Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Helping Students Decide

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Now that the madness of early April has calmed down, the time comes when students will be coming to school counselors, looking for advice on what college they should attend—or if they should go to college at all.  When students need help picking a college, the counselor must resist the temptation to solve “the problem” for the student.  Instead, the counselor must create a platform of decision making based on the student’s needs, interests and goals, and explore the components of that platform with the student. 
The best place to begin is to review the ideas the student has shared with you in the past. This provides everyone with a clear jumping off point by asking one simple question—“Is that still what you’re looking for now, or have things changed?”
This question may knock the student into a profound silence. In the flurry of completing college applications, there’s a good chance the student hasn’t bothered to think about this question until now.  September was eight months and a million adventures ago, so the student may want something different out of college, and not even know it. 
In response, the student may not want to talk about qualities; instead, they will try to talk about specific colleges. “Well, I’m really not that interested in State anymore, and East Coast U didn’t really offer me that much money, and…” 
Drawing on your listening and redirecting skills, bring the student back to the heart of the conversation.  “It sounds like affordability is a new quality you’re considering. Are there other qualities that are new?” The student may respond with an answer that once again mentions a school by name, but will finally provide the basis for a comparison of schools.
As the comparison reaches a conclusion, the counselor can summarize by saying “It sounds like your current list of qualities includes affordability, closeness to home, small class size, and opportunities for independent study. If that’s right (pause to let them correct you), let’s talk about each college that admitted you, and compare them on these same qualities.”
If a student decides their fall plan for college is no longer viable, it’s important to explore the effect this decision will have on those who have a strong interest in the student’s decision; the student’s parents; the coach, music teacher, or admissions officer at the school the student was 99% sure of; other members of the community, who can’t understand why the student would change their mind. Gaining support (or at least understanding) from others may be vital in order for the new plan to work.  Discussing strategies the student can take in approaching these supporters, and even role-modeling practice conversations, could go a long way to help the student.
Similarly, if the student’s ideas can change over time, so can the ideas of others—including parents. While Dad was in full support of an out-of-state college in September, he may find letting go of his son is just too hard to do come April; parental ability to pay for college may have dwindled in eight months. Any number of things can lead to a college decision being made for the student.
After helping the student work through any feelings they may have about these changes (or directing them to someone to help with that), a discussion of college qualities is the best way to help the student focus on the choices at hand, and make the best decision available.  It may take time for the student to fully accept the situation, but the counselor’s support can go a long way to advance this important goal…
…and remember, students wanting to start their search over again in spring of the senior year can do so, with help from the NACAC College Openings Update, which comes out in early May, and lists colleges actively looking for more students.  Take a look.

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