Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Administrative Support of Counseling Programs—The Counselor’s Role

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s a busy time of year. Elementary and middle school counselors are involved with parent conferences, while high school counselors have the additional layer of early college applications to complete.  Combined with the responsibilities of fall testing, it’s easy to look back on the department goals set in September and wonder, where did the time go?

If you’re feeling the need for support, the best place to turn is your school administrator. The unique position counselors fill in the school community provides ample opportunities to create innovative programs and activities that can enrich all facets of a student’s school experience.  At the same time, a school counselor’s role is neither completely teacher, nor completely support staff, nor completely administrator.  This absence of commonality makes it challenging for counselors to feel a sense of support for their work-- but this absence increases the necessity for school administrators to provide that support.

Interviews and surveys of school counselors in Michigan revealed five areas where administrative support of school programs is essential—and while the research was conducted in 2000, the results still ring true today:

Program and Logistical Support  Administrators supply the resources needed to implement all facets of a comprehensive counseling curriculum, including curriculum development, program implementation, and program evaluation.

Programmatic and Professional Growth  Counselors always want to do more, and administrators give counselors the opportunity and encouragement to expand their services, including school-wide activities to deliver counseling services, as well as participation in professional development activities to stay abreast of new trends in the field.

Engaged Advocacy  Supportive administrators meet with counselors on a regular basis, and promote and endorse counseling programs with internal and external audiences, including faculty, district administration, school boards, and the public.

Capital Allocation   Administrators allocate physical plant and technology resources appropriate to advance counseling services, resulting in workplaces for counseling that are fresh, updated, functional, and welcoming.

Affirmation  Administrators trust the judgment and abilities of the counselor, evidenced by the autonomy the counselors are given, and by the tenor of the work relationship between counselors and administrators.

None of this should come as a surprise to either counselors or administrators, but many counselors get to the middle of the school year and realize they’ve forgotten these five essential fundamentals, and the role counselors play to receive that support.  Time is always at a premium, but try to take 30 minutes and ask yourself these key questions about your role in this important relationship:

  • What’s the best way to tell your administrator about upcoming programs and events in college counseling—e-mail, phone call, informal conversation?
  • How do you share the results and feedback of your programs with your administrator, and is that information presented in a summarized way that’s easy for them to access?
  • Is there a clear way to send your administrator a “heads up” about a situation with a student or family that could soon require their active intervention?
  • What formats exist for your administrator to share the feedback they’re receiving from others about the school’s counseling services?
  • When is the best time to discuss plans for program growth, and how would your administrator like to be approached when that time arrives?
  • How do you relate your appreciation for your administrator’s support of your program?

This list should also look familiar—it’s the same series of other-centered questions we present to students when discussing effective communication.  Every counselor needs and deserves their administrator’s support, but it’s essential, especially in busy times, to make sure we put ourselves in a position to receive that support in the myriad ways it can be presented.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Every Student Finds a College in Five Days

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s hard to pick one month out of the year where high school counselors are most busy, but I think I would nominate October.  With schedule changes almost done (are they ever really done?), counselors have to gear up for the PSAT and statewide testing, and support the endless number of college applications their seniors are submitting. With all that going on, it doesn’t quite seem right to suggest one more October activity to fill your plate…

…but here goes. College Application Week started as a small but mighty idea in North Carolina.  The premise was simple: take one week in late fall to focus all of the counseling office’s efforts to make sure every high school senior applied to at least one college. Some students would certainly apply to college before College Application Week, and many would apply to more than one college; the activities and events held during the week are designed to support students who haven’t applied to college by early November, and to help them find a college match.

It didn’t take long for this idea to expand, both in scope and in breadth.  Counselors quickly realized getting every student to apply to college by the end of CAW would require more computers than the one (if there is even one) in the counseling office, and many students might need help navigating an online application.  In addition, it would probably help to offer seminars and activities to get seniors thinking about college choices before the actual week started; that would give them time to investigate different colleges and use their time during CAW to make strong, personalized college choices.

