Wednesday, March 31, 2021

College Decisions Through the Eyes of a Child

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

She walked out of a bookstore, and right into the heart of a very large pro-Nazi rally. Perhaps not all that big of a deal, you’re thinking, which would make sense if this was 2021. But it was 1935 or so. In Germany. And she was 14.

The moment stayed with her for the rest of her life. With the help of her husband, they escaped to Switzerland, even though her parents were educators—one of many persecuted groups.

They made their way to the US, ending up in Detroit, a city then considered the Paris of the Midwest. They decided to start a school where the relationships were based on mutual respect, not power. This wouldn’t just apply to the relationships among adults. Classrooms weren’t about learning; they were about mutual discovery, and if the end of the day came where the students hadn’t taught the teachers a thing or two, well, that day could have gone better.

Annemarie Roeper went on to be the head, or principal, of Roeper City and Country School’s (now The Roeper School) pre K- 5 program until 1980. Once the school focused its work on gifted students, many visitors were surprised, even disappointed, to visit the school and see so many children—playing. 

To most, the label “gifted child” conjures up images of bespectacled four year-olds reciting state capitols aloud from memory. Annemarie saw giftedness as a state of mind, a way of seeing the world, keen on a sense of fairness, social justice, and empathy. That takes a development of self that needs expression, not suppression. Knowing the periodic table at age seven certainly is a gift, but so is the ability to understand other people and to try and make the world a better place. Which is more valuable is an issue of some conjecture to many; to Annemarie, it was an easy choice.

Another part of Annemarie’s view of children surprised a lot of people. Most early childhood educators see children, more or less, as fragile , undeveloped, needing protection from the world. Annemarie certainly believed children deserved the protections they needed, but she saw them as more complete, insightful, and sturdy than her educator peers. You’ve probably seen the GIFs out there talking about seeing the world through the eyes of a child. To Annemarie, that was the best, and only, way to see the world—deeply, and at face value.

I think about Annemarie this time of year for two reasons. She passed on in May just a few years ago, as my students were making final college decisions. I was working at Roeper, and remember being grateful for the opportunity to talk with high school seniors about choosing a college from a developmental point of view. This wasn’t about prestige, or brand envy, or paying homage to college rankings; it was about what was next in life for each student, and which college would be the best place to nurture that.

I wish every student would see college choice like that. The last of the highly selective colleges are sending out decisions, and far too many students have been nurtured by—well, someone—to see this as a combination beauty contest and Super Bowl. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room, even if a dream school says Yes, since it suggests the only reason college is worth doing is to earn the merit badge, not experience the lessons of college and let them change you.

College isn’t about state capitols, winners or losers. Annemarie Roeper knew that. It would be nice if everyone kept that in mind, especially now.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Juniors, College, and Your School Counselor

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Colleges have long said the key to a successful college search is to let the student drive the bus. Driving the college bus means taking care of all the passengers, and that includes someone whose role is pretty important—your school counselor.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

“Hang on. So I meet with my parents every week (more on that later), and I have to stay in touch with someone I’ve only met once when I changed my schedule?”

Exactly right—and that’s the problem. If you look at most college applications, there’s a section that has to be filled out by your school counselor. It doesn’t matter how well the counselor knows you. It doesn’t matter how many other students they work with. It doesn’t matter how many other things your counselor does besides help students get into college. The colleges want to hear from your counselor.

That means one of three things will happen with the space the counselor has to complete.  It stays blank; your counselor scribbles something in it that could apply to anyone; your counselor has so many helpful things to say about you they have to write “continued on attached document”.


Two questions here.  First, if you gave this form to your counselor today, what option would they choose?  Second, which option are you rooting for?


Thought so.

This isn’t hard. For the first two years of high school, see your counselor when you need to—when you need to change a schedule, discuss a personal issue, apply for a summer program—and, if they have time, talk about college. Like it or not, your counselor is way overworked— schedule changes, college and career plans, and personal guidance for 500 students keeps them busy—so the group counseling programs they run, and an occasional “hi” from you will go a long way in meeting both your needs. So go see them if you need them; if not, space is good.

In most cases, the time to ramp things up is now. If your school is like most, this is when you’ll schedule classes for senior year. By the end of January, you’ll want to type up a summary of your community service and extracurricular activities, along with any awards and recognitions you’ve received. Complete this with 1-2 paragraphs explaining why you want to go to college. This way, the notes or letter your counselor writes for the college will be more than just a list of what you’ve done; it will show them more of who you are. That makes a difference.

