Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Choosing a College Amid the Chaos

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s easy to forget about some of the day-to-day happenings in our lives lately, but despite the unusual events going on around us, this is still the time of year many high school seniors are making plans for college. The last few colleges will be sending out admissions decisions, and since seniors have had the last week off, they’ve had plenty of time to wait, wonder, and worry.

It’s time to put that energy to good use in putting together plans for a bright future. As college-bound seniors and their families consider their options, it’s important to keep these factors in mind:

Read the letters colleges are sending you with care. Many colleges are sending admissions decisions out right now, and it’s important that you read them from start to finish. If you’ve been accepted, the letter will talk about what to do next, and when you need to pay your enrollment deposit and housing deposit—and those may have different deadlines. If you’ve been waitlisted—where the college is still considering your application, but hasn’t admitted you yet— the letter will tell you if you need to let the school know you still want to be considered for admission. If you’ve been denied, the letter could let you know about transfer options you could pursue in the coming years. In any case, reading the entire letter is important.

Most colleges are still accepting applications. If the letters you get from colleges leave you thinking twice about your college options, consider starting over. For some reason, people think colleges stop taking applications around April 1, even if the college still has plenty of room for more students. That simply isn’t the case-- nearly every college would be happy to take your application now, and in many cases, as late as August. Some colleges may not be accepting students in certain majors, but call the college admissions office and ask. The answer will likely surprise you.

Many families need to update their financial aid applications, or file one. Many families invest in the stock market to save for college, and the ups and downs of the market may find many families in a different place than they were when their senior applied to college last fall. The financial aid budgets of most colleges haven’t been affected by these changes—that’s likely to happen next year—but a college can’t help a family who needs more financial support if the family doesn’t let them know their situation has changed.

In all my years as a college counselor, the single hardest part of my work is getting families to call financial aid offices. I can understand why—family finances are a pretty personal thing—but if you think the market has changed the college you can afford, it’s time to pick up the phone. If your senior has been admitted to college, that college wants to do everything they can to make sure you can afford to let them attend—you just have to let them. Pick up the phone, and make the call. They’ll tell you what they need to know.

Consider starting at one college and finishing at another. For better or worse, colleges have seen these same tough financial times very recently, with the recession of 2008. One of the many options many students took advantage of was starting their college career at one school—one a little less expensive, and usually closer to home—then transferring after a year or two to the college of their choice. This has a lot of advantages, since it allows the student to start their college career and keep their academic skills sharp, while giving their college fund a breather, and allowing the stock market time to recover its losses, making the last two years of college at a pricier school more affordable.

If transferring seems like a choice for you, you want to make a call to the school where you plan on finishing your college experience. Most colleges take transfer students, but not all of them, so you’d need to know that. You’ll also want to know which classes to take at your first college that will count towards the degree you want to get from your second college—and the best way to know that is to ask the college that’s giving you the degree.

Talk to your school counselor. If there’s ever a time to run your ideas past someone who can help you make a strong college choice, it’s now. Even if you don’t know your school counselor well, they can help you sort out your options, and even mention some you haven’t considered. Yes, most counselors have way too many students, but with school closed, they have more time than ever to learn more about you, and help you decide where to go from here. Most counseling offices are offering ways to reach out to your counselor. Check your high school’s website, and that should get you going.

It might be hard to see just when life will be back to business as usual, but when it is, you want to make sure your plans are on track to move forward with your life in the best way you can. Taking the time to revisit your college plans is the best way to do that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

What Colleges Can Do To Support High School Seniors During the Virus

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Colleges and universities are doing the right thing for their students by closing campuses and moving all courses to an online format. These are by no means perfect solutions, but they’re doing the best they can to put students first in these challenging times.

With that record of success behind them, it’s now time for colleges to do the right thing for future students—the high school seniors who will soon be choosing which college to attend this fall. Spring is the time for seniors and their families to sort out their choices for life after high school, but just like the students already in college, the current situation is throwing some hurdles in the way of the Class of 2020. Here’s what colleges can do to help students navigate those obstacles, and make a strong choice for what comes next in their lives:

Delay the date a required enrollment deposit has to be paid. Most colleges ask students to make an enrollment deposit by May 1, a sign that the student intends to attend that college in the fall. May 1 usually works pretty well, but that’s assuming students have had the opportunity to visit campuses over Spring Break and do some serious comparison shopping. Obviously, that’s out for now.

