Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A New Take on College Essays

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


The end of the college application season brings the inevitable stream of columns calling for changes to the way colleges admit their students. From plans for free college to renewed efforts to eliminate standardized testing, policy makers, college presidents, and students just completing the process are eager to offer their insights on how what they see to be a flawed system could be made better.

After all these years of reading these ideas, I’ve decided to take the plunge myself—and for me, the issue is the application essay, or personal statement. A well-crafted statement that is truly written by the student can certainly add a great deal of insight into the way a student feels and, sometimes, thinks. At the same time, it is all too easy for others to “guide” the student to a “right” answer, and since most of the essay prompts require little measurement of anything other than self-knowledge, they don’t always demonstrate the academic and problem-solving skills students need to thrive in colleges. It’s also too easy for students to short circuit their chances of writing a strong essay by waiting until the last minute to put something together, an essay that comes from the heart without having ample time to be considered by the head.

One way to address these issues is to modify the existing writing components of the current standardized tests. Instead of giving students less than an hour to make sense of a handful of documents they’ve just received, give them three hours to work in a room that has research materials, so they can fully explore multiple aspects of the questions they get once they arrive. The questions themselves will have both academic and affective components. They would have enough cultural and academic breadth that it would be reasonable to expect every student could be familiar with the context of at least one of them (and they’d only have to answer one), but also require them to do some research before putting together a thoughtful response. For colleges that aren’t crazy about standardized testing, students could sign up for an Essay Only option, where they would show up for the writing exercise, and nothing more.

This approach would require some changes, to be sure. Colleges would have to be willing to forego the creation of most of their own essay questions (except for “Why Us?”), the confidential questions would have to be genuinely new with each test administration, and admissions officers would have to be prepared to wrangle with the factual content of more essays than they do now. This isn’t to say admissions officers couldn’t become well-versed in everything from the works of Ai Weiwei to the moral proclivities of Rory Gilmore; this new approach just might require a little more time on background than the current version of the personal statement.

I’m as biased as the next person, so the six examples below are undoubtedly missing a key element of cultural breadth, but just to present some idea of what this might look like, here goes. Enjoy.

There is much speculation over which of the three Gilmore Girls changed the most through the seven-year series and the one-year sequel. It’s been argued that the answer to this question is largely generational. In that context, and in your opinion, which Gilmore Girl changed the most for the better, and which one changed the most for the worse? How would Theodore Roosevelt answer that question? How about Gabriel Garcia Marquez? How about the person who cuts your hair?

The proof that .̅9= 1 has been used to suggest that mathematics is not as precise as it claims to be. Present arguments to support and refute that claim, then include two examples from the world of sports to support the side you believe to be true.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is about to release his new musical, which is a tribute to the life and music of Philip Glass. Given the proclivities of both the subject and the composer, describe any three songs from this two-act play, which includes a total of 14 compositions.

One of the justifications for studying history is the well-known quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Take an event you learned in a history or science class and show how this quote was proven true in a subsequent event by someone who hadn’t studied the past. Next, use the same event you learned in class to show how knowing the past led someone else to realize a different conclusion.

It has been argued that Paul Simon’s album Graceland is an example of cultural misappropriation. Discuss both sides of this argument. Does your argument change at all after listening to this? Is the wide use of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech a better example of cultural misappropriation than Paul Simon’s album? Explain.

There is a copy of the front page of today’s New York Times in the examination room. Pick three of the stories, and relate one to any poem by Emily Dickinson, one to any poem by Langston Hughes, and one to any work by Ai Weiwei.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Times That Test a Counselor’s Soul

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Counselors everywhere can empathize with the hurdles Michigan counselors are facing this week, as their time in the office is dominated by bubble sheets, packing tape, and the coveted No. 2 Pencil.

It happens this time every year, which leads me to ask the same question every year.

Why are counselors in charge of schoolwide testing?

I’ve been a school counselor for a long time, and I have never, ever heard a good answer to this question.  Three answers always come up when I ask the question, but they just don’t work, when put to the—yeah. 

“You’re trained in testing, so this is a counseling duty.”  Most people buy this response, because it’s true that nearly every counselor training program includes a class in testing and measurement.  So, yes, we are trained in testing—in interpreting their results, not in how to arrange them.  Give me a student’s PSAT results, and I can tell you what they should do to improve their score in a heartbeat.  Hand me a state exam in Social Studies, and I can tell you in a moment where the student might need remediation, and where they might need challenge.  That’s what I learned in graduate school.

