Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The College Counselor Who Left His Own Children Alone

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

When it comes to dealing with the key moments of my daughter’s life, I’ve always had my hands full.  The first one came when she was not even two years old, and decided it was time to climb up on the playscape all by herself, just like she’d seen her older brother do.  It didn’t matter that her legs were about half as long, and the diaper she was wearing significantly limited her mobility.  It was time, and that was that.

As she eyed the situation, I was about twenty feet away, clearing some brush, and holding a chain saw, of all things.  There was no way I could drop the chainsaw without her noticing it, and not even the slowest gait towards her would do anything but convince her I didn’t think this was a good idea.  All I could do was stand there and watch, poised on the balls of my feet to spring the twenty feet in the event I needed to catch her.  She didn’t exactly look like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, but she made it up, in her own way, safe and sound.

An adjustable wrench was the tool du jour when the next major transition came.  Wearing a helmet that made her very much look like Toad in the Mario Party games, she decided a cold spring day was the right time to be liberated from the training wheels on her bike.  She straddled the seat with excitement as I struggled to get the acorn nuts to budge.  As  I was turning the last one, I was starting to deliver my best advice on how to negotiate the roads in our neighborhood, and the bumps in our driveway, with just two wheels.

It was too late.  Hearing the last of the training wheels hit the ground, she heaved the bike forward, and without so much as one of my hands on the seat to offer temporary balance, she was gone.  Her journey down the driveway was one smooth line of travel, as if she had done this for years. The only job I had left was to watch and admire her getting elegantly smaller and smaller.

The tool I had on hand in the third transition turned out to be one I didn’t use.  My family had the blessing/adventure of having both my children attend the school where my wife and I worked, she as an elementary science teacher, me as a college counselor—the only college counselor.  By the time she was a junior, my daughter had schooled herself from her older brother’s experiences in postsecondary planning.  Look hard, know what you want, and Dad will be more than happy to send out the paperwork.  Simple.

The sentimental part of me wishes something would have happened with her application that would have created a space for me to play Super Counselor, swoop in, and save the day, but the realistic part of me was proud to see there was no such need.  She had to choose between offers at several schools that all made sense for her in their own way, so I did have the chance to hear a little of her thought process as she waded through them, and made an incredibly sound decision.  But that was about it.

Since I’d been in college counseling forever, it would be fair to say I had more than ample resources at hand to be some combination of a Hovercraft Dad and Helicopter Counselor by picking up the phone and making sure things went smoothly.  Not only was that not necessary; it would have been counterproductive. 

The college selection process is as much a discovery of self as it is a choice of what’s next.  Denying my daughter the chance to take the lead, direct her college selection process, and survey the landscape of options she’d created for herself would have dulled the senses needed to self-advocate in college, discern among the pros and cons of a question with strong answers that were also limited in their own way, and take pride in the efforts of living and learning that gave her these choices in the first place.

College is only a great thing if it prepares you for something greater.  The same is true for applying to college, and to this day, I’m grateful humility ruled the day, and the phone was left in the cradle, so my daughter could take her next step, fully emerging from hers.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Mystery of College Admissions

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

My brother was a pretty mean clarinet player in high school.  He had a good ear for pitch, and a great sense of rhythm, and while he didn’t devote excessive hours to practicing, it was clear he knew his stuff.

That’s why we were pretty confident he was headed for a first place rating when the state music festival came along that February.  We got up incredibly early on a Saturday morning, and headed across town to a community college with pretty bad signage.  We finally found the room where he was to perform—he was the third person to play that morning—and he had plenty of time to warm up, then play the piece to perfection, like he had a million times before.

The twenty minute wait for his score was agony, in part because we hadn’t had breakfast, but it was nothing compare to the feeling in our gut when the score sheet indicated he earned a second place rating. 

We then had one of the quietest breakfasts ever at a local restaurant.  There wasn’t really a state of mourning, as much as there was a state of confusion.  What exactly was missing from his performance that kept him from a top rating?

