Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Counselor’s Holiday

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s not exactly a mix of students you can predict. Athletes have holiday practice, so are rarely represented; students from coastal colleges are typically overrepresented, and the valedictorian isn’t usually in sight. Yet, there they randomly gather, about a dozen of them, starting around 12:30, smart enough not to come for lunch, but eager to get caught in the milieu of lunch period changing into the next class period that feels like a hero’s welcome to them.

They are last year’s seniors, coming back to say hi at Thanksgiving.

The first thing you notice is how grown up they seem. Sure, they’re still students, but they don’t seem as ragtag as they did last year, wearing more sweaters, and more corduroy. At least one guy is sporting facial hair, which he desperately hopes speaks for itself. At least one woman has stopped shaving her leg hair, which she brags about with a delight that is especially liberating, both for her and you. Nearly all of them are keen to say college food isn’t really all that bad, but more than one of them will be surprised how empty their parent’s refrigerator is. “I can actually see the light bulb in the back of the top shelf. Didn’t they know I’d be coming home?”

Some of their stops are expected. They pay homage to the English 12 teacher who begged them to find empathy for J. Alfred Prufrock (“I’m reading Langston Hughes now in Freshman Comp, so I finally get it”), and the Algebra II teacher who taught them just enough to place out of the collegewide math requirement seems to get more hugs than they know what to do with. The elective teachers still have their fans, particularly the choir teacher (“I thought of you when we sang Britten’s ‘Requiem’ on Veterans Day”) and the Psychology teacher, who is told by all of them that they’ve taken an Intro course, and are changing their major next semester.

A healthy number of them manage to find their way to you, including some students who needed very little help getting into college. They intuitively remember how exhausting November is for you, so they’re kind enough to remind you of their name, and where they’re going. Some will reassure you their minds are being expanded (“I’m seeing things in The Federalist Number 65 that were never there before”), they are surviving their roommates (“but she’s only changed her sheets once”) or they remember a piece of advice you offered them (“You were sure right about me and eight o’clocks. I should have listened.”)

ALL of them will have ways you can be a better college counselor. “Tell them to apply sooner. No—Make them apply sooner. Especially the financial forms.” 

“Get the school to run a bus on Saturday so they can go visit a campus. It’s so different seeing it in person.”

“Tell them not to blow off senior year. I forgot everything I knew about studying, and it’s been rough.”

Many boys will try to shake your hand when they say goodbye, most squeezing far too hard. Most girls will not hug you, but they will thank you, turning their heads ever so slightly to the side when they speak to add authenticity. They’ll all make a point of leaving ten minutes before the last bell sounds; it’s their version of skipping school, or reminding you—and themselves—of their freedom from this bastion of hall passes and puppy love.

Industries have been founded on the notion that holidays are noisy things, moments that demand consecrated time, resources, and recognition. Each year, on the last day before Thanksgiving vacation, I hear the voices of our youngest alumni fading down the hallway, and realize a quiet sense of completeness that cannot be brought by the shiniest of one-day delivered boxes. 

And hope is kindled anew.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Parents: Before You Yell at Your School Counselor

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

You’ve worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.

Until they got the e-mail.

“Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application.”

At this point, you’ve decided this is personal, so even though it’s 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.

Boy, did you just blow it. Here’s why:

Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn’t said “Forget it”; they’ve said, “We need something.” You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up—so the transcript might not be in your child’s file, but it is in the college’s application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor—the one you just called incompetent—sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don’t want another one. If the transcript is already in the college’s system, they really don’t want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child’s file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it’s their application), but it’s likely you want the school counselor to call. You know—the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.

This isn’t to say they won’t help you and give your child their full support, but if you’ve just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you’ve now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don’t know what you’re doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you’ve just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?

You’ve just left an impression you can’t erase. Let’s say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child’s file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they’d like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is—you guessed it—the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child’s ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that’s what the counselor has experienced. This isn’t about a grudge; this is about their experience.

It’s easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Fixing College Admissions: If There Was Just One Thing…

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t have to tell most of you November 1 is a pretty big deal in the world of college admissions. With more and more students applying Early Decision and Early Action (you know the difference, right? RIGHT?!), many high schools report they are sending more transcripts and college applications out in October than they are for the rest of the year combined. This surge in early applications leads many counselors to wonder if students are still making thoughtful decisions about where to apply, now that they feel this need for speed to get their applications in. Is it really true that you make a weaker decision if you get less time to think about it?

The larger issue for many counselors is the unintended advantage this early application mania gives to students who go to high schools with more counselors. More counselors, the theory goes, means smaller caseloads, giving counselors more time to meet with students and fine tune college plans. Does that mean students with fewer counselors lack the understanding or resources to apply early—and if colleges take as many as 60% of their students early, does that put these students at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to applying to college?

It turns out, this is just the start of the conversation about the fairness of college admission. Long ago, college counseling guru Jon Boeckenstedt pointed out how something as innocuous as the teacher letter of recommendation can give an advantage in the college application process to students in wealthier schools. I’ve since taken that theme and shown how similar advantages exist in test preparation, essay help, interviews—just about every part of the college selection process. Colleges are only well too aware of these inequities, but how they adjust for them as they wade through a mountain of applications is another issue. Does every admission officer understand how unbalanced the system can be?

This question seems to be on the minds of more than a few of our colleagues. This week, NACAC announced the formulation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Leadership in College Admission. Among their other charges, the Committee will look at the existing college admissions process and simply ask—how can we do better? The announcement of the committee has already generated a lot of buzz among counselors, as this is the first time in recent memory NACAC has looked at the current state of admission as a construct.

Of course, NACAC is by no means the only group asking this question. This upcoming weekend, the Facebook group Hack the Gates will be convening for their first group-based effort to consider what college admissions should look like. The first answer, of course, is “different,” but this weekend’s convening (if you go to the webpage, you can find out how to participate online) is the first serious effort to put meat on the bones of this proposition of change.

Early indications suggest this desire to develop new admissions methods could be fruitful. In the last few years alone, test-optional schools, schools that allow self-reported grades and scores, and colleges developing alternative admissions methods have seen unparalleled growth, with each change making access to the process easier. Changes in issues like affordability (Is there really such a thing as free college? Would colleges give up the financial benefits of Early Decision programs if doing so increased access to college for all?) and completion rates may prove to be thornier propositions, but the “one piece at a time” approach in the admissions process itself suggests there is a hunger to find a better way for higher education to serve all students.

This is an exciting time to be a counselor.