Thursday, November 11, 2021

Tidying Up for the Holidays

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t know about everyone else, but the award for “Where Did the Time Go?” for 2021 goes to the last eight weeks. It seems like yesterday we were talking about everything new for this application season, and now we’re looking at the other side of November 1.

This is typically the time for odds and ends, and this year is no exception. While we urge students to keep the momentum going, here are some additional considerations that sometimes get lost at this time of year, that, if not tended to, can have the same effect as not applying at all:

Additional forms for November 1 applications. Counselors are reporting an uptick in the number of colleges that are asking students for additional information after the initial application was submitted November 1. In particular, there seems to be a number of colleges asking students to submit self-reported grades; it’s almost as if they are saying “Thanks for the application, but are you serious?”

Providing grades gives the colleges one less piece of paper to wait for, but completing this task with several colleges in the brief interval between November 1 and Thanksgiving is no easy feat. Nonetheless, the problem is what it is. Remind students to check their emails frequently, not only for verification the colleges have what the student has already received, but to see what else the colleges want the student to submit—and when they want it submitted. 

FAFSA Verification. This isn’t a new thing, but its relevance seems to be increasing. Students submit the FAFSA, and many receive a request from the colleges asking that the student confirm parts of the information submitted on the form with additional verification—bank statements, statements of non-support, and more.

As is often the case with financial issues, the biggest burden of proof typically lies with the students who need the most help—who, typically, have had the least amount of experience in financial issues. On top of this, some of the information is hard to get. How exactly do you prove you haven’t heard from a non-custodial parent in five years, when you don’t even know where they are?

Compared to all other parts of the application, verification can truly be the most tedious, and require the most hand holding. Reach out to all FAFSA filers (and their parents) early and often, and ask what you can do to help.

Phantom Students and Hard Lists. This isn’t exactly the time when you have time to close the door and look at the big picture of college applications, but that’s precisely what needs to be done right now. Pull out the roster of your entire senior caseload, and look for two things. 

First, what students have you just not heard from in a long time? Make a list, start with an email, and be ready to follow through. 

Second, look at the lists for all your students, and highlight the ones whose academic plans may not match up all that well with reality. It’s always good to dream, but the window is closing on Plan B schools, and every student needs at least a couple. This news is best shared in person, but if email is all you have time for, put together a thoughtful request, and give them a few schools to consider. 

These steps are time consuming, but they will save a lot of anxiety in the very short weeks between Thanksgiving and December break—a time that flies even faster than the last eight weeks did.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Weekend Deadlines? Yeah—About That…

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This blog recently addressed a long-standing counselor beef—the student submits an application on Thursday, then gets an email on Friday saying the high school hasn’t sent the transcript. A highly respected enrollment manager suggested that maybe it was time to stop venting and contact the colleges directly—and respectfully—to relate the effect this was having on students. I put together a model letter, hoping that nine more of you would (ideally) find the time to craft and send something similar, or (more likely) copy my letter and send it to the colleges, too. Either way, it’s better than wishing.

Now that your first endeavor in diplomatic college reform is over, I’m hoping you’ll give it one more try, with an issue that hurts students just as much. I’ll cut right to the chase with the sample letter:

Dear Mary (again, use their name. Anything addressed to “Dear Director” gets tossed):

I’m writing to ask you to make a small change to your current application deadlines. While some of these dates have been used for years—November 1, January 1, and May 1—they often cause some unintended damage to the ability of students to respond on the basis of thoughtful advice, something that benefits no one.

The challenge with most of these dates is when they occur on a weekend. Last year, November 1, November 15, and May 1 all occurred on Sunday, where students were expected to submit documents or make decisions without access to college advice the day of the deadline—or, in this case, the day before as well. The mild bedlam that occurs in a high school on an application deadline day is hard to describe, but it can lead to some anxious students in our offices, and some very anxious parents on our phone lines.

I am a big advocate of students using the college application process to assume new levels of responsibility, and support the notion that there’s only so much help one can offer. At the same time, this is the first time many of them have had to take a complex task and complete the individual portions in a timely fashion. If we were talking turning in one paper, that would be one thing. There’s a little more than that to a college application.

This challenge could be met—and students’ minds would be set at ease—if all deadlines were set to a particular day—the first Tuesday in November (replacing November 1), the third Tuesday in November (replacing November 15), the second Tuesday in January (replacing January 1), the first Tuesday in May (replacing May 1). This is especially true for students who attend high schools where counselor caseloads are large, often involving students who need more college help. 

