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.