Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Brag Colleges and More: The Year in Review

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t always write a summary column, but there were more than enough nuggets of newness this year to put together a list that makes you remember, consider, and prepare for next year.

Test optional Many colleges have decided it’s time to go back to requiring the SAT or ACT simply because—well, they can. It’s frustrating that the test-no-test debate is based on intuition, and not data—if a college has evidence it needs a test, fine with me; otherwise, forget it. MIT (yes) and Bates (no) seem to be the only ones leading in this category. Here’s hoping other colleges will follow suit.

Self-reporting grades Like test-optional policies, self-reporting transcripts were supposed to take the burden off the college-bound student, and, largely, neither one has. Without a common transcript form, students find themselves filling out several self-reporting transcripts, making college applications more time consuming. How about if every high school gives each student a PDF of their transcript in July, and colleges let students upload that?

Admit rates It still drives me crazy that there are two headlines for schools with record applications: “College X has record applications”, and, next week, “College X admits lowest percentage of students ever.” This is the same story, but we somehow get twice the panic out of it—like we really need that.

Highly Rejective Colleges This term was originated in rebellion to the use of the phrase Highly Selective Colleges, and it really caught on this year. From what I can tell, this phrase emphasizes that the number of students the college rejects is high, as opposed to the idea that the quality of the few students selected for admission is high.

I’m not fond of either phrase, but Highly Rejective Colleges suggests the college can actually do something about this--like admit more students, even though they don’t have room for them, or be less aggressive in recruiting students, which would risk them missing applicants who would do well at their colleges.

If there are objections to the students these colleges are admitting (not enough Pell students, too many legacies), folks should say that. If they’re jealous of the college’s recruiting success, say that. But don’t blame them because they’re good at what every college wants to be good at—recruiting students. In the old days, this would be the kind of disparaging remark that would be an ethics violation with NACAC. The rule may be gone, but the need for decorum is still with us. I like “brag” colleges (or, when speaking only with colleagues, “cocktail party” colleges). Try those.

Student Aid Report Colleges continue to produce their own financial aid reports to students, each with its own idiosyncrasies that makes comparing offers impossible.

How about this? Nearly every college gets federal funding for something. Uncle Sam needs to say “Look, keep your forms if you need them. All you have to do is put this sheet—our sheet—on top of yours. It explains grants, loans, and work study very succinctly, and gives families a common form to compare with other colleges, who have to use the same form. We give the summary, and you give the details.”

There’s more to discuss, but sweet cherries are at the market, announcing the start of summer. Most of Michigan is heading to the north end of the state, home of big trees, incredibly cold water, fudge, and other great things Henry Ford didn’t invent. No matter where you spend the summer, I hope it celebrates you, salutes you, and thanks you.

Heaven knows I do, every day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Checklist for College-bound Juniors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

With another year mostly behind us, it’s time to take what we learned after a ride on this year’s college-go-round and pass it on to juniors.

Do let your interests, abilities, and needs guide your search for the colleges that are right for you.

Do notice that last sentence said “colleges”, not “college”.

Don’t think the rules for applying to college are the same as when your older sibling applied. Testing policies, admission rates, and application deadlines have changed in the last few years. Use the college websites to get the latest information.

Do take the SAT or ACT. Even if your list is all test-optional/no-test colleges, you may fall in love this fall with a college that requires them. Plus, a strong test score can improve your application status at a test-optional school. Just don’t send them until you see them.

Don’t forget online college tours are still around, and better than ever. The pandemic made just about every college invest more time and thought to their online tours, leading them to realize what they should have figured out a long time ago; students who can’t get to campus still deserve a great look at their school.

Do put together a list of colleges you’re interested in, if there are any right now. Throw them in a spreadsheet, along with a few notes on why the school interests you, and the application deadline. Don’t forget the why; that comes in handy later on. 6-8 colleges max is plenty; 10-12 if some of those are cocktail party colleges.

Don’t let cost hold you back from applying to a college. Put your list together based on the qualities of the college. The ones you think you can’t afford may offer great aid that makes it possible. Make sure your list is balanced with colleges where cost doesn’t matter as much, and you’ll be fine.

Do take a minute to review your activities list. In theory, you were supposed to start this list in ninth grade—but in theory, Rich Strike wasn’t supposed to win the Kentucky Derby (if you missed it, watch this—he was twelfth going into the last eighth of a mile).

You can recover. Get a notebook or spreadsheet, write down the activities you remember, then—and I’m serious here—ask your parents to look it over. They’ll remember many things you forgot, and they’ll be thrilled you asked them to do something for college besides pay for it.

Don’t leave school before asking two teachers if they can write you a good letter of recommendation. Generally, these are teachers of academic subjects from junior year, and you don’t need more than two. They can’t teach the same subject— I’d even be careful about getting letters from the Chemistry and Biology teachers—and asking them now gives them the summer to think about your letter, and even write it.

Don’t do anything related to college during the entire month of July, with the possible exception of visiting campuses. Many students want to dig in and start essays right after school’s out—and without exception, those essays sound dull and tired by September. Great essays come from a rested soul that knows itself. Take July to refresh and rediscover, and dig in come August.

