Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One More Essay to Write This Week

By Patrick O'Connor

Seniors, I have some news-- college is going to have to wait.  You’ve been drafted.

With this economy, Santa and Hanukah Harry have had to consolidate their workshops. Banks aren’t sure the merger will work, so the pre-holiday line of credit they need for inventory is being withheld, and the Federal government has refused to intervene.  The globe’s gift-giving leaders are offering community service credit for anyone willing to pitch in and close the gap—and what college in their right mind is going to look past a letter of recommendation from the Big Two?

You’re busy with college applications, but helping out SC and HH won’t take very long—in fact, you don’t even have to leave your keyboard.  Put your college essays aside for a second, and start a new document; the gift you need to give is heading to your high school counselor.

OK, now look—language like that is going to move you to the top of the Eternally Naughty list. I know it’s not all that cool to come out and ask for a present, and while this isn’t an easy thing to do, your counselor deserves this.  I know some of you think they haven’t been all that much help with your college plans, but if you had 435 kids, I bet you’d have trouble remembering their birthdays, let alone where they’re applying to school...

…and don’t worry if you don’t know what they want—I have that all covered.

Vacation’s coming up, and with buddies home from college and family in from out of town, you may have to make some choices that were clear in Health class, but less so when they’re right in front of you.  What your counselor wants this holiday season if for you to stick to your guns; college or no, you’ve got a future that will only be possible if you’re around to live it, and knowing you’re willing to do your part will make your counselor’s  holiday.

The gift comes in two parts.  First, copy and paste the following few lines, fill in the blanks, and e-mail it to your counselor (their e-mail is on the school Web site, just in case it’s not on your address list):

“Dear Counselor (putting their name in would be a nice touch, but do what you can):

Just so you know, I’ll take care of myself over the holidays.  When I hang out with my college and high school buddies, I’ll use my head, and I’ll make sure somebody sober drives me home—same thing with family events.  In fact, if Brad and Angelina split, and one of them pulls to the curb in a Porsche and asks me to go clubbing with them, I’m checking their BAC first—while I get a phone photo of me leaning on the Porsche, of course.

I hope this helps you sleep through the night over break. I’ll see you in two weeks.


(sign here)”

I can see Santa and Harry smiling already—better yet, so is your counselor

Oh, right—the second thing you have to do?  Mean it.  They may not know your favorite color, but counselors didn’t go into this profession to do paperwork, and some of the work they’ve done to create opportunities for you is work you’ll never know about.  Your school counselor may not be up there with Santa and Harry, but they’ve kept an eye out for you in their own way; think of this as their milk and cookies for the holidays, and we’ll all be better off.

Especially you.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All That Work for Nothing? Think Again

By Patrick O'Connor

Word is, a student on a TV show got bad news this week from her dream college.  She applied early (action?) and she was rejected.

I hear she took it badly, which clearly means her counselor forgot to tell her quite a few things:

*  Most early application programs saw an increase in applicants this year.
*  These schools may admit more students early, but they won’t be taking everyone…
*  …and unlike years past, they won’t be moving all early applicants to the regular applicant pool.

In case you find yourself in the same boat, or perhaps deferred, I have one word of advice.  OK, it’s actually a number.


No, this is not the high score on some new version of the SAT.  850 is the number of valedictorians recently rejected from one of America’s most prestigious colleges.  True, this was in the regular applicant pool, but still, these students represented the best in their high schools; they did everything they were “supposed” to do—and yet, they didn’t even get to the wait list.

At this point, you’re probably thinking one of two things:

1.  “Wow, they put in all of that work for nothing.”  (I hear this is how the TV student took the news.)
2.  “Geez, if they can’t get in, I don’t stand a chance.”

It had to be hard to be turned down by a school they loved—but did all of that preparation really lead to nothing?  Given everything these students had learned, the many ways they had grown, and how they overcame adversity and embraced creativity in making Plans B, C, and Q, did they really get nothing out of it?

If so, they have every right to be unhappy, but not with the college. They should be unhappy for letting the sun rise and set 1307 times from the first day of 9th grade to the day the college said no, never once appreciating all that each of those days had to offer.

They should hang their heads a little to realize, just now, the difference they’ve made to their classmates, their teammates, and the people they served in the soup kitchen.

And if they look back with a little regret on the many times they blew off a compliment from a parent or a teacher because the goal of college wasn’t realized just yet, that’s more than OK.  They now know it was at that moment that the goal of fully living each day was conquered with a flourish—and understanding that will make each day all the richer at the wonderful college that had the good sense (and room) to take them.

What about you, and the colleges you’ve applied to?  They’re looking for great students who have done wonderful things with their lives.  That goes beyond test scores and class rank—it goes to who you are, what you care about, and how you see the world.  Problem is, they run out of room before they run out of highly qualified applicants.

The thing to focus on then, is not who told you no, but who tells you yes.  If a college wants you but runs out of room, that’s their fault; if they don’t see you for who you really are, well, maybe that’s not the place for you after all. Either way, your contributions will be greatly admired, and badly needed, by the college that has the good sense to tell you yes—which means any no, from any college, simply cannot touch you.

