Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Ivy League Dropout Due to Jeans, Not Genes

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

My first school counseling job was in a rural town, far away from the major city where I was born and the suburbs where I finished high school.  A few years after leaving that job, I heard that a neighboring high school of that rural town had sent their first-ever graduate to an Ivy League college.  The success turned out to be brief, however, as the student came home for Christmas vacation, and never went back.

There are all kinds of reasons students change colleges, but this one is particularly sad, at least to me.  The reason this student left her college had nothing to do with roommates, or classes that were too hard, or even a broken heart.  She came home because the brilliant students at this wonderful college made fun of her rural background, and her lack of worldly ways.  “Everyone made fun of the jeans she was wearing” her counselor told me, shaking his head.

That story came to mind last week, when another counselor and I were discussing Justice Scalia’s remarks at a Supreme Court hearing about the need for many students of color to attend less challenging colleges.  Counselors usually try to give people the benefit of the doubt, so even though this statement was appalling in so many ways, I was trying to figure out some way that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

My colleague assured me it was as bad as it sounded, but then he offered this.  “When I was working at the admissions office at a highly selective college, and we received an application from a student from a very poor school, we only looked for one thing—sophistication.  If we took this student, we knew they were going to be exposed to all kinds of new ideas in the classroom, but they were also going to be exposed to different political ideas, lifestyle choices, foods, and people they’ve never seen before.  Sure, they had to be smart, but that meant nothing if they weren’t sophisticated.”

There are other words to describe this quality—flexible, accepting, resilient-- but I knew exactly what my colleague meant.  It helped me understand more of what that rural girl was feeling when she was being mocked for wearing the wrong jeans.  She had the brains to make it in an Ivy League classroom; she just didn’t have the wherewithal to make it in the Ivy League hallways.  She knew she had some growing up to do, and, all things considered, that was fair.  Given all they had been exposed to, her Ivy League classmates had a different kind of growing up to do, but she was unwilling to let their need to mature come at her personal expense.

I’d like to think Justice Scalia really meant to talk about sophistication last week, about the need to make sure students are picking colleges where they will find the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support, both in and out of the classroom.  Finding that fit is our job, and we’re smart enough to know fit transcends gender, race, age, and background.  Lining up the right college is an individual process, and that’s why it takes time, knowledge, and insight to create the right mix of art and science that is college counseling.  It’s why some students end up at Ivy League schools, and why some students from the same high school end up at public universities—and all of them end up happy.

We’re smart enough to know that.  I just wish Justice Scalia had been that smart, too.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What Your College Application Decisions Won’t Tell You

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

With many colleges releasing early admissions decisions, seniors are creating more parallel universes than the Matrix movies combined. This "what if" game is so intense, it's easy to think you'll know all about your future life, once the college says yea, nay, or maybe.

And that is absolutely wrong.

Applying to college isn't easy, especially when you're still on two sports teams, taking demanding classes, and preparing for your last Winter Concert. But all the applications you completed, letters of recommendation you tracked down, and essays you wrote (by yourself--right?) are designed for one purpose only--to help a college decide if they should admit you. When it comes to other parts of your life, a college decision tells you absolutely nothing about:

Succeeding at that college Most colleges are receiving more applications than ever before--so many that they can't say yes to every qualified student. If you hear from a college this week and they deny or defer you, it doesn't mean they don't want you; it likely means that, like a good restaurant, they have more people that want to partake than they have space. That has nothing to do with you.

If a college admits you this week, it means they think you *can* do the work--but nothing's guaranteed. Getting in is time to celebrate, but not time to put your feet up; use the rest of high school to take your academic game to another level.

Your ability to have a happy life I could pull out data from studies showing where you go to college has nothing to do with average income, career achievement, or life satisfaction--but numbers just aren't that comforting right now. Instead, think back to a time in life when you didn't get something you really wanted. It was disappointing, it hurt, and for a while, you weren't sure what you were going to do. You then found Plan B, and realized that the opportunities it brought were just as good--or better--than what you had hoped Plan A would bring. If a college tells you no this week, Plan B awaits.

Your value as a person This is the time of year when we believe, more than ever, that the right "stuff" will make us a complete person. When you see ads with people thrilled to get the latest smartphone, automatic vacuum cleaner, or big screen TV that's larger than a school bus, you can't help but wonder why we just don't buy one for everybody, since that is clearly the key to world peace.