Graduate school did not teach me how to divide the junior class into 25 alphabetical sessions and assign them testing rooms.  It did not teach me how to schedule testing around three lunch periods and the bus that leaves for the career-tech center.  It most definitely did not teach me how to band pencils together in groups of 27, just in case two of them break.  Those are not counseling tasks; those are administrative tasks.  That’s not me.

“But the counselors don’t have classes to teach.”  OK—two things wrong here.  First, most of us do have classes to teach.  We partner with English and Science and Health teachers to present all kinds of programs regarding careers, college opportunities, social media skills, and more.  In any given week, most of us are seeing as many kids in the classroom as the average teacher.  So there’s that.

The second part of this comment is harder to parse out, but it boils down to “Well, you aren’t teaching, so you have lots of free time.”  If we accept that premise, administrators aren’t teaching either, leaving them just as much time to organize testing—and given the weight tests have in our society (for better or worse), can they really say they have something more important to do?  Counselors, on the other hand, have something much more important to do; see students.

“But what else would counselors do?”  This response drives me crazy, but I get where this is coming from.  People are so used to seeing counselors arrange testing, they think it’s a given, and they just can’t imagine a world where we’d do something else—like, our jobs.

But try this on.  Imagine if, instead of spending hours with the logistics of testing, counselors had hours to prepare, and present, test prep programs to students.  The materials are out there for us to use; it’s just a question of finding the time to fine tune those materials to meet the needs of our students and our school, then presenting them.  Research shows that increased test awareness leads to better achievement-- and with the training we really did get in graduate school, we could make that happen.

Good test prep isn’t giving students the answers—it’s giving students the skills and confidence to show what they already know.  And the masters of instilling confidence are?

Looks like you just passed the test.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Ten Things We Learned This College Application Season

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and the students are now nicely nestled on waitlists or orientation schedules—but what can this year’s juniors learn from this year’s seniors about applying to college?

  1. This is about you. A few of the seniors in your school are just discovering this, as they try to figure out how to tell their parents they’d rather go to the local college no one’s heard of, instead of the famous college that admitted them that they really hate. You don’t want to be that student next year—so don’t apply to any college you’re sure you don’t want to attend.
  2. That means you drive the bus. The only way you get to stay in charge of things is for you to keep track of who’s doing what—and to make sure you end up doing most of it. So, you write your essays, you submit the applications, you call the college with any questions you have, you ask the teachers for the letters of recommendation, you talk to your counselors. Colleges say they’re hearing more from parents than students, and that hurts your chances of getting in. Grab the keys, buckle up, and get busy.
  3. If you need help, say so. You don’t have to be a team captain or a born leader to get into college, but you’ll need to know how to ask your high school for your CEEB code, because you’ll need to ask your college for all kinds of things. And when you get the answer you need, remember that someone just made your life better. Say thank you.
  4. There’s more to college than classes. If you ask any adult about their college experience, they’ll talk about the friends they made, the trips they took, and the life lessons they learned. Classes are part of the college experience, but only a part. Visit the campus that could be your home to make sure it feels like home, both in and out of the classroom.
  5. College is expensive. Nearly everyone’s college plans depends on how much aid they’ll get to pay for it—but how much will you need, and how much might end up being loan? The time to start finding out is before you apply, not after. You’ve already had one awkward talk with your parents, about where babies come from. It’s time to make it two.
  6. Lots of people want to go to the same college. Not everyone will get in. That could be you. 95% of the students applying to Ivy League schools can do the work, and hundreds—that’s hundreds—of valedictorians—were denied admission to the Ivies this year. You may never need Plan B for college, but you’ll need to know how to make a Plan B once you’re in college. Now is the time to practice. Find two schools you’d love to attend where your chances of admission are greater than getting struck by lightning. They exist.
  7. A little planning is good. Many colleges with February deadlines are actually rolling admission schools, where it’s first come, first serve. Find out which of your colleges are rolling, and apply by mid-October. They are harder to get into in February. Much harder.
  8. A lot of planning is bad. There’s a lot to consider when applying to college, but two hours charting the probabilities of your admission under different early action plans are really two hours that are wasted. Watch this Or this.
  9. The first year of college isn’t Grade 13. College classes meet on a different schedule, and cover material at a different pace, so your study skills will have to be flexible and your mind will have to stay sharp. Learning does that for you, so keep paying attention to high school until you’re finished with high school.
  10. You’re a senior. Act like it. Applying to college is a temporary, interesting hobby, not a lifestyle. Work on your college applications a couple of hours each weekend, and leave the rest of the week for studying, bonfires, dances, and French fries. Lots and lots of French fries.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Report—The State of College Counseling in the US Isn’t Good