Next time you’re in Hollywood, pass that along to our femme fatale.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

College Decisions Come Out Next Week. Are You Ready?

By Patrick O'Connor

The first round of early college decisions will be released next week, and things look especially tense for two reasons.  A number of bizarre articles cropped up online this fall, telling students the best thing they could do to improve their chances of admission at top notch schools was to apply Early Decision.  Based on percentages, the articles said, students stood a much better chance of getting in by applying ED.

That’s all well and good, except the article didn’t say students admitted as ED applicant have to attend that college and agree to withdraw all other college applications immediately.

One online article’s response to these concerns?  Hey, it’s October—if they don’t know now, they never will.

Now that’s counseling.

The same increase is happening with Early Action applications, where admitted students have until May 1 to make their choice—the only advantage of Early Action is that students hear early. Because a handful of college increased the number of EA students they admitted last year, the word in the senior hallway was that all colleges “liked” students to apply EA.  The result?  A record number of EA decisions are also expected, including more early admits—after all, if more students are applying early, it makes sense to take more applicants early.

All of this “get in early” talk is pretty exciting, and it’s great when students are organized and apply with focus and fervor—until next week, when students will realize three things:

  •  More early applicants means more early denials.  Colleges may like to take students early, but they aren’t going to take everyone who applies early—and unlike five years ago, more colleges are simply going to say no to those who don’t get in, rather than give them a second look with the regular applicants in January.
  •  Since more colleges are taking early students, those seniors getting a “no” next week are less likely to get admitted to any college that has an early program. More early admits means fewer regular admits, so these students will be competing for fewer spaces at many selective colleges come January.
  •  Some Early Decision applicants who decided to get their college counseling from the Internet will now find themselves required to go to a college they like, but may no longer love, if indeed they ever loved it in the first place. The “one and done” nature of Early Decision sounded great six weeks ago, but students wisely formulated Plan B in case they didn’t get in.  Now that they are in, they may need help being psyched with what now seems like the educational equivalent of an arranged marriage.
In sum, the next two weeks are going to be busy ones for counselors, thanks to bad generic advice on the Internet about Early Decision; students applying Early Action based on unsubstantiated rumors, and students being rushed into a college choice they didn’t really have to make.

We’ll need our best skills to support students through the challenges brought by denials, and even acceptances; search for great colleges that aren’t siphoning off huge numbers of admission offers to early applicants; and not look each of these students in the eye and scream “Why didn’t you ask me about applying early, instead of getting your advice on the Internet?”

Of course, it’s easier to avoid this last temptation, given this time of year is all about peace on earth—so go easy on the early applicants of 2012, and be grateful at least they’re coming to you now and asking “What’s next?” instead of waiting until May.

Follow Up—Another article popped up about the lack of counselor training in college advising—be sure to see it at , and take action.

Also, congratulations and thanks to Eastern Michigan University, who heard the counselor cry for more training, and created a specialist certificate in postsecondary planning.  One down, and about 400 to go.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Helping your Students Make the Most out of the Next Three Weeks

By Patrick O'Connor 

They call these the lost weeks in high school, the three weeks between Thanksgiving recess and December break where learning is supposed to be going on, where teachers are wondering why Thanksgiving break couldn’t be five weeks long, and students are hoping for the first snow day of the year.  Yes, classes are still meeting, and homework is still being done; it’s just a little harder to concentrate right now, while everyone is choosing sides on the musical quality of Justin Bieber’s holiday song.

School counselors know better than to weigh in on the musical tastes of their students, but we need to be alert to make sure our students know how important these next weeks really are.  A quick flip of the calendar at a high school on semesters shows students have one or two weeks in January before the semester ends; since most of that time is spent reviewing material, the time to take your grade to the next level is now.

The same is just as true for students on a trimester schedule.  Chances are the first trimester just ended around Thanksgiving, so it would be easy to view these three weeks as the “warm up” for the second trimester.  But anyone who’s been a student on a trimester schedule will tell you there is no such thing as a warm up period; you turn the academic switch on and keep it wide open for twelve intense weeks.  Coming back from December Break ready to learn is great, but students cruising through these first three weeks will come back to find 25% of their grade cast in stone—and nothing in Santa’s bag is going to change that.

Counselors need to make sure students are focusing on the tasks at hand this holiday season, and they can do so in three simple steps:

1.  Increase your CBWA time.  Counselors may be trained to do private sessions over long periods of time, but this time of year requires us to be in the hallways and in the cafeteria, checking in with students and saying the right word or two that will keep them on track.  Counseling By Wandering Around is a great way to get students to remember why they’re in school any time, but especially now.

2.  Offer more study skills workshops.  Students in semester schools will need some pointers on how to prepare for upcoming finals; students in trimester schools will need a reminder of how to make sense out of the first few weeks of the new term. Either way, counselor-led study skills workshops can help students hear about the importance of studying from a new voice; this is even more powerful if counselors team up with teachers to present them in class, but workshops during and after school can go a long way as well.

