Wednesday, January 25, 2012

College Success Skills They Won’t Know Until You Tell Them

By Patrick O'Connor

This is always a hard time for high school counselors.  The college application mania that blew through September, October, and November may have been pretty intense, but it also brought a number of really nice students to your office who rarely came in before—and now that they’re in at the colleges of their dreams, there’s a good chance they won’t be by again.

There’s no doubt these students are part of the casualty of high counselor caseloads, where the students who tend to get most of our time are either those needing our help or those who take the initiative to ask for our help.  Between these two groups is a mass of wonderful students who do a good enough job of taking care of themselves, but they could probably get a little more out of school and life, if you only had, oh, say, a few hundred fewer students on your caseload.

Since that reduction isn’t likely to occur soon, these students will return to the comfortable middle and be fine—but because counseling is our calling and not just our job, it’s hard to see them go without at least a word or two of advice.  To meet that need, here’s a list of quick college tips—all fit in a text, a tweet, a poster, or the morning PA announcements—to try and meet their need to make a smooth college transition, and our need to help them.  Start sharing them now—June will be her before you know it.
  •  You didn’t share your locker combination; don’t share your dorm key or combination.  Trust me.
  • You’ll need two hours outside of class to study for every hour in class.  Really.
  •  No one visits professors during office hours, other than before a test.   Go often, with prepared questions.
  •    Give a professor a rough draft of a paper, and they may read it.  Take it to their office, and they will read it—with you there.
  • Good roommates bring power strips, strong earphones, study at the library, and keep their underwear in a drawer.
  •  You don’t need a charge card, and your debit card should only let you spend what you have.  Just say no to overdraft protection.
  •  Buy used books, but don’t believe the highlighting of the previous owner.  They may have flunked the class.
  •  College deadlines are like plane departure times.  Miss it, and it’s gone.
  •  Your parents will try to hold back and cry on the ride home once they drop you off at college.  They might not wait.  That’s OK.
  •   Blogs that rate professors are sources of catharsis for contributors, not information for viewers.
  •  Colleges are in towns that need tutors, youth coaches, and soup kitchen workers.  Just like here.
  •   Flash drives should be backed up regularly.  Don’t find out the hard way.
  •  Internships usually involve the making and delivery of coffee.  Don’t focus on what you’re doing; focus on who you’re serving.
  •  College is harder.  If it isn’t, you’re doing it the wrong way.
  •  Of course you’re ready.  If you weren’t, I wouldn’t have sent the transcript.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Wrong Story on Applying to College

By Patrick O'Connor

High school counselors may see an uptick in anxious college students this week.  NBC Nightly News recently ran a piece on college essay writing, and since the title was “Cracking the Code”, you can probably sort out it was not intended to be a soothing, reassuring, in-depth discussion on the purpose behind college essays and the quirky questions some colleges ask.

To be sure, there were some helpful bites of advice in this two minute (!) story. One college admission officer talked about the college’s need to see students in a three-dimensional way—and creative questions bring out a side of the student test scores and grades can’t convey.  This same officer was later quoted as saying “Relax.  Be yourself”, another sage piece of counsel students should cling to.

Instead, most parents and students are focusing on the mayhem portrayed in the two minutes of mashed-up quotes and out-of-context comments that surrounded these two very sane ideas:  The college association official who saw the questions as degrading; the stressed-out parent who felt the response length of the question required their child to write a general answer, not a specific one; the well-meaning counselor who said the real purpose of such essays is for colleges to discover the next Bill Gates.

Combine this in a series of  four-second quotes, and it would be easy for a viewer to feel like they just got off a roller coaster—a sensation that could be seen as helpful to students, since Emory University’s quirky question asks students to describe their favorite ride at an amusement park.

But to those who are investing more than just two minutes into the college selection process—and that would be us, our students, our families, and our colleagues in college admission offices—the NBC piece was more of a hindrance than a help.  Since the deadlines have passed for most colleges requiring these essays, the story is so forty-three seconds ago. Because the tempo of the story created a whirl of impressions rather than a substantive discussion, it’s easy to think the producers of the story wanted to create that effect and affect, since they feel applying to college must certainly make students feel the same way—but how does that help anyone?

It would be easy for students and parents to cave in to the conventional wisdom that college admissions is either a code to be cracked or a recipe to be followed; the only problem with these conclusions is they are wrong.  Applying to college is all about what’s next in student’s lives, the building of a plan that will lead them to a larger sense of self, increased opportunities in the world, and more chances to give back to a culture that has given them so much.

Stories like this might lead counselors to want to throw in the towel, but all of those students coming by your office should tell you something else—they want to believe in what you have to say, because deep down, they know you’re right.  It’s too bad the media has once again offered the wrong message about college admission, but this creates an opportunity for us to teach and reach out to those who may have doubts—and it may irritate us enough to do this with an even greater sense of purpose.  It isn’t the best motivational method, but let’s see where it can take us.

So now, one more time, we say with newfound purpose—“College admission is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.”

And that’s the way it really is.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Counselors Clean Up After the Holidays

By Patrick O'Connor 

Whether or not your school lets you put up a tree, plug in a fire marshal-approved menorah, or put an inflatable Frosty in the hallway, the last ten days in America’s school counseling offices have been all about cleaning up after the holidays, as only school counselors can.

