Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Six Words About College That Disappoint Parents Most

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I had a chance to discuss the bigger world of college admissions with some local counselors at a recent college breakfast, where admissions officers from five colleges gave us brief updates on life at their campuses.  They opened up their presentation to questions at the end, and it’s my habit to ask them about advice for parents—if colleges could give one recommendation to the parents who have to watch their children apply to college, what would it be?

I’ve asked this question of many college admissions officers over the years, and the response is always the same—Let the Child Drive the Bus.

Long before the helicopter/snowplow/lawnmower parent, it was clear to colleges that many students were applying to college in name only.  It was easier to tell this when all applications were filed on paper, since the handwriting of many students—particularly the boys—looked remarkably like that of their mothers’.  Most applications are online now, but that doesn’t mean colleges can’t sort out when parents have played too big a part in the application process.  And according to most colleges, any part parents play in the completion of an application is too big a part.

Colleges urge parents to let their child take charge of the application process for one simple reason—it’s the child who is going to college.  A student who’s “too busy to apply” (a favorite excuse parents use to fill out the form) is making a statement about what they’ll be able to give to the college experience, and the student who’s “too shy to talk about themselves” may get admitted thanks to the bolder tone of the essay a parent writes—but that isn’t the voice the college will hear in classroom discussions or in community activities.  Colleges use the application to understand who they’re getting if they say yes to the applicant, and they take plenty of shy or busy students.  They just need to know that’s who the student is.

A second reason colleges want the student to own the college application process is because of the training it provides for college.  Applying to college is typically more than just filling out a form.  It’s about conveying information, brainstorming essay topics, editing ideas, organizing others in the submission of teacher letters and transcripts, meeting deadlines, seeking help from a counselor on the direction of your college search, and honoring the integrity of the process by being honest in all of your answers.  Since these are many of the same skills that will lead to successfully negotiating the college experience, the college application is a test drive of a big part of college.  Your transcript may tell colleges you can pass tests, but your application is supposed to tell what the experience behind all that test taking has taught you.

This “student first” attitude is just as important in any communication with the college.  Parents hoping the counselor will “put in a good word” for the student don’t understand that colleges much prefer hearing from the student than from the counselor, and parents who pester the college admissions office with questions are certainly making their child memorable, but in the wrong way.  There’s nothing wrong with speaking up for a student who may get lost in the shuffle, but assuming that’s going to happen from the start speaks volumes about the parent’s faith in their child, and in the college.  They didn’t become a state champion soccer player by having Mommy or Daddy kick the ball.  Applying to college is no different.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

College Advice for Next Year’s Seniors

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


Graduation has come and gone, and the Class of 2020 is now prepared to rule the school.  Since life as a senior means thinking about what comes next, what can this year’s college admission trends tell us about next year’s application season?  More than the headlines reveal:

Double check your “sure bet” colleges  It’s not unusual for juniors to spend part of this summer building a list of 4-6 colleges they’d like to attend.  In most cases, this list will include at least a couple of schools where the student’s GPA and test scores are above the average GPA and test numbers for the college.

Students who built their list as juniors are going to want to check that list closely come August.  A number of schools that typically admitted a good number of students with B+ GPAs became incredibly popular this year, and that means many of them could expect a little more from the students they admitted.  Double-check to make sure those schools are still in range to be sure bets—and if they aren’t, check in with your counselor on how to add to your list.

Apply to rolling schools early  This advice has been around for a long time, and it’s more valuable now than ever.  While many colleges—especially public universities—have application deadlines of February 1 or February 15, many of these colleges will run out of room well before that date.  Other colleges with these dates are often willing to take students with slightly lower GPAs in the fall—but once the class begins to fill up, their criterion for admission start to rise.

Keeping your options open usually means starting early, and that’s the case with college admission.  Even if your dream school is on a rolling admission plan, think about applying by October 1.  That can do wonders for your chances for admission.

Complete your FAFSA early as well  This is also true for filing your financial aid forms, starting with the FAFSA.  This will be the third year students can file the FAFSA as early as October 1, and while some colleges are still waiting until February to put together financial aid packages, others aren’t.  You really don’t want to be left behind when the cash train leaves the station.   Once your admission application is done, jump on the financial aid forms.

Send your test scores soon—if you need to  A number of colleges have made a major change in their admission policy, where they are allowing students to self-report grades and/or test scores.  That can be a huge plus, saving students time and money, and more colleges are joining this movement every day.  Check the application requirements of your colleges August 1 to see if they’ve made the switch.

If your college still requires you to send official test scores, get that done by Labor Day.  Colleges needing official scores won’t act on your application without them, and scores ordered after Labor Day have been known to take weeks, if not months, to get there.  Don’t be left behind—jump on the Website where you signed up for the test, and follow the directions to order your scores.

