Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Friends Don’t Let Friends US News

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Let’s say you are a student—a high school junior or senior. You’re thinking about going to college—in fact, you’ve made the decision to go to college—and you’re trying to decide which ones to look into. You have two or three ideas about what you want to study, you’re pretty sure what part of the country you’re interested in, you realize you’re a better learner with semester classes, and you want to make sure the college has a strong vegetarian menu.

Why on earth are you looking at the US News rankings?

I honestly have no idea if any of the qualities you’re looking for are part of the method US News uses to calculate its rankings, but even if they were, you can’t really explore the “grade” US News gives each of those qualities. In other words, a highly-ranked college may be great for one of your majors, but not the other three. They may offer semester classes, but US News doesn’t tell you that. And the college may have a requirement that each student start the week downing a full rack of baby-back ribs, but this would be news to—well, US News.

I can tell you what little I know about the US News rankings. Average SAT and ACT scores are a big part of them, and this has never gone over well with school counselors for all kinds of reasons. But now, with so many—I would be willing to say most—of the ranked colleges going test optional, this information has very little value or relevance. Some colleges may, in practice, still have a preference for test scores, but you can’t really give that information a value without being very judgmental—and that’s not the purpose of this kind of rankings.

I also know that an even bigger part of the rankings includes the opinions university presidents have of other colleges. It’s always nice when other people in your profession admire your work, but how many other colleges do university presidents really know well? Maybe fifty? So after that, they’re basically guessing—or being influenced by the materials other colleges send them in order for college presidents to give their college a higher rank (yes, this happens).

On top of that, I just have to ask—how many college presidents do you know, and how many of them know about your college interests? Don’t worry—the answer from most students is, and should be, zero, and even if it isn’t, knowing a college president doesn’t really improve your chances of getting into a college, with the small exception of the one they run. So this really shouldn’t matter to you.

Many people are excited about the changes US News made to their method this year, changes which tried to make the rankings more inclusive. Those are welcome, but it still makes the top choice school a place that’s ridiculously hard to get into, and it still doesn’t tell you if it’s a good place for you.

Come to think of it, it’s hard to say just what the rankings tell you about you and your college interests. Building a college list requires the right information, and many online college search tools help you do just that with the answers that really matter to you. US News doesn’t have that information. Please be sure to tell your parents that when they show you the rankings, and if they don’t believe you, show them this. It could make an important difference.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Why College?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

For a long time, most students never really thought about why they were going to college—they either did, or they didn’t. This depended a lot on if you went to a high school where a lot of people went to college. If college was the thing to do, everyone found one, and went.

That’s changed a little, thanks to two things. The cost of college has soared in the last fifteen years, to the point where some parents who went to college can’t afford to send their own children without some kind of help. Since asking for financial help is something most people are bad at, many parents are taking the option of college off the table without much discussion.

The second reason is the COVID quarantine. Colleges all responded to the initial quarantine in pretty much the same way—by sending everyone home, and putting classes online. Since then, colleges have found all kinds of different approaches to keeping their students educated and safe, but most of them still don’t involve the social parts of college life. Saturday afternoons aren’t all about football, clubs and organizations are largely online activities, and something as basic as a trip to the campus library can require scheduling a week in advance.

If you put these two factors together, you can see why some students aren’t quite sure if college is what it used to be—and why some parents are wondering what exactly they’re paying for. If being a student means staying at home—or worse, being confined to your dorm room—to learn classes online, aren’t there less expensive options to do this? On the other hand, if you decide to pass on college, is the economy really going to give you a chance at getting a reasonable job with a high school diploma—and even if that job exists, how safe is it to go out there every day?

The long-term benefits of college are clear—workers with a four-year degree will likely earn an additional million dollars over their careers, according to some studies, and other studies suggest students who earn a degree are happier people, and more engaged in their lives. But all of these findings reflect a college experience that doesn’t exists for most people, in an economy that isn’t likely to be the same any time soon.

What’s the best way to handle this? First, look into the college option with all your heart and soul, as if COVID didn’t exist. Each college still has qualities that make it different and special, and learning about those is a big part of the college search. It’s also the only way you can start to figure out where you would feel at home, challenged, and supported—the Big Three of the college search.

Once you’ve done that, get a feel for what’s going on now with the colleges you love. How are classes meeting? Is living on campus even an option? Colleges are going to spend the next few years needing more students, so your chances of admission are, in general, better than ever. That means you can afford to ask more questions, to make sure the fit is right between you and the college. That includes cost, where colleges are eager to talk about how to make going there fit your budget.

Money and COVID have changed the way to look at college, but it’s still a pretty incredible experience. Before you decide to take a pass, make sure you know what you would be missing out on. What you find will likely surprise you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Improving College Access Now, in Your Building, for Free

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Fall may bring a new school year, but some of our work as counselors simply picks up where we left off. That’s the case in the world of college admission, where a June report indicated another drop in enrollment, highlighted by a 9.5% drop in community colleges. Given most students who don’t start college right after high school never enroll, this has long term implications for our workforce and our economy.