3.  Touch base with your seniors.  Since many colleges have a January 1 application deadline, it’s easy for seniors to get so caught up in writing the perfect essay that they end up with first semester grades that are far from perfect—and they need to remember that grades come first.  Seniors may need encouragement to put the essays aside until vacation, and keep up with daily assignments, since homework plays a big part in all class grades.  It’s also important to make sure seniors are entering their last high school holidays with a bright attitude; get out there and be seen among your seniors, and offer support where you can.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Effective College Counseling is Just Eight Minutes Away

By Patrick O'Connor

School counselors have a new reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving season, thanks to a report released yesterday on the state of school counseling.  Sponsored by The Kresge Foundation, the College Board’s Annual Survey of School Counselors measured counselor attitudes on a number of issues.

Two quotes draw important attention to the area of counselor readiness.  As the report states,

Although the majority of counselors have a master’s degree (73 percent) and important prior work experience (58 percent were teachers of administrators), only a small minority feel very well trained for their jobs (only 16 percent rate their training as a 9 or 10 on a 10-point scale). Nearly three in 10 (28 percent) believe their training did not prepare them well for their job and more than half (56 percent) feel only somewhat well trained.

The report adds counselors have sought out additional training in a number of specialized areas, with college and career counseling the single largest area where counselors sought more training.

This same theme of preparedness is bluntly addressed in the conclusion of the report, with a recommendation to

Align Counselor Education and Training Requirements with the Needs on the Ground.  Counselors indicate that their preservice training, while somewhat satisfactory, does not adequately prepare them for the realities they are facing in schools.  Course requirements should be updates to reflect this reality, including mandatory work on advising for college readiness, access and affordability.

(The full report can be found at

The College Board report provides further evidence of the yawning gap between education theory and the reality of working with real students with real needs, a gap unrecognized by most counselor educators and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).  Trained school counselors know the name of the behavior that clings steadfastly to an incorrect view of reality.  It’s called denial, and while counselor educators are able to teach graduate students to recognize this trait, they are evidently not able to do so themselves, at least when it comes to their own attitudes about improved training in college counseling.

The College Board report may be the tonic that leads counselor educators to acceptance-- but like all clients going through the five stages of grief, their recovery is best supported with the help of a wise counselor…

…and that’s where you come in.  Now that College Board has joined Public Agenda and other studies in calling for counselor training reform, school counselors must show their gratitude for this work by taking action. Five minutes is enough time to e-mail the director of your counselor training program and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (go to and call on them to put the real needs of students first by adding a required, comprehensive college admission counseling class to their master’s programs.

Another three minutes is all it takes to contact the American School Counselor Association (<>) and CACREP (go to to ask them to end the circular blame game where counselor educators feel bound by CACREP standards, and CACREP leaves  the standards as is because counselor educators aren’t demanding they be changed.

College Board has harvested a bumper crop of counselor opinion, leaving counselors an opportunity to sow seeds of meaningful change in the way future counselors are trained in college admission counseling. As busy as we all are, eight minutes is all the time you need to be a hero and not a turkey; since we all know what students and counselors really need, and what happens to turkeys at this time of year, the choice couldn’t be clearer.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What’s Best, or Whatever?

By Patrick O'Connor

I was working on some last-minute college applications today, and nothing was going to distract me from them.  Students who came by to see me were asked to come back later, and phone calls went straight to voice mail.  Nothing was going to keep me from getting these applications out early, but then an ambulance siren blared up to my office window and cut out abruptly, meaning it was in the school parking lot…

…and suddenly, the applications could wait.

Fortunately, everything was fine—but school counselors everywhere are feeling that way about their work this week, as the headlines unravel two human relationship stories that give everyone in our profession pause.  A presidential candidate and football coaches are accused of everything from bad judgment to blatant abuse of others, and suddenly the college applications, the report card reviews, and the study skills seminar are on hold—there are other issues to consider.

The headlines are beyond our influence, but they serve as important reminders of the duty we owe our students, our parents, our colleagues, and our community.  While requirements vary from state to state, all school personnel are held to high standards when it comes to reporting suspected abuse of any kind—verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual.  If you can’t remember the last all-building meeting—not a memo—on the topic of Duty to Report, it’s time to head to the principal’s office and set one up.

There are three important factors to consider.  First, this has to do with all school personnel—not just teachers or certified school counselors.  Depending on the state, anyone who works in a school—secretaries, janitors, bus drivers, college counselors, lunch workers, and yes, coaches who come to work after school-- are all required to know the law and act on it.

Second, this is about suspecting abuse.  If a situation gives you any reason to think abuse could be occurring, you must report that suspicion.  You don’t need stone cold proof; you just need that bad feeling that won’t go away; make the call, so the state has the opportunity to protect that child. If you think there’s more to do, that comes next, but this comes first.

Third—and this seems to be the issue that made headline news-- most Duty laws do not allow you to transfer the obligation by reporting to a supervisor.  If you suspect a student is being abused, most states don’t let you off the hook by telling your boss—you have to tell your boss and report it to the state yourself.  In most cases, this report is anonymous; in each case, it’s an important step in protecting a student and the community.

