Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Senior Panic, and What to Do About It

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Just one look, and you know something’s different.

They came to school a handful of weeks ago, nicely tanned, hugely stoked, ready to rule the school.  This was the year of The Class of 2017, and nothing was going to hold them back from being the Best. Class. Ever.  Not tough classes, not college applications, and not even Genevieve, the freakishly large captain of the junior powderpuff football team, who promised to make Spirit Week memorable for the seniors, but not in a good way.

Now, the end of the first quarter is nigh, and the summer sparkle has been replaced by the autumnal pallor of lots of study time and little fresh air.  The seniors held the juniors off to win the Spirit Jug, and Genevieve’s last gridiron nemesis has just come out of traction with a college essay that is prize worthy—but everyone else who’s going to walk the stage in June is walking around like  a zombie, and that isn’t because Halloween is next week.

Welcome to the laws of physics brought to life.  Seniors started the year on a high that lasted through the first three weeks of school, where most classes were a review of what they learned last year, and everyone made the mistake of thinking twelfth grade was going to be a snap.  But what starts up has to come down, and once October came with the new ideas everyone has to master in every class, seniors had to try and find a gear they didn’t know existed—right about the time their first college application was due. 

They’re now on their third college application, and the initial college excitement has turned into tedium (“They want my date of birth?  Again?”), just as the end-of-the-quarter exams are in view. Ask a senior how they’re doing, and they’ll say “Fine”, but the tone is like they’re on auto-pilot, convinced a college will find out if they say anything else and make a note of it in their file. “We were going to admit you, but there was that Thursday in late October when you doubted your own existence…”

We’re counselors, so of course we want to jump in and administer affective triage to our students.  But even our best “You can do this” will come across as a Twinkie, and our seniors need sustenance.

So tell them to close their eyes. It isn’t October of this year; now, it’s October of next year.  Where are you?  What are you doing?  What are you wearing?  Who are you with?

It will fall out of their mouths like a smile comes from an infant.  I’m on campus.  The leaves are gorgeous, and the sun is shining.  I’m by myself, reading some really thick book, taking notes furiously, and I understand all of it.  I’m sipping some kind of foamy, beige-colored drink in a clear plastic container, and I have a sweater tied around my neck, like I’m in some kind of cheesy Eddie Bauer ad.  Three people pass by and all say hello, but I can’t tell you what their faces look like now, because I haven’t met them yet, but we’re friends. I go back to my book, and I still understand it.  I’m happy.  I’ve made it.

Great, you say.  Open your eyes now.  It’s this October, and the leaves are stunning.  You don’t know that now, because high schools don’t have any trees, which says a lot about American school systems, but take a look on your way home.  The backpack you brought in my office that will give you scoliosis by twenty-three has several thick books in it, just waiting to be understood by someone who loves to learn.  I know that’s you, and I’ve told the colleges exactly that.

If you give me a minute, I can probably hijack a lukewarm cup of something bleakly brown out of the staff room and let you drink it while you study.  If you really want to, you can take your hoodie off and tie it around your shoulders.  Better yet, Principal Freeman is a member of Eddie Bauer’s Gold Club, which means she can have that sweater here tomorrow, with free shipping.

Or, there’s this.  Suppose there’s a ball on the floor, and you push it.  It goes one foot in the first second of travel, then half a foot the next second, then a quarter of a foot, and so on.  When will it travel a total of two feet?

Right.  It never gets to two feet, but it always keeps travelling.  Would it stop if it knew it would never reach two feet, or is that just a goal someone else made that has nothing to do with its journey?

There’s the bell. It’s time for you to push on.  Thanks for coming in.

