Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The 5 Minute Evaluation Program

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counseling has come a long way as a profession in a short amount of time.  From updated ASCA standards to a new array of formatting data to being honored at the White House, it’s safe to say that our profession is more visible, more respected, and better understood than ever before.

All of this growth is good, but a key part of change is incorporating or modifying successful past practices in ways that make sense in our brave new world. That’s certainly the case with evaluation and assessment of counseling services and programs.  New data reports can offer finely detailed accounts of attitudes, participation, and pre/post change, but there’s still something to be said for that moment when we pause for a moment after a student leaves our office and we quietly say to ourselves, “Yeah, that could have gone better.”

There’s nothing scientific about that approach, to be sure, but it can create opportunities for additional deliberations, both formal and informal, that lead to real change, and better service.  An award-winning college instructors call this the “onramp assessment method.”  His campus is close to a freeway, and every semester without fail, he leaves campus for the last time that term, hits the onramp, and knows exactly what he needs to do to improve the quality of his teaching next term.

This is a crazy time of year for counselors, so it might be hard to find five minutes, but that’s an even better reason to find them, turn away from the Mania of May, and ask yourself these simple questions. The answers can take you far on the freeway of improvement—and besides, this week’s column is a little short, so you can use the time you’d usually spend reading on helping yourself.

Hey, I’m a counselor—I’m here to help.

  • What three things went well this year?
  • What three things could have gone better?
  • If you had the chance, what one event or meeting would you do over, and why?
  • What one event or meeting makes you burst with pride?
  • If your supervisor was asked to identify three goals for you for next year, what would they be?
  • Are they the same three goals you have for yourself?
  • If they aren’t, what are you going to do to negotiate the difference?
  • It’s this day, next year.  What was glorious about the year you just lived?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Apply to College *and* Financial Aid in the Same Month?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors throughout the land were really stoked when the US Department of Education first announced a change in the filing date for the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  By moving the date to October 1 of the senior year (it used to be January 1), the government was giving students an extra four months to apply to college with at least some idea of how much aid they would receive from the federal government, and how much they would have to pay.  When a decision is as important and costly as college, there’s nothing like having some extra time.

Now that it’s spring, counselors are putting their fall activity schedules together, and it’s starting to dawn on them that they’ll have to move their FAFSA completion activities to September—which, of course, is the same month they’re helping students apply to college.  Throw in a couple of weeks of schedule changes, and the new FAFSA deadline now seems less about giving students more time, and more about trying to drive counselors over the edge.  All we need now is to have administration move the Awards Assembly and AP week to September, and our journey to insanity will be complete.

It would be great if we could delay applying to college or filling out the FAFSA for a month, but the two are now linked in the minds of students, so delaying one could unintentionally derail the college plans of the very students the new deadline was meant to enhance.  If you’re trying to figure out how to manage this 1-2 Septemberpunch, consider these options:

Build FAFSA into your College Application Week plans.  Many high schools are already devoting a full week to raising awareness of college options through College Application week.  Designed to be a Spirit Week for college, this is a week many counselors help students apply to college—so why not build some FAFSA time into this event?  The whole school is already focusing on college this week, so this is a perfect add-on, making a rich week much richer, and only a little crazier (if College Application Week is a new idea to you, go here for some CAW ideas.)

Seek outside partners to help students and families with FAFSA.  Some high schools take a different approach, working with students on college applications, but focusing on parents for FAFSA completion.  If that’s the case, it’s wise to consider working with community partners to create a separate set of activities for parents to complete in September that may, or may not, have something to do with College Application Week.  Some schools partner with local accountants and tax preparers to host a series of FAFSA completion workshops in the school computer lab on September nights and weekends, while others call on college financial aid officers to offer introductory workshops during these same time periods.  Financial aid guidelines change quickly, so it’s wise to make sure you have a college cash partner who stays on top of the trends—and that doesn’t always have to be you.

Build an Early September/Late September model.  If the idea of doing both these important activities at once is just too much, consider splitting September in half.  If you start with the FAFSA activities, you can lean on your college cash partners to lead the way in early September, when counselors are usually inundated with schedule changes.  This means you can focus on college applications in late September, with some students having their FAFSA information in hand by then. Now there’s a winning combination!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The College Application Question No One Wants to Handle

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

At first, it seems like a simple couple of questions that cause most college applicants no problem.  Usually located right after the student’s name, address, senior year schedule, and year of graduation, two fairly long questions appear, both with Yes and No boxes to check:

“Have you ever been suspended, disciplined, expelled, or put on probation while in high school?”

“Have you ever been charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor or felony?”