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


A new report on the state of college attainment offers some important points for school counselors to consider.  Presented by The National Consortium for School Counseling and Postsecondary Success, the report outlines the progress made in raising awareness of the important role counselors play in helping students make plans for life after college, including the many contributions of First Lady Michelle Obama in raising the importance of college attainment for all students.

After reviewing the important role White House convenings played in establishing a strong national need for improved college access and opportunity, the report offers a sobering conclusion:

“We must acknowledge that despite the hard work of many well-intentioned professionals working in the college advising space across institutions, we have failed to accelerate the degree attainment process, particularly with underserved populations across the nation who are in greatest need of assistance.”

From there, the report outlines several steps that can be made to improve national efforts in degree attainment, liberally defined as completion of any degree or certificate.  The first recommendation calls for greater collaboration between school personnel and community partners, an important reminder that, while school counselors play a unique role in the college advising process, it is impossible for any significant change to be made in the metrics without a broader array of participation:

In general, college access efforts focus on postsecondary completion strategies within schools during grades 11 and 12; however, this work often exists in silos, rather than through coordinated efforts to reach every student, and is seldom integrated with a broader college and career strategy that spans a child’s Pre-K to postsecondary educational journey. Progress is often impeded because internal school staff, who have existing relationships with students and families, and external partners, who have resources and information, do not function as a collaborative team.

The second recommendation calls for renewed efforts to create more research specific to the training counselors receive in college advising, and in their role in working with students and families in schools.   A survey measured the attitudes and perceptions of both school counselors and the counselor educators who train them, and the results yielded at least one important finding:

Interestingly, the survey discovered a strong discrepancy between school counselors and school counselor educators on the content covered in counselor education programs, with counselor educators reporting much more effective coverage of topics than practitioners. This gap in perceptions suggests that counselor educators may need to pay closer attention to the demands of those in the field as well as emerging responsibilities such as a greater need to support career and college readiness.

In other words, while counselor educators felt their programs fully addressed the essential skills of college advising, practicing counselors didn’t agree at all.

The report concludes with six recommendations that focus primarily on these two findings, with heavy emphasis on the need for more research, and for greater standardization of counselor educator programs, including a thorough review of the content of instruction in college and career advising.  This is welcome news to a profession that has long been short in empirical data; the larger question remains, what can school counselors do now to improve the quality of college and career advising, in the years it will take to build a sturdier foundation of research?


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Financial Aid Call to Arms for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  PhD

The end of the college application season is here, and thanks to our friends at WikiLeaks, it comes with a twist.  Soon after WikiLeaks published a series focusing on how it’s possible to hack just about anything, the federal government suspended the IRS Retrieval Tool so many students use to file for financial aid.  

While this was done in the interest of keeping taxpayer information secure, students just deciding to apply for financial aid are finding more hurdles in their way—and there were plenty to begin with.  It’s been possible to file for financial aid since October, but this is the first year filing started that early, so many students, families—and, ahem, counselors—aren’t used to the new calendar.  That means many students (especially low income students, or students who are the first in their family to go to college), will be applying now, where they have to use their tax information from 2015.

Quick now—where is your tax information from 2015?

And that’s the problem.  Without the retrieval tool, most people will be more challenged to find their 2015 tax information than they would trying to remember what they ate for lunch yesterday.  Since this affects more first-time college attenders, this could be the game changer that leads them to decide not to bother applying to college at all; if you’re not sure you can afford it, why bother?

That’s where we come in.  Thousands of students will be getting college decisions in the next two weeks, so we’re going to be plenty busy high fiving students who heard yes, and designing new plans for those students who didn’t.  In the midst of that traditional mix, we’ll also have to keep an eye out for the late FAFSA filers, a challenge we didn’t think we were going to have.