The answer came several weeks later, when his band teacher met up with the guy who had served as the judge for my brother’s performance.  “Yeah”, the judge said, “it turns out he was actually one of the better performers I heard all day.  I be if I had a second cup of coffee before I heard him, I would have given him a first place rating.”

This isn’t exactly the news you want to hear when you’re a high school musician.  To be sure, my brother didn’t let it get him down.  He went on to study music at college, and had a promising side career as a musician for many years.  Still, it’s hard enough to get through high school without having to sort out the mysteries of adulthood, especially when the adults in your life can’t really explain why things like this happen, either.

A number of students are about to experience this same feeling in the next couple of weeks, and they don’t even play the clarinet.  College admissions experts are expecting record levels of applications at the most popular schools, and since these schools aren’t admitting more students than they did last year, that means they’ll be saying no to more students than ever before.

This can be frustrating to students for a number of reasons.  For starters, it’s likely that a ton of students who will get “no” for an answer from the college of their dreams would have been admitted ten years ago, when fewer students were applying to fewer colleges.  A- students may have been good enough for students back then, but now that there are more A students applying, things have changed, even if the A- students can do the work.

On top of that, students will be left wondering what they did—or didn’t do—that kept them from being admitted.  This kind of thinking is pretty hard on a student, since there is rarely a clear, single reason why a college denies a student with great grades and great scores, who did everything short of cure cancer in their spare time.

The reality is that a handful of schools are blessed with the best of the best as their applicants, so they can be a little fussier when offering admission—but even then, they can’t always tell you why they told others no.  That isn’t easy for adults or students to understand, but the best thing to do is adjust your reed, and keep on playing.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

College Admissions Isn't Fair. It Also Isn't Simple.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


In addition to Daylight Saving (not plural!) time, we’re about to enter College Decision Time, when a huge number of colleges will be sharing their admissions decisions with students.  These decisions will leave some students with good news, and other students wondering what else they could have done to gain admission.

A new approach to explaining why a college said no to a student is starting to make the rounds.  According to this theory, the real driving factor behind admissions is the school’s mission, or the reason the college says it exists. Yes, you could be a great student with high grades in AP Everything who was president of every club in your high school. Still, if your essays and teacher letters don’t indicate that you understand the college’s reason for existence, this theory suggests that would be reason enough for them not to take you, since their review process would likely reveal that there isn’t a “fit” between what the college is looking for, and what you have to offer.

The piece certainly offers a great explanation for why Joey in the locker next to you got into your dream college and you didn’t, even though your grades and scores were higher than his. In connecting admissions decisions to the school’s mission, the article even offers a strongly-principled reason for why they took your sister five years ago with her lower grades and lack of extracurriculars, but didn’t take you this year. The school has a different sense of purpose now.

So, the article puts together a nice argument, with only one small problem. Admission at most colleges doesn’t work like this at all. Instead, it depends on other factors that are a little more basic, but somehow more complicated—like:

How many people apply. The article tries to emphasize the role of mission at highly selective colleges. This suggests that if these same colleges only had 600 applicants for 500 seats, they’d likely take everybody, no matter what their essays said. That doesn’t make their decisions based on mission; it makes them based on numbers. Simply put, they don’t take everyone who applies, because they don’t have to.

What the college is looking for. It’s certainly true a college is looking for certain qualities in a student, but that search is a little more pragmatic than the article suggests. An admission officer from an Ivy League college once told me “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a high school senior applying as a hockey goalie, your chances of admission just went way up.” So what happens if the essays in the hockey goalie’s application don’t reveal a deep understanding of the school’s mission? Is this still a fit?

This has less to do with mission than it does institutional priorities—the particular need the college has that year for Philosophy majors, a bassoonist, or someone who wants to do Neuroscience research. These priorities may have something to do with the mission of the college, but they aren’t as closely related as the article suggests, once numbers come into play. The virtues of athletics may be integral to the college’s existence, but they aren’t going to admit every one of the 18 hockey goalies that apply; they’re only going to take as many as they need in any given year—and this year, that may be none.

