Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Odds and Ends at the End of College Season

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

May 1st is the date many colleges ask students to submit an enrollment deposit, so it’s largely seen as the end of the college application season.  Since May 1st is a Sunday, it’s being extended by one day, in a year where, in many respects, it seems the end really needed to come sooner, not later.  Here’s a quick look at why, along with some seasonal reminders:

·         A Trend Towards Indecision  Counselors from across the country are reporting a notable increase in the number of students who are waiting to the very end to decide where they will continue their education next fall.  There doesn’t seem to be any clear reason for this, other than the dim hope students will start getting called from waitlists before May 1, a rare occurrence to be sure.

·         A Trend Towards Double Depositing?  Indecision like this has been seen in the past, and its implications weren’t good for colleges.  Too many students who wait for a sign on April 30 don’t really get one, so they decide the best answer is to take matters into their own hands and extend their decision-making deadline by depositing at more than one college.  That may work for the student, but it’s bad news for the college that comes up short in enrollment in the fall when 20 double-depositing students pick the other college—and the college suddenly has a $1 million shortfall.  Double depositing is a no-no, kids.  Take the weekend, and choose.

·         Deferral Doesn’t Condone Double Dating  Other students are wondering if they can defer admission for a year (at many schools you can) so they take that year to “try out” another college, then simply stay there if they like it better.  While rules of deferral vary by college, there are very few that allow students to attend classes at another four-year college during the deferral period.  It’s more common to allow students to take credits at community college, but that might be a no-no as well.

·         Colleges Contact Students Over Summer  It’s also time to remind students that colleges often e-mail freshman over the summer about all kinds of important things, like financial aid, orientation, and the scheduling of fall classes.  Now is the time to remind students to keep an eye on the mail and the e-mail.  This isn’t a time to lose your cash or your place at school.

·         Counselors Can’t Just Go Fishin’  The increase in students who lose touch with their college in July and August has a name—summer melt—and it happens disproportionately to low-income students and students who are the first in their family to go to college.  Counselors working with these students will want to review plans for reaching out to these students over the summer to make sure they get the help they need.  This plan could be as basic as a string of e-mails and a disposable cell phones to make calls from the beach, but plan accordingly.

·         Juniors and the Costco Essay  Many juniors have read the story about the student who wrote her essay about Costco, and was admitted to all eight Ivies—so, of course, they are now devoting their muse to crafting a big box paean as well.

I have seen nothing from any Ivy League admissions office affirming that the student’s essay, good as it was, got her in. That means we don’t know why she got in—but we do know that many students don’t get in when their essay lacks originality.  When it comes to applying to college, investing in authenticity is your best buy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ethics in College Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Is it OK for a college to ask a student for a list of all the colleges the student is applying to?  Can a student send an enrollment deposit into more than one college?  Can a counselor tell a student one college is just plain better than another?
These are just some of the issues counselors run into when advising students in the college selection process.  Given all that’s at stake, it’s easy to see the need for a set of common rules and standards for counselors, colleges, and families to live by in college admissions, or getting into college would be more chaotic—and expensive—than it is now.
This is why the National Association for College Admission Counseling has the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  Founded in 1937, NACAC is an organization of schools, colleges, companies, and individuals involved in college admissions.  NACAC provides a number of services to families and admissions professionals, including NACAC National College Fairs, NACAC Performing and Visual Arts Fairs, and myriad professional training opportunities.  While NACAC is a member organization, many view the SPGP to be the ethical standard that should be adhered to by everyone in the college admissions field.
The SPGP has three sections.  Mandatory Practices are the actions and activities all NACAC members promise to follow.  These practices show that counselors may “not use disparaging comparisons of secondary or postsecondary institutions.”  It’s fine to talk with students about the qualities two colleges have, and let that analysis serve as its own basis of comparison.  Anything beyond that begins to violate the SPGP. Members violating these practices can be referred to NACAC’s Admissions Practices committee, which can take disciplinary action on the member, up to and including removal from NACAC, and lack of access to NACAC’s college fairs.
The Interpretations and Monitoring section offers clarifications and explanations of the Mandatory Practices.  This section helps members understand the goal of each Mandatory Practice, and often provides examples of appropriate or inappropriate behavior.
The third section, Best Practices, includes additional behaviors, policies, and programs members should engage in, in addition to the Mandatory Practices.  Since Best Practices are strongly recommended, but not required, members may choose to engage in these activities, but are not obligated to do so, and do not risk NACAC disciplinary action if they choose not to engage in them.   This section states colleges should “refrain from asking students where else they have applied”, encouraging colleges not to ask this question, but not making the practice an SPGP violation.
What about the student who sends in more than one enrollment deposit?  This is covered as a Best Practice, where “Counseling Members should…(c)ounsel students not to submit more than one admission deposit, which indicates their intent to enroll in more than one institution”.  It’s important to note that this is a Best Practice, not a Mandatory Practice—and this recommendation affects the counselor, but not the student. 
Since students and parents aren’t NACAC members, they aren’t subject to discipline by NACAC—but that doesn’t mean families are free to do as they wish.  Something as simple as double depositing may seem harmless, but this practice has been known to hurt other students, damage college budgets, and have an indirect effect on tuition. 
NACAC’s Student Rights and Responsibilities gives families a clear summary of how they should expect to be treated by colleges, and how families should treat colleges in return.  With everyone following the letter and the spirit of the SPGP, students are able to make better, well-informed college choices.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Helping Students Decide

