Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Do This to Improve Your College Options

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

October is the busiest month in the college application process. Most public universities review applications on a “first come, first serve basis,” so it helps to apply now. Many private colleges will tell you before Christmas if you apply before Halloween, so it helps to apply now. Anxiety goes up when you run out of now — and that’s what October can be all about.

To ease the anxiety, students often turn to their college list for inspiration — but that can just make things worse. Every college you’re applying to has an acceptance rate lower than Congress’s public approval rating, and while most legislators will get admitted to the institution of their choice for next year, that can’t be said about everyone applying to the colleges you worship, including you.

So what can you do? Think about Plan B.

You know — those schools your counselor talked about last spring? The ones that have most, if not more, of the qualities you’re looking for in a college? The ones that may actually offer you money to attend? How many of those schools have you applied to?

Thought so.

Since this is a busy time, your counselor can’t remind you of the importance of this list — so here goes:

  • It makes perfect sense to apply to a college you love, but no matter how strong you are, colleges don’t take everyone — students with perfect grades and scores hear “no” all the time.
  • Applying to 17 colleges that each has a 5 percent chance of admission does not mean there’s a 105 percent chance you will be admitted to at least one — it’s still 5 percent in each case.
  • These schools run out of room before they run out of great students. That isn’t your fault — but you’ll still need somewhere to go to college, and it should be some place you like.

Thinking about these schools now can seem like picking out a frozen pizza at the Piggly Wiggly when you have your heart set on Pizza Papalis. And while you appreciate everything your counselor is doing, it doesn’t help that they give these schools a title that sounds like, well, Second Prize. Safety Schools. Fall Back Schools. Just-In-Case Schools.

Fair enough.

It’s time to stop thinking about getting into college, and start thinking about going to college. Do the schools on both lists offer the same majors? Have about the same class size? Do the students at all schools care equally about learning, or thinking, or Friday night? If someone took you blindfolded to the campus of one of the colleges on your list, would you be able to sort out which list it was on, if you only heard students talking in its classes, and not the admissions office talking about its rankings?

Everyone has their first choices in the world, and pursuing them with all your worth is as important as eating well and looking both ways across the street. But considering other choices at the right time broadens your options, enriches your perspective, and requires you to look more closely at the real value of your top pick — and now is the right time.

It isn’t easy to look past something you love and may never have, but doing so creates an important byproduct. It’s called humility, and since it’s in short supply, more colleges value the real thing. The end result? By looking past your first choice college, you’re more attractive to it —and if the college says No, you’ve only lost one opportunity you love, while building many opportunities you like an awful lot.

So. About Plan B.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Is College Worth It?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Now it begins. Your parents want you to start your college essays, and your fall job plans have just fallen through. You’re getting used to your schedule: 5 academic classes, one honors class, and 2 APs. If all goes well, you’ll be admitted to a college that’s right for you, where you’ll get to do this for four more years.

“Dude” you say to yourself, “is college worth it?”

Your parents come back from a dinner party in the neighborhood. “I ran into Jenny Smithers” your Mom says. “She graduated from State U this spring with Honors in Architecture, but with the slow job market, she’s an assistant manager at Burger World and living at home.” “She’s the eighth college grad in the neighborhood who came back home” says Dad. “One more, and the unemployed college grads can start a baseball team.”

“Dude”, you say to yourself, “is college worth it?”

You take a break from job hunting to catch some TV. As you’re flipping the channels, you stop at a story that talks about Bill Gates, Abe Lincoln, and some woman in Connecticut. The story says Bill Gates didn’t finish college and Abe Lincoln never started, but this woman in Connecticut took out $115,000 in loans to go to college. She now has a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy, and can’t get a job.

“Dude” you say to yourself.

You head back to the computer, and make a scientific investigation. It turns out that the unemployment rate is lowest for students with college degrees. It also turns out that most of the job growth in the next 10 years will come in jobs requiring training after high school, but not a four year degree. It also turns out the average graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree has $30,000 in college loans.

“Whoa!” says you.

You’ve decided your homework can wait, and you head down to Maggie’s Pizza. Dave’s the manager on duty tonight, and he’s the smartest guy you know.

“’Sup, bro?” he says, without looking up from the pizza he’s cutting.

“Dave, is college worth it?”

Dave looks up, puts down the pizza cutter, and wipes his hands on his apron.

“Let’s see. Moved in the day before classes started, and I was so scared, I didn’t unpack til November 12th. My roommate was from Brooklyn, and he taught me how to eat pizza the right way. Read my first book of poetry. Worked my summers cleaning dorm rooms, and swore I’d never do that again. Went to Scotland for three weeks, and got to see the sun set at midnight. Learned how to footnote a paper, why camels spit, how to write the business plan that led to this store and the four others in the chain, and why it matters to me who wins the elections in Turkey.”

“What happened November 12th?”

“I met Maggie.”


“What about you, man? You know what you want to study?”


“Where you want to live?”


“Do for a living?”


“Yeah. That’s about where I was, before I went. Slice to go?”

Dave shows you how to eat pizza Brooklyn style, and you head for home.

“Where’ve you been, champ? You need to find a job.”

“Sorry, Dad. Just needed to clear my head.”

“Well, it’s a busy time for you.”

“Yeah. Hey Dad?”


“Who’s running for president in Turkey?”

