Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The College Applicant’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


Completing college applications can be hard work, work that often runs through the holiday season. Since everyone else is taking some time off, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to hang out with your family, especially since this could be your last Thanksgiving/New Year/Kwanzmasakah as a full-time occupant of your parents’ home. How could this possibly be a bad idea?

“My friend,” says you, “you clearly don’t know my parents, or my Uncle Bob.”

And yet, I actually do. Here are the three keys to thriving (not just surviving) this holiday season:

Treat Uncle Bob Like You, and He, Are Adults If you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re smart enough to sort out how Uncle Bob operates — and that’s the key to success. Once he’s through updating you on his thriving business and gloating about the political party of his choice, he’s going to put a large piece of turkey on his fork and ask, “So, how’s the college hunt going?”

You’re now thinking this is the end. You haven’t heard from the college that was supposed to decide in October, and your other colleges are small schools Uncle Bob hasn’t heard of — heck, you hadn’t even heard of them until last year.

And this, my friend, makes for a wonderful foundation for your response.

“Well, Uncle Bob, I applied to Eastnorthern State U, and thought of you when I answered the essays, since you’ve told me how much you love the school. I guess everybody’s uncle feels that way, because the college is weeks behind in admissions decisions, but I should hear by Super Bowl.

“I know Mom has told you about my other schools, where some of the students major in the History of Haiku and take classes like Fruit Leather in a Modern Society. I won’t hear from them until spring, but if I decide to attend one of them, I’ll be sure to bring a flare gun with me to campus, in case they try to force feed me with tofu.”

At this point, Uncle Bob will look at you, chuckle a little, and then go back to talking about the glory, or evils, of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Welcome to adulthood.

Your Applications and Black Saturday The next holiday hurdle is the Saturday after Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or...) when even the adults are ready for a break from each other. This is typically the time when your parents — who love you — will say, “Honey, Uncle Bob is going out to lunch with us. Don’t you think this would be a good time to work on your college essays?”

This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, “I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.”

And as you put your earphones back on to fall under the spell of Lady Gaga, you will see your parents weep with amazement and joy. Their widdle baby is all growed up.

Remember the Reason for the Season You have parents who love you, an Uncle Bob who is the lovable kind of crazy, and a world of possibilities awaiting you in college. If ever there was a time for gratitude, it is now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Before You Yell at Your School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

You’ve worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.

Until they got the e-mail.

“Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application.”

At this point, you’ve decided this is personal, so even though it’s 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.

Boy, did you just blow it. Here’s why:

Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn’t said “Forget it”; they’ve said, “We need something.” You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up—so the transcript might not be in your child’s file, but it is in the college’s application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor—the one you just called incompetent—sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don’t want another one. If the transcript is already in the college’s system, they really don’t want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child’s file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it’s their application), but it’s likely you want the school counselor to call. You know—the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.
This isn’t to say they won’t help you and give your child their full support, but if you’ve just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you’ve now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don’t know what you’re doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you’ve just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?

You’ve just left an impression you can’t erase. Let’s say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child’s file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they’d like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is—you guessed it—the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child’s ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that’s what the counselor has experienced. This isn’t about a grudge; this is about their experience.

It’s easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The School Counselor’s Role Next Tuesday

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D



It is a crazy busy time for school counselors.  At the high school level alone, counselors are busy trying to make November 1 college application deadlines, and are on the verge of dealing with the end of a marking period.  This is also the time of year most students start to notice that Thanksgiving—and the first sustained school vacation—is just around the corner.  Throw in the end of Daylight Saving this weekend, and it’s just hard to get students to focus on much of anything right now.

I’m asking you to try very hard to do just that next Tuesday, when the democratic process calls on all of its beneficiaries to engage in the modest, but important, task of voting.  Thousands of schools are polling places, and it’s hard to understand why more educators don’t take advantage of this real-life learning opportunity.

That’s where we come in.  Connections with the larger community is an integral part of social-emotional growth, something counselors do best. With a little forethought, and some quick team building, Tuesday’s activity can help students make strong connections between the power of voting, and the opportunity it brings to shape our country.

