Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Juniors, Applying to College? Be Ready

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

One of the oddest years in college admissions is just about over, with most students finding a great place for next fall, most colleges knowing what institutional flexibility is really all about, and most school counselors both exhausted, and wondering—“can it get any worse?”

The answer is Probably Not, But. Vaccination rates in most states are on track to find college campuses open for mostly business as usual in the fall. That’s good news for this year’s juniors, who will likely be in a better place to visit college campuses in person, meet with college reps who will actually come to their high school, and write an essay about COVID in past tense.

The worst may be over, but it doesn’t mean college applications are back to pre-COVID status. Here’s what juniors should be ready for as they get ready to build their futures:

Changing Test Policies Most colleges that were test-optional with admissions this year are staying test optional next year, which puts students in the driver’s seat when it comes to SAT and ACT tests. But some schools have already changed their policy for next year, some making tests even more optional, some going back to where things were. Make sure you know what the policy will be for next year at your colleges. Admissions websites should have the latest news. If they don’t, call the admissions office.

Admissions Policies Last year, many colleges weren’t sure just how they would read no-test college applications, so they couldn’t tell students how the process would go. A year’s worth of application reading should have solved that, so if you want to know how a college is going to read your application, and what matters most, ask them—and if they hem and haw too much, ask them again in a month.

Percentage of Non-Test Admits Many colleges were test optional this year, but more than a few of them admitted far more students who submitted test scores than students who didn’t. It’s great if a school is test optional, unless they only admitted 4 test optional students. It’s unlikely they will share their percentages with you unless you ask—so, ask.

Percentage of Early Admits Several colleges decided to admit a lot—and I mean, a lot—of students through Early Action and Early Decision programs, hoping that a large number of early admits would make a rocky year smoother. It’s likely the trend will continue next year, so students would be wise to consider applying Early Action if they can, since that only means you hear back sooner from the college. Early Decision is still a firm commitment to attend—more like getting married than dating—so proceed with caution with any ED application. And remember, it’s still easier to get admitted to Rolling Decision schools if you apply in September than in January—so don’t let the deadline fool you.

Apply for Aid Early This year’s seniors are still sewing up their financial arrangements, a trend that only has a little to do with COVID. This may continue next year, but it’s still, and always, wise to file for aid early—as in, October.

Write Essays About COVID and… Many colleges requiring essays this year asked students to write one about the effect of COVID on their lives, and one about another topic. Even if colleges don’t specify what to write on next year, consider a COVID/non-COVID essay approach if you have to write more than one essay. Yes, it was an historic year, and reflection is good—but so is anticipation. Write about both—and if they don’t require a COVID essay, don’t feel required to write one.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

How to Truly Be College Ready

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Graduate, here are some recommendations on how to spend part of your summer. College is about trying new things, and even if some of them may seem to have been around a while, they’re still new to you, and have something to show you. Give these a spin, and you’ll be more flexible than Gumby after a yoga class:

Movie You Must See Before You Go to College The Shawshank Redemption was overlooked when it was released the same year as Forrest Gump. Now it’s on demand. A story about forgiveness, second chances, and negotiating with the world, this isn’t an easy film to watch, but it talks about hope, determination, and always doing what’s right. It will give you the skills to manage Intro to Econ, eccentric roommates, and more.

Movie Clip You Must See Before you Go to College Call it cheesy, but the first scene in The Sound of Music is worth the two minutes and 22 seconds it will occupy in your life. All you see are the mountains of Austria, and all you hear is the magnificent voice of a young Julie Andrews. Success in college demands the ability to stop and appreciate that which is simple and beautiful. Watching this clip will also help you understand why your father (or grandfather’s) adolescence was complicated by having an intense crush on a nun.

Song You Must Listen to Before You Go To College The second movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp is the finest piece Mozart wrote, and its full potential was realized by Jean-Pierre Rampal and Lilly Laskine. Rampal started out as a pre-med major, but his heart had other designs, and he went on to become the premiere flutist of all time. This is a perfect piece to begin your discovery of “classical” music. Just remember, anyone who tells you all of Mozart’s music is the same has no idea what they’re talking about, and no idea how to listen. Keep that in mind.

Song Clip You Must Watch Before You Go to College It took less than two minutes for Ella Fitzgerald and the Manhattan Transfer to find their place in Grammy history with this rendition of How High the Moon. Your goal in college is to work this hard to make everything look this easy—and if you leave college without an appreciation for good jazz, your tuition was wasted.

Phrases You Must Add to Your Vocabulary “Absolutely.” Colleges are run by administrative assistants—veteran, organized professionals who have a way of doing things that works, and is older than Stonehenge. This method almost always works to your advantage, except at peak times every student needs help, and their system of order is on the brink of collapse. This is where you come in.