Keep Aunt Becky in mind  I probably don’t need to remind anyone that you shouldn’t do anything illegal when you apply to college, but the real lesson of what went on this spring is bigger than that.  Freaking out about applying to college makes no sense at all.  You’ve devoted time and thought to where you want to go, you’ve made good choices, and your list provides a range of options you’d be happy with.  Apply, keep doing great work in high school, and watch what happens.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Buying a Dorm and the College Board Index—It’s the Same Thing

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


I am worried that our profession is losing its collective mind.

First, we spent a good month in collective amazement over the dirty deeds of Aunty Becky and her team, who tried to buy their kids’ way into several colleges.  To be sure, the amount of money involved, and the methods used to gain influence, were extreme and rare—so that was worthy of some conversation.  But the subsequent discussions around the role of wealth in college admissions seemed to suggest many counselors and college admissions officers out there had never realized the role money plays when it comes to getting into college.

Forgive me, but—really?  All the jokes in a wide range of TV shows and movies about “Daddy buying a building” didn’t give you the clue that a legal version of using wealth to one’s advantage played a role in college admissions?  More important, the articles talking about how wealth plays an important role in preparation for college, in everything from teacher letters of recommendation to test prep seem to go largely ignored, as well as the research showing students from better-funded schools tend to go to college more than their peers who attended underfunded schools.

I was (and am) still shaking my head from the incredible amount of buzz this “wealth increases access” idea was generating last week, when news broke that College Board has created an index that attempts to capture a student’s socio-economic context.  Again, while some of the initial arguments were valid—people wanted to know what factors went into the index—the overall response was one of utter amazement.  “You mean, colleges are going to start taking a student’s background into consideration when reviewing their applications?”

I don’t know how to break this to you, but this is old news—very old news.  Understanding the larger context of an applicant’s school experience—where they come from, the classes they had the chance to take, the community they were raised in—goes back decades, from the time colleges starting asking high schools to provide a profile of their school as part of a college application.  These profiles include everything from median household income data, to a list of the most demanding classes the school offers, to a distribution of test scores, to the famous list of colleges students attend who graduated from that high school.  Colleges might not use profile information to compare one high school to another, but they definitely use it to evaluate how much the student challenges themselves in school, how much they could have challenged themselves, and the resources the student had access to in their educational experience.

This is how some colleges—at least in the past—created weighted grading scales of their own, where a student attending a high school with a rigorous curriculum was given a “boost” of, say .3 when comparing student GPAs.  It’s also part of the basis for colleges who have created their own socio-economic rating scales, many of which have been in existence for years.

There’s plenty to keep an eye on with the College Board index, especially if it ends up being used by hundreds of colleges, creating a “one size fits all” approach to socio-economic context that, by definition, limits its effectiveness. But if the idea shocks you that colleges are starting to consider a student’s background as part of admissions decisions, you may want to consider it’s been around as long as rich people buying dorms to get their kids into college—and how, in many ways, it’s the exact same thing on a larger, institutionalized scale.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Gordon Ramsay, Master Chef—and Master Counselor?

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


I have never been much of a Gordon Ramsay fan.  My one interaction with Hell’s Kitchen—where he is invited to take over a fairly bad restaurant on its last legs to try and bully the owner into shaping things up—was based on morbid curiosity, wondering how long someone could keep up that level of rage, hoping everyone would be singing It’s a Small World After All at the end.  Once it was clear that was not going to happen, I wrote him off as one more privileged guy with anger issues, who, much to the delight of his family, found ways to channel the energy in ways society deemed to be productive, if still somewhat dangerous.

That perspective held true for several years, until I came home before Christmas break last December, to discover my daughter binge-watching Master Chef Junior.  Participants are invited to compete against one another in a kitchen that has absolutely, positively every kitchen contraption known to the free world, along with a pantry that has no back wall.  Unlike Hell’s Kitchen and the original Master Chef, the participants in Master Chef Junior are children—ages 8 to 13—still under the tutelage of Gordon Ramsay.

My first inclination was to honor my duty to report, and contact child protective services.  Anyone who goes nose-to-nose in an f-bomb contest with a slightly inebriated line cook should generally not be allowed on the same continent as young children, let alone put in charge of them.  Yet, Chef Ramsey was there, flawlessly demonstrating how to pan fry a steak to a room full of kids, with a clarity, focus, and energy that inspired them all to do the very same thing five minutes later.  He utzed them, he urged them, he cheered them on, he corrected their steps by asking questions and letting them evaluate themselves, and he helped them grow to believe in themselves, all without a single curse word. I was hooked.

Subsequent episodes revealed the same approach to his work with his mentees.  If the challenge of the evening is to cook food for the public, Chef Ramsey’s famous temper does tend to flare up when his charges disappoint—he has probably thrown ten pounds of undercooked chicken across the several years of the show.  At the same time, when an oil spatter leads a contestant to cry out in pain, or a dish gone wrong dissolves an eight-year-old into tears, Chef Ramsay is there with ample physical and emotional first aid, urging the young cook to find a new gear of focus within, guiding them back to the task at hand with new-found confidence, only once he knows they’re OK.  Add the moments when the show calls for childlike silliness—like the time a pasta-making activity ended up with Chef Ramsay wearing a huge bowl of red sauce dumped on him from midair—and it is heartening to see a world-class chef still knows what it means to play in the kitchen.