Do ask for help. Teachers help with essays, counselors help with college searches and applications, and online sources from folks like Collegewise and Common Application offer free, solid advice, available anytime. You bring a unique self to the process; they bring the expertise needed to make the logistics look easy. Use them.

Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Make a Difference? You bet!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’ve written a couple of articles this year urging counselors to find ways to improve their work, without waiting for permission to do so. I love you all dearly, but we sometimes devote so much time talking about what’s wrong, we fail to take the next step and do something to fix it.

Since I make such a big deal about that, it’s only fair I send a shoutout to a counselor who has not just thought outside the box, but stepped outside of it as well—and that leads me to Lynda McGee. A long-time counselor who is highly respected by her colleagues, Lynda works at Downtown Magnets High School, a place that is home to many students who will be the first in their families to go to college. Creating a college-going atmosphere has its challenges, so when you’re able to create an atmosphere that has students looking far and wide, you’ve clearly done something.

But that wasn’t good enough for Lynda. Cocktail party colleges boast low admission rates, and because many first gen students take rejection hard, finding ways to support them when a college says no is especially important.

Enter the paper shredder. Based on an idea she borrowed from another counselor, Lynda now hosts a college rejection party. Admission is only by ticket; in this case, your ticket is a rejection letter from a college. Calling students up by college, those in attendance walk up, unfold their letter, and reduce it to a snowy pulp. The student with the most rejections gets a book voucher for college, and all participants get ice cream.

Why make such a big deal out of a no? Lynda tells us in this quote in the LA Times:

“This is a celebration of the fact that you took a risk,” McGee told the four dozen in attendance. “You went for something that you weren’t sure would even work out and in some cases it did not. But you know what? You’re all going to college somewhere.”

In other words, where you don’t go is not who you’ll be.

Magnet kids get into all kinds of great schools, with aid to boot, but Lynda knows too many first gen kids who will dwell on the nos they get more than the acceptances. That’s no way to finish senior year, or to head off to a college that’s perfect for them, so the shredding party is the tonic.

What exactly did it take to challenge this well-established notion that a no is the end of the world? A paper crown, a book voucher, a paper shredder—and a counselor who knows her job isn’t to be a college counselor, but to be a counselor who works with students in the college selection process. This isn’t the first time Lynda has challenged the status quo—you don’t get first gen kids to apply to the low admit schools without breaking some long-held social constructs—and she’s done this with a heart of gold, an iron will, and a vision that sees the big picture.

Which takes us back to you. Lynda made headlines with a rejection party; more important, she made her students stronger and better with a rejection party. Think about what you can do to improve the lives of your students, and you’ll find the gumption and resources to make it happen. And don’t be afraid to borrow from other counselors. Lynda did, and look what happened to her.

Better still—look what happened to her students.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

College Counseling in Under 500 Words

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Think you can’t help a student with little time? Hand them this, and watch what happens. (No, it isn’t perfect, but it’s a start).


What is college? Most people think of college as a four-year experience, but that’s not the case at all. Take a look at these college options; some may surprise you.


How do I choose my college path? Many students start their college part by focusing on what they want to do for a living, and your counselor can help you with career exploration. Take a look at this information. Other students will choose their path by completing a college search that includes factors like college major, location, size, and cost. Some of these searches are limited to 2- and 4-year colleges, to keep that in mind. One of those searches is here.


Be ready for college The single best for a successful time in college is to make the most out of your learning experiences in and out of the classroom. Use every assignment to sharpen your study skills, and use your time after school to learn more about yourself and the world around you. Take a peek.


Visit college campuses This is going to be your new home, so you need to make sure it feels right—and no two colleges are the same. Use this as your guide for making a successful visit.


Prepare for and take either the SAT or ACT Not all colleges require you to take a test as part of the admissions process, but many four-year colleges do. It’s wise to know what you’ll be tested on, so take a look at this advice.


Apply to college This is usually easier than you think, since most colleges don’t ask for essays or teacher letters of recommendation. That’s right—most students only need 20 minutes to apply to college. No matter what the application asks for, try this site for help:


Apply for financial aid You’ll most likely need your parents’ help to do this, and you sometimes have to complete more than one form, but it’s worth it.


Apply for scholarships Private scholarships can help pay for college, but keep in mind that lots of students are applying for them. Try this.


Choose your college Once you know where you’ve been accepted, and how much aid each college will offer, it’s time to choose the college that offers the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support. Take a look here.


Stay in touch with your college Once you tell the college you’re coming, they will be in touch over the summer with lots of information. Keep checking email and snail mail, or you may lose your spot in college. Take a peek.


Ask for help once you get to college College is a different place, with different rules and different resources all designed to help you. The key is to keep asking for help until you get it! Try this.


