Wednesday, September 20, 2023

AI and Counselor Letters of Recommendation

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

2023 may be remembered as the year artificial intelligence hit the world of college admissions head on. While AI has long been an integral part of the selection process for many colleges, the ability to use AI in application essays is leading to significant discussions of its impact on student essays in the application process.

Lost in this AI discussion is the question of whether AI has a proper place in the writing of counselor or teacher letters of recommendation. At first blush, the use of AI seems like a pretty bad idea. If the goal of recommendations is to get to know the student better as a person, the two-dimensional, factual, flat writing style associated with AI wouldn’t seem to advance that goal.

College admissions officers who have reviewed AI-generated student essays have said as much in several articles. Yes, the computer answers the question, but it gives little, if any, sense of the life of the student, and of what it means to see the world through their eyes. If that’s the case, wouldn’t AI-generated letters by teachers and counselors suffer from the same problem?

The answer here is complicated. Counselors with large caseloads often lament they can’t really give their best to letters of recommendation, simply because they are serving too many students to get to know them well. When speaking confidentially, some college admissions officers agree, saying that too many counselor—and teacher—letters of recommendation are so vague, they give little additional insight into the nature of the applicant. Letters that include a rehashing of the student’s GPA, extracurricular activities, and test scores simply repeat information found in other parts of the application, doing nothing to advance the student’s chances of admission.

This is where AI could move counselor letters forward. Counselors can have the computer create a rough draft of the letter. The counselor can then edit the text to include stories and examples of the student’s qualities that add essential personal touches, separating the student from other applicants, and raising the overall quality of counselor letters as a result.

This change means counselors need to plan ahead. Counselor meetings that are largely logistical—meetings to discuss student schedules, junior interviews, and the ever-present senior graduation audit—need to be restructured, where the nuts and bolts of what classes to take are largely taken care of ahead of time, with the student bringing a list of classes to the meeting with them.

School websites can be used to support this effort, with sections outlining what students need to consider in building a grade-appropriate schedule for their year. This won’t eliminate the need for scheduling discussions entirely, but it will minimize them, allowing the counselor a chance to get beyond the procedural issues, and spending more time getting to know the student, creating a stronger base for meaningful letter writing.

Counselors with smaller caseloads would do well to approach AI with caution. Schools with low student-counselor ratios are dedicating institutional resources to make sure counselors develop deep, meaningful relationships with students, something a higher caseload can limit. The introduction of AI into the letter-writing process could give students, parents, and administrators the impression that counselors aren’t devoting enough attention to building these relationships, an impression that can affect many facets of the counseling program.

Using AI as a first draft tool in this case may be tempting, but counselors with small caseloads would do well to explain in advance why they’re using such a tool, in the interest of avoiding misunderstanding in the community.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

A 20 Minute Counselor Letter of Recommendation? Yup

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselor chat rooms are filled with lamentations about writing college letters for students. I get it—you think this is time consuming, with 100 seniors on your case load. But you just spent three hours a day on schedule changes; why not write up to three letters a day in those three hours?


What’s that—you can’t do a letter in 20 or 30 minutes? Try this:


Plan ahead Most counselors do senior reviews, to make sure seniors will graduate on time, and ask about future plans. Instead, take 30 minutes each morning to review the files of the seniors you’re going to see that day, checking on their graduation status, and reviewing your note from their junior interview on future plans. If you made them complete a junior interview sheet, review that as well. If that sheet didn’t include a “describe a moment that changed your life” question—or if you didn’t have an interview sheet at all-- go back and add it.


Your senior interviews now go something like this. “I checked your schedule, and you’re on track to graduate, and last time we talked, you were thinking about State U for life after high school. Is that still the plan?”


Once that’s tackled, go deeper. “What’s happened in your life you’d like me to tell the colleges about? What has being a student here meant to you? What are two memorable moments from your time here, either in or out of the classroom? What would you like your college experience to be like?”


Time to write Three senior interviews of 30 minutes each leaves you ninety minutes to write three letters.


Intro Start with one of their memorable moments. “Jimmy Jameson didn’t consider himself much of an actor, but then he tried out for the school play on a dare from his friends.” Finish that story in another sentence or two.


Paragraph two You now enter your observations of Jimmy, even if they’re just based on the junior and senior interviews, and other notes or observations, including those of teachers that may have come your way. “That’s the kind of good-natured student Jimmy is. With a strong groups of friends, Jimmy has taken some of our most demanding classes (discussing academic caseload is a must) and done well with them. He also made school history as the first qualifier for the state math competition’s top 100 (what makes him notable—another must), doing all this with a can-do attitude that is open to the thoughts of others and eager to take on new challenges.”