Oregon State University was the first college in the country to see this problem, and they found a pretty easy solution- they’ve moved their deposit deadline to at least June 1. OSU’s chief enrollment officer points out that there’s nothing magical about the May 1 date, so if an extra month gives students a chance to see campuses, why not? A number of other colleges requiring a deposit have done the same thing; the current list can be found here. Let’s hope it grows.

Consider developing new payment plans to meet the financial changes brought on by the virus. OSU’s officer also points out that, while we were all out hoarding kitchen wipes, the stock market has been on a roller coaster ride that has been more down than up. Since many families invest college funds in the market, that means a good number of families might discover what they thought they could afford last fall—when their senior applied to college—is either completely out of reach, or is going to require some fancy financing if it’s going to work.

Since there are fewer high school seniors to choose from this year, colleges need to think about doing what they can to keep interested students from changing their minds for less expensive options. Colleges that have payment plans need to remind parents they exist; colleges that don’t need to come up with them, and fast.

Revisit options available for students who need to put college on hold. Despite everyone’s best efforts, circumstances are going to arise where students who thought they were headed to college this fall will have to put those plans on hold. Illnesses can affect families and family businesses, where a spare pair of hands can make all the difference in moving forward with purpose.

This happens often enough under normal times that colleges allow students to delay the start of their college attendance, provided they meet certain criteria. Known as deferring attendance, many colleges require students to re-apply for admission in order to delay their start, while others require some kind of deposit.

It’s time to review those requirements. Students may be so busy with their studies that they’ll need the summer to make their final college choice, or they may need a semester or two to save up what they need to pay for their first year, giving the stock market time to recover as well.

Flexibility has been the key in the thoughtful responses colleges have made to the current crisis. These steps will go a long way to extend that flexibility to next year’s freshman class, giving them a sense of belonging that will make the college transition a smooth one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Planning for the Pandemic

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’m a little late to the pandemic preparation party, mostly because it hasn’t quite yet hit my part of the country. Still, two colleges in my state just switched to all online classes, and music concerts are being cancelled for this weekend, so it’s probably time to ask myself, what exactly will my counseling program look like if my school closes for a while?

If you’re making plans, or if you’ve already made them, see if this checklist helps your sense of readiness:

What counseling services are going to be offered while my school is closed? Before we get too far down the road of being “open for business” under difficult circumstances, it’s worth asking just what the goal is in being open in the first place. Since my work is primarily in college counseling, and admissions decisions are coming out in two weeks, my plan includes communicating with students and families who have questions about financial aid offers, college plans, admissions answers, and more.

Counselors who do more of the mental health/social-emotional side of our work are given a more challenging task. How do you offer support to students you can’t see in person? Can you? Should you? It would be easy to decide that’s just not something you can do, but if you’re the only listening ear that student has access to, maybe it’s not that easy after all.

What resources will you need to offer these services? If a student needs help, they come see you in your office. What do you do if you don’t have an office they can go to—try and talk via an online meeting platform? E-mail? Burner cell phone? Meet at a local coffee shop, where confidentiality is slim and the chances of catching what you’re trying to avoid could be greater? Which files and materials do you need to take home, and which ones are accessible online—and if you have to take anything home, how will you keep it secure? Think of all the ways students could reach out to you, then engage the ones that make the most safe sense.

What are the limits to your services? Instructors of online classes will tell you about that one student who emails at two in the morning. It’s likely you’ll run into at least one of those students when you make the jump to distance counseling. Set your boundaries now for when you’ll be doing what you’ll be doing, and stick to them-- hours of the day, days of the week, ways they can reach you, etc. Students appreciate help, but they also appreciate consistency. Just as important, so do you. Be good to yourself, too.