We’re all caught up with the back episodes now, and watching the current season, where the next generation of Michelin stars recently completed a cooking task so flawlessly, the judges couldn’t send anyone home that night.  Seeing the combination of humor, expectation, encouragement and faith Chef Ramsay and his fellow chefs give so freely to their crew, I’ve often felt society as a whole would be better off if we shuttered every teacher training and counselor training program in the country, and simply required future educators to learn their craft from Master Chef Junior.  The standards are high, the support is infinite, and even though, as they frequently remind the participants, everyone can do well, but there can only be one winner—no one walks away with their head down.  Instead, they are eager to apply what they’ve learned to next time.  That would make for one mighty impressive school, replete with a pretty amazing cafeteria to boot.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Legacy of Lloyd Thacker

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


The counseling world is pausing this week to reflect on the retirement of Lloyd Thacker.  A former college admissions officer and college counselor, Lloyd left the world of high school in 2004 to start The Education Conservancy, a one-person non-profit dedicated to making sure college admissions remains student-centered, and not overcome by other interests.  Under Lloyd’s guidance, the Conservancy played an early role in calling college rankings into question, and was one of the first voices to question the importance of SAT and ACT testing in the college selection process.  In short, Lloyd was one of the first college admissions professionals who saw college admissions heading into the overheated, competitive morass it’s become today, and tried to steer us clear of this disaster.

Lloyd’s work has always inspired college admissions officers and school counselors who have long wondered just why college admissions needs to become the arms race it is.  That’s helped the field tremendously, since Lloyd’s very public work of challenging the assumptions that make up the base of college admissions, have led others to do so as well, creating more students who approach the process with a greater focus on who they are and what they need from college, and less focus on getting into the “right” college, if indeed such a thing exists.
As this excellent piece by Eric Hoover shows, one of the frustrations Lloyd realized during his work is how slow, and undetected, the nature of change can be in complex systems like college admissions. Michelle Obama’s success with the Reach Higher campaign is the exception to the rule.  Using the power of celebrity to celebrate low-income students and first generation students who overcome the odds is one thing; using data to get a college to abandon the US News rankings and develop a less sensationalistic tone to their student recruiting campaign is another.

The inability of college counseling—or school counseling in general—to make a major splash is both a blessing and a curse.  Keeping out of the limelight allows us to work with students in ways that are nearly anonymous, allowing counselor and student the freedom to explore ideas and discover answers without having to worry about the opinion of others.  This great gift is tempered by the need for greater recognition when counselors need to identify their successes, something they need to do when asking for more counseling time, or more resources to promote healthy students.  We could ask students to come forward and share their counseling successes to prove the worth of counseling.  But that can be a dicey proposition, and explaining what counselors do in some kind of hypothetical narrative often leads critics to ask, “So, all you do is talk all day?  What good does that do?”

That’s the challenge Lloyd faced- and all of us still face—in an age when colleges seem more interested in recruiting record students than making sure the few they admit graduate, and have an engaging college experience along the way.  If we can’t prove that a low-pressure, student-centered approach to college recruiting can lead to increased applications, why would a college risk changing their current practices?  Fewer applicants means a larger acceptance rate, something that plays havoc with rankings, and makes the college less elusive, and therefore less interesting.  That’s no way to increase Website clicks.

School counselors are keenly aware of the power and beauty of the moment when a breakthrough is made with a student—it’s why we do this work.  At the same time, the intensity of the work and the unique needs of each student makes it difficult to ramp this success up to a higher scale, sometimes making its value seem small in a world driven by Likes.  That’s the challenge we take with us when our work is done, and we look back to see notable achievements, all made out of the public eye.  The absence of a “big win” may make us wonder if our work ever made a difference.  The legacy Lloyd Thacker leaves is that work undetected is not the same as work unnoticed, and that reminder is a vital one indeed.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

All of Them Are Mine

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


College students always look like they’re having a lot of fun.  It might be the way they’re dressed, especially in spring, when everyone rushes into shorts and tank tops with wild abandon.  It might be the backpacks, which are very practical, but end up making the user look either like a tall elementary school student or a wannabe hobbit.  Either way, when videos pop up on my news feed showing life on a college campus, I just can’t help but think, boy, that looks like a pretty great time.

That wasn’t the case earlier this week, when all the backpacked, shorts-wearing students on the video were trotting across campus at a faster pace than usual, with about half of them holding their hands up.  This was the University of North Carolina Charlotte, where a gunman opened fire, killing 2, and injuring 4.  Any active shooter drills the campus had completed didn’t reduce the worry of any of the students in the video, who seemed lost, confused, and uncertain what to do.  They didn’t look like elementary school students in this video.  In this video, they looked like they were four.

