Wednesday, November 16, 2022

A Gratitude Tale of Two Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It was near the top of a tall pile of emails, but deep enough into the list that my speed-skimming abilities had kicked into gear. Since it started with the ubiquitous “You don’t know me, but…”, I was ready to delete, but for some reason, I kept reading.

“You don’t know me, but I attended one of those college seminars you hold at the local public library. I already had a list of colleges, but something really struck me when you said not to be happy with what you knew—that it was important to look around the edges of your list, see what else was out there, and think about what was possible.”

“I went home and started my search again, and sure enough, there was a school that sounded perfect for me. It wasn’t in my geographic comfort zone—in fact, it was miles from home—but everything I read told me this was a place worth investigating.”

“I did just that, and ended up applying to a school I never would have considered, and was sure I couldn’t afford. They admitted me, and offered a scholarship that made it possible—so off I went.”

“Right now, I’m flying back to campus to start my second year, and I saw this article you wrote in the inflight magazine about choosing a college. I’m glad it reminded me to thank you for encouraging me to do more.”

In a profession where you aren’t supposed to have any favorites, there was something about this student that made me root for her at every turn. She had a receptivity to living and learning that was pretty rare in a high school student, evidenced by her willingness to try out for the spring musical without ever performing in public before. She made the show and landed the lead—and with every performance, the audience was stunned to see her onstage, let alone doing so well.

The odd thing was, for as much as I liked this student, I really didn’t do anything special to help her with her college search. We met a few times, then put together a list, following that up in the fall. She went back to the wonderful life she was living—just like it’s supposed to work for every student. I don’t remember seeing her past October, but I was confident she’d end up in the right place, simply because students who know themselves well tend to feel they are in the right place no matter where they are.

A year went by, and I was getting ready to shut things down for Christmas, when in she came to my office, even more alive, more outgoing, and more receptive to what life had to offer. I asked how things were going, and off she went, telling me about the glories of every nook and cranny of her wonderful life at a college that rarely showed up on anyone’s radar.

“That’s great” I said, “but tell me, how’d you find this place?”

The tone of the room went from warm to austere for just a moment, as she looked at me wide, surprised eyes, laughed, and said “You told me about it.”

It’s the season for gratitude, and there’s much to be said for stopping and realizing just how good we have it in this life. At the same time, if conjuring up a gratitude list turns out to be too artificial an exercise, it may be wise to find a comfortable chair and simply let the unknown blessings wash over us. Their power is really something wonderful.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Ninth Graders and College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I have to admit, I’m not crazy talking to ninth graders about college. No matter what I say, these discussions almost always end up centering on test scores and essays—and ninth grade just isn’t the time to worry about either. Promise me you won’t be thinking about these things, and let’s focus in on what you can work on—being a great person.

As far as colleges are concerned, there are three things to focus on in ninth grade, and all of them have something to do with being more of who you are. The first one, at least as far as colleges are concerned, is grades. College is a lot of things—the place where the football stadium is, the home of spring break, and more—but first and foremost, it’s a place where academic learning occurs, and that happens in your classes.

One of the best ways to prepare for college classes is to learn as much as you can in the classes you take in high school and be the best student you can be. Unless we’re talking art or music school, your admission to college usually depends most on being a good student in challenging classes in high school—not just in 11th grade, but starting now. Not everyone can do this all the time—in fact, very few people can—but the closer you get to doing your best in every class, every day, the more choices you’ll have when it comes time to pick a college. And keeping your options open is what being ready for college is all about.

It’s likely you’re giving me what you think is a well-deserved eyeroll right now. “I need to get good grades? Wow, that is some counseling.”

Fair enough—but I didn’t say you needed to get good grades. I said you needed to be a good student.

It may sound weird, but colleges get tons of applications from students with great grades who don’t know anything. Sure, they got a hatful of As, but the essay asking them to describe a favorite class only shows they were glad the course didn’t have many tests. Other students take an approach where they sit in the back of the room, study hard, get an A on the exam, and then do a memory dump. That also shows up in college essays; it also shows up in the teacher letters these students get, where the teachers can say the student got great grades, but that’s about it.

That’s where becoming a good student comes in. If your math teacher assigns 15 problems for homework, do the last three they didn’t assign—those are the three that require you to think, not just solve. If your English teacher assigns 15 pages of reading, take notes as you go. This will require reading, stopping, thinking, and writing, but you can do all these things. Add to these notes every night, and be the student the teacher can count on to answer the question “How does all this tie together?”

