knew she had some growing up to do, and, all things considered, that was fair.  Given all they had been exposed to, her Ivy League classmates had a different kind of growing up to do, but she was unwilling to let their need to mature come at her personal expense.

I’d like to think Justice Scalia really meant to talk about sophistication last week, about the need to make sure students are picking colleges where they will find the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support, both in and out of the classroom.  Finding that fit is our job, and we’re smart enough to know fit transcends gender, race, age, and background.  Lining up the right college is an individual process, and that’s why it takes time, knowledge, and insight to create the right mix of art and science that is college counseling.  It’s why some students end up at Ivy League schools, and why some students from the same high school end up at public universities—and all of them end up happy.

We’re smart enough to know that.  I just wish Justice Scalia had been that smart, too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What Your College Application Decisions Won’t Tell You

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

With many colleges releasing early admissions decisions, seniors are creating more parallel universes than the Matrix movies combined. This "what if" game is so intense, it's easy to think you'll know all about your future life, once the college says yea, nay, or maybe.

And that is absolutely wrong.

Applying to college isn't easy, especially when you're still on two sports teams, taking demanding classes, and preparing for your last Winter Concert. But all the applications you completed, letters of recommendation you tracked down, and essays you wrote (by yourself--right?) are designed for one purpose only--to help a college decide if they should admit you. When it comes to other parts of your life, a college decision tells you absolutely nothing about:

Succeeding at that college Most colleges are receiving more applications than ever before--so many that they can't say yes to every qualified student. If you hear from a college this week and they deny or defer you, it doesn't mean they don't want you; it likely means that, like a good restaurant, they have more people that want to partake than they have space. That has nothing to do with you.

If a college admits you this week, it means they think you *can* do the work--but nothing's guaranteed. Getting in is time to celebrate, but not time to put your feet up; use the rest of high school to take your academic game to another level.

Your ability to have a happy life I could pull out data from studies showing where you go to college has nothing to do with average income, career achievement, or life satisfaction--but numbers just aren't that comforting right now. Instead, think back to a time in life when you didn't get something you really wanted. It was disappointing, it hurt, and for a while, you weren't sure what you were going to do. You then found Plan B, and realized that the opportunities it brought were just as good--or better--than what you had hoped Plan A would bring. If a college tells you no this week, Plan B awaits.

Your value as a person This is the time of year when we believe, more than ever, that the right "stuff" will make us a complete person. When you see ads with people thrilled to get the latest smartphone, automatic vacuum cleaner, or big screen TV that's larger than a school bus, you can't help but wonder why we just don't buy one for everybody, since that is clearly the key to world peace.

But stuff doesn't do that--and neither does a college decision. A yes from a college doesn't make you somebody; the work you put into earn that yes did that. A no from a college doesn't make you nobody; that happens when you decide their denial is a character indictment, instead of an opportunity to build a great life at another school.

Either way, your worth isn't waiting in an e-mail that's going to drop this week, or next week. Your worth is within you, and it isn't waiting for much of anything, other than your recognition of its existence.

Applying to college is a big deal, and there are a lot of people who love you for who you are. They hope it all works out for you when college decisions are announced. Whether it works out or not, they'll still love you for who you are.

I'm really hoping one of those people is you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Before You Yell at your School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

You've worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.
Until they got the e-mail.
"Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application."
At this point, you've decided this is personal, so even though it's 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.
Boy, did you just blow it. Here's why:
Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn't said "Forget it"; they've said, "We need something." You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up--so the transcript might not be in your child's file, but it is in the college's application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor--the one you just called incompetent--sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don't want another one. If the transcript is already in the college's system, they really don't want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child's file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it's their application), but it's likely you want the school counselor to call. You know--the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.

This isn't to say they won't help you and give your child their full support, but if you've just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you've now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don't know what you're doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you've just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?
You've just left an impression you can't erase. Let's say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child's file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they'd like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is--you guessed it--the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child's ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that's what the counselor has experienced. This isn't about a grudge; this is about their experience.
It's easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn't mean you should. That's even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.