That’s how school counselors see students at times like this. Sure, they earn phenomenal test scores, begin start-ups at age fourteen, understand the intricacies of global trade, and have social media followings the size of Montana.  But let their heart break a week before prom, let a dream college fail to meet their demonstrated financial need, or have them fall prey to a petty Tweetstorm, and all you want to do is make things better for them, even when you know that, in the long run, the best thing is to help them make things better for themselves. They are past bandages and ice cream cones being the comprehensive answer.  These hurts call for the true healing only they can supply.

We don’t just feel that way about the kids we know, especially when the student’s hurt makes the headlines.  When a college shooting occurs, people wonder, do any of our students go there?  And the thing is, for as often as this has happened, they wouldn’t understand my answer. “Today, they’re all mine.”

It’s possible they wouldn’t understand my answer, because they don’t understand my profession.  We work with lots of kids for an intense period of time, getting to know both them and their quirks, how they see themselves, how they see the world, and what they see as next in their lives.  We do our best to show them the options for life after high school that best fit what a seventeen-year-old knows to be right for them, as much as they can know that—and then we hope for the best.  When things go so badly that it makes the evening news, we can’t help but think of all the students and all their counselors, all doing their best to make sure things go well—and suddenly, we are all one, and all ours to care for.

How exactly do we do that?  We double our efforts to make sure the students we’re working with now are heading to good, safe places.  We write the elected officials who, we hope, are looking for tangible ways to bring their thoughts and prayers to life.  And sometimes, we have to make the call to the house of the parent that trusted us, and ask if that child was involved in any of what was going on at the campus they went to, the one we told them was safe. We could just hide in our offices and hope.  Then again, if that happened, the shooters would win.

That’s also the reason we all move forward.  It was College Signing Day this week, and nearly everyone who had planned festivities decided to hold them, keeping the memory of those who were lost in thought, but knowing—or hoping—they too would want us to keep going, keeping them close to us along the way.  It may not be a perfect answer, but nearly perfect answers are sometimes the closest we can get to taking care of every student.  And all of them are mine.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Unlocking the Mysteries of May 1

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

May 1 has been the center of conversation in the school counseling community this year, thanks in large part to Michelle Obama.  The former First Lady and founder of Reach Higher established May 1 as College Decision Day, a day for high schools to celebrate the decisions seniors are making about their lives after graduation.  The idea came from the national signing days held for athletes when they announce what college they’re attending.  Mrs. Obama’s reasoning is, and was—if it’s good enough for athletes, it’s good enough for everyone.

May 1 was selected in part because it’s also the day many colleges require students to submit a deposit, letting the college know the student plans on attending college in the fall.  This may seem like a simple idea, but it isn’t—or it’s too simple, and people want to make it harder than it is.  Either way, let’s review.

Do all colleges require students to deposit on May 1?  No.  Generally, the only colleges that do are those colleges receiving more applications than they can admit.  This is one way to sort out who’s really coming, and it can give the college a chance to pull additional students from their waitlist if they need to, in order to fill their class.

If I’m on College A’s waitlist, should I deposit at another college?  Yes.  Colleges don’t usually admit students from their waitlist until after May 1.  If that’s the case with College A, it may be May 5 or 6 before you find out they didn’t take you from their waitlist—and by then, it’s too late to deposit somewhere else.

But what if College A does take me from their waitlist, and I deposited somewhere else?  At that point, you can deposit at College A, as long as you call your other college right away and tell them you aren’t coming after all.  You can also ask them for your deposit back, but it’s unlikely you’ll get it.

Do all colleges require you to tell them you’re coming by May 1?  Again, no.  It’s always a good idea to tell a college once you’re sure you *aren’t* coming, but if you’re choosing among two or three colleges that don’t require a deposit or notification, you can take the whole summer before deciding.

Can I deposit at more than one college?  The real answer here is no.  Colleges have to build budgets and schedules, and that takes time.  If 100 students deposit at State U in May, then decide just not to show up the first day of school because they deposited somewhere else, State U loses a lot of money, and has to cancel more than a few classes—especially if State U is a small school.  You might not care about that if you aren’t attending State U—but what if this exact same thing happened to your college, requiring them to close your dorm, cancel two of your  classes, and offer no meals on Sundays?

Two deposits is like asking two different people to the same prom.  It isn’t illegal, but it is a horrible idea.

I want to talk about College Decision Day.  Why just celebrate the students going to college?  The good news here is that most high schools include all seniors in their CDD celebration, honoring those going to college, entering the military, or heading into the world of work.  If lots of seniors still have their future plans up in the air, some high schools will delay the celebration, putting it later in May, or building it into graduation.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Handy Hints for College-Bound Parents

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Last week, we talked about things students and counselors should keep in mind as we continue the march towards May 1, when most students will finish up their plans for attending college.  We certainly didn’t mean to leave out parents—we just ran out of room!  Here are the key roles, and key ways, parents can make the transition to college a smooth one.