How can counselors advance the cause of raising engaged citizens?

  • Talk to school administrators about their plans for Tuesday. It’s likely a few teachers (probably the Social Studies team) have already been doing some preparation for election day in their classrooms, so now is a good time to find out what they’re doing, and see how you can support their efforts.
  • This is also a good time to talk with your leadership about their security plans for Tuesday.  This is one of the rare days when  students have to share the building with the public, and that interaction can be rich with educational opportunities, as long as it’s   safe.  Understanding how students and the public can, or could, interact that day is key to building future plans.
  • Once that’s done, it’s time to get the larger faculty involved. There will be ample opportunities for teachers and students to get updates on the election from social media and cable resources.  In addition, classes can set aside time to go to the voting area and see the democratic process in action.  Sample ballots are typically posted outside the polling place, offering students a first-hand chance to see just how voting works.  Any ballot initiatives create more than enough opportunities for teachers to lead critical thinking discussions that bring in the expertise of their fields.  Offering different lenses on the task of voting gives students multiple perspectives to consider, a key element to growth in their understanding of the world around them.
  • This is also a chance for you to shine. One of the reasons people don’t vote is because they don’t want to get involved with the tensions associated with politics.  This is a perfect opportunity for counselors to talk about conflict resolution skills, and the importance of students using the right mix of empathic listening and strong self-esteem to allow others to have their say, while not letting them walk all over them.  Letting your colleagues know you’re available for classroom demonstrations of these key skills can make Election Day a lifelong lesson for students and adults alike.
Recent articles suggest the historic apathy of young voters is only getting worse, all at a time when the need for all voters to participate in the process couldn’t be greater.  Encouraging participation, and providing ways to manage the shape and tone of political dialogue, are critical elements counselors can bring to the success of the day.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

College Counseling is a Dying Art. We Are to Blame.

By Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


I’m on a planning committee for an annual college update program for school counselors in the Metro Detroit area.  As I was waiting to check participants in the day of the event, I looked at a page from the registration list, just to see if I knew anyone who was going to be there.  The list included the names of 25 registrants, along with their job titles. 

4 were school counselors. 21 were not.

Knowing schools hire counselors but often call them something else, I scanned the list for possible overlaps. Instead, I saw titles suggesting those holding the job are counselors, when they really aren’t. College Adviser.  College Success Coach.  Manager of Postsecondary Planning.  Well-meaning professionals, yes, all engaged in some kind of college advising.  But not school counselors, engaged in college counseling.

I caught up with one of my colleagues at the conference, who said the same thing is happening in her district.  “My district knows we don’t have time with our other duties to help kids with college during the day, so they’re training the afterschool managers to help kids apply to college. They could have hired parapros to do scheduling and testing so we could do the college advising, but they didn’t go that route.”

I’m trying to figure out just when it was decided to concede college counseling as someone else’s job. I’m not talking about college advising, where young college graduates assist students with the nuts and bolts of the application process.  I think that’s a great idea, and badly needed.  But looking at a student’s high school experience to help them choose the right atmosphere where they’ll keep learning and growing?  When was it decided that wasn’t our thing anymore?

Before you get out the usual torches and pitchforks of large caseloads and inappropriate duties, you may want to start a little closer to home.  There isn’t a lot of research on how much training school counselors get in college counseling, but what’s out there suggests the answer is not much.  A new summary of the state of counselor readiness to be effective college counselors sums up the findings nicely: “(S)chool counselors rarely receive training in college readiness counseling during their master’s program in school counseling.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all school counselors.  Look at the titles of the 15 or so classes required to earn most school counseling degrees, and you’ll see myriad courses focused on mental health counseling and developmental psychology, but typically none that include the word “college” in them.  Some programs offer a course in career counseling that includes a unit—one class period—on college counseling, while many counselor educators insist college counseling is taught “throughout the curriculum”, scattered in here and there as an afterthought, like poppy seeds in a muffin recipe.