If these last two ideas scare you, you may want to sit down. When your History teacher asks for a 250-word essay, write 400 to 500 words—in your own words—after you’ve compared the information in your textbook with what you’ve learned from a couple of other sources (and as you write, don’t forget the reading-stopping-thinking-writing thing). When you write the essay, write the words “ROUGH DRAFT” in big letters on the top page. Three days before the paper’s due, ask your teacher to review it with you. Take notes during your meeting, and use those when you write the final draft, which is turned in on time.

This kind of learning helps you connect ideas to each other, to the world, and to the way you see the world—and yes, it’s the kind of learning colleges like to see. This may require some changes to your social schedule (there are always study groups!), and it’s always a good idea to talk to your teacher about study tips (chances are the study skills guru in your building teaches special education—really). In two or three months, you’ll see this is most important, since it will make you a thinker and a doer who knows and loves how to learn. That gets you halfway into college. More important, it will make sure you graduate from college.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Need a Breather? Try College Farming

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The first major college application deadline has come and gone, and you’re taking stock. Students ignored your deadlines, they ignored your advice, and everything they asked you to do they wanted done yesterday. that makes it all too easy to wonder if you’re really making any difference at all.

Fair enough. Here’s what I think. 

1. It would be great if kids leapt out of their chairs and said “What a life changing suggestion! Thank you!” This doesn’t happen— kids rarely acknowledge our work made a difference in their lives, even when we do. This means counselors can’t be in the work for the accolades. We have to have the self-confidence to do the best job we can, given the Herculean task we are given, and be happy with having the chance to make what difference we can.

2. This also means you are likely making a bigger difference than you realize. Again, it’s unlikely you’ll be showered with thanks, a raise, or Fruit of the Month, but if you’re making an earnest effort, some kids will feel that. You have to trust that.

3. I built thousands of college lists, and offered millions of hours of advice— and the vast majority of it was ignored. I had lots of sleepless nights, until I realized I really wasn’t a college counselor; I was a college farmer, planting seeds of college ideas for minds to nurture or ignore. Keep tending those crops of ideas; you might not see much of a harvest, but kids, like farmers, generally aren’t all that showy when it’s time to bring in the crops.

4. Your client is the student. It’s easy to forget this when well-meaning parents over-email, and even easier if you have an administrator that doesn’t know (or care) about what you do. But parents stop calling and emailing when they see a change for the better in their kids, and administrators tend to leave you alone if parents are leaving them alone. That means a lot of the adults’ behavior is based on your relationship with the student, and you’re good at that. Never let that go.

5. Be your own best client. Everybody has a bad day, a few minutes of self-doubt, and often the situation calls for either or both. But if you find yourself honking the horn in traffic for no apparent reason, or the dog runs away from you when you come home, it might be time to think about what’s going on in your world, and who can help you better understand it.

Professional helpers are the worst at seeking professional help for themselves, but see yourself through the lens of you being your client; it makes it easier to understand when intervening steps could really help you out. This is particularly true if the best part of your day is spending two hours in a dark room with the Three Wise Men. If that’s where you are, it’s not time for help; it’s time to start over. Reach out.  Someone will be there.

6. Lead from a wise heart. This saying exists for a reason: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Counsel in a student-centered way that opens doors; this shows them you believe in them, whether they walk through the door or not, and if all they walk away with after interacting with you is knowing someone believed in them, you’ve done half your job— getting a chance to do the other half is largely up to them. Realize that, and you’ll be a healthy counselor.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Don’t Bet on Future Loan Forgiveness

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

October is known as the busiest month in college counseling offices, so it’s always nice when something comes along in the fall that lifts our spirits, and gives us something to cheer about.


For millions of students—and more than a few counselors—that happy news has come in the form of forgiveness of student loans. Debt forgiveness made its debut just a few weeks ago, with promises of forgiveness of up to $20,000 in debt for some students. Better still, the website that takes applications for forgiveness is working like a charm; users say the form is concise, easy to follow, and free of technical hiccups. This is why applications have easily gone into the millions in a brief period of time—when someone wants to forgive your debt, and makes it easy to do so, the result is a triumph.


It's clear the forgiveness program has not come without its detractors, including states with concerns about the implication of debt forgiveness to their economies, and the lamentations of those who took second and third jobs to pay for college without going into debt. This last group is easy to understand, and as someone who did exactly that to make sure his kids left college debt free, it’s fair to say I may have rethought my strategy, had I known my loans weren’t really loans at all. On the other hand, those who found a way to stay debt free found it, while those who had no such options are now deciding how to spend the money they’re no longer paying back. The economic plusses of that, for all of us, should not be ignored.