This drop in college numbers has led some counselors to wonder what can be done to turn this situation around—and they came up with an answer. One of the long-standing mysteries of college counseling is how it works—we talk to students about applying to college, but the actual completion of the application is left for the student, largely on their own, after school, or on weekends. If they get stuck with an item, they either wait to ask their counselor in school (a waiting period fraught with its own challenges), or they simply take their best guess.

Applying to college isn’t always hard, but it is important, and the challenges student face in making the right college choice deserve as much support as possible. That’s why these counselors worked this summer to answer a simple question: What if students could search for and apply to college and scholarships during the school day, as part of a class, with the help and support of a counselor, college adviser, or other college-aware adult?

The answer has taken form in a curriculum called Senior College Seminar (SCS), a program designed to give students college help when it will do them the most good—when help is available. The curriculum is 37 units, and begins with important ideas like Why College, and What is College. It then covers all aspects of the college search and application process, including building a list, writing essays, tracking extracurricular activities, and more. Paying for college takes up several lessons, and the final lessons discuss the transition to college, and avoiding summer melt.

The beauty of SCS lies in its flexibility. Knowing high schools have very different schedules, lessons can be taught in segments of 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 20 minutes-plus. Since each lesson is written independent of the others, this means they can be taught in any order, or skipped all together. Schools can create a separate SCS class, add it to an existing class (like a Careers class or study hall), build it into a required class (as a unit for, say the English 12 program), or run it as an after school activity. With its detailed resources and minimal tech requirements, SCS comes complete and ready to teach, while leaving educators free to add to each lesson as they see fit.

I would hesitate to share information about SCS with you, since I am its principal author (with the help of a stunning array of colleagues), but SCS is free to any educator. Our friends at SCOIR have been very supportive of SCS, and all you need do is follow this link to get your free copy—you don’t have to be a SCOIR user. It’s clear there’s an interest here, since the site had over 1300 downloads in the first week alone.

Counselor time is more valuable than ever, as our services as mental health professionals increase during this time of COVID. SCS allows counselors to meet those needs, while making sure college planning doesn’t get overlooked with an approach that is structured, individualized, and hands-on. There’s never been a greater need for that kind of college help.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

What College Admissions Did During Our Summer Vacation

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The summer no one could wait to start has come to an end all too soon. The result is a mix of starts, stops, and things staying the same that leave us in a place a little like last year, but not quite. Let’s review:

What hasn’t changed. Most colleges with a test-optional admissions policy last year have left that option open for students this year. State law requires Florida and Georgia state schools to use testing as an admissions criteria, and a handful of other schools have gone back to the testing requirement. But the cancellation of testing dates in August may leave policy makers little choice but to suspend those statutes, if only for this year.

Most college applications still invite the student to write about their COVID experience, and how it may have affected their academic, extracurricular, and personal lives. While most colleges leave this as an optional essay, wise students know “optional” translates into “if you really are interested in coming here, answer this question.” Students would also be wise, as they were last year, to make sure to write about something non-COVID in any other essay. The pandemic has been a game changer, for sure, but colleges are eager to hear about all parts of a student’s life. A mix of essay answers achieves that.

What has changed. High school seniors are likely to find more colleges welcoming them for campus visits. The online tours used last year proved to be wildly popular, and will still be used by most colleges as well. Since some colleges have already modified their plans to offer on campus classes, students wanting to do an in-person visit may want to book their visits early, as this option may disappear in a matter of weeks.

The same is true for the traditional high school visit, where colleges came to talk to students. More of those are in place as well, but many colleges found they could reach more students—particularly the highly underserved rural and urban students—with online meetings. Look for those to remain included in the mix.

What’s new. This year’s college applicants can submit their work knowing that most colleges with test optional policies have had a year to learn how to read an application that has no test scores. This makes it easier for colleges to tell students just what they’re looking for in a test-free application, something many couldn’t say last year. Be sure to ask your college rep about this, if they don’t share that information with you in a presentation.

Counselors report most of the changes in this year’s version of Common App are somewhat minor, with the exception of CA’s requirement that students must include their Social Security Number. While this raises concerns with privacy advocates, colleges feel the addition will serve as a vital tool to link the admissions application with the financial aid application, a step that becomes even more important during the pandemic.

A couple of new free tools have popped up for counselor use. Statistics maven Jon Boeckenstedt from Oregon State has created a new graph of what colleges offer a specific major, and how many degrees the college awarded in that major last year. The source is free, and is receiving rave reviews.

Another free resource is a curriculum for a class I wrote allowing seniors to search and apply for colleges and scholarships during the school day. There'll be more on this next week, but if you can’t wait, click here to access what 1350 counselors downloaded the first week it was available.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Just in Case

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

(For your seniors, and for your summer enjoyment—an excerpt from my new book, College is Yours 3. It’ll be out in the fall. See you then.)