Here’s what to do:

Make sure the student has applied to college.  If they haven’t applied for aid til now, there’s a good chance they haven’t applied for college, either.  The IRS tool is expected to be back up in a month, and giving them something to do until then can keep their college hopes up.  Check and see if their applications are in.

If they have applied, have them contact the financial aid office.  Counselors aren’t the only ones freaking out about the FAFSA disconnect, since financial aid offices can’t do much without applicants.  Some colleges are developing Plan B for creating packages, relying on applicant’s best recollection of their taxes, using 2016 tax information, or some combination of both.  Your student’s school may be one of those colleges, and if that’s the case, they can still give your student college cash.  Calling them will help you—and the student—discover the answer. 

Review Plan B.  The IRS tool may be back online in late April, but many colleges will have given all their aid away by then.  If a student’s top choice is a school that tends to run their funds dry by May 1, it’s time to make sure the student applies to a college that’s known to fund students who apply late.  That’s usually colleges that have a smaller percentage of students on campus, and community colleges, but a phone call to the college’s financial aid office will let you know for sure.

Tell ED to fix this problem now.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos , 400 Maryland Ave  SW, Washington DC 20202.  A letter there, encouraging the federal government to work with the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators to find a workaround, might help us reach a faster, better solution for all. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Essential Reading for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s a report floating around your state capitol that school counselors really need to read. As we were electing a new president last year, Congress managed to pass the Elementary and Secondary School Act, or ESSA. ESSA replaces the much-discussed No Child Left Behind Act, the legislation counselors knew as No Child Left Untested. Noble in its goals, No Child Left Behind got bogged down in its own details, neve delivering most of its promise. That’s why Republicans and Democrats were only too happy to replace it in an election year; they could campaign take credit for killing an unpopular program, and improving education.

That’s where the report comes in. ESSA puts a great deal of planning (and a little bit of funding) back to the state level, something Republicans really like to do with education, and something we’re likely to see more of with the Trump administration. Before getting federal funding, each state must submit an ESSA plan, outlining just how they’re going to use this newly given power and money—and before that plan is read by the federal government, it must remain open for public comment for at least 30 days.

It’s important for counselors to read this report for three reasons. No Child Left Behind included monies that may have been used for counseling-related activities. Now that all Federal funds have been lumped together in one big block and given to the states (this is creatively known as a block grant), states are no longer limited to how they use that money. If your state was using this funding for counseling activities, they can now use it on just about anything else related to schools. A quick call to the legislative committee of your state counseling association will let you know if your state was using this money for counseling services. A quick look at your state’s ESSA report will show if it’s still being used for that purpose.

Taking the limits off of education funding makes it possible for states to use ESSA funding to increase the amount of federal funding they use for counseling activities. Yes, this means your state could end up taking federal money from some other worthy program and giving it to you, so that means counselors would have to live with expanding their services at the expense of some other department. On the other hand, this creates an opportunity for the state to look at how it’s been using Federal funding, and realize ways to spend the money more efficiently, creating a surplus that could go to counseling. How do you find out if they’ve used this opportunity to run a tighter fiscal ship? You read the report.

Finally, and most important, many states are using ESSA as an opportunity to review how they are spending state funds on education. Not every state will do this, but now that federal funding is one more money source the state gets to use to meet state needs, some states will use this as an opportunity to review all spending, and see if money could be used more wisely.

If your state is taking this approach to ESSA funding, it’s time to stop reading this article and figure out where your state’s ESSA report is located. This zero-based budgeting approach was popular in the 80s and 90s, and it can certainly add more money to counseling services—but it can also wipe out programs completely. Thanks to ESSA, you have the ability to help shape the education power in your state. The first step in plugging into that power is reading the report.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Reducing “Other Duties as Assigned”

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


For reasons that have never been clear, many schools either give the task of test coordination to counselors, or assume counselors do that as part of their job. Either way, counselors who have taken courses in test interpretation—as in, here’s what the results of the test mean—spend the better part of March putting Number 2 pencils in groups of 25, setting up seating assignments for a special testing schedule, and hustling to find speakers to keep the non-testing grades busy, and far away from the part of the building where testing is occurring.

