Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Common Application Plea to All Students and Parents

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Counselors who are still in the building will want to take a moment to pass some important reminders on to rising seniors and their families about Common Application.

Nearly all of us now know Common Application is going to an updated version, and most students are aware that this new version is debuting August 1st. What many students seem to have forgotten in these first few weeks of summer is that all Common Application accounts opened now will be permanently closed on July 1.  This means anyone who wanted to get a jump on the new Common Application is actually working on the old Common App, and they won’t be able to access any of this work come Monday—plus, it won’t be transferred to any new CA account they create on or after August 1.

If students are looking for something to do that will help them move their college applications along, you could once again give them the link to the Common Application essay topics that will be used next year.  These are new topics, which must be between 250-650 words, and can be found at

As I said, you could send this prompt along—but let me encourage you not to.  All of these eager students are to be admired for their advanced planning and industrious view of college applications, but there is some evidence to suggest that all of this early writing is leading to very plain essays.  There’s only so many times a student can revisit the same topic and not lose interest, and that isn’t the kind of writing colleges want to see.  Instead, I would recommend you pass along some solid advice about when and how to pursue a thoughtful essay—advice which directs students to start writing no earlier than August 1.

Finally, it’s a good idea to remind students that they have to include their counselor’s e-mail address on Common Application if the student wants the counselor to send the required Secondary School Report, and the student’s transcript.  If you’re going to e-mail them to remind them of the August 1 start date, it’s a good idea to add your name; the school’s official name and six digit CEEB code, and your e-mail address.  This increases the chances these forms will get to you sooner rather than later, and that gives you a fighting chance to get organized...

…and remember to send the reminder e-mail to parents as well as students.  I’d like to say all these hard charging seniors are jumping the gun because they love the idea of going to college, but many of them are doing this because they love the idea of getting their well-meaning parents off their backs.  Since you’re a counselor, you should help them achieve their personal goals—make sure the e-mail goes to Mom and Dad, too.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Things to Remember Come Fall

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The coast is nearly clear for school counselors, who typically have to be at school a week after the teachers and students are gone.  You’ve kept yourself busy for five days, and you really, really love your students—but you also really, really want to hit the beach, eat some fresh fruit, and remember what it’s like to be among the living.

You’ll need to keep that same attitude when you’re back in the fall.  Life is in high gear for the rest of the world, and many activities will be shaping the lives of our students while they’re away from school, and while we’re away from them.  Summer headlines will be gone and forgotten on the first day of school, but changes in international events, education policy, or cultural trends could impact our students this July in ways that will remain with them this September.

How can we track these life-altering activities without spending the summer glued to CNN?  Buy a notebook when you get sunscreen, and make a few notes every couple of days.  Here are a few events to get the list started:

The Supreme Court and Families Teachers aren’t the only ones who have a different summer schedule, but before the Supreme Court goes on its three month vacation July 1st, it will rule on a host of issues that could impact students.  Two cases involve the legality of same sex marriage; another could impact the way voting rules are made in some states, and the court may even change the role race can play in college admissions.  These rulings could have a strong impact on students’ homes and college plans; look for them to come out in the next week, and keep them in mind when the students return.

Common Core Comes to You  Many states will  implement Common Core standards this fall in ways that could impact students’ schedules, learning, and evaluation.  Many of those plans may already be in place, but more could take shape this summer.  Michigan is a prime example of a state where things may be different in six weeks; the legislature has passed the state budget, and told the Department of Education to spend no money at all on Common Core implementation.  Politics and education have always been an interesting summer couple; keep a close eye on what could be a rocky summer romance.

Common Application, Version 4  High school counselors have been forewarned and workshopped about the changes coming to this very popular college application service, but no amount of preparation can prepare you for every single student’s situation.  In addition, many colleges who usually announce their essays early are waiting until August 1st, the first day CA 4.0 hits the Internet.  Take an hour in late August to review the new system and review the essay questions of the colleges popular with your students.  That will provide the calm you’ll need when the Class of 2014 runs to your door looking more like a zombie invasion than college applicants.

International Events are shaping up to make the summer interesting, as Afghanistan refuses to negotiate with the US unless they also get to talk with the Taliban, and North Korea won’t talk to South Korea without talking to us.  If this sounds like the drama of junior high prom on a global scale, you’re sort of right; still, students are in families with military parents, where the price of peace can be high.  You may be called this fall to serve with soothing if they must answer their call of duty this summer; listen, affirm, and support.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Message to This Year's High School Seniors

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This is the third year in a row I received no invitations to speak at a graduation ceremony—e-mail is so undependable-- so I’ll continue the tradition of addressing all of you from here, as you say goodbye to life as a high school student.

