Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Remembering the Season

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Many counselors are looking forward to this upcoming time off, since it represents a return to a “normal” holiday season. Given the hope—and even for those who are looking at a different kind of time off— here’s a story that takes us back to one of the holidays that’s celebrated, in the hopes that looking at its origins might give us the perspective needed to make the most of our upcoming time off. Enjoy.

In fourth century Asia Minor, there lived a farmer with three beautiful daughters. When the eldest announced she was planning to wed, the farmer fretted aloud that he had no money to provide her a dowry, putting her wedding plans in jeopardy.

One day, as the farmer left his home to tend to his crops, he felt something bump up against his foot as he put on his field shoes, which he had left on the porch before coming in the house the night before. He searched the shoe, and discovered a small bag of gold, worth just enough to make a dowry for his eldest daughter and to pay for her wedding.

A few years later, his second daughter announced her plans to wed, and the farmer’s financial picture had not improved over time. Wondering where he would find funding to support this wedding, he was delighted, but still surprised, to find another bag of gold in his field shoes just a few days later.

When his third daughter announced her plans to wed, the farmer was determined to discover the identity of the giver of the gold. He spent the night on the front porch, and when no one came to fill his field shoes with gold, went inside to prepare for the day. Imagine his surprise when he took down his stockings—hanging near the fire where they were drying—and found another bag of gold.

Only years later was it discovered that the giver of the gold was Nicholas, the village priest, who was only too aware of the farmer’s plight.

To this day, many families honor Nicholas by placing toys and candy in the shoes their children put out the night before—and these trinkets often include an orange, symbolic of the bags of gold. Other families hang stockings by the fireplace, typically at Christmas, to commemorate Nicholas’ ability to climb down the very large chimney opening once the evening fire was out and place the third bag of gold in the farmer’s stockings.

Either way, the tale of Nicholas is a reminder that this time of giving is one based on supply, and not excess.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Counseling Over Break? Ho, Ho—No!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

’Tis the season for counselor blogs and chat rooms to be filled with the inevitable holiday question—how much are you checking email and seeing students over break? Like most school counselor issues, this one seems easy at first. You look at your contract or remember what your boss wanted to do last year, and there’s your answer.

Until you remember the student who decided to wait to apply to their 12 other colleges until they heard back from their unlikely Early school on December 20. This student is now looking at midnight shifts over the holiday. Won’t they need help?

Until the student who got a Yes from their Early school walks into your office the last day of school with four—count ‘em, four—financial aid forms the college wants completed and returned by January 5, or the student’s acceptance is in peril. This is the first student in the family to go to college. Need I say more?

There’s no hard and fast rule in approaching this question, but there is one important guideline to follow that make the exceptions—and, believe it or not, saying “no”—more manageable. Ready?

Plan ahead. I love my colleagues dearly, but any first-time announcement going out right now about being closed for all of break is going to make Scrooge look like Mister Rogers, so grin and bear it this year, and make a note for next year. Send out an announcement (by mail, by email, on the Web, in text) that states your availability for both Thanksgiving and December break. This puts everyone on notice: You need help? Here’s when you can, and can’t, get it.

This notice can absolutely say the office will be closed and you won’t be available. I did this for the last fifteen years as a college counselor, and no one complained. The “last minute” folks in the crowd now know they’ll be flying on their own. If they don’t want to do that, there’s ample time to develop Plan B.

For them—and even for the students who plan ahead—you want to provide guidance (oops) on what to do if something unexpected comes up. “If you end up applying to a school we haven’t discussed, or if you hear from a college over break, drop me an email, and I’ll respond when we return. Just make sure you send your part of a new application in by the deadline.” Colleges know high schools are closed December 28, so they know any request they make then will have to wait until January.

If you must be available over break, the November 1 notice (which gets sent again right before Thanksgiving, December 10, and two days before December break) should specify when you’re available. It’s not healthy for anyone to have counselors available every day of break, so set some times (one morning and one afternoon), set the format (phone, online, in person) and then stick to that schedule. Part of this is for your own good, and part is practice for college. A student shouldn’t expect a professor to be in their office at 2:00 Tuesday if office hours are Monday at 3:00. Be the professor.

There are all kinds of exceptions that make it impossible to take all of break off, but a long history of handling breaks suggests this is an optimal time—for students and counselors alike—to let go of school for a while. Let’s try and keep the big picture in mind as we go over the river and through the woods—and leave the computer at the office.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021


by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s a story about a lot of things that don’t get talked about much, starting with the town itself.  Ask most Detroiters about Oxford, and they’ll say it’s a tiny town that runs a pretty good fall festival.  Beyond that, it’s one of those towns where varsity football is King, where nearly the whole town closes so everyone can go to the game, and everyone can tell you who’s on this year’s team.  A few of the town elders will still tell you Oxford was the birthplace of one of the most famous radio voices, The Lone Ranger, but other than that, it’s just a great little town that makes for a pleasant stop as you’re travelling somewhere else.