You’ll also want to have your senior schedule written up and finished. Your counselor may have scheduled this meeting to talk about your classes, but you don’t want to do that. Instead, put all these materials in a folder that has your name on the front. Hand it to your counselor when your meeting starts, then say:

“Mrs. Jones, I know you’re really busy, so I got a copy of my transcript from the office and planned my senior schedule already. I also want you to know I’m scheduled to take the SAT in April, and I’m doing some online college tours over spring break. I don’t know if I’ll see you before I apply for colleges this fall, so here’s a list of what I’ve been up to in high school, along with my thoughts about college. I’ve highlighted the activities that mean the most to me, and my cell number is at the top of the page, so you can contact me right away if you have any questions. Thanks for helping me with this. If I have any questions, what’s the best way to contact you?”

I promise you—if you do this, your counselor will look for reasons to see you from now on, and that’s a good thing.

Counselor on board? Drive on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

WPI, UC Merced, and (sigh) Varsity Blues

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Great news this week from a couple of colleges laying the foundation of furthering college access. The first salvo came from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which announced it is going test blind in the fall, the start of an eight-year trial of reviewing all applicants without looking at anyone’s test scores.

In taking this step, WPI is building on a data review of going test optional for some time, and their conclusions are compelling. The reasons for going test blind are nicely laid out in this interview with WPI admissions officer Andrew Palumbo, who pulls no punches.

WPI’s decision is a powerful statement, especially for those who think test optional/blind is only suited for liberal arts colleges. Until this week, a number of colleges were just expected to go permanently test optional. WPI has raised the stakes, and will likely lead to more test-blind decisions from other institutions over the summer.

Access efforts also got a big boost from UC Merced, which announced a new guaranteed enrollment program for students graduating from local high schools. Merced pulls in students from all over the state, but has assured local students there is plenty of room on campus for them as well, as long as they complete 15 college prep courses with grades higher than a C, and earn a GPA of 3.5 or higher.

This is a program worth watching. Guaranteed admission gives local students—most of whom are low-income and/or first generation students—one less college application barrier. Regional colleges across the nation are hurting for students, and the overall application rate for low-income students was already down last year. This approach may solve both problems at once.

While schools like WPI and UC Merced blaze the trail of innovation and opportunity, too much of the college admissions world still seems mired in either the past, or in America’s continued worshipping of the false gods that most consider the only 15 colleges in the United States worth attending. This was evidenced recently by media coverage of the new movie that takes yet another look at the Varsity Blues scandal of several years ago. The film debuted this week, and has also been the talk of many college admissions social media sites.

For a profession that speaks so urgently of the need for heightened access and opportunity in college, the obsession over Varsity Blues is an unhealthy impediment. As many have pointed out, the basic story line here is not new; some rich people do everything in their power to get what they want, whether that’s the best theater tickets, reservations at exclusive restaurants, or admission to what they consider the “best” college for their child. Still, this story involves three topics society can’t seem to get enough of—money, highly selective colleges, and Hollywood—so just when energies should be devoted to increasing access, society focuses on one more version of this tabloid tickler.

It was reassuring when NACAC President Todd Reinhardt posted a tweet this week gently reminding the world that 80 percent of all colleges in the United States admit more than half their applicants. Here’s hoping other profession leaders will step up to steer our collective interests to helping more students like those in the Merced Union High School District to UC Merced and beyond. There is truly no limit to the effect that would have on the mental health, self-esteem, and future plans of a host of underserved students who deserve our attention far more than the handful of minimum-security prison Varsity Blues alumni we just can’t let go of. It really is past time to move on.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Admissions Decisions: What’s Different With Yes (and No) This Year

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Seniors, I get it. Many of you will be hearing back about your college applications in the next couple of weeks, and you’d really like in this year of the unusual for their replies to be what you’re expecting, or hoping for. It would also be great if the colleges saying Yes offer you the financial aid you need, and that they tell you that right away.

That would be great, but it just isn’t likely. Many colleges didn’t use test scores in admissions decisions for the first time this year, and many of the high schools are using different grading scales because of online learning. Throw in changes to the way colleges had to recruit this year (no campus visits, no old school open houses), and you should be able to see why colleges have no clue who really wants to come to their college.