Seniors, sometimes the life you build turns out to be the life you don’t want to live after all. If that happens to you, I offer you this story for safekeeping. I hope this lad’s adventures do not await you—but in the event a day come that leaves you wondering about your own capabilities, remember this.

My first client was a wreck. A bright enough boy, with good grades and test scores to boot—but no self-esteem. None. He clung to the sides of the hallways between classes, didn’t ask many questions about college, and ended up in the honors college of a public university he had no business going to. For as nice as it was for some, he had other things to do, and just didn’t know it.

Fall of the freshman year, disaster was right at his heels. Between the blasting stereos and the late night screaming—and this was in the honors dorm—he finally figured out this wasn’t the place for him. After two weeks, he packed his bags and headed for home. He managed to enroll in the fall semester of a local commuter college that started late, but he really longed for something different. He reapplied to a residential college where he thought things might be better. He knew some students who went there, the campus was pretty, and it was big enough for him to be anonymous, just like always.

He headed out for his third college on New Year’s Day, less than six months after he’d graduated from high school. After about three weeks, it was pretty clear this place wasn’t heaven either—and yet, something was different. The stereos weren’t as loud—it was Winter semester, after all—and a couple of professors talked to him like he was a human being, so he decided this was his place to make his stand. For once, he was going to steer his destiny, and not the other way around.

With that change in attitude, things worked out pretty well. He met up with some high school friends, who invited him to join their intramural basketball and softball teams (he was awful, but it didn’t matter—so were they). His understanding of classical music impressed a couple of girls enough to get past his low self-esteem and go out on a couple of dates—nothing intense, but still reassuring.

His academic interests led him to work as an assistant on a research project studying language development among American children—groundbreaking stuff at the time—and he gained the respect of his instructors, especially the writing profs, who told him he really had something if he wanted to work at it.

Twenty-four months after starting at his third college-- two and a half years after graduating from high school—he signed his first employment contract. Two days after that, he walked across the commencement stage, not once but twice, having earned enough credits for two separate degrees, making him the first in his family to graduate from college, and a working stiff to boot.

Three months after that, he turned 20.

I know you have worked hard to build the very best future you possibly can. In the event your current plan doesn’t work out, there will be another plan for another day. Listen closely, always be receptive to the possible, ask for help when you need it, take help when it is offered. Know that the choice to succeed is ultimately yours to make and yours alone, but also know you are never alone.


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Fine-Tuning Advice to Transfer Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Many students made some quick changes to their college plans last spring, and many of those changes were centered around a two-college strategy—start a local community college, transfer once COVID’s over. This approach saved time and money, and kept students from going stir crazy with nothing else to do.

Those students are starting to put their transfer plans in motion, and the early returns are anything but reassuring. Despite our best intentions as counselors, many students didn’t understand the ins and outs of transferring colleges, and now they have credits that don’t “count” towards anything. Did we tell them? Sure. Did they listen? Well…

COVID may appear to be on the wane, but there will be enough students in this year’s class employing a two-college strategy to make sure they know what they’re getting into. Publish this information early and often to all families.

Get a transfer guide Four-year colleges know about the two-college strategy, and the smart ones have planned for it with the development of transfer guides, a step-by-step explanation of what classes to take locally that will keep them on schedule for a degree. If your student is going to Bloom County Community College with the goal of transferring to State U for a Business degree, State U likely has a transfer guide with the exact course numbers for the student to take at BCCC. As long as the student follows that guide, the courses will count towards a degree, and they’ll stay on track.

Talk to the advisers at the college where you’re going to finish, not where you’re starting The counselors and advisers at community colleges are caring, helpful professionals—I was one for six years. Still, if State U is thinking about changing their transfer requirements, the advisers in the transfer office at State U are going to know this before anyone else does. That’s why students should touch base with the advisers at their destination college at least once every semester/quarter. This is especially true if State U doesn’t have a transfer guide for the degree the student is pursuing, where changes can occur quickly.

Not all credits transfer, and some don’t transfer to a degree This is the single most confusing point about college credits, so it’s important students get this. A student can take a community college class—say, Algebra II—that State U will accept for credit. That’s great, unless State U requires the student to pass College Algebra to earn the degree the student’s interested in. If that’s the case, the student is earning transfer credit that really has no purpose. They may need to take Algebra II to have the knowledge needed to pass College Algebra, but that would happen if the student was going to State U right away. Either way, the student ends up with elective credits—and there’s only so many of those they need in any given degree, so they want to keep a close eye on those.

Calling Tom Cruise If it sounds like the two-college strategy has a little more risk, it does. This is especially true for students who don’t know what they want to major in, or what their four-year college will be. If that’s the case, they should stick with the basics—English, History, Science—which are usually required for most four-year degrees. There’s no guarantee, but it’s their best bet.

Publish these tips and send them home often Too many students change to a two-college strategy in the summer, so make sure this advice is handy to all families, not just the ones who ask about it.

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.