You: “I need to drop a class”.

Administrative Assistant: peering over glasses: “Have you seen your adviser?”

You: “Absolutely.”

You have restored some sense of order to their universe, and they will never, ever forget you. That’s good. Trust me.

Phrase You Must Delete From Your Vocabulary “No problem”. One of these assistants may thank you for doing something. The only way to get off their good side is to respond with anything other than “You’re Welcome.” Practice now.

Book You Must Read Before You Go to College How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Neither fiction nor a scholarly work, it’s like your Irish neighbor telling you the enhanced but true story of the vital role Irish monks played in restoring education in Europe in the time of Saint Patrick. You won’t read anything this easy or biased in college, but it’s the story of how modest people engaged in diligent efforts that change history will stay with you forever.


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Helping Students Overcome College Loss

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Effective counseling is always about using the right words the right way, and that’s never more true when consoling students over college loss. After trying out a lot of different phrases I thought meant basically the same thing, it turns out some work better than others, at least for me.

“College is what you make of it.” A student was denied enough aid by her dream school, and had to go to a school that was a distant second choice. She ate the place up, taking the hardest classes, leading several clubs, hosting a university conference, and taking a study abroad by applying to another university as a guest student. She remembers college as a place where she got and she gave…

…but on May 1st, she was still pretty peeved. These words of encouragement are great for commencement, but a little too vague to be of much help on deposit day. The goal is to help them focus on specific good at a specific school, and this doesn’t quite do that.

Where You Go…” The title of the famous Frank Bruni book serves as a battle cry to remember there are more than 25 good colleges out there. It’s an important point, and it could help the student give themselves permission to take control of their learning, their future, and their feelings again. There’s also a small chance the student might respond to this “help” by saying, “Well, now that I’m stuck going to Smithers U, I sure hope where I go isn’t who I become!” If that’s the case, it’s time to give up this approach, and try something else.

“It doesn’t matter where you go to college.” I once thought this was a great phrase to help students look past the idea that only one college could make them happy. Now, I can’t help but think any student I helped develop a list of colleges that met their level of challenge, comfort, opportunity, and affordability is going to hear this and think “If it doesn’t matter where I go, why did I bother going through all of this?”

If the goal is to help the student get over the feeling they have no choice but to go to this one school, using this phrase could reinforce their angst, not alleviate it. Be careful.

“Remind me why you applied to this college. What did you see there that you liked?” To me, this is the best place to start any conversation over a student mourning over college decisions. If the student is in a position where they are choosing among several schools, this helps them focus on the good that awaits them at this particular option, and how they can build on that good.

If the student sees this as a forced and only choice—financial or otherwise-- a variation of this question that can achieve the same goal is “Remind me what you want out of college. What are you looking for?” This discussion can be followed up with a look at the college’s website and social media outlets to better understand the opportunities that await the student—sometimes including transfer options. Students don’t always make a thorough review of the school they have to attend. This approach can help change their mindset.

Finding the right words for each student is delicate and individualized work, where the goal is to help the student take charge of their outlook and commitment to college. Some phrases are more helpful than others in advancing this goal. Letting the student’s feelings guide your interaction is, as always, the key to success.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Still Can’t Decide? Try This

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

At this point in the college journey, many students are saying “I just wish someone would tell me what to do!!!”

I’m a counselor, so I’m happy to do that. As you make your way to making a college decision, consider these ideas:

  • Think college qualities, not college names. There are reasons you loved the colleges you applied to—the small class sizes, the classes they offered, the feel on campus, whatever. Write those qualities down, and see how each college measures up to them.
  • Review your research on each college—one way or another. In a perfect world, spring of the senior year is the perfect time to visit each campus again. If that’s just not an option, take another online tour (you’d be amazed what you see the second time).
  • Debrief at the end. Once you’re done with your list and your fact finding, talk with your parents about what you saw. What’s there that you like? What new questions do you have, and who can help answer those? Can you see yourself at this college?
  • Seek parental input. It’s great to show some independence, but your parents/guardians know you well. Invite their input. “Do you see me as being happy there?”
  • Compare the colleges you have, not the ones you wanted. Once you’ve reviewed the colleges, compare their strengths and weaknesses—but make sure you’re not thinking about the dream school that denied you. You may not find a perfect campus, but you’ll most likely find a best one. Focus on that as your goal, and you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t forget your heart. You might not be able to describe what makes a college right for you, but that’s OK. You’ve done a lot of research and thinking—at this point, you can trust your heart to lead you. Your head will remember why you felt this college was the right one once you get to campus in the fall.
  • Think about what makes sense now. When you applied to all of these places last fall, you likely said “If College X takes me, that’s where I’m going to go.” There’s no doubt you felt that way then—but was seven months ago, an your interests and way of looking at the world may have changed since then. How you felt then is a factor for sure, but how you feel now is more important—keep that in mind.
  • Check finances one last time. If you have a college and it’s a little out of reach, call the admission office and the financial aid office—that’s two separate calls—and tell them so. A sincere call shows them you’re interested; not calling gives them no impression at all—and may leave you short in the wallet for no reason at all.
  • Start the hunt again. If your choices really don’t thrill you, wait until May 5th or so. That’s when many college find they still have openings, and of course, they want to fill them. Getting financial aid might be challenge, but you never know until you ask. The National Association for College Admission Counseling keeps an online list of colleges that are looking, but don’t hesitate to call any college and ask about space.
  • Wait. Many colleges you’ve applied to or expressed interest in may continue to send you emails and calls, even after you make your choice. In some cases, they will offer you some kind of incentive- financial aid, better housing—to get you to change your mind. These contacts can last for a long time—in some cases, even once you start college. If any of these offers seem tempting, proceed with caution. Your first choice college may not be perfect, but you likely know that college better than the colleges calling after May 1st to get you to go there. If you think a change makes sense, do your homework make sure you know what you’re getting into, then notify your first college you aren’t coming after all. You likely won’t get your deposit back if there was one, but you can ask.