It’s been too long since the music and film industries surrendered any claim to the title of Builders of Strong Male Minds, and now amateur sports and political leaders are walking away from this same duty.  With so many men embracing all varieties of “Whatever” as their life motto, counselors everywhere wonder how today’s boys will become tomorrow’s men if there is no one to point out the path and inspire them to stay on it.

This week’s news gives them two more reasons to give up hope, but one simple trip to the principal’s office can jump start your school to explore meetings, programs, discussions, and behavioral changes that can point out a better way for them, and for all of us.

You’ve got this article, you’ve got a printer, and you’ve got the same choice the headline makers apparently had.  Which will it be—what’s best, or whatever?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Your Essay Limit Just Got Lowered. OK.

By Patrick O'Connor

College applicants received a cold blast from the East this weekend, and I’m not talking about the snowstorm that created power outages across New England.  This cold front was delivered by the New York Times, which had an article in its Sunday edition on the stress college-bound seniors were feeling.

Common Application, the non-profit that allows students to apply to hundreds of colleges with one uniform basic application, had reinstituted a word limit on the essay seniors can write this year.  The limit was lifted last year, but colleges complained the essays were too long. Common App obliged them by putting the limit back on, and the Times piece focused on students in angst over having to scale their 800 word essays down to something reasonably close to the stated limit of 500 words.

Before you say “so what’s the big deal”, it’s important to know Common App has said all along that the 500 word essay isn’t being enforced, at least by them.  If a student really wants to send an 800 word essay, they can; based on comments from Common App colleges, the Times piece suggested some of them would take notice, and possibly umbrage, with students who went much past 530, but if the student wanted to roll the dice, that was up to them.

OK—now I’ll say it with you.  What’s the big deal?

Don’t get me wrong—it’s easy to see why students would be confused and a little adrift with the announcement that Common App’s essay had a limit that wasn’t being enforced by Common App; to a 17 year-old, that’s like a school having a tardy policy, when the teacher takes attendance at the end of class.  Mix in the idea that a college may enforce the limit in some unknown way with the general tumult of applying to college, and the potion for problems is ready to serve…

…unless, of course, you just follow the rules.

It’s true each college has their own rules, so keeping track of all of them can be confusing, but there’s a way to do that (did you read College is Yours 2.0?)  It’s also true there are some “rules” most colleges will let you bend, like sending one extra letter of recommendation, as long as it really says something different than the others (did you read College is Yours 2.0?)

It’s just as true colleges will be happy to read a 530 word essay that’s great, and they will be less happy to read a 250 word essay that isn’t great.  (Well, there is one exception to this rule—but you’ll have to read College is Yours 2.0)

This last rule has been around forever, and the Times is telling you it’s back.  So write what you have to say and edit it down to around 500 words.  It makes for a better essay (really), it sharpens the editing skills you’ll need in college, and it brings you one step closer to learning which rules are real, and which ones have some flex.  If it bothers you to think someone else is sending in a 750 word tome, think about how they’ll feel when the college rep reading it says, in their own way, “hoo boy.”

College is supposed to broaden your view of the world, and if it’s done well, so should applying to college.  Plan A is now Plan B, and it’s going to help you get into college, not get in your way— in other words, little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting.

So aim for 500.  It’s all right.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is it Smart to Apply Early? Maybe

By Patrick O'Connor

With November 1st coming up, a good number of students may be coming to your door and asking the age-old college question, “Should I apply early?”

As adults, we are wired to respond to this question with an enthusiastic “Yes!”, since the notion of a student doing something ahead of time is pretty exciting, since it’s pretty rare.

Happily, we are trained counselors, so we understand the better thing to do with this question is to ask a clarifying question, like:

“That depends. Where are you applying?”

Since more and more colleges are encouraging student to apply “early”, this specific information is needed so you can give the right advice—which, much to the horror of our adult sensibilities, is sometimes “no.”

If you’re confused, it’s time for a quick review of the “early” terminologies:

Many colleges offer an Early Action option of applying.  Also known as EA, students submitting completed applications by this date (test scores, essays, application fee—the whole thing) will get a decision earlier than most other applicants.  This can be much earlier; some colleges promise students who apply EA by November 1 an answer before Christmas, while their other students will have to wait until April 1.

Just as important, EA doesn’t commit students to anything; if the college admits the student early, the student still has until May 1 to decide which college to attend.  There’s no pressure to pay early or to only go to that college—it’s just a small reward for having things together sooner.

On the other hand, students must be very careful of Early Decision, or ED.  With ED, students apply early—BUT if the college admits, the student agrees to withdraw applications to all other colleges, and promises to attend that college next fall, provided that college meets all of their demonstrated financial need.  Students can apply to other colleges at the same time, but they can only apply ED to one college at a time, so this is serious business—if you’re in, that’s where you’re going, end of story.

A very few colleges offer Early Action Single Choice.  This works like EA, so students aren’t making an early commitment to that college; however, they are agreeing that this is the one and only college they are applying to as an Early school—no EA or ED applications anywhere else.  There are many variations to EASC, including some where students can apply to public colleges Early.  If a student is applying to an EASC school, read the fine print closely, and twice.