What does your school think of your plan? Sorting out what you’re willing to do is just the start of the journey. Your principal is going to want to make sure your offerings and availability are consistent with those of other mental health professionals (like the social worker) and the teachers, and your union may have something to say about working at all under these circumstances. There are also the legal implications of online advising that your school attorney should be thinking about—and if they aren’t, you want them to be. Show them the plan, get them to physically sign off on it, and then (and only then) are you good to go.

How are you communicating your plan? Students and parents obviously need to know the role you can play in a student’s life while school is on hiatus, but so do the rest of the adults in the building. The last thing you want is for a well-meaning teacher to decide a student really needs to talk to you, so they give the student your home address and phone, which they now have forever. Providing the parameters to your colleagues is the best way to make sure your counseling plans are a success.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Why College Counseling Should Be Taught in Graduate School

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

You’ve had a lot to read this month if you’re interested in school counselor training in college counseling. A January report from Harvard suggests school counselors do their best college advising when they talk about colleges close to the high school where they work, or the college they attended—suggesting this lack of breadth is due in part to a lack of graduate school training in college counseling. This message is echoed in a NACAC opinion piece that provides data on how bad the problem is, and this report that shows how this lack of training affects students.
School counselors have raised this issue with counselor educators—those in charge of the graduate school programs where school counselors are trained—for years, but this concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears, or been met with one of the responses below. In either case, there seems to be a new urgency for more training in this vital element of the school counseling curriculum— so let’s see how the counselor educators concerns can be eased, so they can move forward with this important change:
Instruction in college counseling is already integrated through all the other courses we offer. Individual and Family Development. Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Clinical Counseling. These are all titles of school counseling classes, and these subjects are taught as separate classes, as a comprehensive curriculum. College counseling has its own curriculum, and counselors deserve the opportunity to devote concentrated time to mastering this curriculum, just like the others that are mentioned—and it’s no less important.
I wouldn’t know what to teach, since there’s no established curriculum for a class like this. True—but then again, there’s no established curriculum for any course in school counseling. If you’re not sure what you should be teaching in a college counseling course, some of the leading minds in the field have produced a list of outcomes for a college counseling class—skills counselors should have after learning about college counseling. It’s not a comprehensive list, but most counselors who’ve seen the list would have killed to get these skills in grad school.
If you want to see how other colleges teach the subject, the National Association for College Admission Counseling has a Special Interest Group that includes instructors of college counseling classes, and would be happy to share their syllabi with you, along with the texts they use. Contact that group here if you have questions about starting a class.
My own teaching load is full. Most of the graduate programs that offer this course have school counselors teach it—those who engage in college counseling in the field. Since they work for adjunct pay, this is a bargain, and doesn’t affect any professors’ teaching load.
We can only hire PhD adjuncts to teach courses, and PhD school counselors are hard to find. Colleges have a way around this, where you list the course with the professor’s name on it, and they serve as a supervisor, with someone else teaching the course—or let the school counselor serve as a guest lecturer, which has a different , and more liberal, set of rules when it comes to running those courses. There’s a way your Theatre department can hire Lin-Manuel Miranda to teach Drama 101, and he only has a BA; use that method to hire a rock star school counselor to teach this class.
I can’t find anyone with background to teach the course. If this is really the case, please contact me at collegeisyours.com. The NACAC group has about two dozen experienced teachers who would welcome a chance to teach some version of this course again. If you can’t find someone, we will.
I can’t afford the startup costs of a new class. College budgets may be tight, but they always include funding for development of new classes—so this wouldn’t cost extra money. Still, if you can’t afford to start the course, encourage your students to take an existing class, and let them transfer the graduate credits in. The University of Sioux Falls offers a 3-credit graduate course in college counseling, and it costs a bargain basement $405 (full disclosure: I teach it). Many counselors have taken this course and transferred it into their degree. Just make sure the path is clear at your school so your grad students can do that.
This isn’t “real” counseling. This one just drives me crazy. It’s bad enough some school counselors feel this way, but when counselor educators claim college counseling is nothing more than advanced academic advising, it’s clear they’ve never studied the topic, and don’t care enough about it to help counselors become the comprehensive school counselor their students need them to be. When the American School Counselor Association says college advising is one of the three parts of being a good school counselor—and when you stop to really understand all the emotions and family dynamics behind a student’s choice for life after high school-- it’s easy to see how studying this topic, and knowing what you’re talking about, is a counseling obligation.
This article points out how school counselors support the affective domain of their clients. One major way to damage that affect is if students walk out of their counselor’s office, convinced the counselor can’t help them much with their college plans. Better, focused training eliminates that worry.
We don’t have room to add another class in the school counseling program. Recent changes in school counselor training requirements makes it very easy to add a separate course in college counseling without going over the new credit limit, but some counselor educators still insist there’s no room for growth. If a program has reached its maximum credit load, it’s time to consolidate. Most school counseling programs have 6-8 classes in mental health training; with a little creativity, that same content can easily be realigned into one less class, leaving 3 credits for a new course in college counseling.
Most counselors don’t have time to do college counseling. It’s certainly true that high caseloads and “other duties as assigned” limit all facets of a school counselor’s job—but that’s also true for mental health counseling, and grad schools still teach that. Convincing administrators to give school counselors the resources they need to do their jobs is another story. For now, it’s essential to make sure school counselors know how to initiate and supplement strong college counseling programs if they’re given the chance to do so (or make the chance to do so)—and the only way that happens is to teach them how.
Convinced? Great! Pass this along to your favorite counselor educator, and change the school counseling landscape for the better.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Can We Please End the False College/Career Dichotomy?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I think this false war started with a discussion about welders. The Help Wanted ads for welders started to go unanswered, and people got understandably nervous—it’s hard to foresee a sustainable society without them.

