Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Three Steps to a Great College Admissions Holiday

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

’Tis the season when things are more than just a little crazy in a school counseling office. Even in a year of COVID, this time of year is awash with the traditions and pageantry of our respective schools, making it all the more challenging to get students to focus on their studies, and seniors on their college applications.

But the annual Winter Concert and the principal dressing up like Santa aren’t the real reasons this time of year seems so rushed in a school counseling office. Emotions run high over the holidays, especially if students have to spend time with family members they don’t often see. The anticipation of those events can often be more than students can take, and understandably so, since it’s also more than most adults can take. As is always the case, the mental health of the students is the top priority.

So what can be done to help school counselors keep their calendars focused on the affective domain? These three steps can make sure seniors move forward with their college plans in a smooth, supportive manner, while leaving everyone the opportunity to give the season its proper due:

Set a high school-based deadline for college applications

Try as we may, counselors have a tough time pointing out to seniors that, while they have maybe 4 or 5 college applications to complete, the high school counseling office has several hundred—and they all need transcripts, and letters, and more. Throw in the fact that many colleges have a January 1 application deadline (more on that in a moment), and it’s easy to see why some students walk in to your office the last day before December break—or the first day after—and say “I forgot to tell you. I’m applying to these six colleges. Can you send the transcript?”

Nothing is foolproof in avoiding this, but this sentence can be a lifesaver—“I need the name of every college you’re applying to by December 5.”

Not only is this direction clear, it’s student-friendly. You aren’t saying they have to apply to all those colleges by December 5; if they want to write college essays on Christmas Eve, that’s completely their call. What you are saying is that December 5 is the day they give you their entire list, so transcripts and teacher letters can get sent to colleges on time. This includes every school the student might apply to, including those that are back up schools in case their Early applications don’t work out. If a student decides not to apply to one of these schools, the college shreds the transcript, and nothing is lost.

Stating this deadline loud and often will give you about 90% of the colleges your students are applying to, and you can work with the latecomers. This deadline also urges you students to finish their applications before vacation.

No email over break

It’s wise to urge students to complete applications early, in part because you simply will not be available over break to address college questions. While this can be a sore point for counselors who believe they always need to be there for their kids, it is not a sore point with me.

Counselors come to work early and leave late. They work weekends. They give students their cell numbers, and advise parents in the middle of the grocery store. Add in the demands of COVID, and counselors are working themselves silly. It’s time for a break.

Some school counselors may need to be on call for their students’ mental health issues, but two weeks away from the world of college applications are in order for them right now. As long as the students know you won’t be there (and get that message out often and early), they will be fine.

And if your boss is telling you about the need to monitor email for college counseling emergencies, feel free to tell them they are out of their minds. There is no such thing as a college counseling emergency. There are students who don’t pay attention to deadlines and who don’t read counselor e-mails, but those behaviors don’t create emergencies. They create consequences.

Colleges should give up on January 1

It made perfect sense for colleges to have a January 1 application deadline when students mailed their applications. All the mail got there by January 10, which is about the time college admissions offices reopen, and they could jump in to reading season.

Nothing gets mailed anymore, and admissions offices are closed January 1. Given the speed of technology, January 10 applications can be sent, oh, say, January 10, and still get there on time. More important, students could work on applications over break, share their progress with counselors when school is back in session after break, and still turn everything in on time, all while the counselors have a real holiday, just like their college admissions colleagues do. 

God bless us, every one.

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