It isn’t easy to say just how this “tradition” came to be, but it’s easy to see how it can come to an end. Many counselors have just spent the last month or so working with students on scheduling for next year. Since most high school counselors spent the last half of January working out schedule changes for the next semester or trimester, that means many school counseling offices have been on “other duties as assigned” mode since returning from Christmas Break. Sure, students with urgent needs have trickled in here and there, but since the bulk of the counseling office’s work has focused on logistics, it isn’t hard to see how the word is out among students that the counselors just have other things to do this time of year—and that isn’t good.

What can you do to end the madness and make sure everyone understands student access is your top priority? Try these:
  • Make sure the person in charge of your schedule understands what you’re up against. You might assume your administrator knows that schedule changes turns in to scheduling, and that turns in to testing—but maybe they’ve never put all the pieces together.
            The solution is twofold. First, take a look at the Annual Agreement form produced by the American School Counselor Association.     This form helps provide structure to what could be an awkward conversation with your administrator. On the other hand, since administrators usually don’t know what counselors are really supposed to do, this handout helps guide them, and your discussion about duties. Once it’s done, it can be refreshed every year.

            The only thing missing from this document is a calendar that outlines your major and minor counseling duties on a monthly basis. You’ll want to set this up using the calendar program your administrator uses—this makes it easy for them to understand just what you’re doing each month. You give them a master calendar at the start of the year, then a monthly calendar at the start of each month. This is a reminder of what’s coming up, in case they’re thinking about “surprising” you with a new project.

  • Once your administrator is on board, make sure you communicate with your parents and students. I’m still a fan of a weekly one-page newsletter to let them know what’s going on in your office. This can remind them of your big projects, but remind them you’re still there for them. “Yes, it’s March, so I will be testing the juniors, but I’m never so busy that I don’t have time for you. If we need to talk, come right in.” This allows you to keep a “students first” tone in your work—and once you write a year’s worth of newsletters, you’ll only have to tweak them the following year.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Your State Legislature Needs to Hear From You

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


One state legislature wants to do away with school counselors completely.

Another state has made filing a FAFSA a graduation requirement.

Yet another is considering a bill requiring all students to submit a college application before finishing high school.

It’s more than fair to say that many are responding to the changes in the national political structure by letting federal officials know just what constituents think, and what they want the government to do. The effect of this action is clear, as many federal policy efforts have been stalled, changed, or even reversed as a result of this participation—a clear reminder that democracy is a participatory system of government that only works when people truly participate.

The same impact can be achieved at the state level, and some would even argue it’s easier to have your voice heard there.  With fewer constituents to serve, it’s easier for the folks back home to set up meetings, provide information, and set up town meetings of your own for elected officials to attend.  With frequent contact, it isn’t hard for anyone to become known to the staff members of a state official on a first name basis, and become a reliable source of information and opinion.

That’s especially true when it comes to education, an area where a vast majority of the decisions are still made at the state level.  That’s even truer with the recent passage of the new Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESSA), where Congress gave powers long held at the national level back to the states.  That’s part of the reason some of these counseling-related bills are being taken up by state legislatures; they have a new sense of opportunity, and they plan to make the most of it.

Since they have more opportunity, so do you—but will you make the most of it?  High caseloads and full work days sometimes make it challenging to stay on top of legislation, but these simple steps can keep you in the loop, and make you the active participant in school counseling you need to be:

Contact your state school counseling association  There’s a very good chance your state organization has a government relations committee, and may even hire a lobbyist to speak on behalf of school counselors.  It that’s the case, part of their task is to stay on top of legislation and policy changes that could affect your life as a counselor.  A quick email or monthly phone call to them is all you need to stay on top of essential issues—and if you persist, don’t be surprised if they call you one day with updated news on an issue they’d like you to actively support.

Subscribe to meeting notification systems  Many legislatures give members an opportunity to sign up for notifications of committee meetings.  These notices are sent directly to your email, and include the bill numbers and topics the committee will discuss.  Subscribing to notifications from all committees dealing with education—including budget committees—is another great way to stay informed.