Welcome to the laws of physics brought to life.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Peer pressure is an amazing thing.
There haven’t been two months of school in many states, but some seniors are already convinced everyone is ahead of them in the rush to college. “I’m all through with my applications” beams Jennifer. “I’ve narrowed my Early Decision college down to two” boasts another student. “I’m almost done with my first application” crows a third, “my essay is all that’s left.”
Seniors, it is October 20. College doesn’t start for 10 months. No college has closed admission, and one isn’t likely to until November 30. After that, there will only be, oh, about 3000 other colleges to choose from. Many of them don’t require test scores or essays, most don’t let students apply Early Decision — and they totally rock. So there’s time.
But enough about them. Let’s talk about you.
When was the last time something good ever happened to your life when you took a snapshot of somebody else’s life and assumed it was wonderful? Jennifer may be finished applying to college, but maybe that’s because her mother was holding the car keys hostage until the apps were done. Does that make for great college essays — especially since essays due January 1st should be reviewed December 15th, just in case the first four months of senior year have changed you, the way you look at the world, or what you want to do with your life?
And your friend who’s choosing an Early Decision school — does he understand this is like marriage? Sure, more ED students get admitted (by percentage) than students who wait — but if your one ED college accepts you, you have to go there. Done, Decided. Welcome to the Family.
If your friend has doubts about both of these schools, maybe it isn’t time to book the bachelor party just yet. Instead, he should find some other colleges that have the best qualities of both schools, apply to all of them as a regular applicant, and see what feels best eight months from now.

As for our applicant who needs to finish her essays, she is probably stuck on her essays. If so, it’s likely she is trying to write them Tuesday night at 10, after a full day of school, band practice, homework, and a dinner that involves microwaved pasta, no lettuce, and little family time.
If this describes your friend, here is her antidote — no essays on Tuesday. Carve a two-hour block out of Saturday or Sunday (or both), work on your applications then — and only then — and forget about them during the week. That way, you get to study and learn, work on the homecoming float, have a great senior year, and write great college essays to boot. Plus, your applications will be done by Thanksgiving, so you can spend Christmas break with your family, not with your computer.
The root of all bad living lies in thinking someone else has it better than you — it can make you feel trapped, confused, and unworthy. Funny thing is, that isn’t because of pressure a peer is putting on you; that’s because of pressure you’re putting on yourself.
It’s time to deflate. Be happy Jennifer’s mom is off her back, tell the bridegroom ED doesn’t have to be, and make sure your pal with the essays gets a real meal next Tuesday. You’ll be happier, they’ll be happier, and you may find your first college application will be easier to complete than you thought.
On Saturday.
(Oh, right. What’s another reason your friend might not be able to write her essays?  Click here.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Role of Texting in College Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

One of the biggest challenges school counselors face is keeping in touch with their students.  This is especially true when it comes to advising students about college plans.  With all of the choices, and all of the steps that have to be taken, and all of the forms that have to be completed, how can counselors help students keep things organized, and make sure they stay on task?

One way many counselors have met this needs is by using a group texting program like Remind.  These programs allow counselors to set up texting groups on a computer, where counselors can invite students to join the group.  Student cell phone numbers are never revealed to the counselor, assuring security, but the counselor is able to reach out to students with timely information on college application deadlines, scholarship information, and more, using the medium most students prefer to use.

The success counselors have realized through texting has been noticed by the White House, which has recently announced a texting program designed to help keep students on track with their college plans. What’s Up Next sends out regular texts for students with tips on all facets of the college selection and application process, and includes tips on paying for college.  This program is free, and students can sign up at Counselors planning on sharing this opportunity with their students are strongly urged to sign up for the service as well, since this is the best way to make sure the messages students are getting from What’s Up Next align with the goals, deadlines, and messages counselors are sending to students about college.

Texting plays a major role in combating one of the biggest challenges in the college selection process, summer melt.  A Harvard report suggests that 10-40% of all students who graduate from high school with plans to attend college end up not attending come fall.  One of the biggest reasons seems to be a breakdown in communication over the summer; students stop reading emails the colleges send that tell students about important deadlines for enrollment and financial aid, and there are no counselors around to remind students that they still have work to do to get ready for college.  As a result, students don’t get enrolled, or worse, they lose their financial support, and they don’t know how to get back into the college track once they’ve fallen out of it.  That’s summer melt.

The best way to avoid summer melt is to make sure counselors play a key role in the lives of students over the summer- - and that means texting.  By using either a texting program or a disposable phone, counselors can reach out to students with 1-2 texts a week with simple messages (“Check your email for college updates?”, “Did you sign up for orientation yet?”) that will lead to students following up or keeping on track. 

Counselors will want to do a little planning ahead of time to line up the texts in an order that moves students toward college in the right sequence, and they’ll likely have to follow up some texts answering emails to students that have specific questions. It’s also a good idea to contact the Student Services department of the colleges attended by many of your students, to see if *they* offer a texting program your students can subscribe to.  This is a great way for colleges to take over the guidance of the students that will soon be on campus.