It didn’t take long, however, for this rather focused concern to take on a life of its own. “All those darn teachers and counselors are telling kids they need to go to college—four years of college—and now we’re running out of welders. Not everyone needs college, and we need welders. Darn teachers.”

This initial salvo was followed by an armload of articles with “data” pointing out that holders of four-year college degrees earn about $1 million more over a lifetime than workers who have other credentials. This, in turn, was met with the saga of The $80,000 Welder, a story that has been reprinted and cited more often than Liam Neeson’s speech in Taken. It was as if the career tech people were saying “Let’s see your English majors make that much in a year. Ever.”

We’ve been off to the races ever since, with “pro college” folks and “pro career” folks taking turns trying to convince the world their view is the only right one. If you want to keep your options open, you have to go to college for four years—unless of course you want to avoid a mountain of debt that will keep you from buying a house and eating avocado toast, in which case you should go into a career tech field.

In the interest of our students—remember them?—perhaps we should reset, and re-center, the discussion:
  • It’s absolutely true you can make $80,000 a year as a welder, and in many other tech and manufacturing fields—in fact, you can make more. Industrial pipeline welders can pull in six figures a year; it’s likely they’ll have to like working in humid climes or Alaska, but if you do, you can easily make more than most four-year college graduates, making sure pipelines maintain their integrity.
  • That said, the average salary for welders is in the upper $30,000 range. Given the median household income in the US is a little over $63,000, you would likely need a two-welder household to be an average income earner in most states. That tends to be the case for many careers in manufacturing and in tech.
  • Neither of these statistics by themselves should deter a student from becoming a welder, going into manufacturing or going to college. Most articles about careers—and far too many about college—treat the subject as if making money is the only goal, when there are a number of other factors to consider, including—dare I say it—if the student likes the idea of becoming a welder, manufacturer, or college student. If devaluing money sounds like a bad idea, think about the last time you encouraged a student to pursue a four-year degree in studio art, where they’d likely go into about $30,000 of debt for an uncertain employment picture. The argument there is that artists have souls that need to be expressed. Couldn’t we say the same thing about welders, and manufacturers, who are much more likely to find steady employment?
  • Why is this an either/or discussion? Students don’t always get to step into their first choice lifestyle right after high school, and it’s way past time we helped them make plans accordingly. Those who can scrape together the funds to become a certified welder will find themselves making more money than working in retail, to the tune of about $12-15,000 more per year. That’s enough money to pay for college classes in cash, giving students more than enough opportunity to earn a four-year degree, debt-free—and suddenly, they’re on to their next career, having made a lifelong dream come true. It will take more than four years, and working while going to school brings its own challenges. But if the main impediment to a BA is available cash, a temporary career in the trades can solve the problem.
The low birth rate of the 2000s is leaving colleges and career programs struggling for students, so it’s understandable if they’re ratcheting up the rhetoric about their programs. The key here is to make sure counselors don’t let students get caught in the crossfire, by making sure the talents, needs, and interests of the student are at the center of our counsel, and not our own biases about life as a welder, manufacturer, or anything else. If we can do that, the possibilities truly are endless.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Recipe for a Counseling Disaster