Paragraph three Use the answers to the questions from senior interview to conclude. “Jimmy takes these strong qualities with him to his next school, where he hopes to study Biology as part of a pre-med experience. He looks forward to being part of a spirited college campus, and is eager to share his own skills on the field through club sports. Given his openness to new experiences, I can’t think of a better student to belong to a campus with ample opportunities to try new things.”


That’s it. If the student had unusual experiences that kept them from realizing their full potential, mention that, and ask the college to call you.


With a little practice, this letter takes twenty minutes; tells a story (skip the list of extra curriculars—that’s somewhere else in the application), giving life to the student, and fits on one page, which is a must. Three of these a day gives you 100 letters in seven weeks, just by swapping schedule change time for writing time. More counseling magic.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Schedule Changes? Puh-lease!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

School has just started in many districts, and the counselor chat rooms are already rich with concerns about the subject we love to hate in the fall—schedule changes. No sooner do we get through with orientation sessions where we tell the students how much we care about them, and we’re saying no to a schedule change that “will ruin their lives.”


It's a little late to change the rules in the middle of the game, but there will always be more schedule changes with the next trimester or semester. Giving some thoughts now about how to change the schedule change process can be invaluable with the next round of changes.


Schedule changes are really not your job Unless you are required to do so by contract, there is nothing—and I mean, nothing—about being a school counselor that suggests you should be changing schedules. Administrators who try and sell schedule changes as an outgrowth of academic advising are confusing a counseling duty (academic goal setting) with a logistical need (someone to move classes around. Think about it: Once you get past “Why do you want to make this change?”, what skill set is unique to counselors that teachers, administrators, or parapros don’t possess—or could, with practice?

It's important to remember this so you’ll stop beating yourself up about “not doing my job.” Once you realize this has nothing to do with counseling, you can leave any impressions your students have of you as Schedule Changer behind when it’s time to be a Counselor—and keeping that in mind can make the paper shuffling infinitely more manageable.


Review your process I worked at a high school where schedule changes were done without any student-counselor interaction. The student filled out a form, indicating what they wanted to change, and why. It was submitted by a particular deadline, and counselors processed the changes in the order they were received. The counselor’s response to the request was written at the bottom of the form, and returned to the student through their first hour class. Unhappy students who wanted to press the issue could always set up an appointment after that, but the vast majority of schedule changes were executed by the counselor, at the counselor’s pace, without the pressure of having armies of students waiting in line. Changes were made more efficiently and effectively, giving counselors more time to do, well, their real job.


Administrators will overrule you. So? Counselors often feel undercut when they deny a schedule change, using the established guidelines, only to have an administrator approve the change when the student—or, more likely, the parent—appeals the decision. 


It’s easy to see why this may be bothersome, since this could appear to undercut your authority—except this isn’t your job in the first place. Administrators set the schedule changing rules, and if they decide there’s an appeals process, let them own it. You don’t need to.


Give families a heads up Review your scheduling paperwork, and look for where—and how—you tell families the ground rules for schedule changes. The information needs to be clear, brief, and distributed frequently. That way, if someone fumes about a No, you have a strong process to fall back on.


Get schedule changes out of your office Principals don’t know what a time killer schedule changes are. Point out what else you could do with all that time, especially in the name of student mental health. That may get them off the dime, especially if you have a suggestion about a different process (like hiring temporary parapros).

Wednesday, August 30, 2023


by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

In the middle of a busy fall, there’s always a student who wants the big picture about college. Here’s a comprehensive intro that won’t throw your schedule apart.

What is college? Most people think of college as a four-year experience, but that’s not the case at all. Take a look at these college options; some may surprise you.

How do I choose my college path? Many students start their college path by focusing on what they want to do for a living, and your counselor can help you with career exploration. Take a look at this information. Other students will choose their path by completing a college search that includes factors like college major, location, size, and cost. Some of these searches are limited to 2- and 4-year colleges, to keep that in mind. One of those searches is here.

Be ready for college The single best preparation for a successful time in college is to make the most out of your learning experiences in and out of the classroom. Use every assignment to sharpen your study skills, and use your time after school to learn more about yourself and the world around you. Take a peek.

Visit college campuses This is going to be your new home, so you need to make sure it feels right—and no two colleges are the same. Use this as your guide for making a successful visit.