Call the financial aid office  There’s been incredible media coverage in the last two weeks about financial aid offers—specifically, that many parents can’t read a financial aid offer, and if they can, they can’t compare financial aid offers, since no two are written the same way.

I’m sorry to say this is absolutely true.  Even parents of college seniors have a tough time sorting out what part of the offer is grants (and doesn’t have to be paid back) and which part is loan (which does.)  If the parents who have been at this for four years still can’t make sense of these forms, what are newbie parents to do?

Simple—call the financial aid office.  Parents are scared to do this, because they think that if they say something wrong, they’ll lose their aid, or get their child kicked out of school.  This won’t happen—in fact, while the folks in financial aid have a reputation for being about as warm as The Wizard of Oz, the truth is, they want to do everything they can to make sure students come to campus in the fall.  Getting them to call is going to take some work, but it really can be more than worth it.

Jump starting Mom and Dad to make that call is easier if you give them a head start.  Tell them to call, and simply say, “We’re thrilled my child is coming to college in the fall, and I just want to make sure I understand the financial aid offer.”  At that point, they tell the financial aid officer what they see, and ask them about the things they don’t know.  The aid officer will do everything they can to make sure all parts of the package are clear.  That’s their job.

If this doesn’t convince the parents to call, this should.  The moment a parent calls a financial aid office, the first thing—THE FIRST THING—the officer does is open the student’s file, to determine if the college has any new funding to offer the student.  Other students have called the college to say they aren’t coming after all, and if those students had grant money, that grant money can now go to someone else.  Most of the time, it tends to go to those who ask.  This is free money, waiting for the asking.  All you have to do is call.  Just ask the parent who made a call, asked one question, and got an extra $10,000 in grants.

Visit campus Once the financial picture is clearer, it would be great if Mom and Dad could invite their student to take another tour of campus.  This isn’t always possible, but it can go a long way to make everyone more confident about the student’s college choice—and that’s never a bad thing.

You don’t have to take the official tour, but if you haven’t, it’s not a bad idea.  If they have an admitted students program, that’s a great way to get to know the other families who will be part of the college community.  But even an informal visit can go a long way to reinforce the idea, this is really happening.  And that’s pretty great.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Talking to Anxious Juniors About College

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Almost every junior I talk to this time of year is convinced they are behind in the college application process.  They’ll tell me about the five college campuses they visited over spring break, and how those visits have led them to conclude they’re looking for a medium-sized college with a strong honors college that’s located close enough to a city to have good sushi—but they feel they’re behind in the college selection process.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m delighted they’ve thought about college this much, and they’re starting to understand that there are some colleges where they are more likely to find the right mix of opportunity, challenge and support.  On the other hand, students who have thought this much about college who are convinced they are doing nearly enough to be college-ready makes me wonder if they’re seeing college essay prompts in their sleep—or if they’re sleeping at all.

Not every student feels this way, to be sure, but those that do have an awfully hard time of things right about now, as the newspapers again report record highs in applications and record lows in admit rates.  Throw in the media coverage that’s convincing everyone there’s no point in applying to college unless your parents have a spare 4 million dollars to give the college, and it’s easy to see why even the most conscientious student is thinking twice about their preparedness.

What’s the best way to create an opportunity for these students to seize a new perspective?  Try this:

Identify your goals for them  The energy and angst students bring in to your office can sometimes be enough to make you forget that you are the adult, and the expert in college admissions.  Since you’re both, step up to the plate and address the banshee in the room.

“Just so you know, you’re in great shape.  For our students, we hope they get to the end of junior year having visited about three or four college campuses.  We hope they’ve taken the SAT and ACT at least once, and we hope they’ve asked two academic teachers from this year to write their college letters.  You’re right on track to do all of that, so things are looking great.” (Your school’s expectations may be different, and that’s more than OK.  Just let them know where they stand.)

The message here is a clear invitation to come back to reality, and most are grateful to accept.

Tell them what comes next  Most of the time, students feel they are behind in the college selection process because they haven’t started filling out college applications.  They shouldn’t be right now, and they know they shouldn’t be—but try as they may, they just can’t shake the feeling.

There’s a couple of ways to get at this.  First, tell them when it’s normal to start filling out the forms.  “I’ll be sending you an email in early August with some suggestions about when to start applying to college.  There are a lot of different factors behind when you start, but most of our students will have the basics—name, address, list of extracurriculars—done before school starts.  That gives you the weekends to work on essays during the school year, allowing you to focus on your studies and other school activities during the week.”