500 words, including these.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Still Can’t Decide? Try This

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

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. 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, and 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 colleges find they still have openings, and of course, they want to fill them. Getting financial aid might be a challenge, but you never know until you ask. The National Association for College Admission Counseling keeps an online list of college 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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Advice to Juniors on Sending Test Scores

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Juniors, welcome to the college application process. Many of you have been thinking about college, and some of you are just starting. Either way, the nuts and bolts of applying to college will soon be an important part of your life, and each part of the application has its own special needs. (Psst—need help with essays? Try this.)
That’s certainly true about sending test scores. For the longest time, the adults who work in college admissions—counselors and college admissions officers in particular—saw this as an easy idea. Make submission of test scores optional, and that will make for a much less stressful college application experience.
Then again, maybe not—and there are a good couple of reasons why:
  • If they haven’t already, there’s a good chance your counselor will offer this advice on sending test scores to test-optional schools: “If your scores are below the college’s average test score for admitted students, don’t send them. If they are higher, send them.”
As a rule, this isn’t a bad strategy, as long as you’re looking at an average that will help you make a good decision. If you’re applying to a college’s Engineering program, and all you have are averages for all admitted students, you may not be making the right choice. In cases like this, call the admissions office, or the Engineering school, and ask about average scores for admitted Engineering majors. There’s likely to be a big difference.
  •  A number of students believe test optional schools really prefer students who submit test scores. As proof of this, students point to the few colleges who actually break down their admit rates by category; in one case, a college took over 7 times as many students who submitted test scores over those that did not. This would suggest students would be wise to submit test scores, no matter what they are.
This strategy deserves a second look. Some would argue the only students who don’t submit scores are those students whose scores are low. I’m generally willing to go along with this idea, but if there’s a junior out there with a 1500 on the SAT who isn’t submitting them because they don’t think their future should be judged on one four-hour test, that’s the kid I’d take first if I were a college—and they’d get a full ride scholarship.
Building on this, the next assumption is students with low test scores also have low grades, so it doesn’t really matter if they submit test scores or not—either way, they wouldn’t get in.
This is where things fall apart. Many colleges first went test optional because they felt test scores didn’t really tell them anything they didn’t already know. Others—mostly school counselors—insisted some of the brightest students they know who would tear it up in college are just plain bad test takers. I can attest to this; I worked at a school for gifted kids, and out of a senior class of about 45, typically 3 or 4 didn’t test well. Since that represents up to 8 percent of the class, you can see where the “low scores means they can’t do the work” doesn’t hold up.
Juniors shouldn’t overinterpret the admit rates for non-test submitters. Your better bet is to look at the average GPA for admitted students; if your GPA is at or above that, and your scores aren’t great, apply anyway, and keep the scores out of it. The college may not admit many non-test takers, but the ones they do take are likely to fit your description.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

College Admissions and the French Horn

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I started my college education as a music major, but two things dissuaded me from pursuing this career path. First, five minutes at a college music program showed me I wasn’t in Kansas anymore—there were lots of folks better than me, and that gave me pause. Second, a summer camp job led me to consider education as a career, especially since I heard it came with a starting salary of — wait for it — $10,000, money most musicians never saw at that time.

My interest in music came to mind the other day when the latest round of admission data was posted. A record number of applications led to a record low in admit rates at many colleges; we’ll never know if that happened at some colleges, which decided this year not to release their admit rates at all. That’s really not much of a loss, since their admit rates last year were less than 5 percent. Once you get to that level, you already have the data you need to tell students admission to that college isn’t a sure thing.

As always, the low admit rates have led to discussions about just what colleges are looking for in a candidate. One counselor lamented that colleges with single digit admit rates aren’t admitting students; they’re admitting eighteen-year-olds who have demonstrated adult propensities.

That’s where my music background kicked in. In my music major days, symphonies had an interesting way of auditioning for open seats. The applicants would assemble backstage, where they were randomly assigned a number. Then, in order, each would walk to the center of the stage and play—except that the stage curtain was closed. Those in the audience listening to the audition couldn’t possibly know who was playing—so they had no idea if it was a friend, someone they’d played with before, what they looked like, or if they hopped on one foot while playing. All they were judged on was their ability to play.

I say this because many involved in college admissions are looking for a similar method to use when reviewing students. Admissions officers freely admit the current system is far from equitable, with every part of a college application offering an advantage to the wealthy. What’s been lacking from these “tear down the system” discussions are proposals to review applicants that are more equitable. If only it would be possible to put each applicant behind a metaphorical curtain of some kind, and ask them to do something that measured their ability to succeed in college, we’d just be all set.

The problem is that we don’t know what that is. Students with sterling high school records come home from college in less than a year, either lacking the emotional stamina to endure life outside the classroom, or unable to endure not being top banana at a college full of top bananas. Conversely, students whose high school careers were less than stellar end up in leadership positions because college makes sense to them in a way high school didn’t — that, or they simply grew up.

Some argue a new series of requirements are required in the admissions process that would even the admissions field, but as I’ve pointed out before, there is no skill out there that money can’t improve. If a college decides to let students in based on their cake-baking skills, summer culinary programs will pop up, and will only be attended by those who can afford them. It’s interesting to talk about finding the right curtain test for college admissions, but developing it is quite a different song.