It’s certainly true students are bringing serious issues to school requiring the full weight of well-trained mental health professionals.  It’s also true more than a few school counseling programs would benefit from a building administrator who sees school counselors as more than just a spare pair of hands.  But somewhere in our desire to become something other than “guidance counselors”, it seems we ourselves have decided helping young people consider life after high school is too pedestrian a task to be worthy of genuine study.

That decision is killing us.  Two-thirds of respondents labeled the quality of career and college counseling in Michigan schools as “lousy” or “terrible.”  That’s us, and that’s what the public expects us to do.

When did we decide as a profession that didn’t matter?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

How Do Colleges Know Mom Wrote the Essay? Beats Me

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Back in the days when young people used Facebook, a wild rumor burst on to the college counseling scene:

“Did you know admissions offices look at the Facebook accounts of their applicants?”

Given the number of applications a college gets, I didn’t see how this was even reasonably possible, but I thought I’d reach out to a few college colleagues and see what they said.  Most of them said something like “Are you crazy?”, or “Who has the time to do that?”, but the most interesting response I got was this one:

“If I did, do you think I’d tell you?”

I had a flashback to that moment recently, when I read a story that proports to tell parents how college admissions officers can tell if parents have written their children’s college essays. It’s fairly well known many students get significant help writing these essays, either through parents, tutors, or writing coaches. While many of these helpers know the difference between advising, editing, and doing the writing for the student, colleges say a growing number of application essays clearly are being written by someone other than the applicant.

I haven’t read the piece, other than to notice that it isn’t written by someone who works in a college admissions officer.  That’s very comforting, since the knowledge admissions officers have of the way their school reads applications is sacred, at least to me. 

I’ve been helping students get into college for a long time, and I’d like to think I can at least tell if a student has a reasonable shot at getting in to a school. But I also know what I don’t know.  I don’t know how many volleyball players the D-I champion college is looking for this year.  I don’t know if the 8 kabillion dollar capital campaign is going to lead to an increase in special case admissions this year.  I don’t know how a college chooses between a Straight A student who went to a school that offers no APs, and a Straight A student who took every one of the 10 APs her school had to offer.

And I don’t want to know.  Where some counselors think this information will help their student decide where to apply, the inside baseball that guides the admissions decisions this year won’t be the same next year.  Like the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future earnings potential.  Or, like the rep from a DI hockey school once told me, “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a hockey goalie, your chances of getting in just went up.  On the other hand, if we just admitted three hockey goalies last year, and you’re a hockey goalie applying this year, your chances of getting admitted just went down.”

It’s the same with college essays.  Colleges value original thought, and if you’ve signed an application saying the ideas here are yours, you’re going to be toast if they aren’t. End of story.

I can support that without knowing how colleges know the essays are fakes, and I can support it even more if colleges don’t tell parents how they know.  Tipping your hand to Mommy and Daddy only makes college admissions more of a game than it already is, and that serves no one. Telling them you know is warning enough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Where Are the Students?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


It’s early in the college application season, but college admissions officers are reporting a trend that could have a major impact on the way they recruit students.

College admissions folks refer to fall as “travel season”, the time when they leave their cushy college offices and head for the high schools of the students they serve.  Reps will schedule presentations for individual high schools, community-based presentations in hotel ballrooms, and family-based meetings through college fairs organized by individual schools and their districts—all in the name of getting to meet the students.

This long-standing approach appears to be losing some of its luster.  School counselors are reporting record drops in the number of students who ask to attend the high school-based meetings, choosing to remain in class instead of meeting with the reps.  Similar reports are coming from college fairs, where reps are reporting light turnouts of parents and families—even when the fair is held in the evening, or on the weekend.

What seems to be the culprit behind these low numbers?  Several counselors are claiming these events are the victim of “application creep”, where seniors apply to college earlier and earlier in the school year.  10 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for many seniors to apply in February of twelfth grade year.  Now, students are rushing to complete online college applications as soon as the portals open in early August, hoping to have their applications complete before school starts, in part so they can focus their fall on doing well in school and enjoying the rites of passage that come with senior year.