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

In the interest of trying to achieve some work-life balance, I like to cook. This is not to suggest I’m terribly good at it; if you’ve ever seen those articles about what Pinterest projects look like in real life, my cooking could be featured in them. Still, there’s nothing quite like spending the better part of an afternoon improving my onion mincing, or watching the process of milk and flour become pot pie, all with a little music on in the background (Beethoven’s first piano concerto really makes the old masters pretty approachable).

My interesting goes back to BRF—Before the Rise of the Foodie—and even though America’s love for Rachael Ray has cooled, there is a residual effect to this wave of culinary interest that has come with a terrible price. Recipes are now eight pages long.

This snuck up on me one busy Wednesday, when it was my night to cook, and I was caught short for something to make. I picked up the phone, typed in the name of two ingredients I had, and up popped a picture of something I thought I stood a chance at making. Two clicks later, I thought, and I’d be at the list of ingredients, and on my way.

Oh no.

As I recall, here’s the essence of what came next. “My love for this dish goes back to the shores of Ellis Island, where a shy son of an Italian watchmaker and an Irish girl with a rare love of oregano met in line to begin their new lives. Little did my grandparents know that their chance encounter would lead to their spending those lives together for the next fifty-six years. It also led to the best Sunday Chicken Croquette recipe known to the New World.”

And on it went. Four more paragraphs about Lorenzo and Saoirse, followed by an in-depth review (and seven pictures) of the diameter of the bubbles the milk should show while blending the ingredients. Thinking the end was in sight, I carried on, until we got to the discussion of the ratio of oregano in the Italian breadcrumbs.

I then opted to use my phone for its more primeval culinary purpose. I ordered pizza, asking for extra oregano in the crust, out of respect for Saoirse.

I’m pleased to say most recipe websites are getting the message, as most of them now have a button at the beginning of the post that says “Skip to Recipe.” Still, I can’t help but wonder how the makers of these sites got it in their heads in the first place that I would choose to go to a recipe website to do light reading. I’m looking for a recipe so I can cook. Is that really all that hard to understand?

Since work-life balance is supposed to benefit both parts of life, I’ve taken my lesson from Lorenzo and applied it to my work as a counselor. How many times does a student come in looking for some pretty basic information, and I feel compelled to inundate them with the theory of Carl Rogers? If a student wants to know the average ACT score for students admitted to Michigan State, do I really need to explain the limits of standardized testing, or can I trust them with just the number, and know they get what that means?

It’s certainly true many clients come through the door asking a question that has nothing to do with the issue they really want to talk about, and our professional training gives us the skills we need to make the difference in their lives they really need. At the same time, if a student comes running into our office and asks what time it is, it’s pretty likely they don’t need to be given the history of the sundial—they just don’t want to be late for class.

Our time as counselors is precious, and so is the time our students give to us. Let’s make sure our advice respects that, and is equally precise.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Why You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


It just figures that National School Counseling Week starts the day after the Super Bowl. The country gorges on guacamole-covered chicken wings on Sunday, and when America’s most misunderstood group of educators asks for three nacho chips and a high five on Monday, the country is too tired to party.

In some ways, we don’t mind. The last time we made headlines, most people surveyed felt that school counselors were more of a hindrance than a help in applying to college. Before that, we were the punch line of a car ad — “Your guidance counselor drives a minivan” — or we were known as the washed-up teachers who were given offices close to the principal so he could keep an eye on us.

But Jenny doesn’t see us that way.