This is also a story about the Oxford Police Department, a small-town public safety program that focuses as much on community relations as it does on law enforcement.  This isn’t exactly Sheriff Andy from Mayberry, but I’m hard pressed to think of another police department’s web page that boasts about its chaplaincy program, where “our Chaplain is available 24 hours a day to assist officers and citizens during times of tragic events.”  In a profession where the small things make a difference, it’s clear Oxford gets that. They also understand that the minute you start bragging about them, you’ve kind of missed the point.


Closer to home for school counselors, this is also a story about lockdown drills, the exercises typically held in those first few days of school before the students arrive. To some, it’s one of those things you do to check a box so you can say you practiced the drill.  In the eyes of others, it’s an object of disappointment, a premature step on the road to the loss of innocence at too early an age—“We don’t have enough time to teach handwriting, but there’s always time for a lockdown drill.” Others see them as a necessary evil; if there was a predictable pattern to where they were needed and when, no one would practice them if they didn’t have to.  It’s just that no one knows where or when—so they’re conducted, just in case.


That’s where things were this Tuesday, as school counselors across the country were getting ready for another major college application deadline.  A semiautomatic handgun saw to it that Oxford would be something more than a sleepy town with a tough football team, killing four, and putting the school in the company of once-unknown Columbine and Sandy Hook.  The community-based peace officers took on a role they had never known, but were clearly well trained for, as the shooter was captured three minutes after they were dispatched to the high school.  And those pesky, painful lockdown drills saved hundreds of lives, as students and teachers built barricades that withstood gunfire, and responded to fake “all clear” messages by holding their ground or heading for higher ground.


Not a single school counselor slept well, or at all, Tuesday night, as our hearts reached out to another set of suffering families and another suffering school, and we wondered if our school would be ready to respond.  We pray we are, but we pray harder that we never have to find out.  Either way, we leave this week with a greater appreciation for things too often taken for granted—leadership, protection, and advanced planning. We vow to remain alert for signs of events that are often as understated as the towns where they occur, until the unknown becomes known in ways that make us ache, and vow to do better.


Will we?

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Tidying Up for the Holidays

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t know about everyone else, but the award for “Where Did the Time Go?” for 2021 goes to the last eight weeks. It seems like yesterday we were talking about everything new for this application season, and now we’re looking at the other side of November 1.

This is typically the time for odds and ends, and this year is no exception. While we urge students to keep the momentum going, here are some additional considerations that sometimes get lost at this time of year, that, if not tended to, can have the same effect as not applying at all:

Additional forms for November 1 applications. Counselors are reporting an uptick in the number of colleges that are asking students for additional information after the initial application was submitted November 1. In particular, there seems to be a number of colleges asking students to submit self-reported grades; it’s almost as if they are saying “Thanks for the application, but are you serious?”

Providing grades gives the colleges one less piece of paper to wait for, but completing this task with several colleges in the brief interval between November 1 and Thanksgiving is no easy feat. Nonetheless, the problem is what it is. Remind students to check their emails frequently, not only for verification the colleges have what the student has already received, but to see what else the colleges want the student to submit—and when they want it submitted. 

FAFSA Verification. This isn’t a new thing, but its relevance seems to be increasing. Students submit the FAFSA, and many receive a request from the colleges asking that the student confirm parts of the information submitted on the form with additional verification—bank statements, statements of non-support, and more.

As is often the case with financial issues, the biggest burden of proof typically lies with the students who need the most help—who, typically, have had the least amount of experience in financial issues. On top of this, some of the information is hard to get. How exactly do you prove you haven’t heard from a non-custodial parent in five years, when you don’t even know where they are?

Compared to all other parts of the application, verification can truly be the most tedious, and require the most hand holding. Reach out to all FAFSA filers (and their parents) early and often, and ask what you can do to help.

Phantom Students and Hard Lists. This isn’t exactly the time when you have time to close the door and look at the big picture of college applications, but that’s precisely what needs to be done right now. Pull out the roster of your entire senior caseload, and look for two things. 

First, what students have you just not heard from in a long time? Make a list, start with an email, and be ready to follow through. 

Second, look at the lists for all your students, and highlight the ones whose academic plans may not match up all that well with reality. It’s always good to dream, but the window is closing on Plan B schools, and every student needs at least a couple. This news is best shared in person, but if email is all you have time for, put together a thoughtful request, and give them a few schools to consider. 