I’d decide for you, but I’m not the one going to college. You are—and that’s a good thing. You can do this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Survivor, Law School Version—the Future for Undergraduate Admissions?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

School counselors deal with all kinds of changes in college admissions. This year alone, we’ve transitioned to online college visits, a surge in test optional admission colleges, and campus tours from the perspective of a camera. Lots of change, but manageable.

Then the news hit from Notre Dame’s law school that froze everyone in their tracks. The story is meticulously told by admissions experts Kyle McEntee and Sydney Montgomery, and is well worth the read, but here’s the summary:

A typical admissions acceptance says “Welcome. You’re in. Send us your deposit by May 1.”

Notre Dame’s law school acceptance said “Welcome. You’re in. Send us your deposit by April 15. Unless we get enough deposits sooner than that. Then, you’re out of luck.”

You didn’t read that incorrectly. The admissions office is telling you there’s a chance that, though you were admitted, there won’t be room for you if lots of admitted students deposit ahead of you.

This information came with its share of caveats—after all, this is law school—but the worst case scenario came true on April 6, when, through a series of e-mails over six hours, Notre Dame said spots were going, going, gone.

McEntee and Montgomery are kind enough to point out this was a banner year for law school applications, and that Notre Dame actually told everyone what they were doing. But their main point is clear. This practice was a huge disservice to those who can’t come up with a college deposit (of $600) on short notice, students who work and can’t access email in the middle of April 6, or scholarship students who are waiting to hear offers from other schools before depositing anywhere—and none of these groups are overrepresented in law school.

Even though this happened in law school, school counselors working with undergraduate admissions applicants were thrown, asking the very fair question, “If that can happen at law school, what keeps it from happening at the undergraduate level?”

In the long run, the answer to that question is, nothing. Many undergraduate programs are hurting for applicants this year, so they wouldn’t dream of creating a deposit scheme that has The Hunger Games written all over it. But some undergrad programs had record high applications this year, most of them schools that are well endowed, many not known for being overly accessible to low-income students and first generation students as it is. This approach to deposit roulette has the potential of making that bad situation worse—yet, there are doubtless college administrators out there looking at this approach to enrollment management, and thinking, “Hmmm…”

This is one more reason to wonder if the Department of Justice really did students any favors when they stuck their nose under the college admissions tent. Just two years ago, DOJ said many admissions practices required of members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) violated either the letter or spirit of antitrust law. These rulings did serious damage to the May 1 deadline most colleges had for depositing to one, and only one, college.

The feeling at the time of the DOJ rulings was a fear that recruiting and student poaching would last well into the summer. But very few observers could have predicted a deposit strategy that had a deadline before May 1, or an approach that makes Lord of the Flies look like ballroom dancing.

It’s hard to see how that’s helping students, if it makes it to the undergrad level, or how it’s helping law students now. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

College Decisions Through the Eyes of a Child

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

She walked out of a bookstore, and right into the heart of a very large pro-Nazi rally. Perhaps not all that big of a deal, you’re thinking, which would make sense if this was 2021. But it was 1935 or so. In Germany. And she was 14.

The moment stayed with her for the rest of her life. With the help of her husband, they escaped to Switzerland, even though her parents were educators—one of many persecuted groups.

They made their way to the US, ending up in Detroit, a city then considered the Paris of the Midwest. They decided to start a school where the relationships were based on mutual respect, not power. This wouldn’t just apply to the relationships among adults. Classrooms weren’t about learning; they were about mutual discovery, and if the end of the day came where the students hadn’t taught the teachers a thing or two, well, that day could have gone better.