This approach to time management sounds downright mature—why risk rushing through college applications and studying less when you can take your time to apply in August, and have all the time you need to ace Physics?  On the other hand, counselors question if this practice is leading to hasty college decisions.  Can seniors make thoughtful college choices without talking to college reps, and doing the one-stop comparisons a college fair has to offer them right before they get their diploma?

Other counselors are already trying to respond to this trend, and their ideas are rather ingenious.

Hold a mini college fair at lunch  Some high schools decided a long time ago to schedule all high school-based college visits at lunch, so students wouldn’t have to choose between missing class and making college plans.  College reps hate these visits, since students are generally too shy to break away from their peers and ask questions, and the lunchroom is too noisy for reps to make general information sessions.

One proposed solution is to schedule more than one college for lunch visits at the same time.  Creating a mini-fair leads to strength in numbers, making it cool for students to get up and ask their questions.  This also makes it possible to put the colleges in a separate but accessible space—say, the library—where students can come and go, and reps don’t have to worry about flying French fries.

Move high school visits to Spring.  Other counselors are toying with the idea of having the colleges come in the spring, where they visit with juniors.  This would be a better fit with the current timeline of students gathering college information sooner, but it could still pose a problem with students wanting to miss class.

It’s clear students are making college decisions sooner.  It will be interesting to see how colleges respond to this trend in ways that make sense for the developmental needs of students.  


Wednesday, October 3, 2018

News from the NACAC Conference

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The 74th annual convention of The National Association for College Admission Counseling was held in Salt Lake City, providing counselors with announcements, discussions, and new ideas to consider when working with all of their students—those considering college, and those looking for other equally bright paths after high school.

Common App and Reach Higher Combine Many organizations use the NACAC conference as an occasion to announce major initiatives, and that was clearly the case this year, as The Common Application announced its acquisition of Reach Higher, the college access/college readiness movement initiated by former First Lady Michelle Obama.  Common Application offers students the opportunity to apply to over 800 colleges and universities with one basic college application, while Reach Higher’s message of college opportunity is primarily aimed at underserved students, including students of color, students who would be the first in their family to go to college, and students in rural and urban areas.

While no new initiatives were announced as part of the merger, the education community can look to an expanded presence of the “college is possible” message to all students. Many counselors at the conference noted that Common App and Reach Higher have a “can do” attitude in their business philosophies that is contagious.  Here’s hoping that’s true.

Harvard Lawsuit Spurs Discussion About College Admission  A great deal of discussion at the NACAC conference centered on the lawsuit filed against Harvard, claiming that the school’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian Americans. While the lawsuit was filed in 2014, it has finally cleared its last legal hurdle, and will begin in earnest in the next few weeks.

The lawsuit is of interest to school counselors for two reasons. First, it involves the use of affirmative action, and its use in discriminating against a racial minority— a remarkable claim, given that the purpose of affirmative action is to prevent such discrimination. 
Second, the case brings into question all elements used in the college admissions process of holistic review—the idea that students should be admitted to college on factors beyond grades and test scores.  Observers suggest that a finding against Harvard could advance efforts to eliminate the use of test scores in college admissions, while others suggest it may require colleges to pay more attention to grades and tests scores, even though recent studies suggest these measure can contain their own racial biases.

A Film About Counseling Debuts  NACAC was also the ideal location for a movie to debut that focus on college access.  Personal Statement follows three low-income students through the college selection process, and will soon be shown on PBS. It was well received in the initial screening at Salt Lake City, as counselors said it drew a realistic picture of the challenges low-income students face when applying to college. The director of the film was in the audience, as was one of the students featured in the film, making the conversation after the screening insightful and spirited.

NACAC Membership Changes Tabled  The NACAC conference tends to be more student-centered than NACAC-centered, but one major exception this year was a proposal for sweeping changes in the membership categories offered through NACAC.  An initial proposal was sent to all members earlier this year, and subsequent feedback led to significant changes in the proposal even prior to the conference.

The changes weren’t enough to sway those in attendance at the membership meeting, with some elements of the proposal seeing amendments to the amendments of the amendments.  With further discussion, it was determined the membership proposal needed further review.  Look for it to reappear at next year’s NACAC conference in Lousiville.