If the student isn’t comfortable with this answer, encourage them to start filling out parts of the application now.  Some online applications, like The Common Application, are open now, and while the essay questions for many colleges will change next year, the basic identification questions won’t.  Students can save those answers, then complete the application in the fall.  For now, they get to tell their friends and parents (and more important, themselves) they’ve started to apply to college.

61.  If some cold facts about the application process doesn’t snap them out of it, tell them that only 61 colleges admitted 25 percent or less of their applicant pool in 2017—and that the vast majority of colleges admit about two-thirds of their applicants.  Even if their plans are to apply to these low-admit schools, the fact that so many more are easily accessible usually gets them to consider college from a new point of view, and allows them to breathe.


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

What to do When a College Says No

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The real March Madness is pretty much over, as some of the most selective colleges have released their admissions decisions. For parents looking for ways to support students who may receive an unexpected rejection, here are some important facts to share:
* Most selective colleges are reporting a huge increase in the number of applications.
* Since this also happened last year, many colleges enrolled too many students last fall. They’ll have to make up for that, so many colleges will be admitting fewer students this year....
* ....and wait-listing more students. This increase means fewer students will be admitted from the wait list come May—and if they are admitted, financial aid will be scarce.
Then again, if none of that does any good, just say this:
* 850.
No, this is not the high score on some new version of the SAT. 850 is the number of valedictorians recently rejected from one of America’s most prestigious colleges. These students represented the best in their high schools; they did everything they were “supposed” to do—and yet, they didn’t even get to the wait list.
When students hear this, they usually think one of two things:
1. “Wow, they put in all of that work for nothing.”
2. “Geez, if they can’t get in, I don’t stand a chance.”
It certainly had to be hard for those students to be turned down by a school they loved—but did all of that preparation really lead to nothing? Given everything these students had learned, the many ways they had grown, and how they overcame adversity and embraced creativity in making Plans B, C, and Q, did they really get nothing out of it?
If so, they have every right to be unhappy, but not with the college. They should be unhappy for letting the sun rise and set 1307 times from the first day of 9th grade to the day the college said no, never once appreciating all that each of those days had to offer in and of themselves.
They should hang their heads a little to realize, just now, the difference they’ve made to their classmates, their teammates, and the people they served in the soup kitchen.
And if they look back with a little regret on the many times they blew off a compliment from a parent or a teacher, that’s more than OK. They now know it was at that moment that the goal of fully living each day was conquered with a flourish. Understanding that will make each day all the richer at the wonderful college that admitted them.
This leads to point 2, about the student you’re talking to, and their application. Colleges are looking for great students who have done wonderful things with their lives, and will work nicely with the other students that are coming to campus. That blend goes beyond test scores and class rank—it goes to who the student is, what they care about, and how they see the world.
The thing to focus on then is not who told them no, but who told them yes. If a college wants them but runs out of room, that’s the college’s fault; if the college doesn’t see the student for who they really are, well, maybe that’s not the place for them after all. Either way, the student’s contributions will be greatly admired, and badly needed, by the college that has the good sense to tell them yes—which means any no, from any college, simply cannot touch them.


Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Few Reminders as College Decisions Come Out

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


This is the week students hear from the rest of their colleges.  Since these colleges include

the Ivy League schools, this week gets a lot of attention from the press and parents, which can lead to a rise in the anxiety levels of most students.

The best way we can support students through this challenging time is to remind them of three things, and remind ourselves of three things.  First, for the students:

It’s a college decision, not a character indictment  It’s always easy for someone else to tell you not to take a college decision personally—after all, this isn’t about them.  But the truth is, ninety percent of the students who apply to a college could do great work there; it’s just that these colleges run out of room before they run out of great students.  If they said no, that’s their loss, not yours, because…

Every college you applied to is a first choice  You may have ended up liking one college more than the others you applied to, but that doesn’t make the others a second choice.  You did your research, liked what you saw, and know you can do great things at all of them.  As long as some of them said yes, you have the privilege—the privilege—of choosing among great options.

You can keep looking  More than a few students get to April and feel the need to start over.  The National Association for College Counseling has a College Opening Update will be up soon—most likely early May—so you can see what colleges are still officially taking students.  If you can’t wait that long, call the college and ask.

For those of us working with students:

Cast the net far and wide  You won’t have to look hard for the students who are elated with their college choices—they’re the ones wearing the Exact. Same. College. Swag. Every day from now until graduation.  The harder search are the students who aren’t happy with their choices who have given up on themselves, who think bothering to ask for help is pointless.  Alert your teachers and administrators to look out for seniors who have a sudden change in temperament, either more quiet or more outgoing than usual.  Chances are, something’s up with them.

Get ready to work the numbers  This week’s joy will become mightily muted for some of your students, as they eventually get past the first page of the acceptance letter, and peek at the financial aid offerings for the first time.  Aid offers are hard to read, and some families just won’t call financial aid offices no matter what.  Be ready to check in with the students who are likely aid candidates, and get ready to make some calls.  It’s best if Mom and Dad do it, but they’ll probably need help. 