Make a monthly visit to your district offices  Nearly all states require their legislators to maintain some kind of office hours in the area they represent.  While these are sometimes called coffee hours, they’re designed to give you direct access to your elected officials and their staff.  Going on a regular basis, even if you’re there just to listen, can build a strong relationship with your legislators.  Look for notifications of these office hours on their web page, and sign up for their monthly newsletter.  These are great ways to stay informed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Topic of Your Choice as a College Essay. Just Because You Can...

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Hello, James. How are you?”

“Well, I was doing OK, until I heard you wanted to see me.”

“Why,  James—is it my breath?”

“Sir?”

“Yes, well. James, I heard from Tartar College today.”

“They turned me down already? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Their admission percentage is equal to the Federal Reserve benchmark rate.”

“James, your diffidence is astonishing. No, they haven’t turned you down, but...”

“So, I’m in?!!”

“...they had some questions about your essay.”

“My essay?”

“Yes. What did they tell me the title was? Oh yes. There’s No Place Like With Homeboys for the Holidays.”

“Oh. Yeah. That essay.”

“They said it really had some touching moments in it, as well as two consecutive prepositions in the title, but it didn’t say a lot about you. They also wanted to know a little about its origins.”

“Well, I—- hey, wait a minute. Are they saying someone else wrote that essay? Because if they are, they’re dead wrong. That entire essay was all me.”

“You have no idea how little that comforts me, James. Actually, they were wondering about timing.”

“Timing?”

“Yes. When did you start writing the essay?”

“When did I start, um—“

“Right. When?”

“De—cem—ber 29th.”

“I see. And the deadline was?”

MidnightDecember 29th.”

“You did it again.”

“Actually, I started this one at two in the afternoon.”

“Well then, plenty of time for multiple drafts.”

“And I finished in time to watch Home Alone with my cousins.”

“That would include Cousin Kate, who gave your dog Felix the beef jerky under the mistletoe?”

“Wait. I thought I took that part out.”

“James...”

“OK, OK, I did it again—I ran myself out of time. I was in the middle of a round of Apples to Apples with my cousins, when my mother said I had to finish my Tartar app. All I had left was my essay, so I looked at the prompts, picked “Write on the topic of your choice”, and put down the first thing that was on my mind.”

“Which was the joy of having family around you at the holidays, the mysteries of egg nog, and the discovery that the person who wrote The Christmas Song was Jewish.”

“Wow, Dr. O’Connor. Did they read the whole essay to you over the phone?”

“”I’ve seen essays like this one a million times, James, all by students who were hoping the adrenaline of the deadline would inspire them to produce an epic Topic of Your Choice essay, instead of...”

“...Instead of taking the time to think about what the essay was saying about me, thinking about using the structure of a different topic to help me focus, and presenting rough drafts to my counselor or English teacher in advance.”

“The exact words I shared with you when you wrote Halloween: A Memoir on October 31st for your November 1st application.”

“But I really do love my family, Dr. O’Connor.”

“I know that, James. You’ve told me about the conversations you’ve had with the cousin you’ve driven to physical therapy for the last three months, the grandfather who stood next to Eisenhower on D-Day, and the other cousin you teamed up with when you were both lost on the Appalachian Trail.”

“That was Kate.”

“But none of that was in the essay. Instead, Kate is on record for her poor meal choices in caring for a golden retriever.”

“You were right, Dr. O’Connor. Topic of your choice is pretty tricky. With a little more self-discipline, I could have done myself proud and written a great family essay.”

“Well, there’s some good news, James. The praise you received in the letter of recommendation from your English teacher has led Tartar College to ask me if they can look at a graded paper you’ve written for an English class. If I can submit one today, they’ll use it in lieu of your, um, essay.”

“Really?”

“Any ideas come to mind?”

“Well, I did write this paper in December, using O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a vehicle to compare the struggles of the protagonist in The Odyssey to those of JD Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.”

“You wrote that in December?”

“Yeah. Got an A on it.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to submit an annotated version of that to Tartar College as the topic of your choice?”

“Oh. Wow.”

“That’s a perfect reason to use topic of your choice, which Common Application has reinstituted as an essay option next year. If, for some reason, the other prompts don’t give you a chance to do an intellectual deep dive, then—and only then—do you go to topic of your choice.”

“And instead, they got a description of my Uncle Earl’s singing trout tie that has a Christmas hat painted on it.”

“I’ll check with your English teacher, and send the paper over this afternoon.”

