Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A College Admissions Mission

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Hello, James! I understand you received some good news.”

“I didn’t think Yale would take me at all, let alone as an early applicant.  I can’t thank you enough.”

“All I did was sign a few forms and point at the calendar.  You took care of the rest.”

“You did way more than that, Dr. O’Connor.  That’s why I feel bad asking for your help again so soon.”


“Like I said—I was surprised Yale admitted me, but I don’t really know the school that well.”

“Have you visited the campus?”

“Last summer.  It was the fourth college in one day, and I don’t remember a thing.  Until I got the acceptance letter, I thought their school color was crimson.”


“That’s why I’d like to head to Yale for a quick visit before break.”

“A quick...?”

“I just need you to sign the excused absence form.”

“James, I’m a big fan of visiting campuses, but Christmas is in five days.”

“And my Uncle Phil is coming for the holidays.”

“The Uncle who told you not to apply to Bard because they only teach Shakespeare?”

“But he’s actually heard of Yale, and if I can’t tell him about the campus, I’m gonna spend the whole break wishing the Mayans were right about the calendar.”

“You’re not painting a happy picture, James, but this trip won’t tell you much about life at Yale.”


“They’ll be in exams, if any students are on campus at all.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Plus, you’re already admitted. You’re could go in February.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

“James, are you listening to me, or are you reciting Beatles lyrics?”

“It’s—it’s just that Jenny McMillan and I were going to go together.”

“Jenny was in this morning.  So was Heather Shea.”

“Yeah, she’s going, too.”

“Why James, you sly—“

“Dr. O’Connor, this isn’t some kind of Jack Kerouac adventure.”

“I was thinking more ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower.’”


“That idea seems to please you.”

“Believe me, Dr. O’Connor, this isn’t about that at all.”

“What is it about, James?”

“It’s just that—that—“

“It’s just that New Haven is 47 minutes from Newtown.”


“Yes, James. Newtown.”

“Who-- who told you?”

“The three founders of our school’s peer counseling program separately ask to be excused from the last three days of school to visit the same college in Connecticut.”

“I told Jenny she should have said UConn…”

“Yes, well…”

“But I do want to see Yale, and since we’re so close—we feel like we want to help.”

“I know, James.  We all do.”

“Still, the plan is pretty lame.  We’re convinced we’ll just show up without any references, and they’ll put us to work as peer grief counselors.”


“That’s not much of a plan.”

“That’s exactly what I told Julie.”


“A former student of mine who’s a state social worker in Connecticut.  She’s meeting up with you in New Haven, and is very eager to meet the three best peer counselors I’ve ever known.”

“You’ll meet at the bookstore, buy a pennant for Uncle Phil in Yale’s school colors…”

“…um—white and blue?”

“… then make the 47 minute trip to Newtown. Take State Road 15—it’s shorter.”

“Wow—this is amazing. Um--any advice once I get there?”

“’Here is my secret, a very simple secret. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.’”
“The fox’s farewell speech from The Little Prince. So I should lead from the heart?
“Well done, Eli.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What to Tell Your Seniors (and Teachers) Right Away

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The word among college admissions offices and high school counselors is that more early applications to college have been submitted than ever before.  Many students applied to these early programs in the hope they would have an early answer, but because there are so many applicants, the answer they receive in the next few weeks might be “maybe.”  Some colleges with early application programs will defer a final decision on a student, asking for the latest grades in their current classes, additional essays, or more information about the student’s interest in the college.

It’s easy to understand how students will be disappointed if a college says “we’ll see” rather than “yes”—but it’s important not to dwell on that disappointment.  Students should view a deferral as an opportunity to tell the college more about themselves and their college plans; in many cases, students who provide the appropriate amount of additional material will be viewed as more interested in attending the college, a factor that can make a difference when a college makes a final decision.