Prepare for and take either the SAT or ACT Not all colleges require you to take a test as part of the admissions process, but many four-year colleges do (and some do for scholarships). It’s wise to know what you’ll be tested on, so take a look at this advice.

Apply to college This is usually easier than you think, since most colleges don’t ask for essays or teacher letters of recommendation. That’s right—most students only need 20 minutes to apply to college. No matter what the application asks for, try this site for help:

Apply for financial aid You’ll most likely need your parents’ help to do this, and you sometimes have to complete more than one form, but it’s worth it.

Apply for scholarships Private scholarships can help pay for college, but keep in mind that lots of students are applying for them. Try this.

Choose your college Once you know where you’ve been accepted, and how much aid each college will offer, it’s time to choose the college that offers the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support. Take a look here.

Stay in touch with your college Once you tell the college you’re coming, they will be in touch over the summer with lots of information. Keep checking email and snail mail, or you may lose your spot in college. Take a peek.

Ask for help once you get to college College is a different place, with different rules and different resources all designed to help you. The key is to keep asking for help until you get it! 

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Improving College Access

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

With all respect to everyone’s best intentions, I’ve never known any of those end-of-the-year assessment methods to do any good. By the time you create the evaluation form and wordsmith the statements to everyone’s liking, the life just leaks out of it. You may have data which is impressive, but ask anyone what they would do to make things better, and they’ll refer you to page 32 of the computer-generated report—and that’s not really an answer.

Then there’s the real assessment that occurs. Somewhere around 1:30 on a sunny June day, teachers head to their cars with their Solo cup of buzz-free punch from the staff luncheon, start the car, and heave a sigh of gratitude, relief, and anticipation. Between that sigh and the time they hit the parking lot exit, they will categorize each of the following:

What went well

What could have been better

What they’d like to do more of next year

This is especially true when it comes to college counseling. Throughout the year, counselors take to social media to express concern, vent, or simply whine about the inequities of the college advising process in the US. Newbies share the watershed moment when they discover the current system is unfair. Mid-career counselors air their dismay of the Ivy League rejection of the best kid in their class. Veterans take the opportunity to raise their concerns about issues they’ve long disliked, often sharing a tentative outline of how this issue could, at least in their eyes, be resolved.

I’d invite you to all take up that last approach to our work in earnest this summer, using your parking lot assessment to guide you. Take a look at the statement below, then put together a 600-word (more or less) answer you think could increase college access and equity. Your answer needs to address the question in particular; it should include some data or otherwise indicate this problem lives somewhere else besides just your school or your head, and it needs to address the current social and political climate to explain why this new approach stands a chance at being accepted, and will make a difference.

I’ll be the sole judge of each submission, and each submission could become part of future columns (I’ll give credit for ideas where appropriate). The idea I think makes the most sense will be judged the winner, which means the idea becomes a column for sure—and the winning author gets $250.

We always say there has to be a better way to help kids make college a reality. I’m hoping a little cash will encourage you to give a little air to that wish this summer. For more information on how to submit, go to the College is Yours website.

Here’s the question. Now, pass those sweet cherries, and get writing. It’s summer in Michigan once again.

Jamie is a 14-year-old student living in a large city. Jamie’s 15-year-old cousin Blaine lives in a rural area, some 100 miles from the nearest college campus. Both come from single parent households, with Jamie’s mom holding down three jobs just to pay the rent, and Blaine’s dad making just enough from his crops each year to stave off bankruptcy. Both attend a public high school where the one school counselor meets the social/emotional, academic, and career and college plans of 1800 students, and both come from homes where they would be the first in their families to go to college.

What would the college admissions process look like if we assume every student had the backgrounds and resources of Jamie and Blaine?

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Community Colleges and a One-Course Certificate? Perfetta!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Community colleges seem to be under siege once again. Community college faculty are reporting renewed efforts by college administrators to increase the number of students who leave with some kind of credential, preferably either a degree or a certificate.

It's somewhat understandable for this kind of movement to occur at four-year institutions, which have a tradition of preparing students for either a professional career or graduate school. But policy officials looking to increase credential completion at the community college level are clearly unfamiliar with the history and mission of community colleges, which are to provide individuals—members of the community—with learning opportunities tailored to meet their individual needs, not to meet the reporting requirements of the institution, or to tick a box on the goal sheet of the current administration in Washington.