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Now that the madness of early April has calmed down, the time comes when students will be coming to school counselors, looking for advice on what college they should attend—or if they should go to college at all.  When students need help picking a college, the counselor must resist the temptation to solve “the problem” for the student.  Instead, the counselor must create a platform of decision making based on the student’s needs, interests and goals, and explore the components of that platform with the student. 
The best place to begin is to review the ideas the student has shared with you in the past. This provides everyone with a clear jumping off point by asking one simple question—“Is that still what you’re looking for now, or have things changed?”
This question may knock the student into a profound silence. In the flurry of completing college applications, there’s a good chance the student hasn’t bothered to think about this question until now.  September was eight months and a million adventures ago, so the student may want something different out of college, and not even know it. 
In response, the student may not want to talk about qualities; instead, they will try to talk about specific colleges. “Well, I’m really not that interested in State anymore, and East Coast U didn’t really offer me that much money, and…” 
Drawing on your listening and redirecting skills, bring the student back to the heart of the conversation.  “It sounds like affordability is a new quality you’re considering. Are there other qualities that are new?” The student may respond with an answer that once again mentions a school by name, but will finally provide the basis for a comparison of schools.
As the comparison reaches a conclusion, the counselor can summarize by saying “It sounds like your current list of qualities includes affordability, closeness to home, small class size, and opportunities for independent study. If that’s right (pause to let them correct you), let’s talk about each college that admitted you, and compare them on these same qualities.”
If a student decides their fall plan for college is no longer viable, it’s important to explore the effect this decision will have on those who have a strong interest in the student’s decision; the student’s parents; the coach, music teacher, or admissions officer at the school the student was 99% sure of; other members of the community, who can’t understand why the student would change their mind. Gaining support (or at least understanding) from others may be vital in order for the new plan to work.  Discussing strategies the student can take in approaching these supporters, and even role-modeling practice conversations, could go a long way to help the student.
Similarly, if the student’s ideas can change over time, so can the ideas of others—including parents. While Dad was in full support of an out-of-state college in September, he may find letting go of his son is just too hard to do come April; parental ability to pay for college may have dwindled in eight months. Any number of things can lead to a college decision being made for the student.
After helping the student work through any feelings they may have about these changes (or directing them to someone to help with that), a discussion of college qualities is the best way to help the student focus on the choices at hand, and make the best decision available.  It may take time for the student to fully accept the situation, but the counselor’s support can go a long way to advance this important goal…
…and remember, students wanting to start their search over again in spring of the senior year can do so, with help from the NACAC College Openings Update, which comes out in early May, and lists colleges actively looking for more students.  Take a look.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

SAT/ACT Testing for Students Not Going to College

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Spring testing is upon us, and this year’s round of tests brings new challenges, since many states are including the ACT or SAT in their battery of school-wide assessments for the first time.  While counselors are used to managing the energy and anxiety of test-taking students who are thinking about college, a large number of students will soon be taking a state-mandated ACT or SAT who haven’t really thought about college—and, in some cases, haven’t taken courses to go to college.

What’s the best way to guide these students through a test they feel they may not be ready for? Two words come to mind that are in the wheelhouse of every school counselors: Support, and the truth.

Give them a brief overview of the test—that’s brief.  Well-meaning counselors often tend to over-explain a concept to students, and that’s an easy way to lose kids of any age, but especially high school students.  Make sure you’re getting through; look at the SAT and ACT Websites, and put together a 25-word speech that explains what the SAT and ACT cover.  One other suggestion: no word can have more than three syllables. Your goal is to explain, not define.

Tell them how they are already prepared for the test.  The classes students are taking give them a chance to make sense out of new ideas and words every day, and that’s what three sections of the ACT (and half of the SAT) are all about.  Some Math questions may ask them about concepts they’ve never heard of; it’s best to let them know that ahead of time, and to let them know that if their best answer is “beats me”, they should try and see if there’s one answer they know is wrong, pick something else, and move on.

Show them the format of the test.  Athletes take extra time warming up on fields they’ve never played on; that should be the case here, too.  Khan Academy and other Websites offer brief introductory videos and sample problems for both tests. Showing the students the format of the test will allow them to get comfortable with how the questions are asked—and comfort and awareness are about 60 percent of the goal for test prep.

Tell them how the results are going to be used.  Students new to the SAT and ACT may fear their scores will be sent to colleges or employers without their permission, so make sure you talk with them about how much they control their own scores.  Other students will worry their scores will be shared with the local media, or their teachers.  If your school shares individual scores with teachers, explain how this will help students learn more, and that the scores are still confidential.  If individual scores are shared with the media without student consent, stop doing that; it’s against the law.

Remind them of the relevance of the test to their plans for life after high school.  The results of a bad test day rarely have to be shared with a college, and almost never have to be shared with an employer—and if the student is headed to a community college, they may never see the light of day.  Students who aren’t thinking about college don’t know the limits of test scores; our task is to make them less scary, and to make sure students know they’re in control. Does this mean they shouldn’t do their best?  Of course not.  Plans change, and unimportant things may suddenly matter.  Ask any college applicant who never cleared their Facebook page.