Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The One Word That Leads to College Success

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The lesson we’ve learned from this year’s college decisions couldn’t be clearer.  More students are applying to more colleges, so colleges can be more selective about the students they admit.  That’s just as true at the Top 25 colleges (whatever those are) as it is for the colleges in your neighborhood.  More choice means more opportunity for colleges to be more choosy.

So how do you prepare?  In a word, study.

It’s absolutely true that grades alone don’t lead to a yes from any college, but studies show grades and strength of schedule are the two biggest factors in nearly every college decision, not counting art schools.  Since good grades are based on knowing what you’re talking about, good study habits become more important than ever.

The good news is that most students are studying—it’s just that they aren’t studying enough.  Your Geometry teacher assigns you problems 5-15, and you do them all.  The English assignment is 20 pages of The Great Gatsby, so you knock them out.  Tomorrow’s Bio quiz on the parts of a frog?  Memorized and good to go.

Or are you?

Your study habits may be getting you through the next test or paper—but are they enough to help understand the big picture, and see how this unit will apply to the next unit?  If it’s time to boost your study skills, consider these simple exercises.  Do one of these every time your study, and that extra 30 minutes can make a huge difference in your learning, and your college plans.

Math  It’s great that you knocked out those 10 problems when your teacher assigned questions 5-15 for homework, but what about problem 20—the one that asks you to explain your answer—or problem 24, where you have to apply what you’ve learned in a question about building design?  Once you’ve done those two, flip back 20 pages, and try question 17 from the homework three weeks ago—and once that’s done, try and figure out why doing questions 5-15 tonight meant you had to complete 11 problems, not 10.

English  Too many students read those 20 pages by opening the book and plowing straight through—since the words hit your eyes, you were reading, right?  But what did each part mean,  and how did it relate to the 20 pages you read last night?  Spend a dollar on a drug-store notebook, and stop every 2 pages to write down a summary of what you just read, then read those notes before you complete your next reading assignment.  It makes the ideas pop out more, and stick together—and they may even remind you of some ideas you read last month in The Scarlet Letter.

Science  Chances are you have those frog parts memorized by where they appear on the diagram in the book.  That’s good, but it’s better to also know how they relate to each other.  Which are muscle?  Which ones are organs?  Which ones do frogs have that toads don’t?  Regrouping ideas means you see them in different ways, and that will get you hopping down the path of amphibian wisdom.

Social Studies  This group of classes isn’t called the Social Sciences by accident.  Frog parts relate in different ways, and so do sequences of historic events.  Look for the economic, ethical, and philosophical similarities and differences in the topics you study, and the relationship between the Boston Tea Party and the Montgomery Bus Boycott could be stronger than you think—and both could relate to the Ukrainian crisis in a way only you can see.

Look at you.  Scholar.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The High School Where Every Counselor is College Ready

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It' s time to make good on a debt.
Last fall, I challenged America's school counselors to improve college advising in their building by requiring every new counselor to take a course in college counseling. These courses are a must if any school is to make headway in giving better college advice to students and parents.
I'm thrilled to say a school has answered the call. In her first year as a counselor at Detroit Catholic Central, Shawn Mather took a college counseling class (with me). Now that she's department chair, she has a policy--you only get hired if you agree to take a class. As a result, her students are getting better college advising--and as I promised, her juniors each have a new copy of College is Yours 2.0
Catholic Central becomes the first school in the country where every counselor has to be trained in college counseling--but they don't have to be the last one. There are plenty of classes out there, including online options; now that Shawn and Catholic Central have broken the barrier, it's time everyone walked through.
In case you need help talking to your school board, here's Shawn's story, in her own words.
In 2008, when I started my new position as a counselor at a college prep high school, I had no training or exposure to counseling students in the college selection process. I quickly realized that I had received no instruction during my Master's program on this specific subject, even though I was enrolled in the School Counseling track. Soon after I began my new role, I received an email about a "free" Workshop titled "Counseling in the College Selection Process."
As I sat in this workshop, along with many of my fellow Grad students, I was taking notes faster than I could talk! There was so much I did not know and needed to learn. I had never written a letter of recommendation. I had never heard of a Junior Questionnaire. NACAC, MACAC, Promoting the Publics, Goal Sunday?? Deciphering between the different Admissions Deadlines?? At the end of the workshop, it was announced that there was to be an upcoming week-long course on "Counseling in the College Selection Process." "Where do I sign up?" was my next question.
My fellow veteran counselors at my high school would agree that procedures related to the college selection process at our school were a bit antiquated and they were open to any new ideas I could offer. After taking the course, I had a lot of ideas to put into motion! I created an assortment of handouts related to Parent Nights, NCAA, College Essay Writing Tips, and much more. I created a document for teachers on "How To Write a Teacher Letter of Recommendation - since content should differ from that of a counselor. I updated our Guidance website, including links to many useful topics. I initiated/created a "Junior Questionnaire", followed by adding "Junior Interviews" to our spring responsibilities.
My Department was in full throttle and the feedback from parents, students and Administration has been all positive. With the valuable information and confidence I received from this course alone, my Guidance Department quickly moved into the 21st century with electronic transmittal of transcripts and letters of recommendation via Naviance and takes great pride in the work we do with our students to help them succeed in this "process" of selecting and applying to colleges. Two years into my role, I was promoted to Director of Guidance.
Since taking the "Counseling in the College Selection Process" course I have made it a requirement for any new hires in my Department. Honestly, this is how much I value this course and how prepared I want my fellow counselors to be in their role as a high school counselor.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making the Right Decision About Decision Day