Rankings. The last ten years of college admissions have seen an increase in all kinds of devices used to get more students to apply. Snap apps, on-site decisions, and the rise in early application programs all point to a desire on the college’s part to attract more applicants, even though very few colleges are actually enrolling more students than they were ten years ago.

What’s behind the need to do that, if admissions decisions are driven by mission, and not by rankings? Is it impossible to be a solid B+ student and have a better understanding of a school’s mission than your National Honor Society counterpart? If not, why are so many highly selective colleges now denying so many—in fact, nearly all— the B+ students who used to fulfill the college’s mission with distinction?

When most families start looking at colleges, they think the admission process is simple—take strong classes, get good grades, make sure your test scores are strong, join a few clubs, and you’re good to go. That perception works at an incredible number of colleges, but the highly selective colleges have a process that’s less clear, because they don’t have to take everyone who applies. It would be easy to assign this cause to the college’s mission, but that doesn’t reflect reality—and it also doesn’t explain why all kinds of schools say no to some A students and say yes to C students who average 21 points a game.

It would be great if mission was the only reason college admissions doesn’t seem fair, but it isn’t. Like life, it’s more complicated than that, and our students deserve an explanation more representative of that complexity.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Hard Part of Counselor Advocacy

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


A very important part of the school counselor’s year is coming up soon, and chances are you don’t even know about it.  The good news is, we’re not talking about scheduling or testing.  The bad news is, we’re talking about the political process.

Here’s what’s going on.  Governors all over the country are just about through with their State of the State addresses, speeches based on the State of the Union presentation.  With State of the State, the governor outlines the achievements of last year, and the challenges of the coming year.  No matter the state, this speech inevitably contains some reference to education, the policy issue legislators just can’t leave alone.

New counselors find it promising that education is so popular among lawmakers, but veteran counselors know that the “our children deserve better” part of the annual message is par for the course, where a January promise is long forgotten by fall.  That’s why it’s so important to complete the next step of your state’s domestic policy cycle—funding the promises in the State of the State.

It’s easy to understand why counselors shudder at the prospect of reading a state budget.  Most legislators don’t know which line items fund specific programs, so how can we possibly know?  On the other hand, making sure there’s money for more counselors—a promise made by Arizona and other states—only gets done if someone opens the budget, peers inside, and asks “Where’s the money?”

Believe it or not, that’s all you have to do as your first simple step in holding state government accountable.  You have elected officials who represent your neighborhood in state government.  A quick online search of your state legislature’s home page should get you a phone number to their office in the capitol.  Your job is to call and say this:

“Hello, this is (name), and I’m a school counselor who lives (and works) in the legislator’s district.  I’m calling to ask for your help in locating the line item in the state budget that secures funding for (more school counselors, safe schools, social-emotional learning—whatever you’re interested in), and I’m wondering if that line item has been increased over last year.  Please feel free to call me back at (your phone number.)”

If that script sounds like it was designed for you to leave a message, rather than talk to an actual person, that’s because it is.  Counselors as a whole are conflict-adverse, and the prospect of talking to a legislative office scares them silly.  If you call that office at nine o’clock at night and leave this message, I promise you no one will pick up the phone to speak with you, and I promise someone will call you back with an answer.  That’s their job.

Once you get your answer, things get a little trickier.  If it turns out the budget really does have funding for the project you’re interested in, you’ll now have to go into the budget (that’s usually online) and double check the figures.  If the money doesn’t appear to be anywhere, you’ll now have to track down the education adviser in the governor’s office and ask them for an explanation—and after that, you may have to contact the chair of the Education or Appropriations committees to start asking for the money the governor promised.  That may seem like a lot right now, but once you make your first call, the next one gets easier—and pretty soon, the advocacy you’re doing for your profession feels a lot like the advocacy you do for your students.