Avoid the trap of May 1 There’s a movement underway to celebrate the college achievements of all high school seniors on May 1, the day many colleges ask students to send in an enrollment deposit to one—and only one—college.  There’s nothing like a good celebration, but May 1 isn’t the end of the college search season for many, many, MANY students—especially students attending community colleges or public universities, or students whose financial aid packages are still up in the air. If you have lots of students who fill this bill, consider moving the celebration to later in the month, or build it in as part of graduation.  The goal is to celebrate everyone, and May 1 may be too soon to do that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The College Counselor Who Left His Own Children Alone

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

When it comes to dealing with the key moments of my daughter’s life, I’ve always had my hands full.  The first one came when she was not even two years old, and decided it was time to climb up on the playscape all by herself, just like she’d seen her older brother do.  It didn’t matter that her legs were about half as long, and the diaper she was wearing significantly limited her mobility.  It was time, and that was that.

As she eyed the situation, I was about twenty feet away, clearing some brush, and holding a chain saw, of all things.  There was no way I could drop the chainsaw without her noticing it, and not even the slowest gait towards her would do anything but convince her I didn’t think this was a good idea.  All I could do was stand there and watch, poised on the balls of my feet to spring the twenty feet in the event I needed to catch her.  She didn’t exactly look like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but she made it up, in her own way, safe and sound.

An adjustable wrench was the tool du jour when the next major transition came.  Wearing a helmet that made her very much look like Toad in the Mario Party games, she decided a cold spring day was the right time to be liberated from the training wheels on her bike.  She straddled the seat with excitement as I struggled to get the acorn nuts to budge.  As  I was turning the last one, I was starting to deliver my best advice on how to negotiate the roads in our neighborhood, and the bumps in our driveway, with just two wheels.

It was too late.  Hearing the last of the training wheels hit the ground, she heaved the bike forward, and without so much as one of my hands on the seat to offer temporary balance, she was gone.  Her journey down the driveway was one smooth line of travel, as if she had done this for years. The only job I had left was to watch and admire her getting elegantly smaller and smaller.

The tool I had on hand in the third transition turned out to be one I didn’t use.  My family had the blessing/adventure of having both my children attend the school where my wife and I worked, she as an elementary science teacher, me as a college counselor—the only college counselor.  By the time she was a junior, my daughter had schooled herself from her older brother’s experiences in postsecondary planning.  Look hard, know what you want, and Dad will be more than happy to send out the paperwork.  Simple.

The sentimental part of me wishes something would have happened with her application that would have created a space for me to play Super Counselor, swoop in, and save the day, but the realistic part of me was proud to see there was no such need.  She had to choose between offers at several schools that all made sense for her in their own way, so I did have the chance to hear a little of her thought process as she waded through them, and made an incredibly sound decision.  But that was about it.

Since I’d been in college counseling forever, it would be fair to say I had more than ample resources at hand to be some combination of a Hovercraft Dad and Helicopter Counselor by picking up the phone and making sure things went smoothly.  Not only was that not necessary; it would have been counterproductive. 

The college selection process is as much a discovery of self as it is a choice of what’s next.  Denying my daughter the chance to take the lead, direct her college selection process, and survey the landscape of options she’d created for herself would have dulled the senses needed to self-advocate in college, discern among the pros and cons of a question with strong answers that were also limited in their own way, and take pride in the efforts of living and learning that gave her these choices in the first place.

College is only a great thing if it prepares you for something greater.  The same is true for applying to college, and to this day, I’m grateful humility ruled the day, and the phone was left in the cradle, so my daughter could take her next step, fully emerging from hers.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Mystery of College Admissions

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

My brother was a pretty mean clarinet player in high school.  He had a good ear for pitch, and a great sense of rhythm, and while he didn’t devote excessive hours to practicing, it was clear he knew his stuff.

That’s why we were pretty confident he was headed for a first place rating when the state music festival came along that February.  We got up incredibly early on a Saturday morning, and headed across town to a community college with pretty bad signage.  We finally found the room where he was to perform—he was the third person to play that morning—and he had plenty of time to warm up, then play the piece to perfection, like he had a million times before.

The twenty minute wait for his score was agony, in part because we hadn’t had breakfast, but it was nothing compare to the feeling in our gut when the score sheet indicated he earned a second place rating. 

We then had one of the quietest breakfasts ever at a local restaurant.  There wasn’t really a state of mourning, as much as there was a state of confusion.  What exactly was missing from his performance that kept him from a top rating?

The answer came several weeks later, when his band teacher met up with the guy who had served as the judge for my brother’s performance.  “Yeah”, the judge said, “it turns out he was actually one of the better performers I heard all day.  I be if I had a second cup of coffee before I heard him, I would have given him a first place rating.”