Like most things in life, if neither situation applies to you, this is no big deal—check no twice, and start thinking about how to tackle the essay prompt.  But for those students who don’t check no, life can get interesting in a hurry—and that means it gets interesting for counselors, who are often asked the same question.

As is always the case, the best plan to have is to plan ahead.  For the question about school discipline:

  • Make sure you know the school policy on how to answer this question.  Many schools have a policy requiring counselors not to answer this question—the student can, but the counselor cannot.  If your school has a policy, follow it; if your school doesn’t have a policy, develop one.  Now.
  • It’s important to read the question on each application closely. Some schools will ask about the student’s entire disciplinary record, while others will only want to know about discipline that led to time away from school.  One answer may not apply to all applications.
  • When the answer is “yes”, the college may ask for an explanation.  Many schools direct counselors to discuss this with the student, have the student write an explanation they review together, and submit that answer, with no additional explanation from the counselor.  This shows the college that the student is taking ownership, and can explain how they have moved on from the situation—and that’s the important part of the explanation.  Unless it’s absolutely necessary, the counselor doesn’t add their own comments.
  • If the situation is complex, the counselor may simply want to say “please call me” when answering the question.  The student should still submit an answer as well.

The question about misdemeanors and felonies is more challenging, largely because most counselors aren’t aware of these situations, since most students aren’t eager to share them.  At the same time, many students will simply stop filling out a college application, convinced that simply answering Yes to this question will lead to a denial of their application.

After once again reviewing school policy, the best way to be proactive with this question is to supply general information to all students.  They need to know that most colleges evaluate each Yes answer on its own merits, and many colleges that ask this question turn all Yes answers over to a separate legal or judicial division of the college.  This group often reads the student’s explanation, does any appropriate investigations, and determines if the student would pose a risk to the college.  If the answer is no, the application is then read for admission like every other application, and the matter is closed.

It’s easy to understand that some people think one poor choice is like one low grade—that it will eliminate college as an option.  While discipline questions aren’t usually a part of college admission, it’s important all students know that “one strike and you’re out” doesn’t generally apply.  These questions shouldn’t get in the way of pursuing your college goals. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Should you fall into a Gap Year?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been around for years—decades even—but now that Malia Obama has decided to take a year off before going to college, everyone wants to know about gap years, and if everyone should take one.  Let’s review the basics. 

Unlike students who get to the end of senior year and start to wonder if college is really the right choice, gap year students generally find a program, opportunity, or life experience they’d like to pursue that might not be available to them once they start college. This can include teaching English in another country, working with a nonprofit social agency, organized travel, career exploration organized by a gap year agency, or working to earn more money for college.

The process for taking a gap year is relatively simple. Students apply to colleges in their senior year as if they were planning to attend the following fall—they do not, and should not, mention they plan on taking a gap year. Once they’re admitted, they contact the college and explain their interest in deferring admission for a year or six months. Colleges that allow students to take a gap year typically ask for an enrollment deposit and give the student a deadline to notify the college if they aren’t coming—and that’s it.

Some school counselors will promote the idea of a gap year as part of their college counseling curriculum. At the same time, most students who feel the need for a gap year usually find their way to a program or experience they’re interested in, taking the initiative to make sure their colleges of choice will let them defer. 

Given that track record, some counselors hesitate to present the idea of a gap year to a wider audience, since some students may misunderstand it as “a year off,” which puts them in danger of never going to college or delaying the development of career skills. Students who discuss a gap year with their counselor in the spring of junior year (or fall of senior year) have put in the thought and energy needed to investigate gap year options and create the opportunity. Students with firm college plans who come to your office two days before graduation to talk about a gap year may just be coming late to the party. More likely, they are having second thoughts about their college choice, or about leaving high school.   It’s important to give each case the counsel it deserves. 

Colleges granting deferred admission often require the student not to use the year to attend another college, and many will also freeze the student’s financial aid package—something to consider if a tuition increase will require the student to find more money for school. While more private colleges allow students to take a gap year, some public colleges will as well. It’s also important to note that nearly all colleges granting gap years do not allow the student to use the time off to attend another college.  Understanding the details of each college’s conditions for a gap year is important—especially since some colleges don’t even over this option.
A handful of gap year students may inform you they plan on applying to college after they complete their gap year. This is generally a bad idea; not only is the student out of high school, making contact with counselor and teacher recommenders more challenging, but the student could also be out of the country, making contact with the college more challenging. A gap year is an opportunity to learn in a new way, not cut corners in applying to college. If that’s the student’s goal, it’s time to have a different conversation.