“Thanks, Dr. O’Connor. You know, if you could wait a day, I’m almost finished with my next English essay.”

“Oh. What’s the title?”

Losing the Big Game: Sports as a Metaphor for Life.”

“James? Two things. First, I love you. Second...”

“...get out of your office?”

“And don’t the let door hit you, lad.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mr. Obama, We'd Like To Reach Even Higher

By  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D


Mr. Obama, I’ve written you from this space on more than one occasion to thank, beg, and plead for your support
for school counselors when you were President Obama, and the profession of college counseling received more support from The White House than ever before. Since I just received a letter from you to thank me for writing, it’s an honor to know you listened. More important, it’s a privilege to be part of a profession that has grown in depth and breadth of service in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible without your and Mrs. Obama’s support. I am grateful; much more important, the families I serve have greater hopes and lives, thanks to all you’ve done.

I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve now started a foundation, and you’re asking for answers on where the foundation should devote its energies, by having individuals answer the question, what makes a good citizen? At the risk of running afoul of a request of the former leader of the free world, I answered the question by urging the foundation to continue the work started in The White House through the ReachHigher Initiative.

I know much of this work is being taken up by BetterMakeRoom, there’s more than enough work to be done in college access to keep dozens of foundations and non-profits busy for quite some time—and, to be honest, the profession would be greatly enhanced with the active presence of the very caring couple who brought school counselors to The White House for the First. Time. Ever.

As it turns out, there’s a college access project that would be a great first step back into the field of college access. The state of Colorado has developed a pilot project to add more counselors to schools in need, and given the high number of students most counselors serve, that need is fairly big.

These four year grants allowed schools to train these new counselors and get them familiar with the building. After four years, the dropout rate fell from 5.5 percent to 3.7 percent; college access increased at a double-digit rate, and participation in career and technical education programs more than doubled, according to one report.

The change in the dropout rate meant that each school received more money in their budgets, so the counseling positions more than paid for themselves. In addition, since these students are completing high school, Colorado saved more than $300 million in social costs—far more than the $20 million they invested in the program.

Several other states are looking at this model, to see if it would work for their schools, including Michigan. We certainly get the attention of legislators when we tell them we have a program that makes the state money, but something tells me they might pay even more attention if this information was being provided by, say, a more familiar face.

I can’t guarantee that every state will realize the success Colorado has, Mr. Obama, but I can tell you that having more counselors is the issue in our profession. Now that we’ve found a way for those positions to pay for themselves, all we need is help spreading the word.

Can we count on you, sir?

Oh, one more thing. After I sort of hijacked the question on your foundation’s Website to advocate for college advising, I urged a few colleagues to do the same thing. Some told me they did, and others have said once they hear you’re on board, they’re game to offer support.

Right now, the count is up to a couple of hundred.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

5 Questions to Ask When Visiting a College Campus

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


As we finish most of our college work with the Class of 2017, members of the Class of 2018 are making plans that include college visits. Often built in as part of a family vacation, campus visits can give students a chance to see a college that’s otherwise too far away to visit. It might also be the only chance a student can get away to see campuses at all, especially if they have a demanding senior year schedule.

Fall visits are still the best (when the campus is in high gear), but no matter when you go, it’s important to make the most of each visit by preparing a list of questions ahead of time that are based on your interests — and that includes admissions questions. ACT and College Board offer a nice set of starter questions, but you’ll want to add these five questions to any list you build:

Does my major affect my chances of admission?Students often gauge their chances of admission on college-wide information, like average GPA and overall percentage of students admitted. But some colleges limit the number of students they’ll admit to specific programs, and that could include the major you’re interested in. Engineering, honors colleges, and accelerated professional programs are the usual suspects, but the only way you know History is wide open is if you ask — and if your major is limited, ask what they’re looking for.

Do you offer residential programs? Many big colleges know some students thrive best in smaller classes where they can get to know their professors — and that’s why they offer residential programs, or living-learning communities. Often based by major, these programs typically hold classes in the student’s residence hall, which is where their professors have their offices, and many offer research opportunities students wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It’s the best of a big and small school, all in one campus.