Once you know where the student is applying, the advice about applying early is easier to tailor to their individual needs.  As a rule, the only advantage to applying Early Action is that the student hears sooner from the college; since many students are anxious to hear, many apply early, and most colleges don’t take a larger percentage of students from this early program.

The rules change with Early Decision.  Since the student is offering an early commitment to the college, some schools take a very large number of students from the ED group—in some cases, as much as 50%.  Since fewer students apply to ED programs (many students are turned off by the commitment), a student’s chances of getting admitted could (that’s could) go way up by applying ED—it’s just that the increased chance comes at the price of making a very early decision.

There’s a chance some students will come in with questions about applying early to colleges that don’t offer ED, EA, or EASC.  We’ll talk about those next week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Debt We Owe Our Children, and The One They Shouldn’t Owe Anyone

By Patrick O'Connor

This is one of my father’s favorite jokes.

A man walks into a doctor’s office and says “Doc, it hurts when I do this”, and stretches his right arm way over his head.  “What do you think?”

The doctor says “I think you shouldn’t do that anymore.”

I thought of this joke when I read the piece in the Atlantic Wire, indicating Americans now owe over $1 trillion dollars in student loans (you can see it at

The good news is that this is the first time this has happened; the bad news is that it happened a first time; the ugly part is yet to come.  Since this debt has doubled in the last five years, student debt is likely to break the $2 trillion mark by 2018 if we keep the same borrowing rate.

What exactly should be done?  Some steps are already in place to follow the doctor’s orders:

*  For-profit colleges have been closely scrutinized, and students from these colleges have the highest default rates.  It may not be cause-effect, but enrollment at many for-profits is down, so it’s likely more students are watching their wallets more closely when they enter the hallowed halls of any college.
*  The Net Price Calculator debuts on college Web sites right around Halloween.  This Federally-mandated device is designed to give parents and students better information on what they can expect to pay and borrow if they go to that college.  Since financial aid packages are a combination of art and science, this tool may not be the debt reduction cure-all of college, but it’s likely to take at least some of the trick out of the treat of postsecondary education.
*  Some colleges are simply eliminating loan out of financial aid packages.  Not many colleges can afford to do this, but the example set by the few that can is inspiring other less-heeled institutions to find ways to reduce the amount of loan a student has to pay, further proof that necessity is the mother of invention.

This may be a great start, but clearly there is more for us to do:

*  School counselors need to take a much more active and early role in the college finance education of their students and parents. There isn’t much to be saved in an economy like this, but putting it in the right place—and in the name of the right person—can make a huge difference over time, and it’s time parents used these important allies in the war on college costs. Elementary school is a great time to begin.
*  Counselors need to show parents how to talk with their children about money for college.  Too many parents encourage applications to colleges they can’t afford, saying they don’t want to crush their child’s college dreams.  Armed with no financial information, students blithely sign off on all kinds of documents, and leave college with four years of great memories and a lifetime of debt.  They deserve to know they have a choice; counselors have to help parents know how to explain it.

*  Counselors need more financial aid training in graduate school.  Effective counseling includes the ability to explain the major forms needed to apply for aid, the major sources to find different kinds of aid, and different college strategies students can pursue while saving money. Professors who run counselor training programs often insist they don’t have time to teach these vital skills, but in light of this finding, it’s way past time for them to understand one simple fact—Docs, it hurts when you don’t do this.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Attention Seniors—Apply to College This Week. All of You.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  

If you’re looking for a way to motivate your students to apply to college, North Carolina just may be on to something.

Several years back, the College Foundation of North Carolina started College Application Week.  The idea was simple—pick a week to focus all of the energies of a high school on getting all seniors to apply to college that week.

That’s right- all seniors.

If you’re thinking this is a lofty goal, you’re right.  Fall is chock full of homecoming and football games and first quarter report cards and a million other things, so it’s easy for students to be distracted and hard to get teachers to lend their support to the effort.

If you’re thinking, this could be a logistical nightmare, you’re also right.  To really pull this off, you’d need to prep the seniors ahead of time with all kinds of information; you’d need enough computers up and running with Internet access so they could apply online; you’d need armloads of application fee waivers for students to use; and you’d need to prep parents with financial aid information, so they would have time to explore all college options with their senior before the big week came.

If you’re thinking, this is just too complicated to work, you’re wrong. During the first College Application Week, almost 42,000 college applications were submitted by North Carolina Seniors.  The week before, about 4500 were sent; same for the week after.  The following year, it was 53,000, *and* the average number of applications for the weeks before College Application Week were way up compared to the previous year.

These numbers don’t represent all seniors, but it’s far more than would ordinarily apply—and the results suggest more students are actual going to college, especially among low-income students, who get so caught in the energy of the week, they decide to take the plunge.

It gets better.  This kind of program can only work with many volunteers, and that means volunteers from college admissions offices, all roaming your hallways for a week.  Students can’t help but get the college message during the week, because it is literally everywhere in your school.  Talk about incentive for your lowerclassmen!