First and foremost, congratulations.  Your adventures from ninth to twelfth grade are undoubtedly the most chronicled high school odyssey in world history, thanks in part to your posts on social media (“OMG—I got an A!”) to the zigabytes of video and pictures your parents took at a moment’s notice, much to your displeasure (“Mom, put the camera away—I’m only going to driver’s ed!”).  Combined with the media’s constant insistence that the odds of getting into a good college are smaller than being struck by lightning, it’s easy to understand why graduation day brings more a sense of relief than joy, for at long last, this stressful part of your life is behind you.

And I really hope you keep that part of your life behind you.  There’s no doubt life will bring more situations that will keep you up at night, but you’ll face many more where keeping awake at night is nothing more than an option. The tricky part comes when people around you respond in a way that makes you feel like your only options are panic, drama, and uncertainty.  When those times come, it will be hard to stop and think if there’s a better choice for you—and if one comes to mind, it might be even harder to choose it, for fear of not being part of the crowd.

My advice?  Be strong.

Take a look at the senior year you’ve just capped off (get it—cap and gown?  Capped off?) Last fall, your fellow seniors were completely panicked by applying to college, convinced they were going to fail because they didn’t know the magic words that would compel Harvard to deliver an offer of admission by chauffeured limousine.  That made you a little nervous, until you looked at your first college application, and saw what it really wanted: your name; your address; your senior year classes; some idea about what you’ve done with your life, and some idea about what’s next.  You didn’t have to split an atom; you didn’t have to invent a new dance craze; you just had to show them who you were.

That’s the second part of my advice—be you.  This won’t be easy, and many of you know this. You’re smiling with an understanding that this relief from school is temporary, that college will bring a bigger, faster round of factoid recital that requires even more hoop-jumping and less real thinking than high school—an idea that brings you little cheer, even if you get to play this next round with the help of a beer bong. 

 It’s easy to understand why you might see college that way, but I hope you won’t.  If you’re like most seniors, you’ll look back on applying to college and wonder why you spent half the fall worrying when you should have been writing, why you spent all of Christmas break writing when you should have been caroling, and why you spent the better part of winter waiting for The News when you should have been busy living the dream. 

Those same classmates are swearing college will be different, that they’ll be more focused and organized--but that’s only a hope, when what they really need is a plan.  Be strong.  Be you.  Let the crowd pass by without you.

Beer bong and all.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Best Counselor Summer Ever

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The end of the school year is almost in sight.  You’ve seen a few students wearing shorts, the maple keys are starting to sprout into small trees on the far side of the school playground, and budget requests for next year have been returned—denied, but returned.
Welcome to summer!
While your contract may keep you in the office for a few days after the students are gone, your time off is on its way. As is the case with many things, school counselors usually don’t follow the advice they give their students when it comes to June, July and August.  If ever there was a time to practice what you preach, it’s now—so follow these simple steps to come back ready and refreshed in the fall:
Play for at least the first two days of vacation.  I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks convincing juniors that they really shouldn’t spend all summer working on college essays—not only does that process sound boring, but the essays they write over three months will sound boring, too.
The same thing is true for teachers.  There may be painting to be done, or summer school to be taught, but give yourself some time to appreciate how hard you’ve worked this year, and to remember what it’s like to have concentrated periods of fun.  That may mean sequestering yourself away with a good book, or catching up on Game of Thrones, or spending time with family—but whatever fun means to you, do it, and don’t look back or ahead.
This is June, not New Year’s Eve  I’m also amazed at the number of students who come by my office and swear next year will be different.  They’ll make the Honor Roll, they’ll get to class on time, they’ll eat the cafeteria food without complaint.  These resolutions may not involve smoking, drinking, or spending more time with the family, but they should sound familiar—they are goals that have no plan.
You may have ideas on what you’d like next year to be like, and that’s good—but counselors know that hope is just the start of a plan.  Dream big for the first part of the summer, but then pick a few reasonable goals for next year, and make plans to seek support, measure progress, and assess them on a regular basis.  Every 9th grader wants to go to Harvard; the 12th graders who do, do more than hope.  That’s true for growing counselors as well.
Watch your speed  Just like students, some counselors love their work because they go a million miles an hour in a typical work day, doing twelve things at once, usually with a high degree of mastery.  This may be a work habit borne by necessity, but even if it isn’t, you’re good at it, and it gives you a little buzz.
That’s great, but here’s a hint—you’re not at work anymore, and spending 3 “quality” minutes isn’t the same as 15 regular minutes in the eyes of your three year-old child, cat, or hydrangea bush.  We make a living encouraging people to build deep roots in relationships, and we know what happens to those who don’t.  Now is the time to remember what breathing sounds like; what real listening feels like, and what handmade bread tastes like.  If for no other reason, engage in these activities so you have fresh examples to share with your students next fall, when they want to know what it means to be at peace.

Gershwin wrote “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” Sing that song.