So make that call.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

How Are Your Seniors Doing?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Many school counselors feel this is the least wonderful time of the year.  Between scheduling students for next year’s classes (not really a counseling duty) and beginning the coordination of spring testing (really not a counseling duty), it’s easy for counselors to wonder exactly why they’re getting up in the morning.

Incredibly enough, we aren’t alone.  This same level of existential angst is alive and well in most of your seniors.  With college applications complete, and with most of them now in the last classes of their high school career, there isn’t all that much for them to plan or anticipate.  It’s certainly likely some of them are thinking about graduation day, but as that becomes more of a reality, new feelings about high school are starting to surface, and they aren’t always glowing.

Welcome to the senior doldrums, an attitude that can afflict even the most conscientious senior. While senioritis describes a slowdown in productivity that can be seen, the senior doldrums is more of a mindset, and can exist even in the most ambitious, hardworking senior.  It’s less about what they’re doing, and more about how they’re feeling about what they’re doing—or what they’ve done.

This malaise can easily be misinterpreted as anxiety about college, as a number of students are still waiting for admissions decisions or financial aid packages that will shape their plans for life after high school.  But even the students who have heard from their colleges, and know what next year will bring, can suddenly seem listless, uninterested, and noncommunicative, even if they’re in at their dream school, and life looks pretty great.

What’s the cause of this sluggishness?  Like all counseling issues, it depends.  For some, the fact that everything is settled makes them, well, unsettled.  There’s nothing to plan, nothing to anticipate, no what-if scenarios to build hypothetical responses to.  To these students, the thinking is done. Now it’s just a question of show up, punch the clock, and wait until June.

Others have a different issue.  They’re looking at their college options and wondering if they could have done better—whatever that might mean.  This leads some to start looking back at their high school career and asking the same question.  Would honors classes really have been that hard?  Would I have made the wrestling team if I had tried out?  Would Jackie have gone out with me if I had asked her?  Since going back isn’t an option, and moving forward can’t really start until after graduation, it’s easy to think all that’s left to do now is to live in the world of what-if?

The best thing for counselors and students to do right now is to enjoy each other’s company.  Counselors need to set aside the scheduling spreadsheets and the No. 2 pencils and spend more time with some seniors.  Call up the local pizzeria and ask them to sponsor some senior lunches, where you and 8-10 seniors sit around and catch up.  Mozzarella is a powerful antidote for many of the ills of youth, and creating a space that pulls students into a better world is what counselors do best.  You don’t have to have much of an agenda, just a listening ear, and an eagerness to let seniors know you care about them.  Now that’s doing your job.

You might strike out getting sponsored pizza lunches, but you get the idea.  Right now, seniors and counselors are stuck in a rut of the mundane.  As usual, the answer to getting back in high gear lies in supporting one another. You can find a way.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Want More School Counselors in Your State? Do This

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

2019 is off to a strong start when it comes to school counselors.  An avalanche of columns, stories, and evening news shows are devoted to the need for more school counselors, based in large part on the release of the Safe Schools Report from the US Department of Education in December.

The story isn’t new to most of us, but just in case, here’s the summary:
  • In order for school counselors to do what are trained to do, they need to have a caseload that isn’t more than 250 students.
  • In a vast majority of states, that just isn’t the case. For 2015-16, the average caseload in the US is 464 students per counselor, with Arizona leading the nation with an average of 904.  Only three states are at or below the recommended ratio of 250 students.
  • The recommended ratio of 250 assumes counselors spend 80 percent of their school day working directly with students. Since most counselors are assigned duties that have nothing to do with counseling—think schedule changes and standardized test supervision—that 80 percent level is a distant dream for most counselors.
Scattered among the media releases calling for more counselors are reports of states trying to improve the counseling picture.  Utah has called for placing at least one college adviser in every school.  (Advisers are not typically counselors, but they help counselors with the college readiness part of the counseling curriculum.) Arizona’s governor has proposed a budget that includes more funding for school counselors, and Michigan has introduced a bill requiring a counselor ratio of not more than 450 to 1.