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

It’s Really a Brand New Year

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A local teacher was once the recipient of a prestigious national teaching award.  When asked about his secret to success, his response was fresh, original, and surprising.  “It’s simple” he said.  “After I’m through teaching a particular lesson, I take the notes I painstakingly researched, tear them up, and throw them away.  That way, when I teach the same lesson again, I have to start from scratch.”

If there’s ever a time to apply that lesson to college counseling, it’s this year.  While much of our work is based on past actions—which students got into which colleges with certain credentials—it’s pretty easy to see why this year is going to be different.  This freshness certainly isn’t going to destroy all the axioms we know to be true—there will be certain colleges where a 3.9 student is pretty much going to get in no matter what—but there are enough factors in flux that allow us to throw out some of the rules of the past, and offer new insights into students this year.

Who’s applying  It’s been a challenging year for colleges, as they scramble to meet the needs of admitted international students who can’t get the paperwork they need to be on campus.  A different problem with the same result exists for students whose college funds saw rocky times during the recent stock market upheaval, or those whose families have health or employment issues requiring them to put college on the back burner, at least for now.

Combined with the predicted downturn in the number of high school graduates, these new factors could open up some application options for students.  It’s worth asking the colleges if their recruiting projections are changing at all as a result of these new factors.  No matter what they say, this may make more applications worthwhile for capable students.

What they’re reading, Part I  The best known change is the incredible number of colleges that aren’t requiring test scores this year.  In many ways, this makes sense.  Some students simply aren’t going to get a chance to test, while others may have one set of test scores that was supposed to be a first effort—but now, it’s all they have.

Students need to understand that a college will look at scores that are sent, even if those scores put the student in an unfavorable light.  Some students are convinced colleges will ignore low test scores that are submitted, but that’s not really the case.  To them, that would be like ignoring the D in Algebra 2—once you know it’s there, you have to keep it in mind. Make sure students understand the best time to send test scores, and how to send them in a way that works to their advantage.

What they’re reading, Part II The absence of test scores puts greater weight on the other parts of the application.  At many colleges, much of that weight will get picked up by grades, while other places will look to the essays for a better understanding of the students behind the paperwork.

This means students will want to write as comprehensive a picture of who they are as possible—and that means going easy on the COVID narrative. The pandemic has left a big change on all of us, to be sure, but if all three required essays are all about COVID, colleges won’t help but wonder if there’s anything else in the student’s life.  We wouldn’t have students write three essays on baseball—this is the same thing in many ways.  Make sure the topics of the essays are thematically connected, but individually diverse.

This may not be the first time we’re applying to college, but it’s the first time our students are—so the rules would be new to them, even if they were the same rules as used in past years.  Use this mutual freshness as a springboard for quality advising, even in uncertain times.  As long as students know much of this year is unknown, we can prepare them for whatever lies ahead.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Key Questions to Ask Your College Reps

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A very different school year requires a very different approach to getting updates from your favorite colleges. In other years, it was enough to ask a rep, “What’s new?” as they set up for their high school visit with your students. This year, they aren’t coming to your high school—and that’s just the start of things that are new!

Keeping track of the changes this year requires a more systematic approach. Try this simple checklist for starters:

How has the admissions process changed? It may be tempting to just ask about the college’s use of test scores in admissions, but there’s typically much more to any changes the college has made in reviewing applicants. Asking this broader question gives the rep to address all the changes related to admissions, including:
  • Any change in the use of ACT and SAT scores—do they still require them? Remember, many schools that are test optional in admissions are still, mysteriously, requiring test scores for scholarships.
  • How they will review a file that that doesn’t have test scores. Some schools are weighing the other parts of the application the way they always used to, while others have changed the value of the other parts of the application in ways they think best address the way to read an applicant with no test scores.
  • Deadlines for all applications. This is especially the case with Early Action and Early Decision schools, many of whom have decided to push their due dates and response rates well into January. That’s a big deal to students who had hoped to hear from their Early schools in December, so they wouldn’t have to apply to the Regular schools with January 1 deadlines.
  • Deadlines for particular programs. The Business School may be taking applicants later, while the Music School may still be auditioning in January. Make sure you know.
What do you want to know about academic rigor? Many colleges will still emphasize the importance of how hard the classes were (and are) that students took last year and this year. With many schools changing to online or remote learning last spring, that meant some of the more challenging courses were graded differently- if at all—and it could mean changes to this year’s classes, too, including the number of high end courses students have access to. Asking about the best way to convey that information will lead to an important discussion about rigor—and it’s likely to bring very different answers from different colleges.

How has the delivery of classes changed? Many colleges are still changing their minds about how to deliver classes this Fall, while others have made commitments to the online/in-person question that are scheduled to last the entire year. We’ve already seen many campuses change this answer to this question in the last week, but it’s still important to ask—there may be plans for this year and next year that will affect your students’ chances of admission, or their interest in applying.

How will deferred students affect admissions for next fall? More students who were supposed to start college this Fall took one look at things and said “Maybe next year.” Does an increase in delayed starters mean fewer of this year’s seniors will be admitted? Will financial aid resources be changed—of housing promises? It may be too early to tell, but more schools are thinking about this already.

What’s the best way to get in touch with you? Many office phones are being left unanswered, so this could be a year when email becomes more important than ever. Ask, just in case.