Jenny was the quiet, slender girl who didn’t cause anyone trouble, except herself. When two or three students saw Jenny needed help, they went straight to the school counselor, who called Jenny into that office close to the principal to talk about it in a safe, confidential place. Jenny got help, and became an even more beautiful person.

Steve doesn’t see us that way either. Three weeks into school, he had his fifth unexcused absence, and was on his way to flunking a required course. He told his school counselor he was working late to support the newborn son no one knew he had. His counselor asked the teacher to give Steve one last break, but never mentioned why. Steve got it, graduated, and got a full-time job that paid enough to take care of his young family.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not supposed to. When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well.

Of course, we aren’t perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

I bet you didn’t know that either.

Old habits die hard — school counselors know that for sure — but if you have a minute this week, stop by and thank your school counselor for everything you don’t know they’re doing, and put in a good word for them with the principal. We might not score winning touchdowns or drive fast cars, but when the goal is to drive 450 students to win their own big game, the minivan really rocks it.


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

On Grief and Grieving

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


It looks like we have some work to do on our grief curriculum. As much as I’d like to find some other way to protect our students from the challenging face of loss, the avenues of social media just leave them far too vulnerable to the news of tragedy and the unexpected to hope we could shield them from bad news. So, it’s better to prepare them instead—and in light of the way some adults have been handling tragedy lately, it looks like we have a long way to go.

Here’s what I hope you’ll find a way to include in your unit on loss.

People attend funerals for one of two reasons. Some will attend to honor the life and the memory of the person who is gone. It may be they knew that person from work, or school, or through some social network, but if they’re attending the funeral to honor the person who has died, it’s likely they don’t know any surviving family members. Of course, it’s still important to greet them, offer your support at this time of loss, and share some memories of the person that’s gone. But it’s really more than OK if the real reason you’re there is to remember that person, and all they meant to you.

Other people attend funerals for those who are still with us. When someone we know loses a loved one, attending the funeral is a show of support that can mean a great deal, even if you didn’t know the person who died. When this happens, it’s pretty natural to offer support to the person who has experienced loss, since they are a friend, or colleague, or someone you care about. Keeping them at the center of your thought makes it easy to know what to say, and what to do. Let your care for them be your guide, and all should go well.

Whether you’re attending a funeral for the living, or for the person who’s passed on, it’s pretty safe to say you would not use this as an occasion to bring up the mistakes and missteps of the person that’s died, and share those impressions with others. That’s not to say we should pretend those mistakes don’t exist; it’s pretty likely the survivors are well aware of the deceased’s limitations, since they’ve been an integral part of their life. But people who have experienced loss are taking a lot in, and are looking to those around either for support, or for space. Reminding survivors of the character flaws end errors made by the person who’s gone, no matter how egregious, doesn’t achieve the goals of offering support or space. In many ways, it makes the loss that much harder—and that’s not really the goal of the day.

Some may consider this approach na├»ve, an effort to put a happy face on a life that was less than perfect, but that overlooks the purpose of the day. We aren’t going to a funeral to render judgement, or to consider the person’s place in history; we’re there to consider what the person meant to us, and how to help those who knew them move forward. Those goals should be the sole motivators behind the feelings we share and the stories we tell. There will be plenty of time to create a balanced picture of the person’s life later on, if indeed that needs to happen at all. For now, the sole focus is on the loss, not the limitations.

Losing someone in your life is hard enough without having someone around saying “I’m sorry for your loss, but you know, they really weren’t perfect.” Perfection is a standard for discussion among historians, and that can wait. For today, let’s think about those who loved them, and how we can support their efforts to take all this in.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Dangers of College by Checklist

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


My client just couldn’t understand what went wrong. They had earned great grades in some pretty challenging classes, and had earned test scores that would be expected for someone working in the classroom at a high level. They had secured letters of recommendation from two of the most respected teachers in the school, both of whom knew the student well, so they were able to write with great regard and particular focus on who the student was. The student’s extracurricular list was peppered with leadership and accolades that clearly indicated the student had gone more than the extra mile in their out-of-school pursuits, and summers had been spent in fascinating programs. Still, when the admissions decisions came in, the student had been denied admission at their top choices. What, they wanted to know, had exactly gone wrong?

