Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Six Words About College That Disappoint Parents Most

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

College Advice for Next Year’s Seniors

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

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

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Gordon Ramsay, Master Chef—and Master Counselor?

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Legacy of Lloyd Thacker

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

All of Them Are Mine

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Unlocking the Mysteries of May 1

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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