This can also become the break counselors need to actually talk with students about college.  If your building is planning a College Application Week, you’ll need at least all of October to talk to seniors, host a financial aid night, prepare transcripts, and train and recruit volunteers.  That means there’s no time to sharpen pencils or put test booklets in piles of 25—you’ve got students to see, and for at least this week, everyone respects that.

This idea seems to be taking off—six other states have a program in place, many more are trying one out this year, and it’s likely some kind of program will be in place in at least some high schools in all 50 states in the next few years.

It’s time to get ahead of the curve.  Take a look at the resources North Carolina has for their week at and don’t be afraid to set the trend in your state, or to ask North Carolina for help—they’ll be happy to get you going, as long as you don’t call them November 14-18.

They’ll be kinda busy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Take My Advice—Try to Keep Your Job

By Patrick O'Connor

It isn’t unusual during this time of year for school counselors to get a lot of advice on how to do their job—but that advice sometimes comes in the most unusual ways.

“She’s scared of Elmo” can be a mother’s way of asking you to sit next to their child during the all-school puppet show.

“He’s just not into football anymore” could be what a parent says when their seventh grade son is trying to sort out the challenges of middle school.

“What do you mean, you don’t think Princeton will take him?” could mean—well, a million things, actually.

But even in this time of unusual advice giving, the counsel from Mike Boulus stands out and requires our collective attention.

Boulus is Executive Director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.  When asked what Michigan could do to address this shortage, especially when dispensing advice on applying to college, Boulus answered “I think if we’re going to really do serious college counseling, we may have to push it into the classroom itself and arm our teachers with the information.”

In other words, one way to address the counselor shortage is to give the counselor’s duties to someone else.

Boulus raises a good point, in that good college advising is a school-wide activity—that’s the basis of the recent efforts to create a college-going culture in all schools K-12.
Still, I don’t think handing the main part of the college counseling process over to teachers is quite what everyone had in mind—including the teachers.

A counselor from Minnesota told me a high school in her region released their counselors and trained all of the teachers to become academic advisers, a role that included working with students in the college selection process.  The results included some very unhappy teachers, dazed and confused students, and the rehiring of counselors the following year.

Still, Boulus’ quote, and the rest of the information in the article (at provide several important reminders for school counselors:

•          Most people don’t understand the depth and breadth of what we do.  Most people know counselors help students with personal problems and postsecondary plans—it’s just that they think that’s all we do, or that it’s pretty easy.  There’s more to the job than a ten-word description, but getting people to realize that can be a challenge.
•        Tough economic times are making counselors pay the price for that lack of awareness.  It may not be fair, but when the budget has to be cut, decision-makers will be more willing to let go of programs they either don’t understand or don’t see as effective.  Does your boss know what you really do? How about the president of your school board?
•        Counselors have to take on the issue of preparedness in college advising.  One of the most visible parts of the counseling curriculum in college planning, and because this is an emotional issue for families, the slightest hurdle in getting help can become a mountain of discouragement for the student, and the foundation of a community assault on the integrity of your counseling program.  More thorough college training at the MA level, and a proactive approach to college advising can prevent this.

It isn’t easy to take advice on how to do your job, and it’s even harder to find enough time to actually do your job, period.  The times we live in demand we not only do these things, but also find a way to build key relationships that will help our community appreciate the value of counselor-centered services.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Myth of Grit

By Patrick O'Connor

“Excuse me, Dr. O’Connor?  It’s Meredith’s mother, Mrs. Hart?”

“Of course.  How are you?”

“I’m fine.  I had just a quick question about our college plans.”

“OK, I can set up a meeting with you and Meredith.  How does tomorrow at 1 sound?”

“Actually, I’m hoping I can ask this now.  It’s kind of urgent.”

“I see.  OK.”

“Well, when we met with you in August, we reviewed our college list, and you mentioned we couldn’t get in to East Coast U.”

“Actually, Mrs. Hart, I believe I said that, given Meredith’s profile of grades, strength of schedule, extra curricular participation, achievements, and test scores, students with similar profiles would have a very modest chance of being admitted—“

“—unless she had some significant additional factor.”

“It seems you remember exactly what I said.”

“Yes I do, and I’m here to tell you she has one.”

“One what?”

“Significant additional factor.”

“I see.  Is this something you would mind sharing with me?”

“It’s grit.”


“Yes.  Grit.”

“I didn’t even realize Meredith was taking wood shop.”

“Oh no, it’s not about that.  This is a new intellectual trend, so I can understand why you wouldn’t know about it.  It was covered in this week’s New York Times.  It’s all about how the students who really go on to be happy and successful people are those individuals who learned how to learn from failure, and developed character traits like persistence, curiosity, and self-control.  It’s based on the work of.--“

“Angela Duckworth at Penn?”

“Why, yes!  I read the article and thought ‘Why, this is my Meredith!’”

“Meredith has grit?”

“Of course she does.  And that’s what’s going to get her into East Coast U.”

“It is?”

“Absolutely.  You just tell them in your letter about how gritty my Meredith is, and we’ll be in like Flynn.”