But stuff doesn't do that--and neither does a college decision. A yes from a college doesn't make you somebody; the work you put into earn that yes did that. A no from a college doesn't make you nobody; that happens when you decide their denial is a character indictment, instead of an opportunity to build a great life at another school.

Either way, your worth isn't waiting in an e-mail that's going to drop this week, or next week. Your worth is within you, and it isn't waiting for much of anything, other than your recognition of its existence.

Applying to college is a big deal, and there are a lot of people who love you for who you are. They hope it all works out for you when college decisions are announced. Whether it works out or not, they'll still love you for who you are.

I'm really hoping one of those people is you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Before You Yell at your School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

You've worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.
Until they got the e-mail.
"Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application."
At this point, you've decided this is personal, so even though it's 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.
Boy, did you just blow it. Here's why:
Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn't said "Forget it"; they've said, "We need something." You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up--so the transcript might not be in your child's file, but it is in the college's application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor--the one you just called incompetent--sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don't want another one. If the transcript is already in the college's system, they really don't want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child's file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it's their application), but it's likely you want the school counselor to call. You know--the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.

This isn't to say they won't help you and give your child their full support, but if you've just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you've now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don't know what you're doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you've just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?
You've just left an impression you can't erase. Let's say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child's file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they'd like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is--you guessed it--the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child's ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that's what the counselor has experienced. This isn't about a grudge; this is about their experience.
It's easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn't mean you should. That's even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The After Thanksgiving College Talk

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Thanksgiving is a time to step back and take in everything you’ve done this school year.  This is especially important with college counseling, where it’s too easy to get caught up in the minutiae of transcripts and letters of recommendation and forget about the reason behind all of that e-documenting—to make sure students have a new school next year where they can continue to learn, live, and challenge themselves.

Thanksgiving gives us a chance to come back to the office after the break and review students’ college lists with the big picture in mind.  The process for this post-Thanksgiving review is easy:

·         Review each senior’s post-high school plans.
·         For those heading to college, review the list of colleges they’ve given you, and make sure there is at least one school that is a likely admit.  For purposes of this review, a Likely school is one where the student’s GPA and test scores are at, or above, the average GPA and test scores of the college, AND the college admits more than 20 percent of their applicants.
·         If the student doesn’t have a Likely college on their list, it’s time to take action.
·         Ditto if the student has a Likely college on their list, but hasn’t yet applied there.

In most cases, the next step is to send a thoughtfully-worded e-mail .  “I had a chance to review your college plans.  You have some wonderful schools on your list, but they are all extremely competitive, and it’s important you add some other schools soon.  Please let me know when you can meet this week.”

By calling the student’s list “extremely competitive”, you aren’t commenting on the student’s qualifications; you’re focusing on the college’s limitations.  They’re going to run out of seats before they run out of great students, and the student needs to make sure they have strong college choices available in the spring.

Even the best-phrased “Let’s Talk” e-mail is going to rattle some students, especially those who know their college list is ambitious, but can’t quite come to terms with the idea that their dream schools may be out of reach.  This is why they may not come see you; it’s also the reason they don’t have any Likely schools in the first place.

This requires a thoughtful approach once they finally make it to your office.  Focusing on the limitations of the college (not the student), try to get the student to talk about the qualities of the demanding colleges they’ve chosen, and suggest Likely colleges that offer the same qualities.  The student likes small classes?  How about the residential college at the local state university?  The student wants to live on campus all four years with the same group of students?  An online college search will show a list of colleges that offer that option. 

Once a few additional colleges are discovered, the student and counselor set a deadline to apply to those colleges, and the student is reminded that, if all goes well, these college options may not even be needed—but if they are, they’ll be available.

To be sure, this work is time consuming, and it is also a little humbling, since this kind of review could mean there’s a student or two with college plans that don’t line up with their goals or abilities.  That’s a tough thing to admit, and a harder thing to discuss, but it’s in the student’s best interests, and ours, to gird up our courage and take action now, while the time still exists to maximize student choices.

That’s something we can all be grateful for.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

College Application Myths That Just Won’t Die

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Leave it to Thanksgiving to bring out the panic in people.  Colleges with early application deadlines are busy reading essays and talking about students, while a vast majority of colleges are still waiting for students to apply—and these are the students who, for some reason, are convinced applying to college is harder than it really is.