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It started out as a pretty simple idea.  High school seniors would celebrate their admission to college by wearing a T-shirt or sweatshirt from their college on May 1, the day college-bound seniors place a deposit at the one college they’ll be attending in the fall.  It was informal, it was fun, and it was a way for small groups of friends to celebrate all they’d done in high school, now that high school was coming to a close.

In just a few short years, the idea has taken on a life of its own.  Spurred in part by the National College Access Network, school counselors and principals are now organizing formal events that include everything from morning breakfasts sponsored by the PTA to all-school assemblies where college decisions are announced.  Some high schools set up an announcement board where every student—college bound and otherwise—put up a message about their future plans, and say a word of farewell.  That board often stays up for a full year, inspiring next year’s seniors to reach for their dreams—until a new board gives them the opportunity to share their dreams to inspire others.

In typical leading-edge fashion, the Michigan College Access Network has accumulated some of the best College Decision Day practices and presented them in a new publication for other high schools to use.  These resources are by no means limited for use by Michigan high schools, and they’re available for all to use at 
 (Full disclosure: I am on MCAN’s board of directors.)

I collected some of the examples used in the guide, and there are three perspectives that surfaced in my conversations with school counselors. First, nearly every counselor that sponsors some kind of Decision Day activity includes every senior. College is a great experience for students who want to pursue it, but every senior has a future to fulfill. It’s vital to organize any Decision Day activity by remembering the goal of the day—honoring each senior’s choice for what’s next in their lives.

Second, some counselors wonder if Decision Day can really meet its lofty goal of inspiring every senior.  If Decision Day is about achievement, how would it be viewed by seniors who weren’t admitted to their dream school, or by seniors who weren’t looking forward to their future?  Others counselors shared personal stories of the Decision Day they experienced as a senior, experiences that sent them off to life after high school with self-doubt and discouragement.  Still others wondered why high school students couldn’t just celebrate being in high school; after all, isn’t Commencement already a day to celebrate new beginnings?

Finally, one counselor sought middle ground by moving his school’s celebration to late March.  Knowing many admissions decisions are released April 1, this counselor scheduled a senior lunch (no parents, no teachers) the week before students heard from their schools.  Since the “Yes-No-Maybe” mania hadn’t started, this lunch gave seniors a breather from the early spring rigors of senior year and the gentle agony of application anxiety.  Seniors had a time to be themselves, and to be together as a class one last time before college news made embracing the future—and leaving the past-- a little more real.

Supporting young people is a careful mix of nurturing their soul and nudging them to a sense of life that’s bigger than self.  Whatever your school plans for Decision Day—if any—do as Stephen Covey suggests, and keep the end in mind. Once you have a clear goal for the program, the MCAN publication can help get you there.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The College Fair Students from Rockford, Illinois

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The woman at the college fair walked over to me with some hesitation.  The fair had been open for about thirty minutes, and we were just beginning to welcome the first of 50 busses that would bring nearly 2000 students from four counties to meet with 120 colleges. 

She could see all that when she approached me, and to be honest, I may have been checking e-mail on my phone when the conversation started. As I remember, it went something like this:
“Are you in charge of the fair?” she asked.

“Yes, I am. How can I help you?”
“Well, I read that you only wanted school groups to stay for 90 minutes, and I was wondering if my group could stay a little longer.”
“When were you planning on leaving?”
“Around 11.  We came from Rockford, Illinois.”
“Rockford? You came in today?”