Deadlines that give students the chance they deserve to get the help they need will only increase the quality and quantity of applications. Just ask Georgia Tech, who made this move a few years back and saw increased numbers as a result.

Regarding January 1, high schools are typically closed for an entire week before this deadline, and many are closed days after. This really puts students at a huge disadvantage, and college admissions offices aren’t even open that day. A “second Tuesday” deadline gives students access to the support they need to submit a quality application with as little stress as possible.

I’d be happy to discuss this with you in greater detail, but I hope you can see how these changes could be a huge help, especially to the students who most need it. You can reach me at…


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Letters and Venting

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselors seem to do a lot of venting this time of year. It’s easy to understand; there’s only so much energy to devote to the noble task of finding new ways to say “Wonderful” without having at least a little of it spill over to, as much as we love our students, wishing we were past this. That’s when those little things that typically sit quietly in the corner of our view take on a life of their own, leading to social media posts that say “Why do the colleges do this?”, “Why don’t the colleges do that?”, and the many variations of “Why do students come with parents?”

Some of these heat-of-the-moment murmurings have true merit. That came to mind last week with three announcements that garnered lots of attention. Smith College announced it was joining the rare air of colleges that include no loans in their financial aid packages. Smith joined Earlham College in the headlines, as Earlham announced it would now be tuition free to all low-income Indiana students. Finally, Amherst College joined the newsmaker when it announced it would no longer consider legacy as part of an application.

The Amherst news made the biggest splash, in part because legacy admissions is seen as the current roadblock to access and equity at many colleges (a gentle reminder that every part of the college application process is biased by wealth and privilege). When a storied place like Amherst makes this change, it suggests maybe all the muckety-muck schools may be poised to do the same.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep perspective. Smith, Amherst, and Earlham are all great schools, but they are also private, small, and mighty expensive. The number of colleges that, by themselves, enroll more students than these three combined is staggering, it’s easy to see why most counselors—and certainly most students—would look at these announcements with a pronouncement of “Yeah? So?”

And there’s the problem with trying to change college admission—yes, the system is skewed, and far too many bright students are denied access to colleges that would do them a world of good. But how exactly do you fix that? By calling on individual institutions to be their own change agents, or by affecting public policy to move the entire profession in a different profession?

There are clearly limits to both. Colleges have the admissions policies they have because they work for that particular college. It takes a lot of humility and vision to say “Hmm, maybe this doesn’t need to be in the mix after all.” It also takes a lot of courage, since every change runs the risk of, well, change, including at the bottom line—and once the ledger is involved, it brings the attention of more than just school counselors or admissions folks.

On the other hand, the notion that one public policy change will fix all problems is simply wishful thinking. The moment the free college folks start talking about free food banks and child care for all, we’re not really talking about just free college, and are talking about lots of equity issues. That complicates things, and may make good the victim of perfect.

The visions we get during letter writing season of a more just and equitable process run the gambit from small to huge, and are vital to the progress of the profession. Grand or petite, they have their value—but they do take commitment, and they require action beyond a social media post or two. That’s the nature of change; it’s a great idea, but it’s also a project.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Transcript Frustration? Tell the Colleges

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s that time of year again. Students submit applications on Tuesday, and get an email from the college on Wednesday, saying “We don’t have your transcript.” Trouble is, the student—and more likely, the parent—reads it as “WE DON’T HAVE THE TRANSCRIPT!!! GOOD LUCK IN YOUR FUTURE ENDEAVORS.”

And do they call the college? Uh, no.

Counselors flock to social media and beg colleges to stop this process, all to no avail. Why? Because colleges are convinced the counselors are just blowing off steam.

One very thoughtful enrollment manager has suggested it would only take about ten school counselors to contact the colleges who engage in these counterproductive behaviors and ask them to stop. Of course, this entails counselors finding the time to write the letter (you can use the same one with different colleges—like the kids!), and the restraint to craft a tone that isn’t along the lines of “You do realize you’re ruining my life?”

You’re busy folks, so I’ll tell you what. Here’s an example of a letter addressing this issue. It would be better if you didn’t send this one to the colleges—unique submissions are always best—but if you’re hard pressed, I think they’ll understand. I’m going to send mine along, but you’ll need to tell me what colleges should get this—you know, the ones that practice this odious policy. Email me here, and I’ll get it away right away. But make sure you do your part and send your letter—you are in the field, and that makes it real.

Dear Bill (Hint: you lose them if you don’t address them by name):

I’m writing to ask you to modify part of your application process that I believe is causing a great deal of excess stress among students. This is the practice where, within 1-3 days of receiving the student’s application, you send them—and only them—an email saying their application is incomplete, and you need their transcript, letters, etc.—things sent by the student’s school.

