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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Quick Refresher on Counselor Letters for Colleges

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Most high school counselors are enjoying a very small window of change.  With the challenges of schedule changes behind them, counselors are now gearing up for writing letters of recommendation for college applications. 

At first, this seems like a great opportunity—what counselor wouldn’t want to spend time talking about the best attributes of their students?  But when letter writing is folded into all of the other fall counseling duties, and the number of letters that need to be written is considered, the joy can quickly fall away.

The best way to keep the joy in your task—and the joy in the letters—is to keep these simple rules in mind:

Paint the big picture.  Teacher letters talk about what it’s like to work with a student in class.  Counselor letters talk about the student’s role in the school and the community.  Leader?  Thinker?  Team builder? Artist?  Rebel? What do they give to the school, by simply being themselves?

Tell a story.  She coordinated the town’s clothing drive when the south end of town flooded, including her own house. His version of America the Beautiful brought tears to everyone at the Labor Day picnic.  Every visitor to our school spends a couple of minutes marveling at her painting in the front hall.  
Each sentence has 18 words or less, but brings the reader to your community.  Leave the adjectives in the thesaurus; show them, don’t tell them.

Cut to the chase.  Don’t bother rewriting the laundry list of activities and awards your top students have earned.  That’s somewhere else in the application.  Focus on what matters—which award is the most significant, or unusual?  What club did they start on their own?  What role do they play in your school?

Point out the bumps in the road.  Colleges need to know that the B in Advanced Math is because of a final exam that was taken the day after her father lost his job, or that sophomore year was a wash because his parents divorced.  Mention the adversity, and point out how the student conquered it.  Colleges can only understand the context if you share it.

Finish on an up note.  Based on who they’ve been in high school, what will they give to their next school?  A curious mind?  A disciplined approach to creativity?  The quiet voice in class discussion no college can live without?  You’re a counselor—find the good in a student, even if it’s a work in progress, and share that with the college.

Do what you can.  Yes, counselors at some private schools do write three page letters of recommendation for some of their students.  But those counselors have 50 seniors on their caseload, not 500.  Tell the college you’re swamped, put together a solid paragraph on what separates this student from everyone else, and invite them to call with questions.  That’s more than enough, given all you have to do.

Don’t believe me?  This column is way shorter than most of mine, but it had a lot to say.  I did it; you can, too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

What the White House College News Means to School Counselors

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The counseling world has been abuzz this week with the weekend news from the White House that has strong implications for how counselors work with college-bound students.  With a little planning in advance, counselors can make the most of these opportunities, creating even brighter futures for the students they serve.

Updated FAFSA deadline Almost all students applying for financial aid for college have to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.  Right now, this form can only be filed after January 1 of the year the student wants to go to college, and the student has to use the prior year’s tax information to complete the FAFSA.

Since many students (or their parents) don’t get their tax information right away, this can delay the filing of the FAFSA, or lead some families to conclude it’s just too hard to file the form.  Those families that do file often don’t get a financial aid offer from the college until April, leaving them only a month or so to decide if they really can afford their student’s dream school.

That’s all about to change.  Starting with the Class of 2017—that’s this year’s juniors—students can file the FAFSA in October of their senior year, using their tax information from two years prior (also called “prior-prior year’s taxes”).  One of the real advantages here is that FAFSA filers will be able to allow the federal government to retrieve the required tax information from the filer’s IRS file.  Since the information is two years old, it’s already been submitted to the IRS; it will now just be a question of getting two computers to talk to each other, and that’s much easier than having the filer dig up the information on their own.

This change means a couple of things for high school counselors:

  • The Financial Aid Night program you usually run in November or later now needs to be run in September.  Counselors may want to consider making this part of the Senior Night program they already run in the early fall. 
  • The same is true for any FAFSA Completion Program that’s typically run in January or February.  It isn’t clear if colleges will start awarding financial aid packages any sooner as a result of this change, but if they do, FAFSAs should be submitted much sooner.
  • If families have more information on how much aid they receive, that gives them more time to weigh financial aid offers from different colleges—skills they might not have right now.  Adding these skills into your Financial Aid Night might not be a bad idea.

Updated College Scorecard  The White House had hoped to release a College Scorecard that graded colleges, so families could compare one college to the other.  It turns out that goal was a little ambitious, since there are many, many factors involved in deciding if a college is right for a particular student.

Instead of a single grade, the scorecard offers users armloads of data, allowing families to analyze (for example) the average cost of attendance for students by income level; average starting salary for jobs, and the average monthly payment for students who had to take loans to pay for college.

It’s always hard to say how helpful a new research tool will be used until many students try it out, so counselors need to keep a close eye on this source.  It may be difficult to find time to play with the data on your own, but that might be time well spent, especially doesn’t always tell the whole story behind college choice. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Second Day of School

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

I’ve often said it isn’t hard to go to the first day of school; what’s hard is going to the second day of school.  The energy and excitement of a new start makes that first day something to look forward to, but once the special schedule gives way to a thousand schedule changes, it’s harder to keep the big picture at the forefront of our thoughts.