You’ve worked hard to get your students into college.  A little more work with your thumbs can seal the deal.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

College Readiness Checklist Fails to Make the Grade

By; Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

While we’ve been away this summer, the School Superintendent’s Association (AASA) has released a series of National College and Career Readiness Indicators.  These three checklists can be used to determine if students will succeed in their chosen postsecondary path of college or career, along with one checklist to determine if they are, according to the Website, ready for life.

AASA calls these research-based metrics, but doesn’t manage to site the research on their Website or indicate the involvement of counselors or college admission officers in the creation of the lists.  They go on to state “the campaign is a response to dismal college and career readiness scores reported by standardized test makers that fail to portray a comprehensive picture of student potential.
The comprehensive picture AASA has drawn for college readiness reads as follows:

GPA 2.8 out of 4.0 and one or more of the following benchmarks:
Advanced Placement Exam (3+)
Advanced Placement Course (A, B or C)
Dual Credit College English and/or Math (A, B or C)
College Developmental/Remedial English and/or Math (A, B or C)
Algebra II (A, B or C)
International Baccalaureate Exam (4+)
College Readiness Placement Assessment*

The College-Ready list then goes on to site minimum scores on the ACT, as well as “other factors” that contribute to college success, including completion of the FAFSA.
The stated goal of the indicators is to prove “Our students are more than a score”, a slogan that seems to refer to deciding a student’s college readiness based exclusively on the ACT or SAT.  Given the list they’ve created, AASA seems to be suggesting students are indeed more than just one score; they are  three scores.  If the list is an accurate indicator of college readiness, students are ready to take on the rigors of college as long as they have a minimum score on the ACT; a minimum GPA, and a C in any class from Algebra II to an AP course.
This is undoubtedly a great relief to school counselors and college admission officers, who have long been under the delusion that college readiness is a much more intricate construct, and never determined by just one score, or by just three.  Directly involved in the college selection process, these educators are under the impression that a student is more likely to be college ready if they’ve taken rigorous classes across the curriculum, not just one AP class. 
In addition, a number of colleges are convinced that a C in an advanced class suggests the student is unlikely to succeed in college, since average college grades are typically one full grade level below what a student earns in college.  Given that data point, is AASA really willing to say a student with a C in Algebra II is a success if they earn a D in their first year of College Algebra, or if their high school GPA of 2.8 turns into a 1.8 at university? This would rebuff years of institutional data that has been created and verified by thousands of colleges, data that includes the role of personal maturity and socialization as measures of college readiness.  Knowing college readiness is something as easy as following this checklist clearly makes these follow-up studies pointless.
In addition, this college readiness list will undoubtedly lead parents to reconsider what they thought they knew about choosing a college.  Since the list doesn’t answer the question “Ready for which colleges?” parents will now safely assume that the college readiness list will prepare their child to succeed in any curriculum at any college, from community college to research universities to the Ivy League.  I for one can’t wait to return to the office and get the first phone call from an ebullient parent who advises me that I was wrong about Johnny’s college prospects, since the Superintendent’s Association has decided that Johnny’s 2.9 GPA and C in Algebra II really does make him ready for Yale, no matter what I think.
Helping students with the very personal experience of discovering colleges that are best suited to advance their goals, talents, and dreams has never been an easy thing to do, if it’s done well.  A vast majority of school counselors and college admission counselors will readily admit that the many Best Colleges lists haven’t helped that cause, since those rankings are based on factors that either have little to do with a student’s college experience, or don’t take the unique needs of each student into account when creating the list. Counselors and college admissions officers do that; lists don’t.

Well-meaning as it may be, this checklist of college ready attributes does little to help the cause of college readiness.  It may be news to some superintendents and principals that there’s more to being ready for college than a good score on the ACT, but that’s only because those school leaders have never had a serious conversation with their counselors about the purpose of college, and the process of creating a successful college fit between student and school. 

The creation of this college readiness list may create that opportunity, as administrators may use its rollout as an occasion to advise counselors how to “do” college counseling.  School counselors are going to want to be ready for that conversation with armloads of data and the insights of college admission officers.  If they are, that conversation could lead to new levels of support for college counseling program—the only possible outcome of the creation of these checklists that could be considered a plus.