I don’t know what it’s like in other schools, but at my school, nearly all the students request their materials to be sent only after they send in the application. Under the current process, this usually means they ask me to send their materials within a day or two of when they apply. Meanwhile, they get the email from you that tells them things are missing before the school has the chance to send the materials, and both the student and their parents panic.

We all know the application process has its own challenges, but I can’t overstate how much anxiety this causes students. Just when they think they’ve done everything they’ve needed to do, they get a message suggesting they haven’t, even though most of the time, they have. I know it’s important to get a complete file to you right away, but given the caseloads and other duties most counselors have, I really think the transcript system we have in place gets things out as quickly as possible—in most cases, within a week (NOTE: say this only as long as it’s true).

If you could set up your application review system to send the counselor an immediate reminder of what’s due, then only send one to the student if you’ve received nothing after ten days, that meets everyone’s needs in a clear, sane way.

I’d be happy to talk about you more about this. Here’s my contact information.

Please understand, I am writing in the best interest of my students, our mutual focus of attention.

Thank you for all you do,

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The College Essay

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

When completing a college application, students freak out the most at the college essay, or personal statement—and it’s easy to see why. Every other part of the application is basically a done deal. Your grades aren’t likely to change all that much; you aren’t going to join 10 activities now, and if you do, you just gave the colleges one more reason to say No; and your teachers think of you what they think of you, so don’t bother with the Lamborghini.

That leaves the essay, where you get to show them who you are, behind the lists, facts, and figures. I’ve already offered some strong essay advice on this in a blog that’s worth looking at again. Read that, and think about these additional comments as you get ready to write the Mother of All Stories:

It’s Not an Essay. Essays are for book reports, History papers, and What I Did Over Summer Vacation. This isn’t that—it’s your part of a conversation. Colleges really want you to visit them in person and spend a couple of hours with you, hearing your life’s story. They can’t do that; instead, they want you to write down part of that conversation and send it to them. As you write, stop and read what you’re writing out loud. Does it sound conversational? That’s the goal.

It’s Not a Speech. Students see this as a big deal, so they think it’s worthy of big-deal treatment—like they’re giving a speech, or accepting an award. This is a different kind of big deal—it’s the chance to tell some caring, interested adults about who you are and what matters to you. That’s not the kind of stuff that goes into speeches, but it really belongs here. So don’t worry if you don’t quote Aristotle, or think George Washington is the figure who inspired you most—once you get to the “why” part, you’ll see you’re out of gas with those ideas anyway. You’re not trying to inspire them; you’re trying to bring them closer to you as you say “Hey, let me tell you about this. I think you’re gonna like this.”

No Lists, Franz. This also isn’t the time to recycle your list of awards, the classes you took, or any kind of brag sheet. Those things are somewhere else, and while they’re important, they’re about breadth. Here, you want depth—a rich look at one, maybe two ideas you walk around with. Think of the friends, relatives, or celebrities you’d spend hours listening to. They’re not yelling; they’re drawing you closer to them with words and ideas that light your imagination and connect with you. Lists don’t do that, so out they stay.

Name Dropping? No. It is really more than OK if you had this truly amazing conversation or evening with Lin-Manuel Miranda that got you thinking about life differently, and write about it. Unless, of course, it was more like he was leaving the theater, he looked at you while he kept walking, and you snapped a picture. Otherwise, don’t think mentioning him gets you closer to any school (even Wesleyan), or including quotes from leading thinkers will wow anyone. If a small quote brings home the point of your story—and you’re writing a true story—use it. Otherwise, save the dog and pony show for another occasion.

A great college admissions officer once said the true test of a great “essay” is if they look up when they’re done reading it, and they are surprised, because you aren’t in the room. Stories transcend the time-space continuum. Write a college story.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Think Paying for College, Not FAFSA

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s October, and that means it’s time to file the FAFSA. The financial aid form that has to be filled out every year (keep that in mind), FAFSA tells students how much college money the federal government will provide, and what kind of aid it will be.

FAFSA is a little long, so it’s easy to understand why students heave a sigh of relief when they’re done and say “Thank goodness that’s over.” But conquering the FAFSA should be seen as the first step on a greater goal—developing a strategy to pay for college. It would be great if the federal government met everyone’s full need, but that’s not usually the case. So, we have to think bigger.

There’s no one approach to this, but give this a try:

Find out how much a college is going to cost you. Every college has a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on its website. Students put in basic financial information and get some idea what it’s going to cost them to go there. NPCs aren’t always completely accurate—some don’t include merit scholarships—but it’s still a good place to start.