This isn’t exactly the news you want to hear when you’re a high school musician.  To be sure, my brother didn’t let it get him down.  He went on to study music at college, and had a promising side career as a musician for many years.  Still, it’s hard enough to get through high school without having to sort out the mysteries of adulthood, especially when the adults in your life can’t really explain why things like this happen, either.

A number of students are about to experience this same feeling in the next couple of weeks, and they don’t even play the clarinet.  College admissions experts are expecting record levels of applications at the most popular schools, and since these schools aren’t admitting more students than they did last year, that means they’ll be saying no to more students than ever before.

This can be frustrating to students for a number of reasons.  For starters, it’s likely that a ton of students who will get “no” for an answer from the college of their dreams would have been admitted ten years ago, when fewer students were applying to fewer colleges.  A- students may have been good enough for students back then, but now that there are more A students applying, things have changed, even if the A- students can do the work.

On top of that, students will be left wondering what they did—or didn’t do—that kept them from being admitted.  This kind of thinking is pretty hard on a student, since there is rarely a clear, single reason why a college denies a student with great grades and great scores, who did everything short of cure cancer in their spare time.

The reality is that a handful of schools are blessed with the best of the best as their applicants, so they can be a little fussier when offering admission—but even then, they can’t always tell you why they told others no.  That isn’t easy for adults or students to understand, but the best thing to do is adjust your reed, and keep on playing.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

College Admissions Isn't Fair. It Also Isn't Simple.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


In addition to Daylight Saving (not plural!) time, we’re about to enter College Decision Time, when a huge number of colleges will be sharing their admissions decisions with students.  These decisions will leave some students with good news, and other students wondering what else they could have done to gain admission.

A new approach to explaining why a college said no to a student is starting to make the rounds.  According to this theory, the real driving factor behind admissions is the school’s mission, or the reason the college says it exists. Yes, you could be a great student with high grades in AP Everything who was president of every club in your high school. Still, if your essays and teacher letters don’t indicate that you understand the college’s reason for existence, this theory suggests that would be reason enough for them not to take you, since their review process would likely reveal that there isn’t a “fit” between what the college is looking for, and what you have to offer.

The piece certainly offers a great explanation for why Joey in the locker next to you got into your dream college and you didn’t, even though your grades and scores were higher than his. In connecting admissions decisions to the school’s mission, the article even offers a strongly-principled reason for why they took your sister five years ago with her lower grades and lack of extracurriculars, but didn’t take you this year. The school has a different sense of purpose now.

So, the article puts together a nice argument, with only one small problem. Admission at most colleges doesn’t work like this at all. Instead, it depends on other factors that are a little more basic, but somehow more complicated—like:

How many people apply. The article tries to emphasize the role of mission at highly selective colleges. This suggests that if these same colleges only had 600 applicants for 500 seats, they’d likely take everybody, no matter what their essays said. That doesn’t make their decisions based on mission; it makes them based on numbers. Simply put, they don’t take everyone who applies, because they don’t have to.

What the college is looking for. It’s certainly true a college is looking for certain qualities in a student, but that search is a little more pragmatic than the article suggests. An admission officer from an Ivy League college once told me “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a high school senior applying as a hockey goalie, your chances of admission just went way up.” So what happens if the essays in the hockey goalie’s application don’t reveal a deep understanding of the school’s mission? Is this still a fit?

This has less to do with mission than it does institutional priorities—the particular need the college has that year for Philosophy majors, a bassoonist, or someone who wants to do Neuroscience research. These priorities may have something to do with the mission of the college, but they aren’t as closely related as the article suggests, once numbers come into play. The virtues of athletics may be integral to the college’s existence, but they aren’t going to admit every one of the 18 hockey goalies that apply; they’re only going to take as many as they need in any given year—and this year, that may be none.

Rankings. The last ten years of college admissions have seen an increase in all kinds of devices used to get more students to apply. Snap apps, on-site decisions, and the rise in early application programs all point to a desire on the college’s part to attract more applicants, even though very few colleges are actually enrolling more students than they were ten years ago.

What’s behind the need to do that, if admissions decisions are driven by mission, and not by rankings? Is it impossible to be a solid B+ student and have a better understanding of a school’s mission than your National Honor Society counterpart? If not, why are so many highly selective colleges now denying so many—in fact, nearly all— the B+ students who used to fulfill the college’s mission with distinction?

When most families start looking at colleges, they think the admission process is simple—take strong classes, get good grades, make sure your test scores are strong, join a few clubs, and you’re good to go. That perception works at an incredible number of colleges, but the highly selective colleges have a process that’s less clear, because they don’t have to take everyone who applies. It would be easy to assign this cause to the college’s mission, but that doesn’t reflect reality—and it also doesn’t explain why all kinds of schools say no to some A students and say yes to C students who average 21 points a game.

It would be great if mission was the only reason college admissions doesn’t seem fair, but it isn’t. Like life, it’s more complicated than that, and our students deserve an explanation more representative of that complexity.