These steps are time consuming, but they will save a lot of anxiety in the very short weeks between Thanksgiving and December break—a time that flies even faster than the last eight weeks did.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Weekend Deadlines? Yeah—About That…

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This blog recently addressed a long-standing counselor beef—the student submits an application on Thursday, then gets an email on Friday saying the high school hasn’t sent the transcript. A highly respected enrollment manager suggested that maybe it was time to stop venting and contact the colleges directly—and respectfully—to relate the effect this was having on students. I put together a model letter, hoping that nine more of you would (ideally) find the time to craft and send something similar, or (more likely) copy my letter and send it to the colleges, too. Either way, it’s better than wishing.

Now that your first endeavor in diplomatic college reform is over, I’m hoping you’ll give it one more try, with an issue that hurts students just as much. I’ll cut right to the chase with the sample letter:

Dear Mary (again, use their name. Anything addressed to “Dear Director” gets tossed):

I’m writing to ask you to make a small change to your current application deadlines. While some of these dates have been used for years—November 1, January 1, and May 1—they often cause some unintended damage to the ability of students to respond on the basis of thoughtful advice, something that benefits no one.

The challenge with most of these dates is when they occur on a weekend. Last year, November 1, November 15, and May 1 all occurred on Sunday, where students were expected to submit documents or make decisions without access to college advice the day of the deadline—or, in this case, the day before as well. The mild bedlam that occurs in a high school on an application deadline day is hard to describe, but it can lead to some anxious students in our offices, and some very anxious parents on our phone lines.

I am a big advocate of students using the college application process to assume new levels of responsibility, and support the notion that there’s only so much help one can offer. At the same time, this is the first time many of them have had to take a complex task and complete the individual portions in a timely fashion. If we were talking turning in one paper, that would be one thing. There’s a little more than that to a college application.

This challenge could be met—and students’ minds would be set at ease—if all deadlines were set to a particular day—the first Tuesday in November (replacing November 1), the third Tuesday in November (replacing November 15), the second Tuesday in January (replacing January 1), the first Tuesday in May (replacing May 1). This is especially true for students who attend high schools where counselor caseloads are large, often involving students who need more college help. 

Deadlines that give students the chance they deserve to get the help they need will only increase the quality and quantity of applications. Just ask Georgia Tech, who made this move a few years back and saw increased numbers as a result.

Regarding January 1, high schools are typically closed for an entire week before this deadline, and many are closed days after. This really puts students at a huge disadvantage, and college admissions offices aren’t even open that day. A “second Tuesday” deadline gives students access to the support they need to submit a quality application with as little stress as possible.

I’d be happy to discuss this with you in greater detail, but I hope you can see how these changes could be a huge help, especially to the students who most need it. You can reach me at…


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Letters and Venting

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselors seem to do a lot of venting this time of year. It’s easy to understand; there’s only so much energy to devote to the noble task of finding new ways to say “Wonderful” without having at least a little of it spill over to, as much as we love our students, wishing we were past this. That’s when those little things that typically sit quietly in the corner of our view take on a life of their own, leading to social media posts that say “Why do the colleges do this?”, “Why don’t the colleges do that?”, and the many variations of “Why do students come with parents?”

Some of these heat-of-the-moment murmurings have true merit. That came to mind last week with three announcements that garnered lots of attention. Smith College announced it was joining the rare air of colleges that include no loans in their financial aid packages. Smith joined Earlham College in the headlines, as Earlham announced it would now be tuition free to all low-income Indiana students. Finally, Amherst College joined the newsmaker when it announced it would no longer consider legacy as part of an application.

The Amherst news made the biggest splash, in part because legacy admissions is seen as the current roadblock to access and equity at many colleges (a gentle reminder that every part of the college application process is biased by wealth and privilege). When a storied place like Amherst makes this change, it suggests maybe all the muckety-muck schools may be poised to do the same.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep perspective. Smith, Amherst, and Earlham are all great schools, but they are also private, small, and mighty expensive. The number of colleges that, by themselves, enroll more students than these three combined is staggering, it’s easy to see why most counselors—and certainly most students—would look at these announcements with a pronouncement of “Yeah? So?”

And there’s the problem with trying to change college admission—yes, the system is skewed, and far too many bright students are denied access to colleges that would do them a world of good. But how exactly do you fix that? By calling on individual institutions to be their own change agents, or by affecting public policy to move the entire profession in a different profession?

There are clearly limits to both. Colleges have the admissions policies they have because they work for that particular college. It takes a lot of humility and vision to say “Hmm, maybe this doesn’t need to be in the mix after all.” It also takes a lot of courage, since every change runs the risk of, well, change, including at the bottom line—and once the ledger is involved, it brings the attention of more than just school counselors or admissions folks.