Now in its ninth year, College Application Week has burst out of counseling offices, and overtakes entire schools for a full five days.  Teachers wear sweatshirts and other gear with the name of their college proudly displayed, and most take five minutes out of every class period to talk about their college experience.  Many teachers also put up a bulletin board or door display where students can post a Success message once they’ve applied, while volunteers from local colleges and the PTA work with students in computer labs to complete the college applications.  And if you think this inspires the seniors, just think how this celebration of college impacts the juniors—and the freshmen.

CAW has also inspires principals in important ways, as the energy of the week leads them to ask, “So does this program make a difference?”  This has led to principal-led efforts to keep better track of the colleges students apply to; where they are admitted; where they attend; how they do once they’re in college, and if they complete a degree.  This kind of data helps counselors and teachers evaluate one aspect of the school’s mission, and provides clues for improving college readiness and completion.

And yes, the program does make a difference.  The first CAW in 2005 supported the college goals of one North Carolina high school.  In 2011, over 25,000 North Carolina students submitted over 68,000 college applications, and CAW programs are being initiated or in full swing in 39 states, each one serving the needs of all students, but especially those who are convinced college isn’t for them.

You may be too swamped this October to put together a College Application Week of your own, but put it on your spring calendar as an idea to investigate and implement next year.  Information on CAW can be found at, and it can change your students’ lives forever.

Plus, it might even get you out of schedule changes.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

That’s Why it’s Called College Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Part of the goal in every aspect of counseling is to help students cope with a difficult situation by understanding more about themselves and their ability to manage the dilemma.  More often than not, this work requires the student to see more of their capabilities, and to accept the importance of being patient with their growth in those capabilities. Great athletes don’t come out of the womb and slam dunk a basketball or knock a baseball 400 feet; the same is true for fully-realized individuals who start their own companies, raise healthy children, or live meaningful lives. Many will get to the top of their game, but that usually takes time, patience, and a great deal of practice.

That’s why college application deadlines can seem like such an adversary.  How can a student be required to apply to a college by a certain date when one more month of Algebra or one more semester of growth could dramatically change their grades, their outlook on life, or the quality of recommendations they receive from their teachers?  What does a student do as deadlines approach if the college of their dreams may not fit in with the plans for their life? What does a student do who has spent three years with college as their goal when their parents tell them the finances just aren’t there, and the student will have to take a full time job just to make ends meet at home.

This challenge might seem unique to college counseling, but how many of our students come to us with problems they see as other-centered, when the real solution lies in a change of the perception or behavior of the student?

“Now that my best friend and I have had a fight, I just have to get out of the class we have together.”

“I want to come to school on time, but my mom wakes me up late.”

“My grades would be better if I could study at my house, but it’s just too noisy there.”

These issues may seem to deal with a change in behavior (sit somewhere else in the room, buy an alarm clock, study at the library), but that change only occurs once the student realizes they have the power to do something about a situation they now see as out of their control. Once they know they really can do something to better themselves, it’s only a matter of time and desire to realize the change—and that puts them back in the center of their own universe.

That’s true for getting up in the morning, but is it really true for college deadlines? 

“If only I had more time to get my grades up.”

“Let’s look at some colleges that will look at your senior year grades as part of your application.”

“I can’t decide which school to apply to early.”

“Maybe we should talk about applying to meet the later application deadline.”

“Mom and Dad say I have to work for a year before I can go to school.”

“There are many colleges that will admit you now and let you take a year off.  Let’s look at those.”

At this busy time of year, it’s easy for our students to see no answers at all, and it’s easy for us to forget we have the answers that can liberate their perspective and widen their view of what’s possible.  We can’t change deadlines, but we can help students understand how to respond to those deadlines in ways that can change their entire views of themselves, their potential, and their futures.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The College Counseling Throwdown

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Long-time readers to this space know it is sometimes used to expound on the significant gap that exists in school counselor training.  For those needing a refresher, here are the highlights:

  • Less than ten percent of the school counselor training programs in the United States offer a course on college advising
  • A recent survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows school counselors spend about 20% of their time on college advising activities
  • A Public Agenda survey found most young adults thought their counselor was of little or no help when it came to making college plans
  • Two different College Board surveys of school counselors found that counselors themselves feel undertrained in this vital area

This is usually the point where readers are asked to seize the energy behind this need and contact their state legislators and fix this.  Today, we’re taking a detour.

