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.