In the interest of saving the college plans of seniors and the holiday plans of their counselors, here’s a quick rundown of what to do, what not to do, and what is really, absolutely untrue about the college selection process:

You can’t send your test scores until you apply to the college. If anything, the exact opposite is true—if you are going to apply to any more colleges this year, send your test scores now.  Depending on the college, and depending on the test company, scores might not arrive at the college right away, so waiting to send the scores could actually delay the review of your application, or eliminate you from consideration, if your application is incomplete.  Colleges put the test scores in a special place if they get there before your application, and if you never apply, the scores are securely destroyed in the summer.  Order them now.

Counselor and teacher letters should be sent after the student applies.  This is a really bad idea for any college you’re applying to.  If teachers and counselors had to hold off sending transcripts and letters until you apply on, say, December 29th for a college with a January 1st deadline, that would put the application system on overload, risk your application being deemed incomplete, and drive your teachers and counselors crazy.  They can, and should, submit your materials now, when the system is wide open, and no deadlines can threaten submissions.  It’s fine for you to wait until vacation to apply; your teachers and counselor don’t have that choice, since they will be, well, on vacation. Let them do their job, while they are on the job.

Colleges don’t want your application until the day it’s due.  I don’t know how to break this to you, but most colleges that have a January 1st application deadline are closed on New Year’s Day.  Their computers are still on, so you can still submit applications that day, but no one is in the office keeping track of who submitted, and when.

Since the only risk you run with an early application is that it might be read early (and is that really a risk?), you have nothing to lose by sending your application now.  If you have four college applications to complete, do one a weekend, and you’ll be done before Christmas, while still having Thanksgiving weekend off.  All-nighters are fun, once you’re in college; pulling one to apply to college could ensure that you won’t get there.

Your counselor finds out your admissions decision before you do.  A few colleges are nice enough to let your high school know who was admitted, but that list usually comes a month after you find out.  Don’t leave your teachers and counselor in the dark; let them know what the college decides as soon as you hear.  This not only helps them support any college plans you may have to change—it’s also a great feeling to share good news with them.

Once a college admits you, your senior grades don’t matter. An offer of admission is a like a driver’s license—you only get to keep it if you keep showing you deserve it. ‘Nuff said. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

First Marking Period Grades, College, and You

By:  Patrick O'Conner Ph.D

First Marking Period Grades, College, and You

There’s been a lot of discussion about the use of data in school counseling, especially as it relates to helping students make good college choices.  If you haven’t bought Trish Hatch’s The Use of Data in School Counseling, put it on your holiday wish list.  Meanwhile, here’s my quick take on what you can to with first quarter report cards to help your students make the connection between grades and college access:

Ninth grade  The biggest part of the college counseling program for freshmen is college readiness—having the study skills, time management mastery, and self-knowledge to become a good student.  Good grades are only part of being a good student, but one thing’s for certain—if the grades are low, there’s room for more growth.

This is where report cards can come in handy, especially if they include teacher comments, or codes that teachers can use to suggest how students could improve—more study time, focusing on tests, paying more attention in class, etc.  A quick review of grades and these comments can give a counselor a clear picture of the students whose study skills most need find tuning.  Better yet, a workshop for all ninth graders can offer tips on how to become better students, using grades and comments as a guide.

Tenth grade  The same relationship among grades, comments, and strong study skills can be emphasized in tenth grade, along with a review of the role grades play in college admissions.  With a year of school under their belts, sophomores will want to know what kinds of college options their grades will create for them.  A group presentation showing the average GPA of admitted students at different colleges will highlight this in a powerful way, along with a demonstration of the options a B+ student has from a B student. 

This is also a good time to discuss the role of merit scholarships.  Using the merit scholarship list from Cappex as your guide, you can show students the economic difference their GPA can create if they can just find a way to lift those grades, as college cash becomes more available to students with higher GPAs.

Finally, this may be the time to remind students that higher grades in tenth grade classes can be a factor in qualifying for Honors, AP, or IB classes as a junior.  Grades aren’t the only factor colleges consider in the admissions process; they also consider the degree of challenge in a student’s course load, and sophomore grades can create more demanding junior year opportunities.  This is a good time to remind students of this.