This kind of momentum is vital, and long overdue—but it also isn’t new, since calls for more counselors crop up about every 3-4 years.  What could make this year’s efforts different?  Consider these three steps.

Focus the need on students, not counselors  More than a few policy makers at the state and national level tell me they are tired of hearing about the need for more counselors.  Instead, they’re interested in hearing about the need for more services for students.  The difference may seem small, but it’s vital.  There are far more students and parents in a legislator’s district than school counselors.  Framing the need based on the folks back home makes the argument more real to legislators, and the need more urgent.  Keep the message on the students.

Seek the support of the business community  Legislation to upgrade counselor training in college and career advising had been introduced in Michigan for four years, and failed each time.  Once the business community entered the discussion, and talked about the role school counselors play in making sure students knew about the vast array of career options in the state, legislators paid attention in a new way, and the bill became law.  Sure, more school counselors will build students with stronger self-esteem, but pointing out the more tangible aspects to society isn’t a bad idea, either. Employers can do that.

Bring the data  Studies abound showing the difference counselors make in college attainment, career development, mental health, and more.  Even better, these studies are written with policy makers in mind, so they’re rich with statistics everyone can relate to (“Add a school counselor, and college attainment increases by ten percent.”) Individual stories of student success warm the heart and inspire, while data paints a broader picture that points out the benefit to society as a whole.  Bring both when talking to legislators—and don’t forget to seek out the help of the principals’ and superintendents’ organizations to show complete educational support of this vital goal.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What Your School Counselor Wish You Knew About Their Job

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


National School Counselor Week is upon us once again, and it seems to be getting more promotion than ever before. Since most of this work is done behind the scenes, publicly celebrating the tireless efforts of these dedicated professionals means even more to school counselors, where something as simple as a sincere “thank you” can go a long way.

Amid the thank-you notes, group photos, and cakes and cookies being prepared for school counselors, parents and educators sometimes wonder if there is more that can be done to support the counseling work done in their local schools. Needs of individual counseling programs vary greatly, but as a rule, the school counseling profession could make great strides if communities worked together to focus on these counselor issues:

A larger understanding of what school counselors do  School counselors are trained to help students in three key areas: academic success, social and emotional development, and career and college awareness.  Counselors receive training in how to develop programs and services that meet the individual needs of their students and communities, all centered on these three areas.

An understanding of what counselors shouldn’t be doing  People are often surprised the list of counselor duties doesn’t include things like schedule changes and standardized test supervision.  It’s hard to say just when these duties became part of a counselor’s role in some schools, but it’s clear that they keep the counselor from offering the services they were hired to complete.  Since there are only so many hours in a day, this can easily limit student access to a counselor, and that prohibits student growth.

An appreciation for counselor caseloads  Given everything counselors do to support students, the American School Counselor Association suggests counselors can only be completely effective if they’re working with not more than 250 students—and even then, meeting students needs is a challenge. Unfortunately, the average public school counselor has a caseload of 494 students nationwide, with some states having an average caseload of over 900.  Throw in duties that don’t really belong to counselors, and you can see why your child might not be able to see a counselor—especially if they’re one of the millions of students attending a school with no counselor at all.

The need for updating of their training  Trends and issues in mental health and college and career opportunities are always changing, and counselors need to stay on top of these changes in order to best serve their students.  Professional development is available in these areas, and is often free—but many counselors can’t get to the training if they can’t leave their building.  Many schools only have one counselor, but if they don’t get out to get the updates, their effectiveness starts to fade, and that benefits no one.

What they should be called  Like so many other jobs, the role of a school counselor has greatly expanded in the last thirty years—so much so that counselors generally prefer being called “school counselor” rather than “guidance counselor.”  It may seem like a small thing, but as school counselors know, small things can make a huge difference.

If you’d like to keep the support of your school counselor going past National School Counselor Week, take a moment to ask your counselor what the community and district can do to support their work.  Since few people ask, your question might catch them by surprise, but be patient—they’ll be happy to share.