On the other hand, the notion that one public policy change will fix all problems is simply wishful thinking. The moment the free college folks start talking about free food banks and child care for all, we’re not really talking about just free college, and are talking about lots of equity issues. That complicates things, and may make good the victim of perfect.

The visions we get during letter writing season of a more just and equitable process run the gambit from small to huge, and are vital to the progress of the profession. Grand or petite, they have their value—but they do take commitment, and they require action beyond a social media post or two. That’s the nature of change; it’s a great idea, but it’s also a project.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Transcript Frustration? Tell the Colleges

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s that time of year again. Students submit applications on Tuesday, and get an email from the college on Wednesday, saying “We don’t have your transcript.” Trouble is, the student—and more likely, the parent—reads it as “WE DON’T HAVE THE TRANSCRIPT!!! GOOD LUCK IN YOUR FUTURE ENDEAVORS.”

And do they call the college? Uh, no.

Counselors flock to social media and beg colleges to stop this process, all to no avail. Why? Because colleges are convinced the counselors are just blowing off steam.

One very thoughtful enrollment manager has suggested it would only take about ten school counselors to contact the colleges who engage in these counterproductive behaviors and ask them to stop. Of course, this entails counselors finding the time to write the letter (you can use the same one with different colleges—like the kids!), and the restraint to craft a tone that isn’t along the lines of “You do realize you’re ruining my life?”

You’re busy folks, so I’ll tell you what. Here’s an example of a letter addressing this issue. It would be better if you didn’t send this one to the colleges—unique submissions are always best—but if you’re hard pressed, I think they’ll understand. I’m going to send mine along, but you’ll need to tell me what colleges should get this—you know, the ones that practice this odious policy. Email me here, and I’ll get it away right away. But make sure you do your part and send your letter—you are in the field, and that makes it real.

Dear Bill (Hint: you lose them if you don’t address them by name):

I’m writing to ask you to modify part of your application process that I believe is causing a great deal of excess stress among students. This is the practice where, within 1-3 days of receiving the student’s application, you send them—and only them—an email saying their application is incomplete, and you need their transcript, letters, etc.—things sent by the student’s school.

I don’t know what it’s like in other schools, but at my school, nearly all the students request their materials to be sent only after they send in the application. Under the current process, this usually means they ask me to send their materials within a day or two of when they apply. Meanwhile, they get the email from you that tells them things are missing before the school has the chance to send the materials, and both the student and their parents panic.

We all know the application process has its own challenges, but I can’t overstate how much anxiety this causes students. Just when they think they’ve done everything they’ve needed to do, they get a message suggesting they haven’t, even though most of the time, they have. I know it’s important to get a complete file to you right away, but given the caseloads and other duties most counselors have, I really think the transcript system we have in place gets things out as quickly as possible—in most cases, within a week (NOTE: say this only as long as it’s true).

If you could set up your application review system to send the counselor an immediate reminder of what’s due, then only send one to the student if you’ve received nothing after ten days, that meets everyone’s needs in a clear, sane way.

I’d be happy to talk about you more about this. Here’s my contact information.

Please understand, I am writing in the best interest of my students, our mutual focus of attention.

Thank you for all you do,

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The College Essay

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

When completing a college application, students freak out the most at the college essay, or personal statement—and it’s easy to see why. Every other part of the application is basically a done deal. Your grades aren’t likely to change all that much; you aren’t going to join 10 activities now, and if you do, you just gave the colleges one more reason to say No; and your teachers think of you what they think of you, so don’t bother with the Lamborghini.

That leaves the essay, where you get to show them who you are, behind the lists, facts, and figures. I’ve already offered some strong essay advice on this in a blog that’s worth looking at again. Read that, and think about these additional comments as you get ready to write the Mother of All Stories:

It’s Not an Essay. Essays are for book reports, History papers, and What I Did Over Summer Vacation. This isn’t that—it’s your part of a conversation. Colleges really want you to visit them in person and spend a couple of hours with you, hearing your life’s story. They can’t do that; instead, they want you to write down part of that conversation and send it to them. As you write, stop and read what you’re writing out loud. Does it sound conversational? That’s the goal.

It’s Not a Speech. Students see this as a big deal, so they think it’s worthy of big-deal treatment—like they’re giving a speech, or accepting an award. This is a different kind of big deal—it’s the chance to tell some caring, interested adults about who you are and what matters to you. That’s not the kind of stuff that goes into speeches, but it really belongs here. So don’t worry if you don’t quote Aristotle, or think George Washington is the figure who inspired you most—once you get to the “why” part, you’ll see you’re out of gas with those ideas anyway. You’re not trying to inspire them; you’re trying to bring them closer to you as you say “Hey, let me tell you about this. I think you’re gonna like this.”