Less than twenty percent of students at some community colleges may end up with a certificate or degree, but if those students needing 12 credits for a promotion get the job they went to college to get, or a new Harley owner now has a way to work thanks to taking a community college motorcycle training class, the community college has traditionally counted those as successful students. More and more thought leaders are thinking twice about that.

Educators purposely work at community colleges because they’ll have the chance to look at things a little differently, and work with a population that either wants something different from education, or wants it a different way than four-year colleges offer. Since this seems to be causing a division between those who shape community college policy, and those who work at them, I would propose all community colleges begin offering the following certificate program immediately.

Certificate title: Cultural Innovation

Requirement: Successful completion of one four-credit course, The History of Pizza

Course Description: Utilizing a case study approach, students will explore the many facets of pizza and its relationship to society. Suggested toppings—sorry, make that topics—include The Origins of Pizza, The Role of Pizza in its Home Country, The Arrival of Pizza in Post-World-War II America, Pizza Varieties and American Regionalism, The Economics of Pizza in Professional Sports and Beyond, Current Trends in Pizza, and Pizza and Pineapple—Magnificent or Mayhem. Students will participate in a pizza taste-test towards the end of the class, writing a final paper analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each pizza, and produce three well-researched, data-rich, culturally-anchored predictions of the future of pizza.

Cost: Free to all students.

Grading: This is a pass/fail course.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone to like in this proposal. Students heading to community college after some time away from formal learning will be reintroduced to the rigors of academia through studying a subject that is of great familiarity and, for most, personal interest. Key academic concepts, including all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and reference-based research, can be taught in ways students will long remember. Administrators get more credential completers, and teachers get to, well, teach the way they were meant to teach at the community college level.

Appropriate preparation of a future workforce, along with advancement of a love of learning, could never be more important than it is now. At the same time, shoehorning students into degrees that will not serve them well, or creating certificate programs that have no real worth to society, devalues the worth of all credentials, ultimately hurting the society community colleges are designed to help.

Thinking outside the box is the raison d’ĂȘtre of community colleges. Policy makers would do well to remember that, and encourage community colleges to live up to that goal.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Free Summer Programs for High Schoolers That are Great

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students are wandering into your office, asking about summer programs that could fill what someone (like Mom or Dad) sees as way too empty of a summer schedule. My heart always went out to these kids, since they didn’t know most summer programs have February deadlines. On the other hand, most of those early registration programs cost way too much, and do way less for a student’s college application than most people believe. Searching now creates an opportunity for summer learning that can be a little more personalized, a lot less expensive, and significantly more life changing.

If you’re strapped for making recommendations, try these free options that require no application essays.

A free online course on mental health from Yale. College professors noticed a significant uptick in student disengagement—basically, they saw students who showed up to class, took notes, asked no questions, and went home. COVID only made matters worse, since many colleges abandoned in-person meetings for a while.

Enter a psychology instructor from Yale, who saw the current mental health epidemic in the making. She responded by producing a course called The Science of Well-Being, a course which quickly became the most popular class offered at Yale. Ever.

The course has been reconfigured for high school students, and is called The Science of Well-Being for Teens. It’s being offered online this summer for free, and is a perfect resource for students who need a chance to look at the big picture in their lives. Any teen can take the course, and the materials are designed for students from all walks of life—you don’t have to be an Ivy League candidate to take the course and get your life back.

Free use of Planet Fitness The franchise that’s made a living promoting fitness for all is at it again, giving all teens ages 14-19 a free summer pass to use the facilities at the local Planet Fitness of their choice. Teens need to register online, and the free pass is only good for one Planet Fitness location—but being able to do something cool like going to the gym that’s air conditioned-cool is a real plus. Registered students also have a shot at earning money for their school, and making a video to be considered for a scholarship. Parent permission is needed for students under 18.

Free course in financial literacy Interest has never been higher in making sure students know how to handle money— so much so that about half the states have a high school graduation requirement for a financial literacy course. Ironically, that means nearly all online financial literacy courses for high school students comes with—you guessed it—a fee.

This article provides a wide array of free financial planning courses, many that address topics for adults. This page from Bank of America isn’t so much a class as a potpourri of videos and articles on financial basics, including paying for college—and again, all free. These offer a great way for students to customize their financial education.

Others For students who want to do something more with their summers in addition to improving their mental health, getting physically fit, and making sure they don’t go broke, Teen Life has a comprehensive list of summer programs, including about three dozen free online courses for high school students in a wide array of topics. Add in any local or state free courses you know of, and your last-minute students are clearly in the driver’s seat for a laid-back summer of personal growth, all at no charge.