Something else that shouldn’t be ignored is the possible effect this program could have on collegebound students and their families. It would be easy to have this program shape the “paying for college” strategy for the Class of 2023 and beyond. If debt forgiveness happened once, it could happen again—especially if this program leads to spending that boosts the other parts of the nation’s economy.


While it may be reasonable to think that, it isn’t wise. When my kids were very young, there was a consensus among many families—interesting enough, largely among dads—that “something would happen” to make college more affordable, and ease the burden on families. It was never clear what that “something” was going to be, but when it came time for that generation to head to university, no relief appeared. Some of those students are undoubtedly experiencing some relief now, but they still had to put together a college payment plan where loan forgiveness wasn’t part of the formula.


High school seniors and their families would do well to take this same approach. Loan forgiveness is certainly adored by our current president, but the other party isn’t exactly running to the idea with open arms. Future efforts at loan forgiveness would have to run a political path that is rocky and unpredictable. If hoping for the best leaves students with more debt than they can truly manage, the goals and plans of this generation would be in even more peril than those of the current generation before loan forgiveness was introduced—and their path was fairly dangerous.


Loan forgiveness has the potential to benefit millions of students and our national economy, but since the jury is still out, it’s wise for collegebound students to stick to the script—keep your borrowing at a minimum, and plan wisely for life after college. Later applicants may have more data to work with, but this group doesn’t. Don’t betray your future.


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

College Essay Advice for Seniors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This piece was a big hit when it first appeared a few years ago, and many counselors on social media are looking for advice to give students about college essays.

In an encore presentation, I still live to serve.

Students, you amaze me. You love to share your opinions. I know this, because you share them everywhere—Chattersnap, Gramphoto, and all the rest of those social media sites I know nothing about, other than you use them because you love to talk about yourselves.

Except when it comes to college essays.

If I asked you for 650 words on your impressions of Riverdale, you’d go on for weeks. But colleges want 650 words about your favorite place in the world, and you say things like “The library. Gotta love that big dictionary.”

I’ll die alone. I’ll sing alone.

Your college wants you to come to campus, talk with them for three hours, eat lunch, and go home. If they did admissions that way, they’d probably get great students—and by the time they were done interviewing everyone, each of those students would be 45 years old.

So you aren’t writing essays—you’re having a conversation, except you’re putting what you have to say on paper. That means you’ll want to do this:

Stop guessing. When a college asks “Name a problem you’d like to solve”, there’s no one right answer for everybody. Cure cancer? Great. The need for your mother to work three jobs? Absolutely. The squeak in your garage door? That can work, too—as long as it means something to you, and you can convey that meaning. This isn’t Algebra; you get to decide what the answer is, and why it makes sense. Put it down on paper, put the commas in the right place, and you’re good to go.

Tell a story. Remember the time you told your best friend about the first concert you went to, or the best pizza you ever ate? You were on fire at the end of the story, genuinely excited at the chance to share part of your life with them. That’s how you should feel once you’re done writing a college essay. This isn’t a speech you give to thousands of people; it’s a story that means something to you, and you’re telling it to someone who really wants to hear it. Save the speech; tell the tale.

Head or heart? Some students think the key to a great essay is to pack it with facts that make you sound like a brainiac, while others say the college will only beg you to come if they need a whole box of tissues to get through your essay. Life is a little of both, and so are college essays. Show the colleges what you think about, and why it means something to you. This will let them know you’re past the drama and trauma of teenagehood, and eager to embrace the tasks of becoming a thoughtful, caring adult.

Answer the question. If the college asks “Who do you admire?” and they still don’t know your answer once they’ve read your essay, you’ve given them one more reason to reject you. Ducking the question may work in Washington, but it doesn’t play well in admissions offices. If they want to know, you need to tell them.

Your goal is to write an essay that sounds so much like a conversation, they’ll be surprised you aren’t in the room with them when they’re finished reading it.

Kind of like Gramphoto. But with words.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Building a List: The Real Story

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The shortest counseling session I ever had lasted four seconds. The student came into my office, and I handed him the (then) paper application for his first-choice school. He said thanks and left, catching the door before it fully closed from his entering the office.


Part of me wishes that would be the case for all of my students—finding a place that they love that, from every indicator available, would welcome the chance to admit them. But the bigger part of me knows better, and understands that if we’re really doing our job, we find each student where they are and walk the walk forward with them, whether that’s one visit or many.