No Lists, Franz. This also isn’t the time to recycle your list of awards, the classes you took, or any kind of brag sheet. Those things are somewhere else, and while they’re important, they’re about breadth. Here, you want depth—a rich look at one, maybe two ideas you walk around with. Think of the friends, relatives, or celebrities you’d spend hours listening to. They’re not yelling; they’re drawing you closer to them with words and ideas that light your imagination and connect with you. Lists don’t do that, so out they stay.

Name Dropping? No. It is really more than OK if you had this truly amazing conversation or evening with Lin-Manuel Miranda that got you thinking about life differently, and write about it. Unless, of course, it was more like he was leaving the theater, he looked at you while he kept walking, and you snapped a picture. Otherwise, don’t think mentioning him gets you closer to any school (even Wesleyan), or including quotes from leading thinkers will wow anyone. If a small quote brings home the point of your story—and you’re writing a true story—use it. Otherwise, save the dog and pony show for another occasion.

A great college admissions officer once said the true test of a great “essay” is if they look up when they’re done reading it, and they are surprised, because you aren’t in the room. Stories transcend the time-space continuum. Write a college story.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Think Paying for College, Not FAFSA

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s October, and that means it’s time to file the FAFSA. The financial aid form that has to be filled out every year (keep that in mind), FAFSA tells students how much college money the federal government will provide, and what kind of aid it will be.

FAFSA is a little long, so it’s easy to understand why students heave a sigh of relief when they’re done and say “Thank goodness that’s over.” But conquering the FAFSA should be seen as the first step on a greater goal—developing a strategy to pay for college. It would be great if the federal government met everyone’s full need, but that’s not usually the case. So, we have to think bigger.

There’s no one approach to this, but give this a try:

Find out how much a college is going to cost you. Every college has a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on its website. Students put in basic financial information and get some idea what it’s going to cost them to go there. NPCs aren’t always completely accurate—some don’t include merit scholarships—but it’s still a good place to start.

Fill out (sigh) another form. Many colleges want more information about your finances, and the finances of your parents. They’ll often ask for a form called the CSS Profile, or their own institutional form. More forms may not sound like fun, and the CSS Profile has a fee (it can be waived), but the more they know about your situation, the more they can help you.

What about work study? Once the college has what they need, they’ll send you a financial aid offer with three parts: Grants, or money you don’t have to pay back; work study, or college money you earn while working at college; and loans. This is just an offer, and you can turn down parts of it—so you can take the grants, and say no to the loan. If you do this, don’t count on the college offering you more grants. Typically, you’ll have to fund whatever part of the offer you said no to.

Some students don’t like the idea of working while they’re in school, so one way to say no to work study is to earn more money over the summer. It’s important to keep your grades first as much as possible.

What about loans? Loans are typically seen as evil things, and it’s easy to see why. The average student who takes loans has $32,000 to pay back when they graduate—that’s a pretty nice car, or payment on a house.

But loans aren’t always bad.

Tight budgeting can make this possible for many students, while others have jobs that would allow them to pay the loan off quickly—like the petroleum engineer making $85,000 a year out of college. Talk to a money manager about this, or the financial aid office.

Private scholarships. and other websites show you other scholarships you can apply for, if you’re willing to write more essays and do the search. These are national scholarships, so they have a big audience, but someone has to earn them. Many local groups offer smaller scholarships as well, money that can add up if you received 3 or 4 of them. Ask your counselor.

Long term financial aid. Many colleges offer more scholarship opportunities for students the longer they’re in college, since the college really wants you to finish. These often take the form of teacher assistant grants, or free housing and tuition for dorm advisers. Ask the financial aid office about money opportunities for returning students.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Media is Not a College Applicant’s Best Friend

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s a pattern to the way the media, as a whole, covers college admissions. A typical year of coverage for most—that’s most—media outlets goes something like this:

Mid-September—The US News rankings come out, and everyone clamors over the top-ranked college. It’s typically the same top-ranked college from last year; if isn’t, one of the top five from last year climbed the pile, which is seen as a real shocker. Like we’d never heard of that college until now, and this suddenly makes it a better school.

Late September/Early October—Coverage turns to the upheaval of applying to college, with every article featuring seniors discussing the anxiety of applying to Brown, Yale, Smith, or one of the only 25 colleges mainstream media acknowledges as existing.

Late March—Admissions decisions are out, and in a paean to the principles of mathematics, every media article cites increased application numbers at The Big 25, and—wait for it—decreased admission rates at all of them as well. Not a single one of these articles points out that the former is the cause of the latter—but that involves math, so there we are.

What’s wrong with this picture?