Eleventh grade  The discussion of rigor, scholarships, and admissions becomes more real for many juniors.  The challenge here is that, with half of their high school career behind them, it is harder for students to dramatically raise their GPA.  Still, a stronger junior year can show colleges a trend of growth in the student.  That may not make a previously all-B student eligible for a highly selective college, but you never know.  Juniors need to be reminded of the possibilities.

Twelfth grade  Many seniors will either need or want to send their first quarter grades to colleges, to show how well they are doing with their most demanding year of high school.  In addition, more colleges are reviewing senior grades as part of the admission process, and rescinding offers of admission to students who lose focus.  Now is the time to check senior quarter grades, and alert students who are slipping of the risk they’re running.  A wise word now can keep more possibilities open come June. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Reading Essays on Thanksgiving? Let’s Talk Turkey

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Colleagues, we need to talk.  A major college application deadline has just come and gone, and based on what I’m hearing, I love you all madly, but things went quite badly.

1.       “She gave me drafts of her Early Action essays on Halloween. Can you believe it?”

2.        “He came into my office Friday to ask where he should apply Early Decision. The deadline was Sunday. What could I do?”

3.       “She e-mailed me Sunday morning with a new application that was due that day.  What was she thinking?”

These comments didn’t come to me as a group, but they somehow seemed to be part of the same quiz—so here are my answers.

1.       No surprise here.  Kids start things late-- their time management skills are, well, raw.  What’s surprising is that she was allowed to do this.  Unless the student is channeling Hemingway, her essays will be underdeveloped and misunderstood.  She needed more time, and you needed your Saturday.

Stop the madness, and give them an advanced deadline that will really help them.  “If you’re applying to a college with a November deadline, I need to know by October 10th.  If you’d like me to read your essays, I need those by October 15th.  This is the only way I can guarantee your transcript will be sent on time, and the only way your essays will get the care they need.  Anything I receive after these deadlines will not be sent on time.  You know that now, so plan ahead.”

2.       Early Decision application programs are designed for students who LOVE a college. So, when a student asks “What college should I apply ED to?” two days before the deadline, they’re kind of asking which person they should marry two days before the wedding.  If they aren’t feeling it, the answer is, Don’t.  If they’re asking that question two days before the deadline, the answer is, Really don’t.

In fact, if they’re asking that question two days before the deadline, the answer is, Don’t let them.

Here’s what your newsletter says. “Just a reminder that if you’re applying Early Decision, you must attend that college if you are accepted.  This kind of commitment requires a lot of thought—so much so that, you can’t apply ED without your counselor’s permission to do so.  If we don’t have a conversation at least two weeks before your ED application is due, you won’t get my permission, because I take my role seriously in this discussion.  You should too. If you forget to make this appointment, maybe the school doesn’t mean that much to you after all.”

3.       She was thinking you would respond, and you did.  When a deadline falls on a weekend or over a holiday, my e-mail is on auto-reply, telling students I’ll be available when school reopens.  I’ve given them advanced deadlines, communicated them to students and parents (and yes, teachers) regularly, and now I’m sticking to them.  If an e-mail suggests I forgot to do something that’s due, I check, fix it, and respond.  Otherwise, the student is suggesting they’re having a college counseling emergency, and those don’t exist. I’ll point that out to them when school starts.

Students from different backgrounds certainly need different levels of support, so I understand if these responses may seem a little harsh.  But college asks a lot from a student, with little advanced notice.  That’s a skill they need to hone, and your job is to help get them college-ready.  Keep that in mind in helping your students deal with deadlines.

Now—about those college apps due January 1.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

20 Questions About Your College Counseling Program

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Many high schools are celebrating College Application Week this fall, a time when the entire school focuses on the possibilities that await students in pursuing some kind of college option after high school.  CAW is a great time to promote the college search programs and other services your office has for students of all ages and their parents.  It’s also a perfect time to make sure your teaching colleagues have a clear sense of how the college selection process works in your school, and the vital role they plan in it.

CAW also offers a chance for you to reflect on your offerings and services, and see how well they are meeting students’ needs.  To help achieve that goal, I offer these 20 questions for your consideration.  There’s nothing scientific about these questions; they just address some of the key pieces of a college counseling program students need to know about in order to make the transition as personalized as possible.

Here goes—feel free to add your questions in the Comments section:

1.     Do you have a written overview of your college counseling program, with goals, objectives, and activities for every grade in your building?