“Mrs. Hart, there’s certainly no doubt Meredith has learned a great deal about herself and the world around her in high school, through both her successes and her failures.”

“Oh, I know that, Dr. O’Connor, but her successes aren’t going to be the thing colleges are going to hook onto.  It’s going to be her failures, so we have to highlight those instead.”

“You want me to write about—“

“Her failures.”

“To show—“

“Her grittiness.  She’ll be one of the first students admitted to college on grit.  Daddy will be so pleased!”

“Mrs. Hart, have you looked at the supplemental essays for the application to East Coast U?”

“No, but I hear they haven’t changed in the last five years.”

“That’s true—they haven’t.  I have them here on my computer screen—can you read #1?”

“’Describe an experience where you had to overcome adversity.  Explain how you handled this situation, and what you learned from it.’  Why, Dr. O’Connor, that question measures—“


“And it’s been doing that for—“

“Five years.”

“Which means the campus of East Coast U has—“


“But that’s not possible.  How could students with grades that high have any grit?  They’ve been winners since the day they were born.”

“Maybe some of them.  The rest of them have only known persistence since the day they were born, success or no.”

“So you don’t have to be a flop to know about persistence?”

“It’s one way, but not the only way.”

“Well, how else could you learn it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. By leading a humble life, maybe.”

“Hmm.  Do you know of any essay coaches that specialize in humility?”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

21st Century Skills are so Counselor Centered

By Patrick O'Connor

There’s good news and bad news on the education front.  For counselors, this creates yet another opportunity to show the importance of our work to teachers, business leaders, and the world as a whole, as long as we act quickly.

First, the bad news.  Education leaders have decided America’s students are lacking in key 21st century skills.  This recent criticism is yet another effort by elected leaders to try and “reform” education without really knowing what’s wrong in the first place…

…and how do I know that?  Take a look at the list of key “21st Century Skills” outlined by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and see if you see anything familiar:

*  The three R’s (reading, writing, and ‘arithmetic);
*  The four C’s (Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and innovation)

If you’ve been in education for more than 5 years, you’ll recognize these seven items as the key skills for the New Millennium.  If you’ve been in the classroom for just a little longer, you’ll remember these were the skills in the report called A Nation at Risk, way back in 1983.

As well meaning as our policy leaders may be, they’re coming a little late (and ill prepared) to the party if they think they’ve discovered some new problem with education that needs to be remedied.  These skills have been identified as missing in action for a long time.

Why is this good news for counselors?  Because each of the 4 Cs is an essential life skill, or “soft skill”, that can easily be taught by counselors, either in the classroom as part of a team teaching effort, or in counseling seminars before school, after school, or during lunch.

The possibilities here are endless.  By teaming with a Language Arts teacher, you could take a problem from a classic book—say, Moby Dick—and brainstorm alternative ways the conflict could be resolved.  After teaching some basis problem solving skills, students could use their creativity to solve the problem, and come up with a creative way to communicate the solution.  Have the students work together in teams, and you’ve created a lesson plan that touches on all 4 Cs at once, thanks to your counseling insights and your co-teacher’s literary expertise.

The same thing exists with current events, story problems, and more—there is no classroom that couldn’t benefit from your counseling touch in helping students hone their 21st century skills.

What if you can’t find a willing classroom to partner?  Go it alone.  Even brand new counselors can think of enough real life examples from case studies or past experience to put together a brief workshop that highlights each of the 4 C skills.  If you can create a number of these workshops, you can package them as 21st Century Skills workshops that could be modified for adult learners, presented to outside school groups, and shared with the school board—and each of these audiences gives you the potential to demonstrate the value of counseling in your school and in the future of your students.

It seems politicians always want to find a way to try and make education look bad.  By responding (not reacting), counselors are not only modeling behavior for students at a time of criticism; we are showing internal and external audiences a new level of important for counseling in the curriculum of the new classroom.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dialing Up a Lesson on Effective Counseling

By Patrick O'Connor

There’s something to be said for a different point of view.

I opened my Facebook account last night (for five minutes only—really, I swear!) and came across a film posted by a high school friend of mine.  This vintage 1954 piece, complete with an on-screen Donna Reed look-alike host and background music from a full symphony orchestra, was an educational film teaching America…

…how to use a dial telephone.

“Your service is changing” the narrator announces, adding that the days of picking up the phone and waiting for an operator to place your calls are over.  The narration goes on to tell us engineers (pictured in full suits) have designed the change to dial phones with the unique needs of each community in mind. 

The narration goes on to show us line workers stringing the cable that will make this conversion possible (full disclosure—I got a little sentimental here, since that was my grandfather’s line of work, and my father’s first job).

The narration goes on to talk about how to use the dial phone—and then it goes on and on, and on, for nearly ten minutes.

We’re talking about how to use a dial telephone.

My high school chum isn’t a school counselor, but her posting was as thoughtful as anything Carl Rogers said:

  • Her commentary asked if this video (sorry—film) could help adults understand why we are impatient with our children and students when they are impatient with us in understanding the new technology of today.  I got antsy after three minutes of this film, so doesn’t it make sense a 13 year-old would their eyes a little when they show us how to send a text message for the third time?