So what does the appropriate amount of new information look like?  Follow these steps—and be sure to share this with your principal and your teachers (I’ll explain next week)

Read the admissions decision carefully.  Once you know you’ve been deferred, go back and read the letter a second time; it may include instructions on how to submit additional material.  Many colleges will ask you to e-mail them or return an enclosed postcard to indicate you’re still interested in the college; make sure to do that right away.  Other colleges will specifically ask for specific information, like your first semester or trimester grades; if that’s the case, tell your high school immediately, so they can send the grades and other materials the minute they’re available. 

Bring the college up to date.  Unless the letter tells you not to send anything else (and a few colleges say that), the time to contact the college is now.  Send them a short note or e-mail that:
·         Expresses your disappointment in not being admitted
·         Outlines the achievements, events, and activities you’ve been involved in since you’ve applied
·         Communicates your strong interest in attending the college

It’s been about two months since you submitted your application, and you’ve been doing more than just checking your e-mail for college notices.  Writing the college shows them you are still actively engaged in learning and living; it also shows them you still feel their college is a good match for you, even after having eight more weeks to think about it.  This may seem pretty basic, but very few students do this—and that’s all the more reason for you to get busy.

Look ahead.  Once you’ve sent this information, you’ll want to plan on sending a second update in February, once your next grades are available; if you have another teacher who can write a strong letter of recommendation, this is a good time to send that as well (don’t ask right now—the holidays are coming!) One last note around March 10thshould very briefly restate your interest in the school—after that, it’s up to them.

Review your college list.  If you were counting on being admitted to your Early college, now is the time to double-check your college list, and make sure you’re applying to at least two or three other colleges where your grades and test scores are at or higher than the college’s averages.  It’s hard to get a deferral from a college now, but it will be much harder to get accepted into any college later; keep your options open by seeing the good in what other colleges have to offer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Why You Should Save Your Juniors from School Rankings

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Despite what Andy Williams says, this really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for high school counselors.  Some of your seniors are waiting to hear from the colleges they applied to through an early response program, while other seniors are walking into your office saying “So, I was thinking about applying to college” —and just when you think all of this is managed, the postman delivers PSAT results for your juniors.

In a year when early became earlier, it’s no surprise the juniors are starting to park themselves at our doorsteps for college advice. Since these test results are usually the starter’s pistol for the beginning of the college application process, you can’t blame them for wanting quality information that will help them on their college hunt…

…and you really want to steer them clear of using questionable information that won’t help them at all.  I’ve written more than one column on the dangers of using college rankings to help build a college list, but a new take on the foibles of rankings comes from Peter Ubel.  Ubel’s focus is on high school rankings, but see if any of this rings a bell:

…thirty-seven of Newsweek’s top 50 high schools have selective admission standards, thereby enrolling the cream of the eighth grade crop. That means that when these high scoring eighth graders reach eleventh grade, they’ll be high scoring eleventh graders, helping the school move up the Newsweek rankings. 
…That’s no way to determine how good a school is. The measure of a good education should be to assess how well students did in that school compared to how they would have been predicted to do if they had gone to other schools.

A medical writer by trade, Ubel goes on to make an analogy to hospitals and liver transplants I just can’t do justice to, so please read it yourself.  If you need encouragement to follow the link, Ubel suggests hospitals should start treating healthy patients, just in case Newsweek decides to apply the “best high school” model to hospitals (

The same can be said of rankings of colleges.  Sure, some base their rankings on impressive algorithms that take myriad factors into account, but the density of the calculation doesn’t make it more impressive if the factors have nothing to do with what students learn once they are on campus.  If colleges are considered great because they take great kids who leave as great young adults, what does that say about the learning experience—they did no harm?

Even if the ingredients of the college rankings recipe had something to do with the learning experience, why is one college the best college for all students?  Is a harp player really better off going to Harvard than Julliard?  Is a criminal justice major really better off at The University of Michigan (which has no CJ program) than Michigan State (which does)?

It would be great if personalized college (or high school) advice were as easy to distribute as copies of a magazine, but just like all those sitcoms that wrap up family drama in 25 minutes, there’s more to the real world than that.  Armed with the right resources and the right outlook, juniors can navigate the real college search process with the keen eye and open mind that will serve them will in college and in life, where they will thrive as both healthy students and healthy livers.

So drop those rankings, stat.