Stephen Covey insists the best way to move past this challenge is to begin with the end in mind.  To honor that brilliant idea, here’s a reminder of what success looks like, even if it seems miles away right now.
She wasn’t usually this nervous when she came in my office, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. She sat down slowly, and said she hadn’t heard from her top-choice college, and it had been six weeks (she’d applied to a rolling admissions school).

This was back in the days when a counselor could call a college, give the admissions office a student’s Social Security number (don’t even think of doing this today), and get a report on the student’s status. As I called I knew what the college would say, and sure enough, I was told she’d been admitted, and would get her letter in the mail in the next few days (like I said, this was a while ago).

I had a big caseload and a busy day ahead of me, so I turned toward my file—and away from the student—to update her record. “Congratulations,” I said over my shoulder, “you’re in.”

I began writing in her record when I heard the smallest of sounds—the one all counselors know by instinct. I turned to find tears running down her cheeks, and all she could say was “Really?”

That moment stayed with me forever. After that, whenever I was privileged enough to give a student admission news, I looked them in the eye, let them know how wonderful this news was, and offered to let them call their parents (right—no cell phones back then either). If they took me up on the offer, I always left the office. This wasn’t my moment; it was theirs.

I’m rarely the first to know an admissions decision anymore, but the students who come by to give me the news, good or bad, always thank me for everything I’ve done.

That’s the best gift a counselor can receive. You come in early every day, run a college counseling program, see all kinds of students and lots of them, support their college interests in ways they never know about, encourage them, inspire them, scold them, do things for them they should really do for themselves, make notes of what you need to do before you see them again, go home late, and lie awake thinking about what else you can do to make this easier for them.

It’s a lot of work, and while they don’t know everything you do, they have some vague idea it’s more than they realize, so they thank you with a depth that expresses both what they know, and what they don’t know. That isn’t just manners, or the right thing to do; that’s gratitude, a feeling that is too rarely experienced in the teenage years, one that points to a greater purpose to life than gratification and suggests that, while high school was awesome, there really may be something to living an adult life after all.

Their best gift of thanks to us only comes once we give the best gift of growth to them—and giving that gift comes one day at a time.

Here’s to the second day of school.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Newsletter You Really Want to Send

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The start of the school year is rich with freshness and opportunity, yet this newness is too often derailed by well-meaning parents who are deathly afraid of the college application process.  What’s really discouraging is that most of these parents can’t identify the cause of their concern.  They’ve just “heard” so much about the perils of applying to college, they are convinced their child’s chances of finding a college right for them (that’s the student) are doomed by what they (that’s the parents) don’t know.

The best thing you could do for most of these parents is send the following newsletter.  It’s more than likely you won’t, or that you realize you shouldn’t, but there’s nothing like starting the school year off with a little self-honesty—and there may be a nugget or two you’ll end up sharing after you adjust the tone.

Here then, is the newsletter you really want to send, but won’t.

My client is the student. Yes, I also want to support and work with my students’ parents, since they are a big part of the team. But they aren’t going to college—the student is, and I have to help get them ready. Let’s work together to make sure that happens.

Let the student drive. This metaphor comes from an admissions officer at a highly selective college, who was asked for the best piece of advice to give parents. The college selection process is an opportunity for students to practice the leadership and autonomy skills they need to be successful in college. Parents don’t take their child’s turns at bat, or perform the bassoon solo for them at the state competition. That’s why the student calls the college with questions and writes their own essays, and parents don’t pretend to be the student when e-mailing questions.

Use college rankings sparingly. Unless your student was personally interviewed by a major magazine, published college rankings aren’t based on their particular interests, goals, and needs. The list we build together will do that, and it’s best to start that list from scratch.

A starter list is six to eight colleges long. This will vary greatly from student to student, but most of the time, students make great college choices if they walk into the first day of senior year with the names of two colleges they’ll get into for sure, two colleges where they won’t need significant financial aid, two colleges in their home state (just in case), and two dream schools. These can overlap, but that’s what works for many students.

Most colleges don’t like resumes. Believe me, if a college wants a piece of information about you, it will ask for it; if you give them too much of what they don’t want, that makes an impression you don’t want to give. All of the information on a resume is already in most college applications; if you have something else you want to tell the colleges, ask me about it.

Waive your FERPA rights. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act says, among other things, that you can see the teacher letters and counselor letters that are part of your college applications once they become part of your student record at the college you attend. FERPA does not require the high school to show them to you; the same is generally true for colleges that don’t admit you. That said, it’s best to waive your right; these letters are written about you, not to you, and not waiving your right leads some colleges to wonder why you don’t trust your letter writers.

Deadlines are real. Colleges want complete applications by the date on the form. The College Counseling Office needs one school week to send a transcript. Testing agencies need a month to send test scores, and letter writers need three weeks to write a good letter. I’m a great counselor, but I can’t move back the clock. Learn to plan ahead.