  • How much internal eye rolling do I do when I’m telling the fifth parent today many colleges would prefer at least three years of a language other than English?  Is it really their fault everyone seems to be asking this same question today?

  • When I put together a lesson, newsletter, or social media post—or when I’m simply talking with a client-- about an important issue, does my message match my audience? Am I designing my communications so the more thorough learners get a couple of chances to soak in the material, while also giving the “one and done” learners a chance to know and go?

  • What about the look of those newsletters and presentations?  Am I taking the time to format newsletters with shaded boxes and graphics that will separate and direct modern readers’ attention to different items?  Are my Power Point slides fast becoming the 21st century version of Aunt Martha’s slideshow of the family reunion (too many, too repetitive, too bland)?

  • Then again, are my presentations so slick people view them as works of art or a technological light show, rather than a counseling presentation?  Am I working so hard at being “all that”, students leave the classroom with visual impressions rather than something new to think about?

There are far too many people telling counselors and teachers how to improve education who simply don’t know what they’re talking about, so it’s especially important to appreciate the times a genuine teachable moment comes our way.

If you want to take a stroll down Memory Lane—or for others, see a documentary on ancient civilization—the 1954 film can be seen below.   Since I’ve learned my fill from that ten minutes, I’ll be looking at the other phone company film that’s online—from 1927.

Who knows what I’ll learn from that one?

Patrick O’Connor will be signing complimentary copies of his new book, College is Yours 2.0, at the NACAC conference next Friday, September 23.  For more information, contact Patrick at

Thursday, September 8, 2011

School Counseling for September 12th

By Patrick O'Connor

The tenth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001 seems to be everywhere.  Talk shows are devoting the entire week to interviews and remembrances of those who were lost in the attacks.  Teacher Web sites are bursting at the seams with lesson plans for students of all ages.  With the day falling on a Sunday, the road side signs of churches promise sermon after sermon devoted to the context of the day from a larger view.

It would be easy enough to assume these activities won’t stir the memories of our students, or impact their daily lives.  This year’s high school seniors were seven years old the day the planes landed in New YorkWashington DC, and Pennsylvania, and the sixth graders of 2011 were barely walking in 2001.  Combined with the excitement of starting the school year, getting used to a new school, and applying for college, it would be an honest mistake to think the students aren’t touched by the events or memories of that day, and won’t pay much attention to the events of this weekend.

But it would still be a mistake.

Students may not have vivid memories of what happened ten years ago, but their parents will—and given the dynamics of that Tuesday morning and all that has happened in between, it’s understandable if parents aren’t able to be as objective as they usually would be when explaining complex issues to their children.

At the same time, some high school students may have very vivid memories of that day.  Their memory of the event may not be clear, but it’s likely they will remember some of what happened, and exactly where they were.  How many baby boomers will begin their discussion of the day John Kennedy was shot with “I was seven, and it was the end of lunch period at school…?”  Why would we expect dimmer memories of 9/11 from their much more tech-savvy children or grandchildren?

Some children may indeed not be impacted at all by the events of this weekend, but as is the case with all good counseling, the best plan is to have a plan.  If you haven’t already done so, take a minute to put together some tips for parents on how they should talk with their children about 9/11, and how to be prepared if the guest speaker in the church, synagogue, or mosque surrenders to the emotions of the moment. It’s not too late to send out a last-minute e-mail with this information, and many parents will thank you for it (a Google search of “talking to your children about 9/11” yields some mighty fine resources.)

Remind parents of the importance of monitoring TV and computer time this weekend.  It’s always a good idea to keep technology in check, but all of the commemorative events being broadcast can quickly turn an interest in history into an obsession with security.

Give parents the skills and words to use to make sure their children end the weekend with as strong a sense of safety as possible.  That is always a nuanced task, but parents will welcome any ideas you can lend, as long as they are presented as options, not recipes or dictums. Support their innate abilities to know how to love their children, and all will go well.

Finally, be prepared for business as un-usual September 12.  It’s unlikely any students will walk up to you and say “I’m having some real concerns about 9/11”, but there’s always a chance one or two may have a concern that is being acted out at school instead of being asked in your office. A gentle reminder to your colleagues that you (or someone else) has a fairly open calendar on Monday, combined with a little CWA—Counseling by Wandering Around—can reassure students and faculty alike that a listening ear and helping hand awaits, should the need arise.

This is indeed a busy time, with students starting new years and building bright futures.  Those plans need not be dimmed as our nation takes an appropriate pause this weekend to look at what has passed.  With the right words and an open office door, we can show our students how to do both with poise, respect, and an egoless sense of self.

As a modest effort to honor those lost in the 9/11 attacks, all proceeds from any copy of College is Yours 2.0 purchased during 9/11 weekend will be donated to the Twin Towers Orphan Fund, devoted to supporting the educational and healthcare needs of the children who lost one or more parents in the 2001 attacks.  More information can be found under the Weekly Column at<>