People with very good intentions can get sidetracked in a hurry when they run up against large institutions—so if large institutions are too intimidating, it’s time to look local. There’s a good chance you work for a school, and there’s an even better chance that school has a board, and that school board sets all kinds of policies, including the hiring policies; you might even know someone on the school board. 

Imagine the attention you would receive if you told a board member over coffee that you, a school counselor, want the board to increase the required qualifications for any newly hired counselor.  Upon taking the job, they either have to show evidence of having completed a 45 hour course in college advising, or they have to agree to complete such a course before they begin their second year of work.  If they don’t have the class, they take it in a year—and if they promise to take it but don’t follow through, they don’t get to keep the job.

The first response will probably be the same glassy-eyed look I get when telling policymakers counselors aren’t fully trained to help students make good college choices.  There’s a good chance your board members don’t know that either, so you may need to give them the facts that start this column.  Once you do that, they still might not believe you want to add more requirements to the job—after all, you’re a counselor—but your experiences and care for your students will guide you to find the right words.

It may be obvious, but you get something out of this—in fact, you get two somethings.  The next counselor you hire will either have the training they need to hit the ground running with college advice, or at least show the interest in learning that side of the job.  Imagine what that interest and energy will do to cut down training time, and improve the quality of your counseling program.

In addition to your committed colleague, your students will get some extra college advice from me.  No school district in the country has this policy right now; if you can get your district to lead the way on this essential reform, I will give you enough copies of College is Yours 2.0  to give one to every junior in your high school class.  10, 50, 800—it doesn’t matter. Make history, and you get the books.

Hard work has its rewards, and breaking this barrier is a must if our students and our profession are going to move forward.  I’ve been saying that for quite a while; now it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is.

Who’s in?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Note You Send Every College-Bound Senior Before the Application Deadline

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Completing a college application is an exciting experience, but it’s important to make sure the excitement is a positive excitement, not a panicked one.  To reach that goal, students will want to keep the following points in mind as they plan their time to complete and submit their college applications:

You may be the person applying to college, but you aren’t the only person completing your application.  Most college applications require a completed form from the student, a signed form from your counselor, a transcript from our registrar, and a processing check from your parents.  Many other colleges also want letters of recommendation from teachers, and a letter from your counselor, as well as official copies of test scores.  That’s a lot of information coming from many different busy, caring people, and each of those people works at a different pace, and has a different schedule. 

346 other students are applying to college, too.  Many of the people supporting your college applications are also supporting the applications of other seniors, and they want to do a good job with each one.  Some of the other applications may require more of their time than yours will, and some may require less, but they will all require some time—and they can’t work on everyone’s application at the same time.

It helps you when others have time to do their job well.  Most teachers write better letters of recommendation when they have a chance to work on two or three drafts for each letter—and they can only work on letters when they aren’t teaching, coaching, or checking papers. Colleges wouldn’t ask for these letters if they weren’t important, so you ask teachers to write them who know you well, and you want those teachers to write the best letters they possibly can, so you ask them weeks before the letter is actually due. (Same for counselors.)

Computers don’t always work.  You found this out when you waited until morning to print the History paper you’d written the night before, and it was gone.  It isn’t a great feeling, but it happens—and sometimes it happens with the school’s computer that holds your transcript, the counselor’s computer that holds your secondary school report, or your teacher’s computer that holds your letter of recommendation.  All of that information can be found or reproduced, but only if there’s some extra time built in between the time you ask for the information, and when it has to be submitted. (Keep this in mind when you work on your college essays and save them.)

There’s no such thing as a college counseling emergency.  The teachers and counselors supporting your college application have been helping students make good college choices for a combined 243 years, and none of us has ever encountered a deadline or request from a college that required a response the day the request was first made—and none of those requests ever asked for information to be sent on Christmas Eve.  If you’ve lost track of what’s due when, everyone will do their best to submit materials on time, but no one can turn the clock back on a deadline that’s passed, and no one can give quality work less time than it deserves.

Applying to college is a sign you want to embrace a larger understanding of who you are and how you relate to the world.  Part of that larger role requires growth in supporting and thanking the people who support you.  Accept that challenge, as you lead the team that will help you build a brighter future.