Fill out (sigh) another form. Many colleges want more information about your finances, and the finances of your parents. They’ll often ask for a form called the CSS Profile, or their own institutional form. More forms may not sound like fun, and the CSS Profile has a fee (it can be waived), but the more they know about your situation, the more they can help you.

What about work study? Once the college has what they need, they’ll send you a financial aid offer with three parts: Grants, or money you don’t have to pay back; work study, or college money you earn while working at college; and loans. This is just an offer, and you can turn down parts of it—so you can take the grants, and say no to the loan. If you do this, don’t count on the college offering you more grants. Typically, you’ll have to fund whatever part of the offer you said no to.

Some students don’t like the idea of working while they’re in school, so one way to say no to work study is to earn more money over the summer. It’s important to keep your grades first as much as possible.

What about loans? Loans are typically seen as evil things, and it’s easy to see why. The average student who takes loans has $32,000 to pay back when they graduate—that’s a pretty nice car, or payment on a house.

But loans aren’t always bad.

Tight budgeting can make this possible for many students, while others have jobs that would allow them to pay the loan off quickly—like the petroleum engineer making $85,000 a year out of college. Talk to a money manager about this, or the financial aid office.

Private scholarships. and other websites show you other scholarships you can apply for, if you’re willing to write more essays and do the search. These are national scholarships, so they have a big audience, but someone has to earn them. Many local groups offer smaller scholarships as well, money that can add up if you received 3 or 4 of them. Ask your counselor.

Long term financial aid. Many colleges offer more scholarship opportunities for students the longer they’re in college, since the college really wants you to finish. These often take the form of teacher assistant grants, or free housing and tuition for dorm advisers. Ask the financial aid office about money opportunities for returning students.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Media is Not a College Applicant’s Best Friend

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s a pattern to the way the media, as a whole, covers college admissions. A typical year of coverage for most—that’s most—media outlets goes something like this:

Mid-September—The US News rankings come out, and everyone clamors over the top-ranked college. It’s typically the same top-ranked college from last year; if isn’t, one of the top five from last year climbed the pile, which is seen as a real shocker. Like we’d never heard of that college until now, and this suddenly makes it a better school.

Late September/Early October—Coverage turns to the upheaval of applying to college, with every article featuring seniors discussing the anxiety of applying to Brown, Yale, Smith, or one of the only 25 colleges mainstream media acknowledges as existing.

Late March—Admissions decisions are out, and in a paean to the principles of mathematics, every media article cites increased application numbers at The Big 25, and—wait for it—decreased admission rates at all of them as well. Not a single one of these articles points out that the former is the cause of the latter—but that involves math, so there we are.

What’s wrong with this picture?

College Lists The media spotlight on the Top 25 launches many parents into action, for all the wrong reasons. If these are the best colleges, why isn’t my child applying to them? This upends a wealth of work done by the student and (one hopes) their school counselor; it also upends the self-esteem of more than one student who knows these schools are bad fits. But arguing with Mom and Dad’s “let’s see what happens” is a tough hill to climb, so off they go to apply, much like Faramir’s efforts to recapture Osgiliath in Return of the King.

Unnecessary Panic More than a few seniors are indeed intimidated by the college application process in mid-September. That’s normal, since they’re just getting started. If I handed a student a plumber’s wrench on September 15 and said “show me how it works”, that too would be stressful. Now, if I came back in a week and asked, “How’s it going?”, they would have mastered the thing with ease, because they had time to understand what they were doing. Huh.

Those “Other” Schools The media myopia pays a big price on the other 2000 colleges that serve all kinds of students in personalized and appropriate ways, but now appear to be second rate. This keeps students from looking at some schools just right for them, because—well, you know…

To be fair, not all media outlets treat college admissions like a celebrity sighting, although Varsity Blues hasn’t helped. Eric Hoover writes moving human stories about the real challenges some students face in this process, stories so good they have led to admissions policy changes. Inside HigherEd isn’t a household name, but their coverage of the entire range of colleges is nothing short of inspiring.

Still, the best-selling papers run up the same limited coverage of college admissions every year, and their effect is palpably bad on the college plans and psyches of far too many students. A modest step in the right direction would be running an October story that returns to the freaked out students of September, revealing they’ve largely got the hang of things right now. Even better, interviews with students applying to a great school like Northern Michigan, where the application takes a whopping 25 minutes to complete and the admit rate is 65%—a reminder that the current media lens on college admissions is clear, but too tightly focused.