Welcome the world of College by Checklist, the natural conclusion that’s too easy for students—and particularly parents—to make if they take their college guidance from mainstream media. While it’s better than it used to be, too much coverage of applying to college is focused on the mechanics of forms, lists, and scores. It’s also far too focused on the thirty or so colleges thought to be the most desirable institutions, the ones where a student would be thought a fool if they were admitted, and opted not to attend. These places are promoted as the Golden Ticket, and best of all, the ticket is easy enough to obtain with the right recipe of numbers, achievements, and name-brand classes. 

What’s missing from this calculus of college admission is, of course, the soul of the student. It’s certainly true that a good amount of the history of holistic college admissions—where colleges ask students to write essays and submit letters of recommendation along with their grades—were designed in part to limit college access to certain groups of students. Happily, a good many colleges have flipped those purposes on their head, and see the same mixture as an opportunity to understand the student beyond their grades, and past their achievements. It’s a rare college applicant who successfully reveals what it is that makes them tick—indeed, it’s rare to have an eighteen-year-old who understands what makes them tick. Still, when an application shows a strong glimmer of something more than just a score and the obligatory responses to Why Us, admissions officers clamor over each other to bring that student to their institution, and rightfully so. More than just another doer, that college has found an actively engaged thinker.

It was clear that what was missing from the client I was talking to, who had only sought my advice after they had applied to college. The client had ample good choices from colleges who knew the student would do well enough at their institutions and serve the school with distinction, but all the student’s top choice schools were places looking for students interested in turning over the rocks and wondering what lay underneath. That was something the client had never bothered to consider en route to what he thought was fast tracking his way to a top school.

A television news magazine once interviewed a judge for one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions, and the interviewer’s first question was simple—what are you looking for that separates the best performer from so many qualified performers? It’s simple, the judge said—it’s what they do with the notes. Everyone knows the notes once they’re at this level, he said, and sometimes they don’t always hit them in any given performance. But the notes only go so far; after that, it’s what you do with them.

As we begin our work with the next classes of college seekers, here’s hoping they will embrace the opportunity as something beyond a checklist.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Your Alumni Dad Can’t Help You Get into Johns Hopkins Anymore—A Look at Change in College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


At first, it seemed like a monumental moment of change, the kind of shift that comes out of nowhere but changes things forever. Conveyed by a photograph on Twitter, the small paragraph on John Hopkins’ admission page simply indicated that, in the interest of creating a class as rich and diverse as possible, the storied college was no longer using legacy status in admission. In other words, it no longer mattered if an applicant’s parent, uncle, or other relative had gone to Hopkins; that was no longer a factor in their recipe for admissions soup. 

It’s easy to see why so many people see this as a big deal. Giving special consideration to the next generation of applicants is as much a part of selective college lore as elbow-patched corduroy jackets and secret societies, a part of doing business that encouraged alumni to be actively engaged in the life of their alma mater, both in and around the development office. Even when studies suggested legacy admissions had little effect on the bottom line of a school’s donation ledger, it was seen as a way of engendering a sense of community and continuity.

It’s certainly true that institutional memory is needed to keep the traditions and quirks alive that distinguish one school from another (I’m looking at your Hey Day as an example, Penn), but do next-generation students fill a special niche in that memory? If so, is that a role that’s worth restricting a good percentage of scarce seats in the class, for students whose high school credentials alone might not be enough to garner the admissions committee’s attention? Hopkins evidently decided it was not, and a new day in college applications emerged. 

But for those who are convinced this move was made at a moment’s notice, take care. Subsequent research has shown Hopkins has diminished the use of legacy for about ten years or so, using the data to confirm what many have long suspected. To be sure, the college still admits students who have family ties, but the percentage of legacies is down substantially—by about 75%—now that it’s not a part of the admissions algorithm. Further, no reports exist of declines in alumni giving, the area seen as the chief beneficiary of legacy admission. That’s not to say every Hopkins alum is thrilled with this change, but those concerns, at least for now, seem to be more personal than institutional.