College Lists The media spotlight on the Top 25 launches many parents into action, for all the wrong reasons. If these are the best colleges, why isn’t my child applying to them? This upends a wealth of work done by the student and (one hopes) their school counselor; it also upends the self-esteem of more than one student who knows these schools are bad fits. But arguing with Mom and Dad’s “let’s see what happens” is a tough hill to climb, so off they go to apply, much like Faramir’s efforts to recapture Osgiliath in Return of the King.

Unnecessary Panic More than a few seniors are indeed intimidated by the college application process in mid-September. That’s normal, since they’re just getting started. If I handed a student a plumber’s wrench on September 15 and said “show me how it works”, that too would be stressful. Now, if I came back in a week and asked, “How’s it going?”, they would have mastered the thing with ease, because they had time to understand what they were doing. Huh.

Those “Other” Schools The media myopia pays a big price on the other 2000 colleges that serve all kinds of students in personalized and appropriate ways, but now appear to be second rate. This keeps students from looking at some schools just right for them, because—well, you know…

To be fair, not all media outlets treat college admissions like a celebrity sighting, although Varsity Blues hasn’t helped. Eric Hoover writes moving human stories about the real challenges some students face in this process, stories so good they have led to admissions policy changes. Inside HigherEd isn’t a household name, but their coverage of the entire range of colleges is nothing short of inspiring.

Still, the best-selling papers run up the same limited coverage of college admissions every year, and their effect is palpably bad on the college plans and psyches of far too many students. A modest step in the right direction would be running an October story that returns to the freaked out students of September, revealing they’ve largely got the hang of things right now. Even better, interviews with students applying to a great school like Northern Michigan, where the application takes a whopping 25 minutes to complete and the admit rate is 65%—a reminder that the current media lens on college admissions is clear, but too tightly focused.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Friends Don’t Let Friends US News

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Let’s say you are a student—a high school junior or senior. You’re thinking about going to college—in fact, you’ve made the decision to go to college—and you’re trying to decide which ones to look into. You have two or three ideas about what you want to study, you’re pretty sure what part of the country you’re interested in, you realize you’re a better learner with semester classes, and you want to make sure the college has a strong vegetarian menu.

Why on earth are you looking at the US News rankings?

I honestly have no idea if any of the qualities you’re looking for are part of the method US News uses to calculate its rankings, but even if they were, you can’t really explore the “grade” US News gives each of those qualities. In other words, a highly-ranked college may be great for one of your majors, but not the other three. They may offer semester classes, but US News doesn’t tell you that. And the college may have a requirement that each student start the week downing a full rack of baby-back ribs, but this would be news to—well, US News.

I can tell you what little I know about the US News rankings. Average SAT and ACT scores are a big part of them, and this has never gone over well with school counselors for all kinds of reasons. But now, with so many—I would be willing to say most—of the ranked colleges going test optional, this information has very little value or relevance. Some colleges may, in practice, still have a preference for test scores, but you can’t really give that information a value without being very judgmental—and that’s not the purpose of this kind of rankings.

I also know that an even bigger part of the rankings includes the opinions university presidents have of other colleges. It’s always nice when other people in your profession admire your work, but how many other colleges do university presidents really know well? Maybe fifty? So after that, they’re basically guessing—or being influenced by the materials other colleges send them in order for college presidents to give their college a higher rank (yes, this happens).

On top of that, I just have to ask—how many college presidents do you know, and how many of them know about your college interests? Don’t worry—the answer from most students is, and should be, zero, and even if it isn’t, knowing a college president doesn’t really improve your chances of getting into a college, with the small exception of the one they run. So this really shouldn’t matter to you.

Many people are excited about the changes US News made to their method this year, changes which tried to make the rankings more inclusive. Those are welcome, but it still makes the top choice school a place that’s ridiculously hard to get into, and it still doesn’t tell you if it’s a good place for you.

Come to think of it, it’s hard to say just what the rankings tell you about you and your college interests. Building a college list requires the right information, and many online college search tools help you do just that with the answers that really matter to you. US News doesn’t have that information. Please be sure to tell your parents that when they show you the rankings, and if they don’t believe you, show them this. It could make an important difference.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Why College?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

For a long time, most students never really thought about why they were going to college—they either did, or they didn’t. This depended a lot on if you went to a high school where a lot of people went to college. If college was the thing to do, everyone found one, and went.

That’s changed a little, thanks to two things. The cost of college has soared in the last fifteen years, to the point where some parents who went to college can’t afford to send their own children without some kind of help. Since asking for financial help is something most people are bad at, many parents are taking the option of college off the table without much discussion.