In order to make sure students have the same kind of firm understanding about their menu of options my four-second student did, we often work with them to build a list of possibilities. Ostensibly, that list is about where the student wants to apply, but lists are more versatile than that. Consider these uses:


A chance to confirm that the walk matches the talk. How many times do students answer our question “What are you looking for in a college?” with lofty, detailed descriptors, then respond to “That’s great. Do you have some schools in mind?” with a list of schools that has absolutely nothing to do with the qualities they just listed? There are many reasons why this happens, and it’s important to understand which of those reasons are at play for each student. It’s time for more discussion.


A chance to confirm that the fall list matches the spring list. Those counselors fortunate enough to have the time to do junior interview in the spring will want to revisit the list in the fall. A summer experience, family circumstances, or simply being seventeen for another two months could lead the student to a different set of goals come the fall. Don’t guess, and don’t be surprised if it does—it likely means the student is engaging in thoughtful reflection about college, and that’s the goal.


A chance for balance. Mike came into my office in the fall with the same list we had discussed in the spring—all the Ivies, plus Stanford. We continued our discussion about balance. “There’s no doubt you’d do great work at any of these schools, Mike, and they’d be lucky to have you. But the admit rates at all these schools are pretty small, and we need to make sure there’s at least a school or two on your list where the admit rates are a little more generous.” This gives you a chance to offer some additions, and even if they reject them, they’ll likely provide some of their own, which is great—unless it’s Northwestern and Johns Hopkins. Then it’s time for more talking.


A chance for representing affordability. I still believe no school should be ruled out because it costs too much, but when the entire list consists of $50,000 schools, it’s time for a little more conversation. For students who will need help no matter what college they apply to, this is a time to discuss schools with more generous aid programs, and the role loans should play, given this student’s interests and vocational goals.


My four-second student was admitted to his only college, and I hear he now owns half of Manhattan. That’s rare, but if you make the most of the list as a counselor, your students will have the same kind of success in finding the next right home.


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

I’m possible

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Christine Ha had a problem. She was in the middle of a very competitive cooking event, where the task was to make an apple pie. Simple enough, except that, for reasons unknown, she took a little too much time preparing the pie, leaving only 18 minutes for the pie to cook. (In case making apple pie is new to you, most take about 40 minutes.)


When it came time for judging, the time element was clearly on her mind. Through tears, she apologized for the quality of the pie, and promptly received support and encouragement from judge Gordon Ramsay, the chef best known for yelling and swearing at chefs.


It turns out the pie was, in a word, perfect—not easy to do when juicy apples make most pies soggy. Christine was greatly relieved to hear this, in part because she couldn’t see what the pie looked like.


That’s because Christine Ha is blind, the first blind contestant on Master Chef, and therefore the first blind contestant to win the competition, including a prize of $250,000.


Mandy Harvey started her music audition in a rather unusual way. She took center stage in front of hundreds and promptly made herself at home by taking her shoes off. Counselors don’t typically encourage this behavior for job interviews, but Mandy explained her shoeless feet could feel the rhythm of the music better, leading to a better performance.


The approach paid off. The judges were impressed with her singing, her ukulele playing, and the composition of the original song she performed. Combined with her sunny disposition, Mandy passed the audition, and went on to the final round of the auditions with ease, even though she couldn’t hear the roaring approval of the audience.


That’s because Mandy Harvey is deaf, having lost her hearing in her late teens. Despite this, a lifelong love of music eventually helped her build a different approach to her passion, an approach that made all the difference in the world. “After I lost my hearing, I gave up” she said, “but I wanted to do more with my life than just give up.”


Paul Potts was also a musician, but he had a different challenge. A cell phone salesman, Paul has the look of someone who spends the better part of his weekend watching football, an appearance that often hid a dream he’d long harbored that had little to do with football. He wanted to sing opera.


Paul took lessons, and largely kept his dream to himself, until he finally decided to go to an audition. The big day came, and Paul’s demon appeared—self-doubt. What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he got too nervous? He went to a local bar before the audition, and concluded the best way to decide whether or not to audition was to flip a coin. And off he went.


Over 2 million record sales later, Paul Potts is living the dream he almost denied himself, still rather reserved. I don’t know if he watches much football.


Fall of senior year is a pretty busy time, and everyone has their challenges, many of which would want to rob us of our hopes, our dreams, and our ability to move forward. Overcoming those obstacles involves two things—knowing you can, and knowing others have come before you and overcome their challenges.


All that’s between you and the college dream is a form that takes 25 minutes to complete—85 if there’s an essay. Christine, Mandy, and Paul are living testimonies to the possible. It’s time you joined their company.