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.

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