The second reason is the COVID quarantine. Colleges all responded to the initial quarantine in pretty much the same way—by sending everyone home, and putting classes online. Since then, colleges have found all kinds of different approaches to keeping their students educated and safe, but most of them still don’t involve the social parts of college life. Saturday afternoons aren’t all about football, clubs and organizations are largely online activities, and something as basic as a trip to the campus library can require scheduling a week in advance.

If you put these two factors together, you can see why some students aren’t quite sure if college is what it used to be—and why some parents are wondering what exactly they’re paying for. If being a student means staying at home—or worse, being confined to your dorm room—to learn classes online, aren’t there less expensive options to do this? On the other hand, if you decide to pass on college, is the economy really going to give you a chance at getting a reasonable job with a high school diploma—and even if that job exists, how safe is it to go out there every day?

The long-term benefits of college are clear—workers with a four-year degree will likely earn an additional million dollars over their careers, according to some studies, and other studies suggest students who earn a degree are happier people, and more engaged in their lives. But all of these findings reflect a college experience that doesn’t exists for most people, in an economy that isn’t likely to be the same any time soon.

What’s the best way to handle this? First, look into the college option with all your heart and soul, as if COVID didn’t exist. Each college still has qualities that make it different and special, and learning about those is a big part of the college search. It’s also the only way you can start to figure out where you would feel at home, challenged, and supported—the Big Three of the college search.

Once you’ve done that, get a feel for what’s going on now with the colleges you love. How are classes meeting? Is living on campus even an option? Colleges are going to spend the next few years needing more students, so your chances of admission are, in general, better than ever. That means you can afford to ask more questions, to make sure the fit is right between you and the college. That includes cost, where colleges are eager to talk about how to make going there fit your budget.

Money and COVID have changed the way to look at college, but it’s still a pretty incredible experience. Before you decide to take a pass, make sure you know what you would be missing out on. What you find will likely surprise you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Improving College Access Now, in Your Building, for Free

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Fall may bring a new school year, but some of our work as counselors simply picks up where we left off. That’s the case in the world of college admission, where a June report indicated another drop in enrollment, highlighted by a 9.5% drop in community colleges. Given most students who don’t start college right after high school never enroll, this has long term implications for our workforce and our economy.

This drop in college numbers has led some counselors to wonder what can be done to turn this situation around—and they came up with an answer. One of the long-standing mysteries of college counseling is how it works—we talk to students about applying to college, but the actual completion of the application is left for the student, largely on their own, after school, or on weekends. If they get stuck with an item, they either wait to ask their counselor in school (a waiting period fraught with its own challenges), or they simply take their best guess.

Applying to college isn’t always hard, but it is important, and the challenges student face in making the right college choice deserve as much support as possible. That’s why these counselors worked this summer to answer a simple question: What if students could search for and apply to college and scholarships during the school day, as part of a class, with the help and support of a counselor, college adviser, or other college-aware adult?

The answer has taken form in a curriculum called Senior College Seminar (SCS), a program designed to give students college help when it will do them the most good—when help is available. The curriculum is 37 units, and begins with important ideas like Why College, and What is College. It then covers all aspects of the college search and application process, including building a list, writing essays, tracking extracurricular activities, and more. Paying for college takes up several lessons, and the final lessons discuss the transition to college, and avoiding summer melt.

The beauty of SCS lies in its flexibility. Knowing high schools have very different schedules, lessons can be taught in segments of 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 20 minutes-plus. Since each lesson is written independent of the others, this means they can be taught in any order, or skipped all together. Schools can create a separate SCS class, add it to an existing class (like a Careers class or study hall), build it into a required class (as a unit for, say the English 12 program), or run it as an after school activity. With its detailed resources and minimal tech requirements, SCS comes complete and ready to teach, while leaving educators free to add to each lesson as they see fit.

I would hesitate to share information about SCS with you, since I am its principal author (with the help of a stunning array of colleagues), but SCS is free to any educator. Our friends at SCOIR have been very supportive of SCS, and all you need do is follow this link to get your free copy—you don’t have to be a SCOIR user. It’s clear there’s an interest here, since the site had over 1300 downloads in the first week alone.

Counselor time is more valuable than ever, as our services as mental health professionals increase during this time of COVID. SCS allows counselors to meet those needs, while making sure college planning doesn’t get overlooked with an approach that is structured, individualized, and hands-on. There’s never been a greater need for that kind of college help.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

What College Admissions Did During Our Summer Vacation

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The summer no one could wait to start has come to an end all too soon. The result is a mix of starts, stops, and things staying the same that leave us in a place a little like last year, but not quite. Let’s review:

What hasn’t changed. Most colleges with a test-optional admissions policy last year have left that option open for students this year. State law requires Florida and Georgia state schools to use testing as an admissions criteria, and a handful of other schools have gone back to the testing requirement. But the cancellation of testing dates in August may leave policy makers little choice but to suspend those statutes, if only for this year.