2.     Does your program include an annual process for evaluating your college counseling program, and using the results to modify the program? Does this evaluation include feedback from parents and students?

3.     Do you have unencumbered access to data that will help you identify populations underserved by your college counseling program?
4.     Do you meet annually with your principal to review your college counseling program?
5.     Do you have an avenue for organizing the data received from students and colleges regarding admissions decisions and scholarship awards?
6.     Have you reviewed the information in your curriculum on standardized testing to reflect current trends, including the rise of test-optional colleges?
7.     Does your curriculum give equal consideration to certificate, two-year, and four-year college options?

8.     Does your curriculum help students explore the option of not going to college, or taking gap year?

9.     Does your curriculum include instruction in college readiness skills, such as study skills?

10.  Does your curriculum utilize the expertise of college admissions officers, financial aid administrators, and other college personnel?

11.  Does your curriculum utilize the expertise of classroom faculty, administrators, and other high school personnel outside your department?

12.  Does your curriculum utilize the expertise of parents, community-based groups, and other organizations in your community?

13.  Do you have a Counseling Advisory Committee to help support and guide the direction of your college counseling program?

14.  Does your curriculum have a plan for keeping in touch with students in the summer to avoid “summer melt”?

15.  Do you have some kind of technology based communication method to convey college news to your families (Web site, weekly newsletter, texting tree, etc.?)

16.  Does your curriculum include evening programs that are available on tape for absent students and parents to view at a later time?

17.  Compared to the other educators in your building, do you have more unrelated administrative duties to complete in addition to your counseling work?

18.  Do you have a policy on colleges visiting your high school that yields effective, well-attended information sessions?

19.  Do you meet regularly with counseling colleagues in elementary and middle school to review your K-12 college counseling program?

20.  Do you have access the professional development needed to stay current in your college counseling practice?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Applying to College? It’s Simple as 1-2-3

By:  Patrick  O'Connor Ph.D

Since I'm from Detroit, it's only natural for Motown songs to come to mind on big occasions. On my daughter's birthday, "Isn't She Lovely" comes to mind. When a heavy snow closes school, the whole family joins in a chorus of "How Sweet It Is."
And when my students start filling out college applications, it's tough to get "Ball of Confusion" out of my head.
You might think the room should start spinning in September, when every magazine publishes its version of "Colleges So Great, No One Gets Admitted To Them" -- but it's easy to talk parents and students through this message, because they bring their concerns to my office and we talk about them.
The real challenge for a college counselor is how to help students whose first sense of application panic comes on a fall Saturday morning, when they bring a pen or laptop to the breakfast table, throw a last handful of Cocoa Doodles in their mouth, decide it's time to take on that first application -- and they freeze on the line that says "Name."
In other words, they are coming out of the "College is Crazy" hype, and thinking about what they really want out of college for the first time in a long time, or for the first time ever.
I'm sorry I can't be at the breakfast tables of each of my students when there's nowhere to run to (if I could be there, I would tell them to go to their room).
Most students balk at filling out college applications because they view it as the first step towards leaving home. That's easy to see; this is the place where you listen to your music, text message long after your parents have gone to bed, do a little homework, and think about your life. The world outside has changed and challenged you, sometimes in ways you didn't like or didn't completely master -- but at the end of the day, you came home to sort out what it all meant, and looked forward to what came next. Giving this place up won't be easy.
The good news is the colleges that are right for you will feel just like home. It may be in the dorm rooms, it may be at the library (hey, it happens), it may be the whole campus -- but somewhere at those colleges, there is a spot waiting for you to reflect on the challenges of life, wonder about the possible, and text your BFFs til dawn. Once you think about college as your next home, completing the applications will be as easy as taking the written exam for your driver's license, because both are just the paperwork that leads to a greater sense of freedom. In the end, going to college isn't about leaving home -- it's about taking home with you.
The second thing I would do is replace students' earbuds with soundproof headphones. Some students hit the brakes because of outside opinions about their college choices. The application to a college a student loves often heads to the shredder when a well-meaning neighbor asks "Where is that college?", or Uncle Bob reports the college is nowhere to be found in the recently published rankings. If it turns out no other student at the local high school is applying to this college, this can become a trifecta for trauma.
When this happens, I encourage students to make the mature choice and be selfish. By fall, college-bound students know who they are and what they want in a college -- with all the research they've done and the campuses they've visited, if college selection were a term paper, they'd have about 25 sources to quote and 3000 file cards to synthesize by now. Knowing what you know about college and yourself, it's important to keep the well-meaning insights of others in perspective -- some may know you, some may know colleges, but very few (except your parents) will know both as well as you do.
Everyone on your first grade soccer team got a trophy for participating, and choosing colleges works the same way -- with self-knowledge and college knowledge, everyone gets a best college, even if what's best for you is different from what's best for everyone else.
At this time of year, it's easy for seniors to think it's gonna take a miracle to get into college. You've worked too hard to believe in things that you don't understand, instead, remember what home means to you, stay focused on what you've learned about college and yourself, and your college applications will go flying out the door so quickly, you'll realize the miracle is you.
So pick up the pen, and pass the Cocoa Doodles. You can do this.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Giving Junior Families the College Help They Need