The approach Hopkins used here is reminiscent of the approach many colleges took when deciding to make the ACT and SAT optional parts of the admissions process. Rather than wake up one morning and simply flip a switch, most of these college approached the question through data gathering, discussion, and review of the college’s mission. What additional information did test scores provide that weren’t part of other sections of the application—and even if there was some gain, did that come at too high an institutional price, or at the cost of the well-being of the students? The test-optional movement has made incredible gains over time, but it is more the result of deliberate engagement of key questions than the snapping of fingers.

The test-optional movement and the Hopkins decision serve as strong reminders to those eager to make sudden shifts in higher education policy that there is sometimes an upside to change being glacial. A ten-year deemphasis of legacy gave Hopkins alumni the opportunity to embrace the change and celebrate it, and the thoughtful approach colleges have used to review the role of testing in admissions has led to few, if any, colleges going back to requiring the tests once they made the change. Progress can be infuriatingly slow at times, but these changes are reminders that, more often than not, slow but steady is a powerful element in lasting change. The key is to begin, and to persist.


Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Word About December Vacation—Did You Really Get One?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, because I don’t want to sound as if I’m telling you what to do with your job or how to work with your students—counselors don’t tell anyone to do anything, so I’m really not interested in doing that. At the same time, my social media reading over the holiday break revealed some disturbing posts that lead me to ask an important question:

Exactly how much did you work over the holiday break?

I ask this because I’m a pretty strong advocate that vacation time is, well, vacation time. “Vacation” comes from the root word “vacate”, which means to leave behind in its entirety. You don’t get to take part of your apartment with you when you vacate it, nor should you; the same is true for vacating a job. When you’re done, you’re done, if only for the weekend—or for the time you aren't working.

This leads me to wonder just how much serious vacating went on in the last few weeks. My social media posts were flooded with remarks from counselors like “Student sent me her college essays on New Year’s Eve (sigh)” and “Student said they had to know if they passed their Algebra midterm.”

This doesn’t remotely sound like vacating, my friends, and that’s not good. It’s not good for you, because there are other parts of your life—and most important, other people in your life—who get short changed when you work over a holiday. One of those parts is your mental sanity. You work too hard for too long, and bad things happen—and if you’re thinking “but I only spent five minutes a day on email,” go back and think about how much time you devoted to responding to that five minutes of email, or thinking about what you’d have to do with that email once you go back to work. No matter where you were, you were mentally back at work—and that’s not vacating. 

I’d also argue this state of perpetual availability isn’t all that great for students. The student needing to know if they passed Algebra can just as easily ask the teacher on the last day of school as they can email you over break, and the student writing college essays could knock out rough drafts the weekend before vacation and send them to you then. With a heads up from you that says you’re offline for two weeks, students get to develop self-care and time management skills that are essential to being healthy adults. That’s part of our job, too. 

Counselors give two kinds of pushback when I urge them to consider using vacation for vacation. The first is that the students need counselors, and we should be there for the students. That’s certainly true—but just how much do students need us over break? Classes aren’t in session over break, so there’s no real need for academic guidance. Any college application that’s due January 1 can be submitted by the student without a transcript. As long as the student asks you to send the transcript once school reopens, they’re going to be fine.

That leaves supporting students emotionally. It can be hard to leave a student in need on their own for a couple of weeks, especially if it’s clear there are no other resources for them to lean on over break, or if the holidays themselves will likely be a stress-inducer. At the same time, other mental health workers find ways to take breaks, and make contingency plans for their clients while they’re away. With a little advanced planning, you can provide a list of resources for your students to use in case they’re needed, allowing you to take care of yourself and those in your personal life.

The second argument is a contractual one, where a supervisor or a contract requires you to do some kind of work over a break. I’m raising this point now so you have time to fix that. Provide some data to your boss showing just how much you weren’t needed over break, or negotiate a change in your contract that allows counselors to take turns checking in over holidays, leaving the task of being “on call” to just one counselor, instead of all of them. 

Our students need us, to be sure, but we need us too. There’s a way to support both in meaningful ways when school’s out. Let’s add that goal to our list of New Year’s resolutions.