Tell me you haven’t talked to these students lately:

“My aunt came in from Fresno and said I’d never make anything out of my life if I don’t take Algebra I by eighth grade.”

“My brother came home from college and laughed at me for wearing a varsity jacket.  He wore the same thing in high school!”

And my all-time favorite:

“My parents got a little carried away with the whole ‘Peace on Earth’ theme of the season, and decided colleges want me to help the poor.  What can I do?”

Welcome to the eighteenth day of Christmas, when students are finally back into their routines long enough to reflect on the holidays and realize that a great deal was done for them—but a lot was done to them as well.

What’s a counselor to do?  Get students back to their center, of course.

*  Auntie may have meant well when she decided to share the academic advice she heard on talk radio, but this really didn’t help, since students are perpetually worried about who they are and how they compare to others.  After empathizing with the student, try asking these two questions:

“So, if you were taking Algebra I now, what grade do you think you’d have?”

Assuming the student answers something like D, F, or Q, respond by saying:

“So your aunt really thinks that would impress a college?”

The point is to assure the student that what matters is if they’re giving their all to their studies.  If they are, great; no one, including a college, could ask for more, and no hard-working student needs to wonder about that.

If they aren’t, it’s time to talk about what more could be done with school work, not because Auntie is right, but because that’s what’s best for the student, and the student knows that—that’s why they’re talking to you.

*  There’s an excellent chance the one who needs counseling is the big brother who’s back at college, not the little brother who is shivering in your office because he wore no jacket at all to school today.  Still, it won’t help to tell your client his brother has issues—chances are he needs to hear something like:

“Wow.  That doesn’t look like your brother’s jacket.  That’s yours, right?  You earned it, right?  Then I guess you have the right to wear it with pride, just like many of your teammates do.”

And that will probably be the end of that.

*  I’d need a week to articulate my dismay over the parental attitude of “go help the needy—it will help you get into college.”  Along with colleges, high schools, city councils, and darn near everybody else like to have community members who make the world a better place and think of someone besides themselves.  Community service can help teach that…

…which is exactly why you should prepare a special list of community service options and send it to the parents, along with this note:

“Here’s a list of activities you can do as a family in our community—but you have to do them together. Colleges will tell you-- charity begins at home.”

Keep these ideas in mind, and it may turn out the best gift your students received wasn’t wrapped in paper after all.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Holiday Gift You Missed—A Chance to do Your Job

By Patrick O'Connor

There’s an excellent chance you missed your best holiday present.  It wasn’t tossed over your fence or delivered by sleigh, and while it isn’t a coffee shop gift card, it can still provide a kick.
This gift is your job, and a chance to do it with more support, focus, and expertise.

The gift givers are Education Trust, the group designed to close the achievement gap for all students.  Their December 12-page report Poised to Lead:  How School Counselors Can Drive College and Career Readiness looks at the current use of school counselors in the transition to colleges and careers, the current need for better counseling, and suggests five important ways to close that gap:

  1. Revise the job descriptions for school counselors so they focus on equitable education and on preparing all students for college and career.
  2. Shift university training programs so they center on the school counselor’s role in educational equity and college and career readiness.
  3. Align and tighten state credential requirements so that all school counselors get adequate school-specific training, including college- and career-ready counseling, and practice using data to spur change.
  4. Support working school counselors and principals through strong, embedded professional development to help develop effective college- and career-readiness programs.
  5. Align school counselor evaluations to academic outcomes, including appropriate.

The entire report is worth reading (right after you take it under the mistletoe) and can be found at
…but, like all gifts, it requires a little care and support by the recipient:
  •  Begin by looking at your college- and career-readiness programs.  Most schools offer these services, but few write down what they’re doing, even fewer evaluate the success of these efforts, and almost none use data as part of the program or in the evaluation.  You need to find out if you are most schools…
  •   …and if you are, it’s time to get some help.  Budgets are tight, so start with the questions in the College Board publication College Ed:  Creating a College-Going Culture.  It’s a free PDF at, and while you’ll probably answer “Of Course” to most of the questions, there’s bound to be one or two where your answer will be ‘Wow. Really?”  That’s the place to begin.
  •     Contact your state chapter of ASCA, NACAC, College Access Network, and College Advising Corps and see if they’re offering any training in this crucial area.  Most of this training is either low-cost or free, and if they aren’t doing any, your call is a wake-up call for them to offer some, and soon—because affordable training counselors don’t offer to each other quickly becomes expensive training offered by experts who haven’t been in a counseling office in years.
  •  Now that you’re improving, it’s time to help others.  Ed Trust is calling on counselor training programs to get real about making counselors college and career savvy, a call College Board made a few weeks ago—and one counselors have been making for years.  All of these voices can’t be wrong—go back and look at my Call to Action column of November 17th ( and make the calls and e-mails that can make a difference to our profession.  Eight votes decided who won the Iowa Caucus, so don’t think your voice doesn’t count!

Ed Trust has delivered the exercise equipment that will allow us to shed the pounds of improper training and unrelated duties that plague our work and dim students’ dreams.  It’s our turn to show we have the resolution to make sure this gift doesn’t end up in the yard sale this spring.