Wednesday, April 25, 2012

You Can’t Find College Paradise by the Dashboard Light

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Hey, Marvin.  Ready for prom this weekend?”

“I’ve been kind of busy.”

“Still sorting out your college choices?”

“Well, I put a spreadsheet together on all three colleges with the information I gathered from their Web sites, my campus visits, and my discussions with their admissions and financial aid officers.”

“That’s great.”

“I double-checked with my parents, and the cost of each college isn’t going to ruin their retirement or drive me into insane debt, so we’re good there.”

“Well done, Marvin.”

“And I created a formula to evaluate each college’s course offerings, campus climate, availability of internships, opportunities for study abroad, social life, job placement probabilities, likelihood for degree completion in four years, and livability.”

“You put this into numbers?”

“Right.  And that’s where I got stuck.”

“I can see why.”

“Yeah—because I forgot to taste the meatloaf at Glindhill.”


“I love meatloaf, Dr. O’Connor, so that’s a key part of the numerical value of each college’s social life rankings.  Eastern State’s meatloaf had a little bit of a ketchup aftertaste, and McGinty College offers an amazing bacon-wrapped version on Saturdays.  I’ve asked every caller from Glindhill about their meatloaf, and have three e-mails into their food service division—no response.”


“I even asked one student caller from Glindhill if meatloaf was on the menu this week, so I could go back to campus and taste it.”

“Marvin, that’s a seven hour drive.”

“She said if it meant that much to me, she’d look into it and ship me a piece of meatloaf overnight.”

“Marvin, that’s a little—“

“Too much?  Yeah, since that would be comparing leftover meatloaf with fresh, which would be totally unfair.  I don’t think she thought about that.”

“Marvin, when we talked about your college essays last fall, you were working on one that talked about swimming in the ocean as part of a triathlon. Did you end up using that?”

“Yeah.  I mean, I nearly drowned about 100 yards out because I got caught up in the undertow.”

“I really loved the end of that essay. How did that part go again?”

“’The swim left me exhausted but exhilarated.  I lied on the beach and let the laps of the water—the same water that nearly took me down and away—run over my face like reassuring thoughts.  Even though I wasn’t finished with the race, I knew it was important to stop and catch my breath.  Then I got up and moved on to the next event.’”

“Great stuff, Marvin.”

“You know, it’s good to have these college choices, but it’s a lot to think about.  The spreadsheet sure helped two weeks ago, but now I feel like it’s pulling me under, too.”


“You’ve always said picking a college is a mix of brain and heart.  Maybe it’s time to let the heart take over, and catch my breath.”

“What about the meatloaf at Glindhill?”

“I’m betting it’ll be OK.  And if it isn’t, that’s one good reason to think about home and keep it close to me.  Is that crazy?”

“Not at all.”

“So Dr. O, any good leads on a tux?  My brother also rented late when he was a senior, and all they had left was yellow.  Dude looked like a banana.”


“Hey, the team name at McGinty is the Fighting Bananas.  You don’t suppose this is a sign that I should--?”

“Um, Marvin?”

“Right, right—let the ideas wash over me. Got it.”

The moral?  In using meatloaf data to pick a college, two out of three ain’t bad.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are College Counselors Really Necessary?

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Admit it—at some point in your life, you didn’t really believe college counselors were all that important.

 After all, how hard could it be?  You point the student towards a great online college search program, they plunk in their grades, their test scores, and what they want to study, and boom—their choices appear in alphabetical order, right there on their phone.  Now they just turn in the forms, and it’s off to four years of missing every 8 AM class but never missing a single midnight pep rally.  This is work?

My two-word response to this question is—holistic review.

When college counselors hear a school uses a holistic evaluation process, they know students don’t have to hit the college’s average test scores  to get a close look—if there’s something else in the student’s application that is compelling, a lower test score doesn’t automatically get them voted off the island.  Depending on the student’s situation, grades, and scores, a holistic review can make a strong case for a student whose test scores aren’t quite there; at the same time, holistic review can reveal some real-life chinks in the armor of a student whose standardized test taking skills have been honed since receiving a set of SAT flash cards for their third birthday.
If this process sounds a little squishy, it’s supposed to be—and many college admissions officers like that.  They argue that colleges are attended by students, not test scores.  If a college wants to be have a thriving environment of successful inquiry, why not consider all of the factors that make a student more than the sum of their parts? If this means a student with lower SAT scores is admitted over a student with higher SAT scores, who’s to say that’s wrong?

The answer to that question is not:
a)      US News and other college rankings publications;
b)      College presidents, who know those rankings are used to determine the value of the college;
c)       Investment bankers, who use those rankings to determine a college’s credit worthiness.
No, the answer is d) All of the above.

There may indeed be many great applicants who don’t put their best foot forward on standardized tests, and many of these same students may have qualities that would prove to be worth far more than a good test score.  But these intangibles don’t translate well to a spreadsheet; and in a world where having a Best Colleges list means you have to have a list of Not-So-Best Colleges, the bottom line can’t be a Mobius strip.  So college presidents hate squishy, while many college admissions officers love squishy—and they work at the same college, which has to take in at least a few students now and then.

Enter the college counselor.  Knowing some colleges rely more heavily on test scores than others—and knowing which ones those are; knowing some colleges (try as they may) insist they are holistic but prominently display their high college rankings on their Web site; and knowing that Jane is an amazing writer who is so perceptive about author’s tone she really can see why every answer on the SAT reading test could be correct-- we greet Jane at the door, thank her for the printout of colleges the computer says are perfect for her, remember the day she wrote an entire Chemistry lab report in iambic pentameter,  take a deep breath, and say “So, you want to major in Writing?  This is really a great list.  But what about…?”