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This time of year is every counselor’s nightmare.

You just get finished administering the PSAT (which, with some of its changes, was not an easy task), and suddenly, your office is flooded with questions from juniors and junior parents:

“When should I take the SAT?”

“What else should I be doing to get ready for college?”

“When will I start meeting with you about my college plans?”

It’s easy to see why the PSAT turns all thoughts to college; what’s hard is trying to get juniors and their parents to understand you’re still working with seniors right now, but the juniors’ turn is coming soon.

One easy way to do that is to give juniors the old 1-2.

 1.     Introduce them to the concept of the 20 minute meeting.  Administration of the PSAT is the kickoff of the college search for juniors, and the key to a strong college search is clear communications, especially between juniors and their parents.  This means parents really shouldn’t pepper their junior with college questions at importune times—like in front of their friends, or as they’re pulling away to go to homecoming. 

At the same time, juniors need to realize they need to keep their parents informed of their college plans, even though this is naturally a time when they want to do their own thing.  Parents can help with things like setting up college tours, paying for application fees, and making sure you wake up earlyon SAT Saturdays.

Most college-bound families have discovered the 20 minute meeting as the key to keeping everyone college informed without driving everyone college crazy.  By establishing the same 20 minute time to meet every week, students will know when they’ll be expected to share college plans and ideas, and when they can relax.  Parents will value the meeting time, since they will be able to get their questions answered and know they aren’t making their child look “uncool.”  It can take a week or two to get a feeling for how the meetings work, but families who have used the 20 minute meeting swear it helps with the appropriate flow of college knowledge.  More important, it keeps families from driving each other crazy.

 2.     Give them something to talk about.  Most families will buy in to the idea of talking college once a week, as long as they’re sure the meeting will be worthwhile.  If the first three meetings are nothing more than exchanges of “What do you want to talk about?”, participation in the meetings is likely to fall off on either side. 

That’s why it’s important to give parents and students something to talk about.  If you have a junior newsletter, be sure to add a list of 2-3 topics each week (or 4-5 each month) that parents and students can discuss.  By providing the topics, you’re making sure the conversations flow in a way where they build on previous conversations—and that they do so in a way that is timely.  November topics can include registering for the ACT and SAT, planning college visits, and starting to talk about senior year schedule, while topics in March could include attending a college fair, reviewing plans for the summer, and thinking about building a first college list.

Providing timely topics gives you the chance to help families reinforce your college counseling curriculum with discussions at home that are tailored to individual student needs.  If you don’t use a newsletter, a program like Remind can be used to communicate topics.  Either way, it engages families as families, and that helps college plans

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Before You Talk to Juniors

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Hardly a week has gone by in this young school year without some big announcement that will affect the college plans of this year’s juniors.  In case you’ve been watching the new pictures of Pluto, here’s what school counselors have learned since Labor Day:

  • More details have emerged about the new SAT, which debuts just in time for juniors to take this coming March—but those taking the test won’t get the results for at least six weeks.

  • Juniors filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will be able to do so in October of their senior year, while this year’s seniors have to wait until January to do so. In addition, juniors will be able to use tax information that’s already been filed with the IRS, making it much easier to apply for federal help for college.

  • A group of colleges that includes some of the most selective US institutions have formed a coalition that will offer its own application for admission next year, a move that will first affect—you guessed it—the juniors.