Most college applications still invite the student to write about their COVID experience, and how it may have affected their academic, extracurricular, and personal lives. While most colleges leave this as an optional essay, wise students know “optional” translates into “if you really are interested in coming here, answer this question.” Students would also be wise, as they were last year, to make sure to write about something non-COVID in any other essay. The pandemic has been a game changer, for sure, but colleges are eager to hear about all parts of a student’s life. A mix of essay answers achieves that.

What has changed. High school seniors are likely to find more colleges welcoming them for campus visits. The online tours used last year proved to be wildly popular, and will still be used by most colleges as well. Since some colleges have already modified their plans to offer on campus classes, students wanting to do an in-person visit may want to book their visits early, as this option may disappear in a matter of weeks.

The same is true for the traditional high school visit, where colleges came to talk to students. More of those are in place as well, but many colleges found they could reach more students—particularly the highly underserved rural and urban students—with online meetings. Look for those to remain included in the mix.

What’s new. This year’s college applicants can submit their work knowing that most colleges with test optional policies have had a year to learn how to read an application that has no test scores. This makes it easier for colleges to tell students just what they’re looking for in a test-free application, something many couldn’t say last year. Be sure to ask your college rep about this, if they don’t share that information with you in a presentation.

Counselors report most of the changes in this year’s version of Common App are somewhat minor, with the exception of CA’s requirement that students must include their Social Security Number. While this raises concerns with privacy advocates, colleges feel the addition will serve as a vital tool to link the admissions application with the financial aid application, a step that becomes even more important during the pandemic.

A couple of new free tools have popped up for counselor use. Statistics maven Jon Boeckenstedt from Oregon State has created a new graph of what colleges offer a specific major, and how many degrees the college awarded in that major last year. The source is free, and is receiving rave reviews.

Another free resource is a curriculum for a class I wrote allowing seniors to search and apply for colleges and scholarships during the school day. There'll be more on this next week, but if you can’t wait, click here to access what 1350 counselors downloaded the first week it was available.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Just in Case

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

(For your seniors, and for your summer enjoyment—an excerpt from my new book, College is Yours 3. It’ll be out in the fall. See you then.)

Seniors, sometimes the life you build turns out to be the life you don’t want to live after all. If that happens to you, I offer you this story for safekeeping. I hope this lad’s adventures do not await you—but in the event a day come that leaves you wondering about your own capabilities, remember this.

My first client was a wreck. A bright enough boy, with good grades and test scores to boot—but no self-esteem. None. He clung to the sides of the hallways between classes, didn’t ask many questions about college, and ended up in the honors college of a public university he had no business going to. For as nice as it was for some, he had other things to do, and just didn’t know it.

Fall of the freshman year, disaster was right at his heels. Between the blasting stereos and the late night screaming—and this was in the honors dorm—he finally figured out this wasn’t the place for him. After two weeks, he packed his bags and headed for home. He managed to enroll in the fall semester of a local commuter college that started late, but he really longed for something different. He reapplied to a residential college where he thought things might be better. He knew some students who went there, the campus was pretty, and it was big enough for him to be anonymous, just like always.

He headed out for his third college on New Year’s Day, less than six months after he’d graduated from high school. After about three weeks, it was pretty clear this place wasn’t heaven either—and yet, something was different. The stereos weren’t as loud—it was Winter semester, after all—and a couple of professors talked to him like he was a human being, so he decided this was his place to make his stand. For once, he was going to steer his destiny, and not the other way around.

With that change in attitude, things worked out pretty well. He met up with some high school friends, who invited him to join their intramural basketball and softball teams (he was awful, but it didn’t matter—so were they). His understanding of classical music impressed a couple of girls enough to get past his low self-esteem and go out on a couple of dates—nothing intense, but still reassuring.

His academic interests led him to work as an assistant on a research project studying language development among American children—groundbreaking stuff at the time—and he gained the respect of his instructors, especially the writing profs, who told him he really had something if he wanted to work at it.

Twenty-four months after starting at his third college-- two and a half years after graduating from high school—he signed his first employment contract. Two days after that, he walked across the commencement stage, not once but twice, having earned enough credits for two separate degrees, making him the first in his family to graduate from college, and a working stiff to boot.

Three months after that, he turned 20.

I know you have worked hard to build the very best future you possibly can. In the event your current plan doesn’t work out, there will be another plan for another day. Listen closely, always be receptive to the possible, ask for help when you need it, take help when it is offered. Know that the choice to succeed is ultimately yours to make and yours alone, but also know you are never alone.