Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Want Better Counseling? Talk About Fit

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

One of the key components of good college counseling is being overlooked by students, parents, the media, and even by some counselors.  It’s the concept of “fit”, or the idea that students will be more successful at some colleges because the campus just feels right to them.  Just like athletes perform better at home than on the road, and writers have favorite places to go to get inspired, students can learn more from their classes and the world around them if their college has the right blend of support, encouragement, and challenge.  That’s fit.

It’s easy to see why fit gets so little press:  it can’t be measured by test scores or grades; it doesn’t lie in the number of books in the library or how it’s viewed by other college presidents, and there’s rarely a connection between fit and the cost of the college. Every student brings different expectations, values, and interests to the college search, so the issue of fit is hard to measure; like buying new shoes or listening to music, you may not be able to describe what you’re looking for, but you know it when it’s there.

The idea of fit is an important one to introduce early to parents and students, before they set up an evaluation system of colleges that’s only based on test scores, grades, and what they hear at the local coffee shop or country club. Most parents can relate to fit by comparing a college search to buying a house; you can sort by neighborhood, price range, and square footage, but still end up with one house that feels like home and six that feel like you’re living on Mars.  Since sixteen year-olds don’t usually buy houses, it’s better to talk to them about favorite bands; if it has a good beat and is easy to dance to, chances are that college is worth careful consideration.

Fit is especially important to keep in mind with students and parents who want to attend the super-selective colleges that admit fewer than 10% of the students who apply.  More families are putting together college lists that only include these low-admitting colleges; the thinking here is applying to 14 colleges that each admit 10% of their students means the student has a 140% chance one of those colleges will admit them.

When presented with this list, counselors are wise to ask why the student has selected these colleges—and once you ask, don’t be surprised if the response is “These are a good fit.”  Parents are hoping the mystique of fit will throw you off your game enough to end the conversation then and there—which is why you need to keep asking questions.  “That’s good to know”, you respond, “Tell me about what you’ve found at these schools that makes you feel that way.”

At this point, the conversation can turn to a discussion of qualities—and that’s the key to success.  By asking the student to describe the comfort they feel at a college that’s right for them, it’s easy to translate the feeling of fit to qualities that can be found at other colleges— including colleges where the student’s chances of admission are greater than being struck by lightning.  This gives the student the opportunity to broaden the range and array of colleges they’re applying to, while creating options the student can consider, accept, and even be excited about.

Data can be helpful in a college search, but when it comes to finding the next school that will offer the best chances for growth and support, there’s no place like fit. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Building a Foundation of Counseling Support

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Did you ever feel like your boss just didn’t understand what your job is all about?  When it comes to education, a new survey shows you’re not alone.

The Center for Michigan just released the results of its latest survey on public attitudes on education in Michigan.  This is one of the first times students and parents have been asked about education reform efforts in a survey, and since they are the consumers of education, this is being seen by many as a significant step forward.

The results indicate the most support for three key ideas:

·       --  Increased access to early childhood education for the state’s four year-olds
·         --Greater respect, support, and training for teachers both before they enter the classroom and once they’re there
·         --Reducing class size

Just as important, the support for these ideas is equally high among all three groups--teachers, students, and parents all see these areas as essential for better education.

This is excellent news—after all, what educator doesn’t know the importance of having teachers, parents and students all working on the same page?  The discouraging news comes when the survey results are compared to the education priorities announced by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder last week.  His three priorities?

·      --   Increased access to early childhood education for the state’s four year-olds
·       -- Increased use of online learning
·      --  Increased schools of choice, where students from one community can attend the schools of another community.

These huge disparities are going to make for some interesting conversations in Michigan this year—and they serve as an important reminder to all school counselors.  There’s a good chance you know what you’d change in your job, if you had the power to do so.  The changes may be big or small, but at least you know them, just in case someone ever asks.

Here’s the question you might not be able to answer.  If you asked your students and your parents what should change in your job, would they say the same thing?  Would the other counselors in the building?  Would your principal?

If you’re like most counselors, you’re either saying “I don’t know”, or you’re guessing what these other groups might say—but have you ever really asked them?

If not, you should, but not for the reason you think.  It’s certainly true that most discussions about changing counselor workloads go nowhere; someone asks you some questions, completes a form, files it, and the sun comes up the next day. 

So why ask the questions again? To get a sense of what others value in a counselor.  Parents and students who put “more class presentations” on their priority list are telling you they aren’t seeing enough of you.  A fellow counselor who wants to do more on careers is sharing a passion you didn’t know existed.  A principal who wants you to spend more time on school accountability forms is probably going to assign them to you, and soon.

In creating this web of values, counselors can look for the common threads and build consensus for change that may actually lead somewhere.  Parent support gives extra importance to a new program you propose; overlapping interests surprise administrators, which can loosen up budgets and caseloads; cutting edge curriculum can gain unexpected support from everyone, as long as it’s student-centered.

It’s likely that the first and biggest change in Michigan education will be in early childhood education, the common denominator of government, educators, and families.  You can build on the foundation of your program, too—once you know what that is.  As we often say in counseling, it never hurts to ask.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Column to Pass Along to Your Principal

By. Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s time to plan ahead to honor a profession that excels in being flexible and going with the flow.  National School Counselor Week is slated for February 4-8; the goal is to raise awareness of the work of school counselors, and to thank school counselors for all they do.

