Wednesday, February 27, 2013

When Student Trust is Compromised

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The craziness that comes with college notifications in March has been matched by a different kind of madness in February.  The Daily Pennsylvanian reports a former admissions officer at The University of Pennsylvania posted portions of applicants’ essays to her Facebook page.  If this weren’t bad enough, several of them were accompanied by commentary indicating the officer’s amazement, displeasure, and criticism of the essays (see the article at

If this issue doesn’t set off a fire bell in the head of every school counselor, it’s time to go back on spring break.  Disclosing personal information of any kind is a major violation of client confidentiality, a fundamental part of the counselor- student relationship.  College admissions officers aren’t usually counselors, but they are expected to conduct their work with the same level of respect for the student’s privacy. Posting snippets of application essays online is no better than posting the student’s transcript, even if the students’ names are withheld.

This unprofessional action is made worse when the admissions officer demeans the work of the students.  As the article points out, this breach of professional ethics may lead future applicants—both to Penn and other institutions—to wonder if they can disclose personal information with any assurance it will remain private.  This can put many applicants in a tough bind; offer the sensitive insights explaining a bad grade or a challenging family life and risk having it mocked online, or withhold the information and risk having a college make an admissions decision based on incomplete information.

Penn is wisely declining comment on the matter for now, but the situation offers many lessons for counselors to reflect on and share with their students:

Reassure your students  The Penn incident is getting the attention of counselors and colleges because is it sad—but it’s also garnering attention because it’s rare, and perhaps a first.  Admissions officers may not love every application they read, but they have the professionalism to keep their opinions to themselves—and, with one disheartening exception, the good sense to keep their comments off of social media.  This isn’t a trendsetting precedent others will follow; it’s a mistake that will lead emulators to be fired.  Tell your students the process is safe, and so are they.

Look in the mirror  High schools are close-knit communities, and the most successful high schools create an atmosphere of community support for every student.  At the same time, that closeness can lead to some tough calls with student confidentiality.  How should a counselor respond when a teacher says:
·          “That Jenny is one smart student.  Where’s she applying to college?”
·         “Jim ran two or three ideas past me for his college essay.  Which one did he end up writing about?” 
·         “So, did Eleanor apply for financial aid?”
On the one hand, these are reasonable questions being asked by a colleague.  On the other hand, will the answers to these questions really enhance the teacher’s work with these students, or is this just a well-meaning, but personal, inquiry?

There’s very little chance any school counselor will have to tidy up their social media accounts after hearing about this incident at Penn—but this does provide an opportunity for us to consider when, and where, we share insights into our students’ college plans.

Support your student newspaper  The Daily Pennsylvanian covered this issue with thoughtful research, reflection, and balance—and that only happened because student journalists were allowed to hone their craft.  Keep this in mind the next time a student reporter knocks on your office door, and support the teachable moments that make up student newspapers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Some Hot Counseling Tips to Warm Up February

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

February is a tough time to be a school counselor.  Your appointment book (virtual or otherwise) is bursting with students who have more needs than you have hours in the day.  Your “other duties as assigned” are filling up far too much of your time, what little budget you had is a distant memory…

..and just when you think things couldn’t get worse, your principal stops by and says “The superintendent needs to know what’s new in counseling.  What do you have?”

Just so we’re all working from the same page here, you should *not* tell the superintendent you have trouble sleeping, poor eating habits, and difficulty focusing on any one task for more than three minutes.  These may be all true, but you are a counselor, and this is February—so none of this is new.

Instead, it’s time to dazzle them, and time to dazzle them with a purpose.

Elementary counselors should look at Guiding the Way to Higher Education:  Families, Counselors, and Communities Together.  For years, the National Association for College Admission Counseling has produced counseling materials to support early awareness of college—awareness that is a must for low-income families and families where college may not be a traditional path after high school.  Guiding the Way is the updated guide designed to help counselors talk about college to students  and families in late elementary and middle school grades—and it’s free.

You share this with your principal because college awareness is one of the biggest issues on the elementary counseling scene right now.  If you’re asked what you’ve done with this information so far, tell them you know it’s a sound resource, and you’re trying to find the time to put together a college awareness night for parents, but you’ll need some time to meet with the PTA representatives to make sure the event meets the needs of the community.

Middle school counselors have their own free NACAC resource in Step By Step: College Awareness in Middle School. This college awareness treasure chest helps students build a solid understanding of college by building a solid understanding of self.  Exercises include reflection on the student’s interests and abilities, and tie nicely to career interests and college plans—again, all for free.

You share this with your principal because the interdepartmental options here are limitless.  Step by Stepactivities can fit nicely into the Social Studies, Science, English and Health curricula; casually mention there are more of these out there, if you just had a little time to research them.

High school counselors have two things to share. Students and parents want to know if good grades can help pay for college.  The answer is, the best place for parents and students to begin the hunt for merit scholarships.  Guide them here for a list of colleges (alpha and by state) that offer all kinds of merit money; once they find a potential college, tell them to visit the college’s Web site to confirm the scholarship is still offered.