Even though counselors know better, our first inclination is to look at these changes and scream.  We’re quite certain the new rules, deadlines, and unknowns will shake the college hopes of juniors, who will have to face all of these changes at once, all while making one of the most important decisions of their young lives.

Except the juniors are brand new to this.

Unless something really odd is going on, no junior has ever applied to college before, so any “rules” about applying to college are new to them.  Some of them may have witnessed an older sibling or close friend apply, and developed application strategies based on what those mentors did (or didn’t) do.  But we’ve always had the challenge of bringing younger siblings and their parents into the current world of college admission, and it’s clear next year will be no different.

“But it’s so much change!” you say.  “Surely some of this newness is going to rub off on the students.”

That’s certainly true—later March SAT scores throws off the testing timeline many counselors advocate for students—but that’s a change that will have a much greater impact on the adults who are used to the old rules, not the students who don’t know the old rules.  It’s important to keep this in mind when you communicate with your juniors.  Any news is new news to them, so the tone our message takes is crucial.

This means it’s best not to over-explain. Instead of a detailed description of what the FAFSA changes mean, show them the good:

“Good news!  Starting next year, students will be able to apply for federal financial aid in October, not January- and you can use the information that’s already on file with the IRS.  This is going to make applying for aid much easier.”

This approach keeps the stress off students, letting them feel the greater freedom the FAFSA changes were intended to create.

It’s certainly true that choosing a college will be a big deal to this year’s juniors—but it was going to be a big deal to them even if we were using the same old SAT, FAFSA deadline, and college applications. Choosing a college is important, and it can be life-changing, but it doesn’t have to have a soundtrack by Wagner.  Let the woman in the Viking helmet rest; take a student-centered approach to the changes, and all will be well.

It’s OK for us to freak about what’s new—just not in front of the children. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Advice for Students on College Essays

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Counselors who read last week’s column on writing effective counselor letters for college have asked if there is any advice they can pass along to students on the essays they have to write for college.

I live to serve.

Students, you amaze me.  You love to share your opinions.  I know this, because you share them everywhere—Chattersnap, Gramphoto, and all the rest of those social media sites I know nothing about, other than you use them because you love to talk about yourselves.

Except when it comes to college essays. 

If I asked you for 650 words on your impressions of Watch Me Whip, Watch Me Nae Nae, you’d go on for weeks.  But colleges want 650 words about your favorite place in the world, and you say things like “The library.  Gotta love that big dictionary.”

Watch me weep.  Watch me sniff sniff.

Your college wants you to come to campus, talk with them for three hours, eat lunch, and go home.  If they did admissions that way, they’d probably get great students—and by the time they were done interviewing everyone, each of those students would be 45 years old.
So you aren’t writing essays—you’re having a conversation, except you’re putting what you have to say on paper.  That means you’ll want to do this:

Stop guessing.  When a college asks “Name a problem you’d like to solve”, there’s no one right answer for everybody.  Cure cancer?  Great.  The need for your mother to work three jobs? Absolutely. The squeak in your garage door?  That can work, too—as long as it means something to you, and you can convey that meaning.  This isn’t Algebra; you get to decide what the answer is, and why it makes sense. Put it down on paper, put the commas in the right place, and you’re good to go.

Tell a story.  Remember the time you told your best friend about the first concert you went to, or the best pizza you ever ate? You were on fire at the end of the story, genuinely excited at the chance to share part of your life with them.  That’s how you should feel once you’re done writing a college essay.  This isn’t a speech you give to thousands of people; it’s a story that means something to you, and you’re telling it to someone who really wants to hear it.  Save the speech; tell the tale.

Head or heart?  Some students think the key to a great essay is to pack it with facts that make you sound like a brainiac, while others say the college will only beg you to come if they need a whole box of tissues to get through your essay.  Life is a little of both, and so are college essays.  Show the colleges what you think about, and why it means something to you. This will let them know you’re past the drama and trauma of teenagehood, and eager to embrace the tasks of becoming a thoughtful, caring adult.

Answer the question.  If the college asks “Who do you admire?” and they still don’t know your answer once they’ve read your essay, you’ve given them one more reason to reject you.  Ducking the question may work in Washington, but it doesn’t play well in admissions offices.  If they want to know, you need to tell them.

Your goal is to write an essay that sounds so much like a conversation, they’ll be surprised you aren’t in the room with them when they’re finished reading it.

Kind of like Gramphoto.  But with words.