And when you think about that moment, not only do you realize people think college counselors are important. 

You realize they want to be one of us.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

You Have to do What to Get Into College?

By Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D

School counselors just can’t win in April.

Last week, you went to get hot dogs for opening day of baseball season, and you were mobbed by questions about why straight A students didn’t get into Harvard. This week, you went to get some red pens at the drug store to do your taxes, and people are asking you about the articles describing who did get into Harvard:

“Did you hear?  American rich kids are out at the Ivies.”

“All of those fancy community service trips and summer camps?  All passé.”

“Forget academics-- students should focus on becoming trapeze artists to get into Princeton.”

The good news is that this college second-guessing is so depressing, it’s actually making you look forward to doing your taxes.  The bad news is the people saying these things are the parents of juniors who want you to “get them into college” next year.

What’s a counselor to do?  Tell the truth.

*  Reviews of the admission patterns of several Ivy League schools do indeed show admit rates are up for international students and students who are the first in their families to go to college.  While that means fewer upper class students from college-going families were admitted, it doesn’t mean they were shunned, and there’s a good chance they’ll be room for them next year, too.

*  Is it really news that exotic community service trips are over? However well-meaning they may be, spending thousands of dollars to work with students in need has always defeated the point, something colleges (and I) first pointed out four years ago—and in this column (see

In terms of summer camps, however, one wants to be careful here. A student writer who has left her high school peers in the dust needs a top-tier summer program to grow as a student. Since there’s no posing involved here, that student should go to the best program she can get her hands on, and ask her high school counselor to tell the colleges the student is by no means trying to impress her way into a college.  At the end of the day, passion still matters; students shouldn’t be afraid to show it.

*  This trapeze advice is simply astonishing.  Colleges are indeed looking for students with unusual talents, but since when is this news?  Colleges have long recruited athletes, musicians, and other scholars whose grades aren’t cum laude-- but that’s because colleges value these talents and get something in return.  Unless they’re the national champion, a student who’s a great trapeze artist is unlikely to get a break in admissions if they have a B average— special as it is, colleges get no money, media, or prestige from those who fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

In addition, these “special” talents don’t always play out as the student might expect.  If East Coast College is looking for violas this year, it’s good to be a violist.  On the other hand, being a violist next year won’t get you very far, since they’ll have a bumper crop leftover from this year.

Since students won’t know how many violists are needed until you’re a senior, it’s probably best to pursue the talents they love, engage in the extracurriculars that appeal to them, give back to their local community, and take the most challenging classes they can succeed in across the curriculum. If they end up playing a viola, they’ll find a great school…

…and if that advice turns out to be a little old school, sometimes it’s good for things to be certain-- just like taxes.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A New Response to College Rejections: Surrender

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It had to happen sooner or later.

Two years ago, colleges created waitlists that put more people on hold than Peggy the Customer Service Agent. A few people sighed, but no one really complained.

Last year, colleges ramped up the process of sending student acceptances by e-mail—in the middle of the school day.  Significantly less Calculus was taught for one day, but nothing more than that.

This year, things are different.  This year, people are disillusioned.

As highly selective colleges report more record highs in applications, these same colleges are (naturally) reporting record lows in the percentage of students offered admission.

In the past, this news was met by students with a shrug and even a smile, as if they were saying “It’s OK. Hey, who could get in with odds like that?”  This year, fewer students are looking at it that way, and when you listen to what they are saying, it is a cause for concern.

They generally say something like this—and this isn’t hyperbole:

“This is unbelievable. I have a friend (neighbor, cousin) who applied to an Ivy League School with straight As and a 35 on the ACT.  She wanted to volunteer at the local homeless shelter as a ninth grader, but there was no local homeless shelter—so she started one.  It now has a board of directors, a $50,000 budget funded by local donations, and it feeds and houses 100 people every night in the winter—the same season she captained her school volleyball team to a second straight championship in a five-state super tournament and was a third place finisher in a national science fair.”

Students who raised these points in the past had very strong grades and test scores, but not near-perfect ones; there was usually enough of a gap between where they were and the pinnacle to give the colleges the benefit of the doubt.

The same was true with extracurricular activities.  80 hours of community service is well above the mean, and leads to important societal changes—but there were always students who had a broader vision; did a little more; showed more innovation.  That can no longer be said when students of profitable start-up tech companies and mega-volunteers are hearing no.

“She thought she was going to have to give up her position as CEO of the shelter when she went to college, but since each of the 12 selective schools she applied to denied—denied—her admission, she’s going to the honors program at a state college, so she doesn’t have to.”

This is far from the shoulder shrug students gave to Fate in the past, and it’s more than loss—it’s genuine disillusionment, a surrender which is echoed in a very common last line:

“What does it take to get into one of these schools?”

This is the largest cause for concern. Colleges seem poised to continue to solicit more applicants without increasing the number of admission offers, and students may continue to try and be all things to the admissions office in the hopes of getting an offer that will only become more coveted over time.

Still, the student response to this year’s scantier yield of yeses is calling the value of work ethic, selflessness, and industry into question in a way not seen in previous years, and the cost of that reflection may soon be much higher than reassuring Suzie the honors college at State U is a pretty great education.  This could turn out to be a life lesson that just isn’t very pretty.

We all need to watch this very carefully.