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.