Annemarie Roeper went on to be the head, or principal, of Roeper City and Country School’s (now The Roeper School) pre K- 5 program until 1980. Once the school focused its work on gifted students, many visitors were surprised, even disappointed, to visit the school and see so many children—playing. 

To most, the label “gifted child” conjures up images of bespectacled four year-olds reciting state capitols aloud from memory. Annemarie saw giftedness as a state of mind, a way of seeing the world, keen on a sense of fairness, social justice, and empathy. That takes a development of self that needs expression, not suppression. Knowing the periodic table at age seven certainly is a gift, but so is the ability to understand other people and to try and make the world a better place. Which is more valuable is an issue of some conjecture to many; to Annemarie, it was an easy choice.

Another part of Annemarie’s view of children surprised a lot of people. Most early childhood educators see children, more or less, as fragile , undeveloped, needing protection from the world. Annemarie certainly believed children deserved the protections they needed, but she saw them as more complete, insightful, and sturdy than her educator peers. You’ve probably seen the GIFs out there talking about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. To Annemarie, that was the best, and only, way to see the world—deeply, and at face value.

I think about Annemarie this time of year for two reasons. She passed on in May just a few years ago, as my students were making final college decisions. I was working at Roeper, and remember being grateful for the opportunity to talk with high school seniors about choosing a college from a developmental point of view. This wasn’t about prestige, or brand envy, or paying homage to college rankings; it was about what was next in life for each student, and which college would be the best place to nurture that.

I wish every student would see college choice like that. The last of the highly selective colleges are sending out decisions, and far too many students have been nurtured by—well, someone—to see this as a combination beauty contest and Super Bowl. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room, even if a dream school says Yes, since it suggests the only reason college is worth doing is to earn the merit badge, not experience the lessons of college and let them change you.

College isn’t about state capitols, winners or losers. Annemarie Roeper knew that. It would be nice if everyone kept that in mind, especially now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Juniors, College, and Your School Counselor

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Colleges have long said the key to a successful college search is to let the student drive the bus. Driving the college bus means taking care of all the passengers, and that includes someone whose role is pretty important—your school counselor.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

“Hang on. So I meet with my parents every week (more on that later), and I have to stay in touch with someone I’ve only met once when I changed my schedule?”

Exactly right—and that’s the problem. If you look at most college applications, there’s a section that has to be filled out by your school counselor. It doesn’t matter how well the counselor knows you. It doesn’t matter how many other students they work with. It doesn’t matter how many other things your counselor does besides help students get into college. The colleges want to hear from your counselor.

That means one of three things will happen with the space the counselor has to complete.  It stays blank; your counselor scribbles something in it that could apply to anyone; your counselor has so many helpful things to say about you they have to write “continued on attached document”.


Two questions here.  First, if you gave this form to your counselor today, what option would they choose?  Second, which option are you rooting for?


Thought so.

This isn’t hard. For the first two years of high school, see your counselor when you need to—when you need to change a schedule, discuss a personal issue, apply for a summer program—and, if they have time, talk about college. Like it or not, your counselor is way overworked— schedule changes, college and career plans, and personal guidance for 500 students keeps them busy—so the group counseling programs they run, and an occasional “hi” from you will go a long way in meeting both your needs. So go see them if you need them; if not, space is good.

In most cases, the time to ramp things up is now. If your school is like most, this is when you’ll schedule classes for senior year. By the end of January, you’ll want to type up a summary of your community service and extracurricular activities, along with any awards and recognitions you’ve received. Complete this with 1-2 paragraphs explaining why you want to go to college. This way, the notes or letter your counselor writes for the college will be more than just a list of what you’ve done; it will show them more of who you are. That makes a difference.

You’ll also want to have your senior schedule written up and finished. Your counselor may have scheduled this meeting to talk about your classes, but you don’t want to do that. Instead, put all these materials in a folder that has your name on the front. Hand it to your counselor when your meeting starts, then say:

“Mrs. Jones, I know you’re really busy, so I got a copy of my transcript from the office and planned my senior schedule already. I also want you to know I’m scheduled to take the SAT in April, and I’m doing some online college tours over spring break. I don’t know if I’ll see you before I apply for colleges this fall, so here’s a list of what I’ve been up to in high school, along with my thoughts about college. I’ve highlighted the activities that mean the most to me, and my cell number is at the top of the page, so you can contact me right away if you have any questions. Thanks for helping me with this. If I have any questions, what’s the best way to contact you?”

I promise you—if you do this, your counselor will look for reasons to see you from now on, and that’s a good thing.

Counselor on board? Drive on.