Do you ask what other colleges I’m applying to?  Students are often surprised when colleges want to know where else they’re applying — and while most colleges don’t ask, it happens often enough that students should be ready for the question. If a college of interest tells you they do, don’t be shy; ask them what they use the information for. They may just use it for statistical purposes, but it may play a role in your admissions decision or scholarship package. It’s better you know.

Does your net price calculator include merit scholarships?  The U.S. government requires all colleges to have a net price calculator on their website (can’t find it? Search for “(Name of Your School) Net Price Calculator”), but not every calculator takes the same factors into consideration when giving you a price tag. If you think a college will offer you merit money(check here to see what your college might offer, and scroll to the bottom of the page), make sure you know if that’s part of the calculation, or bonus money.

Do you consider ability to pay when reviewing my application?Colleges would like to give all students the aid they need to attend, but school budgets just don’t allow for that. As a result, some schools will look at the financial need of an applicant as part of the admissions process. This changes from year to year and varies from school to school, so make sure you know what the policy is for each of your colleges—and if you get an answer you don’t understand, your very appropriate follow-up question is “what does that mean?”


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Before Moving Forward, A Look at Where We’ve Been

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


The last couple of weeks have been filled with accolades and gratitude for all the Obamas have done to move the college access agenda forward in the United States—and with good reason. Even the most partisan of audiences can agree that the support the Obamas have given for the encouragement and expansion of college access is unprecedented from any White House.

As a modest measure of just how far we’ve come, I’m presenting the letter I sent to Mrs. Obama that was first published in HS Counselor Week in 2013, the day she first spoke of her desire to expand college access at a Washington DC high school.  The letter was later picked up by The Washington Post, and offers insights into all the last four years have brought, as well as hints on where the movement may go, now that the work of the ReachHigher program has been transferred to Better Make Room.


Mrs. Obama, your remarks this week to Washington DC sophomores were inspiring, both to the students, and to those who work with students in choosing a college.  By highlighting the White House’s progress in making college information accessible to the public, you’ve encouraged students to make the most out of College Navigator and College Scorecard.  In emphasizing the importance of daily homework habits and making the most of every opportunity available to students, you’ve inspired them to build the study skills and interests that will serve them well in high school, college, and beyond.
It is also encouraging to know this was the first of many conversations you’ll be having about college access—and as you build your schedule of college conversations, I hope there will be time for one about counselor readiness.  College experts recognize school counselors as uniquely situated to make a significant difference in the college plans of every student.  We see the students in school, we know their strengths and interests, and we take every opportunity to help them make strong choices about college.
But just like the statistic you cited that puts the United States 12th in the world among college graduates, school counselors know they could do better helping students make good, personalized college plans.  We’re well aware of national surveys where young adults report their counselor was of little help with college selection, and while it hurts when at-risk valedictorians call us “pretty lousy” and “incompetent”, we understand where they’re coming from.
Two years of College Board survey results show counselors wish we had been better prepared for college counseling when we were trained.  Only 30 of the hundreds of counselor training programs in our country offer a course in college counseling, and only one or two require it.  We had to learn this skill on the job, and given the crisis-driven nature of school counseling, there just isn’t time to learn college advising skills while we’re putting out so many fires. We need a better foundation.
There are some professional development opportunities for counselors to learn more about the college selection process, but our students need more—and quite frankly, so do we.  Because college programs are very slow to change, it would be most helpful if you would call on all counselor training programs to develop a course in counseling in the college selection process, based on the essential college counseling proficiencies identified by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. These courses already make a difference in the lives of counselors and their students, as counselors feel empowered to help students with college counseling facts and programs they had never been able to use before, because they never knew they existed.
Asking colleges to offer this class would create opportunities for some counselors and their students, and requiring colleges to offer this course would impact all students and families. President Obama has put a high value on a college education; an Executive Order directing all counseling programs to include this course as a degree requirement would send a clear message that the United States is determined to help all students attain the highest level of college awareness and readiness, and significantly advance us towards the 2020 objective.
School counselors have a rich tradition of supporting the goals and needs of our students, a record that helps us realize the importance of asking for help– especially when we need it ourselves.  We long to be of greater service to our students and families by being better trained in college counseling; your support will help us attain that higher level of service.

Sincerely,
Patrick J. O’Connor, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of College Counseling, Cranbrook Kingswood School
Past President, National Association for College Admission Counseling