You share this with your principal to point out all the other great college counseling tips you could learn, if only your high school could find the modest tuition needed to pay for Counseling in the College Selection Process, the college counseling class most school counselors call “the best counseling class I ever took.”  The online version carries 3 graduate credits and costs about $430; more information can be found at

And suddenly, spring is just around the corner. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How to Teach 10th Graders About College

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

With college applications submitted and scheduling for next year in full force, 10th grade students and their parents are starting to ask about college.  The first flowers may not blossom for another month, but the minute junior year schedules are started, sophomores turn on eye towards college, and one eye to you for advice on college.

Whether or not you’ve had your 10th grade college night, now is the time to introduce Colleges That Change Lives to your aspiring college seekers.  CTCL has been mentioned in this column before, but just to recap:  The first edition of the book was written by Loren Pope, who had toured the country to discover colleges that excelled in working with students, stretching their minds, and providing them with learning experiences that provided the growth everyone expects to see in college.  Mr. Pope has passed on, but CTCL is now in its third edition, and better than ever; it also boasts a very robust Web site ( and a college tour program that’s held in August.

Many counselors have found the CTCL resources to be *the* best way to introduce 10th grade families to college.  It’s a little early for these students to develop college lists, so the real goal of 10th grade college counseling is to help students understand how to compare colleges.  This creates the perfect time to have the essential talk on what a college is; what makes one college different from another college, and why some colleges that are perfect for your best friend may not be all that great for you.

Enter CTCL.  The first couple of chapters invite readers to look beyond the stress and hype of choosing a college; this helps counselors show families how to begin a student-centered college search that is free of rankings and comparisons to other students.  The remaining chapters talk about the approaches each CTCL college takes in working with students, and why those approaches help student growth. In reading just a few of these descriptions, students and families will develop an appreciation for the qualities that are in an effective college—qualities that are highlighted in the CTCL colleges, but qualities that are in strong supply in all kinds of colleges, to be sure.

I’ve talked about CTCL  with my 10th grade families, then told them to go visit two local college campuses—any two—to look for the CTCL qualities that exist on those campuses, and to look for the similarities and differences between the schools.  This helps get families past the labels (big v small, rural v urban) to see the opportunities and the atmosphere of each campus.  In some years, I was able to buy a copy of the CTCL book for each 10th grade family; when that’s not in the budget, it’s just as easy and effective to refer them to the Web site.

These ideas can be powerfully emphasized when these families participate in the CTCL college fairs in the fall.  Each event starts with CTCL director Marty O’Connell talking about how to look for a college; the rest of the evening gives students and families a chance to talk to representatives from each CTCL college, where more comparing and evaluation can occur.

CTCL schools are small private schools, but by seeing the opportunities these schools offer students, your 10th grade families will look at every college through a thoughtful, personalized lens, and see opportunities at every college to individualize a student’s living and learning experience.  CTCL is a great teaching tool, and now is a teachable moment—make the most of both.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Common Application Changes You Need to Know

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors received an early but welcome present for National School Counseling Week when Common Application released their essay topics for next year.  The announcement can be found at, and it contains some additional changes counselors will want to keep in mind when working with juniors:

·         Common App has done away with the short essay that was required for all applicants.
·         These essay topics are for the first part of the Common Application.  If an individual college wants students to write additional essays, those will be found in the Supplement section of Common App.
·         The word limit for the new essays has been raised to 650 words, and the essay instructions make it clear that students don’t have to write 650 words—if fine if their essay is complete in less than 650 words, as long as it’s at least 250 words long.
·         At the same time, the new maximum of 650 words will be strictly enforced.  In the past, some students have written well past the maximum; that won’t be allowed next year.

The new offerings leave out what’s been the most popular topic among students—“Write an essay on the topic of your choice.” Counselors were extremely unhappy when this omission was announced in the fall, but the Common Application committee charged with developing the new essay topics made sure the choices would be very broad, allowing students ample opportunity to tell their individual stories. (Full disclosure:  I was on the selection committee.)

Common Application decided to release the new topics at this time to make sure everyone understood a change was coming—one change of many, as Common App prepares to roll out a new version of the entire application, CA4, on August 1st.  While counselors appreciate the advanced notice, they also wonder if the availability of these new topics might lead juniors to start working on their college essays now, well before their junior year has ended.

Knowing this might happen, Common Application posted this notice on their Facebook page:

JUNIORS: Just because you know what our colleges will ask you to write about doesn't mean you should start writing. It's February 6. You have more pressing things to do. You'll have plenty of time to be a college applicant. For now, just be a student.

It’s important to find ways to reinforce this message with students and parents.  The essays and assignments teachers give juniors are designed to develop the skills colleges want to see in college essays—skills like analysis, critical thinking, and evaluation.  If students can hone those skills now with a lab report, a History paper, or an English essay, they will surely apply them later with a Common App prompt like “describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

Students also want to make sure their essays are engaging, and nothing kills inviting writing like too many rewrites. Several college admissions officers say students are writing essays that are “safe”, writing that has good structure, but doesn’t really tell the reader much about the student.  This lack of color will only go up if students agonize over a small essay for up to ten months, or if parents badger them about these essays from now until Labor Day.

College essays are part of an exciting process, but the glory of the Super Bowl comes only to those who master the nuances of training camp.  Common Application has shown students the goal line; now counselors must show them how to get downfield.