At this point, a man broke in.  “No, we came yesterday.  Left Rockford at 9 Monday morning, got here for the evening session last night, spent the night, and we’re back for the morning session.”

“How long is it to Rockford?”
“About a nine hour drive. By school bus.”
“You know, there’s another college fair about three hours closer to you that starts tomorrow.”
“That one interfered with their spring break” the woman responded.
“And how many students did you bring?”
“10, with three chaperones.”

“Ma’am, please feel free to stay as long as you like.”

The man came back an hour later to tell me what a wonderful opportunity this was for students, but he didn’t really tell me anything his actions hadn’t already expressed.  When three adults make a 700 mile round trip by school bus with ten kids to make sure they have a full range of college options, it’s clear they see a college fair as something more than a morning out of school.

I’ve thought about that group of students more than once in the last two weeks, now that college decisions are all out, and students have until May 1 to choose their college.  It was an exceptionally unpredictable year in college admissions, with more students applying to top schools than ever before.  More applications only means more rejections, leaving more students to wonder what was wrong with their application. Other students get passed that feeling, only to look at the remaining schools and pick one that will work well for them, even if it now feels like a second choice.

That’s when the students of Rockford come to mind.  A multi-hour bus ride gave them a chance to consider what college could be, but there was no guarantee any of those 120 colleges would be right for them or even let them in.  They took the ride anyway, eager to see what could be, and the ride home gave them a long time to think about what was next.

This year’s seniors are now taking the long ride to May 1, and just like the Rockford students, it’s likely every college they applied to wasn’t right for them or didn’t let them in.  It’s hard when a great college runs out of room before they run out of great applicants, but that’s the school’s problem, not the student’s.  The great college that said yes appreciates everything about you, and has plenty of room for your talents and dreams to shine.  It doesn’t take a nine hour bus trip to see that as the wonderful opportunity it is. You’ve arrived at a wonderful place; it’s time to enjoy the ride. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Your College Advice to Juniors? Be Like Sara

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Sara came home from a softball game last spring and was surprised to see her father's car in the driveway. May was a busy month in his line of work, so he usually went back to the office after watching Sara pitch, finished a little paperwork, and came home in time for a late dinner.

That day, he greeted his daughter in the kitchen. "Nice game, Ace!"

"Thanks, Daddy. Why are you home?"

He beamed at his 11th-grade daughter and said, "I have a surprise. There's an overseas community service project heading to a small village in Japan. They've opened a large orphanage there for children who lost parents in the earthquake, and they need volunteers to help with the babies, so the residents can rebuild their homes."

Sara peeled an orange while her father continued. 

"You'd be there four days, and you'd be making a difference in the world. Your grades are strong and your pitching is great, but I think something like this could put you over the top at the colleges we're talking about. The Web site for the project is up on the computer. What do you say?"

Sara continued to peel the orange. "Can we talk about it at dinner?"

Her father was a little deflated, but he smiled back. "Sure, honey. I'm going to run back to the office for a little bit, but I'll see you at seven."

Dad came through the kitchen door at 7:15 and quickly took his place at the table with the rest of the family. After more congratulations for Sara's great game and a little razzing about her hair from her tech-savvy brother John, her dad said "So, how about Japan?"

Sara put her fork down slowly and looked up. "It's a great idea, Dad, but I looked on the Web site. Does this trip really cost $6000?"

Her father choked on his ice water, while Sara's mom gave him a long, cold stare.

"We can afford this, Sara," he said, smiling faintly. "It's about your future."

Sara looked down at her placemat again, and swallowed hard. "Well, I looked up the name of the town I'd be going to. It turns out Habitat for Humanity is working there, too, and they need $4000 for a new pump so the town can get fresh water again. I also called the Boys and Girls Club down on Wilson Street, and they said they could really use some help this summer.

"I sure appreciate the offer, Daddy, but don't you think it would be better if I stayed here, and we sent the $4000 to Habitat for Humanity? That way, the town would have fresh water forever, John could get that new computer he'll need for high school next year, we'd have a little money left over for my college fund, and I could still make a difference in the world. It would just be a difference in my own neighborhood."

Sara's mother did a very bad job of trying to chew nonchalantly, while John tried hard to wipe the tears out of his eyes in a 14-year-old macho fashion. Her father's shoulders relaxed, as he smiled almost to himself, and said "Yeah, honey. That's a great idea."

Sara is now a senior, waiting to hear this week from her colleges -- but the question you should be asking yourself is not "Where will she get in?"

The question to consider is, "Does it really matter?"