The genuine selflessness school counselors display is both their best attribute and their greatest downfall.  Their job is to support students and families behind the scenes, but those successful efforts often lead administrators, teachers, and other families to wonder just what it is school counselors do—because if their job is done well, no one knows school counselors are there. 

Clearly then, it’s time to make some noise on behalf of school counselors—and if we’re breaking out the party horns, we might as well throw in some streamers and cake as well.  With a little more than two weeks to go, here’s what you can do to honor the helping professionals who are too busy to honor themselves:

Notes from students and parents  School counselors are so busy helping families, they often don’t realize just how much good they do—and there’s nothing quite as discouraging as going home tired at the end of the day, feeling like you ran around a lot and accomplished very little. 

The best cure for counselor confusion is gratitude.  Ask the PTA president, the Student Council, and other key groups to make cards, notes, or even a social media page where parents and students can express their thanks for the presentation in Health class that led to a great career; the refusal to change a schedule that gave them the academic rigor to be admitted to college, or the safe haven to gather thoughts and recover from a crisis. This isn’t about a day at the spa; the best gift a counselor can get is a home-grown, heart-felt “thank you.”

Community demonstrations of thanks  It isn’t too hard to put together a punch and cake reception at a time when students and parents can give thanks in person-- and you can get some nifty giveaways from the American School Counseling Association to celebrate school counselors (  School accountability reports are rich with data on how many students counselors see, the names of workshops they put on, the lists of colleges and scholarships students earned with a counselor’s help, and more.  Add in a couple of public expressions of thanks from a student or parent, and you have enough material to publish a “Did You Know” column in the school’s daily announcements and Web site, or send to the school board and mayor as the basis for a proclamation.  This shows counselors how much they mean to the community, and raises everyone’s awareness of what they do.

Thank them now, remember them later  The value of school counselors should be celebrated February 4-8 to be remembered all year around.  Find ways to remind teachers of the year-round ally they have in creating more harmonious classrooms, and keep that counselor data in mind during the next round of budget building, when someone suggests “Well, we could cut the counselor.  No one knows what they do, anyway.”

The punch line to the joke “How many counselors does it take to change a light bulb?” is “One—but the light bulb has to want to change.”  National School Counselor Week is an opportunity to shed new light on the depth, importance, and value of everything school counselors do to make schools and communities work more effectively and harmoniously.  Make the most of it—and them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Paying for College—Giving Families the Help They Need

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

College application season has shifted from getting into college to paying for college.  Each new senior class brings parents who don’t understand the basics of paying for college: some think they won’t qualify for help, so they don’t apply; others are sure they will qualify for help, even if they don’t apply, and some just wonder what to do first.

As busy as school counselors are in January, now is the time to provide a set of clear facts about paying for college.  If you don’t, parents will find “information” on their own—and then the task shifts from telling them what they need to know to telling them what they think they know is incorrect.  That’s a harder task, and with your student’s college plans on the line, it isn’t worth the risk.

If you’re short on time, here’s an overview on what to do:

Give them a brief overview of the big picture.  Begin your discussion by talking about “paying for college”, NOT about “financial aid.” This may seem like a small difference, but this slight change opens the conversation to many more families—not every family thinks they qualify for financial aid, but every family would like to know more about paying for college.

This approach is covered nicely in the new US Department of Education site on college costs—direct parents to; after that, direct them to a nice scholarship overview at , followed by a visit to to learn more about merit-based money.

Guide them to the right source for Federal aid...  The new US web site is really a one-stop shopping place for information on paying for college, and it’s the place to go for information on the FAFSA.  Direct your families to , and be sure to steer them towards the glossary, where terms like EFC are explained.

...and steer them AWAY from the wrong sources.  The first F in FAFSA stands for “Free”, but some parents don’t know that—and the trouble begins when parents go to instead of the Student Aid site listed above. is very up front about charging families to help them complete the FAFSA, (another popular site that charges for help, Student Financial Aid Services, is a little more vague), but with the online resources at and free help programs like College Goal Sunday ( ), parents can get the help they need without paying for it—provided you tell them.  Otherwise, they won’t know.

Have them check the Web sites of every college they’re applying to. Some colleges require parents to complete more than one financial aid form—it isn’t uncommon for a college to ask for the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE  ( .)  Encourage your parents to read each college’s Web site for their requirements.

Make them aware of the plusses and minuses of loans. has a nice introduction to college loans.  Combined with , your families will have a firm grasp on how to manage their loans in the best possible way.

Consider some alternatives.  College isn’t always a four-year experience at the same school—and some creative approaches to college can really cut costs.  One approach is outlined at ; another resource is Debt-Free U by Zac Bissonnette, which offers a reminder that a great college doesn’t always cost a great deal of money.

It’s better if parents and students had the “money for college” talk in 10th or 11th grade.  Since that rarely happens, counselors need to make sure senior families make sound college decisions their hearts, minds, and wallets can handle.