That’s going to show up in the admissions and aid decisions you’re waiting on, so let’s talk about what each possible answer could mean:

Admission The good news here is that yes still means yes—however they figured out who to admit has worked in your favor, and they want you on campus (or at least online) in the fall. Well done!

What’s different with Yes is the financial aid award. It’s pretty likely colleges are going to admit more students this year who really don’t want to attend that college—this happens when so many things change at once. That means more students will be saying No Thanks who also have financial aid packages, so their money ends up going to someone else.

It’s always a good idea to contact financial aid and review your package, but that’s even more true this year. One Dad called just to ask a question about part of his senior’s package, and they offered him an additional $10,000 before he could even ask his question. You want the next person that gets that bonus to be you. Make the call.

Deferral /Waitlist Colleges give you this decision when they want to admit you, but currently don’t have room. With more students turning offers of admission down this year, waitlists are expected to be bigger than ever, and used more than ever—even as late as August.

This is no time to be quiet. Unless the college tells you not to contact them, you want to let the college know, loud and clear, that you still want to go there, and that you will go there if you get the chance. Measuring your interest is the single thing that’s changed the most this year. Erase any doubts they have by telling them how you feel.

Not Offered Admission If the college has simply run out of room, or feels you can’t be successful there, they’re going to tell you that. Appealing this decision may be an option, but since so many colleges are expected to bulk up their waitlists, chances are No is going to remain No, especially this year. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, but it does mean you should have a strong Plan B.

It would be great if college decisions and aid packages would all be tied up by May 1, but that’s never really been in the cards this year. Be patient, be proactive, and finish your high school career with a bang. Your college picture may not be clear until August, but you won’t really care about that in September. Persist.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Fixing College Application Stress

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Early data for this application season suggests a decline in applications for most colleges that aren’t perpetually covered by the New York Times. This data is shored up by reports of declines in the number of financial aid forms being submitted—a sign that low income students are giving up on the idea of college.

That’s easy to understand. Most students rightfully see college as something more than just classes, and when quarantining takes away most of the non-classroom experiences, wondering what’s really left comes easy. What doesn’t come easy is an opportunity to talk about this, especially with students new to the college experience. Even though they have lots of questions about this new experience, they are hesitant to ask them, unless the timing is right.

So we need to make the timing right. One of the best ways I’ve seen this hurdle overcome occurred in a low-income high school with lots of first generation students. They were celebrating college with a College Awareness Week, basically a Spirit Week for college—you can get some ideas here for your own CAW.

As part of this celebration, the school counselor took over every section of Senior English for one entire period (and it’s important to take a class for a whole period—none of this twenty minutes stuff). She took each class to the computer lab, where every computer was showing the online application to the local community college.

“Today class” she announced with energy, “you’re going to apply to college. Follow the directions, and let me know what help you need.”

What followed was nothing short of amazing. Every student jumped into the application, which had no essays and didn’t require selection of a major or test scores. Twenty minutes later, most of the class had hit Submit. They had applied to college.

Of course, that was just the first half of the period, so you’re thinking, here’s where chaos ensues. Instead, two or three students raised their hands and said “I’m done with this application, but to be honest, I don’t really want to go to this college.”

“Oh?” said the counselor, feigning incredulity. “Do you know where you’d like to go?”

“Yes. I’d like to apply to Northeast Michigan State.”

“OK” said the counselor. “You know, I bet they have an application online—”

And with that, about half the class turned their attention back to their computers to search for the online application of another college. In about five minutes, about three-quarters of the class was starting on application two, and even if there wasn’t enough time to complete it, they were on a roll, and more likely to complete the application on their own time. The other quarter of the class harmlessly wandered around on the Internet, not a bad percentage, especially since everyone had already applied to one college.

The plusses here are easy to see. The mystery of the college application is exposed for what it is—a special version of a job application, replete with name, address, and other stuff they know by heart. Now that they’ve done one, students are more likely to do another—especially if it’s for a school they really like. When they run into something new—say, essays or letters of recommendation—they’re more likely to ask for help and follow through, now that they know what they’re doing.

There’s obviously more to managing college stress than this—there’s those lovely financial aid forms, for example—but this is a strong first step in making the process manageable, and real. Not bad for one English class.