Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Helping Students Overcome College Loss

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Effective counseling is always about using the right words the right way, and that’s never more true when consoling students over college loss. After trying out a lot of different phrases I thought meant basically the same thing, it turns out some work better than others, at least for me.

“College is what you make of it.” A student was denied enough aid by her dream school, and had to go to a school that was a distant second choice. She ate the place up, taking the hardest classes, leading several clubs, hosting a university conference, and taking a study abroad by applying to another university as a guest student. She remembers college as a place where she got and she gave…

…but on May 1st, she was still pretty peeved. These words of encouragement are great for commencement, but a little too vague to be of much help on deposit day. The goal is to help them focus on specific good at a specific school, and this doesn’t quite do that.

Where You Go…” The title of the famous Frank Bruni book serves as a battle cry to remember there are more than 25 good colleges out there. It’s an important point, and it could help the student give themselves permission to take control of their learning, their future, and their feelings again. There’s also a small chance the student might respond to this “help” by saying, “Well, now that I’m stuck going to Smithers U, I sure hope where I go isn’t who I become!” If that’s the case, it’s time to give up this approach, and try something else.

“It doesn’t matter where you go to college.” I once thought this was a great phrase to help students look past the idea that only one college could make them happy. Now, I can’t help but think any student I helped develop a list of colleges that met their level of challenge, comfort, opportunity, and affordability is going to hear this and think “If it doesn’t matter where I go, why did I bother going through all of this?”

If the goal is to help the student get over the feeling they have no choice but to go to this one school, using this phrase could reinforce their angst, not alleviate it. Be careful.

“Remind me why you applied to this college. What did you see there that you liked?” To me, this is the best place to start any conversation over a student mourning over college decisions. If the student is in a position where they are choosing among several schools, this helps them focus on the good that awaits them at this particular option, and how they can build on that good.

If the student sees this as a forced and only choice—financial or otherwise-- a variation of this question that can achieve the same goal is “Remind me what you want out of college. What are you looking for?” This discussion can be followed up with a look at the college’s website and social media outlets to better understand the opportunities that await the student—sometimes including transfer options. Students don’t always make a thorough review of the school they have to attend. This approach can help change their mindset.

Finding the right words for each student is delicate and individualized work, where the goal is to help the student take charge of their outlook and commitment to college. Some phrases are more helpful than others in advancing this goal. Letting the student’s feelings guide your interaction is, as always, the key to success.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Still Can’t Decide? Try This

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

At this point in the college journey, many students are saying “I just wish someone would tell me what to do!!!”

I’m a counselor, so I’m happy to do that. As you make your way to making a college decision, consider these ideas:

  • Think college qualities, not college names. There are reasons you loved the colleges you applied to—the small class sizes, the classes they offered, the feel on campus, whatever. Write those qualities down, and see how each college measures up to them.
  • Review your research on each college—one way or another. In a perfect world, spring of the senior year is the perfect time to visit each campus again. If that’s just not an option, take another online tour (you’d be amazed what you see the second time).
  • Debrief at the end. Once you’re done with your list and your fact finding, talk with your parents about what you saw. What’s there that you like? What new questions do you have, and who can help answer those? Can you see yourself at this college?
  • Seek parental input. It’s great to show some independence, but your parents/guardians know you well. Invite their input. “Do you see me as being happy there?”
  • Compare the colleges you have, not the ones you wanted. Once you’ve reviewed the colleges, compare their strengths and weaknesses—but make sure you’re not thinking about the dream school that denied you. You may not find a perfect campus, but you’ll most likely find a best one. Focus on that as your goal, and you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t forget your heart. You might not be able to describe what makes a college right for you, but that’s OK. You’ve done a lot of research and thinking—at this point, you can trust your heart to lead you. Your head will remember why you felt this college was the right one once you get to campus in the fall.
  • Think about what makes sense now. When you applied to all of these places last fall, you likely said “If College X takes me, that’s where I’m going to go.” There’s no doubt you felt that way then—but was seven months ago, an your interests and way of looking at the world may have changed since then. How you felt then is a factor for sure, but how you feel now is more important—keep that in mind.
  • Check finances one last time. If you have a college and it’s a little out of reach, call the admission office and the financial aid office—that’s two separate calls—and tell them so. A sincere call shows them you’re interested; not calling gives them no impression at all—and may leave you short in the wallet for no reason at all.
  • Start the hunt again. If your choices really don’t thrill you, wait until May 5th or so. That’s when many college find they still have openings, and of course, they want to fill them. Getting financial aid might be challenge, but you never know until you ask. The National Association for College Admission Counseling keeps an online list of colleges that are looking, but don’t hesitate to call any college and ask about space.
  • Wait. Many colleges you’ve applied to or expressed interest in may continue to send you emails and calls, even after you make your choice. In some cases, they will offer you some kind of incentive- financial aid, better housing—to get you to change your mind. These contacts can last for a long time—in some cases, even once you start college. If any of these offers seem tempting, proceed with caution. Your first choice college may not be perfect, but you likely know that college better than the colleges calling after May 1st to get you to go there. If you think a change makes sense, do your homework make sure you know what you’re getting into, then notify your first college you aren’t coming after all. You likely won’t get your deposit back if there was one, but you can ask.

I’d decide for you, but I’m not the one going to college. You are—and that’s a good thing. You can do this.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Survivor, Law School Version—the Future for Undergraduate Admissions?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

School counselors deal with all kinds of changes in college admissions. This year alone, we’ve transitioned to online college visits, a surge in test optional admission colleges, and campus tours from the perspective of a camera. Lots of change, but manageable.

Then the news hit from Notre Dame’s law school that froze everyone in their tracks. The story is meticulously told by admissions experts Kyle McEntee and Sydney Montgomery, and is well worth the read, but here’s the summary:

A typical admissions acceptance says “Welcome. You’re in. Send us your deposit by May 1.”

Notre Dame’s law school acceptance said “Welcome. You’re in. Send us your deposit by April 15. Unless we get enough deposits sooner than that. Then, you’re out of luck.”

You didn’t read that incorrectly. The admissions office is telling you there’s a chance that, though you were admitted, there won’t be room for you if lots of admitted students deposit ahead of you.

This information came with its share of caveats—after all, this is law school—but the worst case scenario came true on April 6, when, through a series of e-mails over six hours, Notre Dame said spots were going, going, gone.

McEntee and Montgomery are kind enough to point out this was a banner year for law school applications, and that Notre Dame actually told everyone what they were doing. But their main point is clear. This practice was a huge disservice to those who can’t come up with a college deposit (of $600) on short notice, students who work and can’t access email in the middle of April 6, or scholarship students who are waiting to hear offers from other schools before depositing anywhere—and none of these groups are overrepresented in law school.

Even though this happened in law school, school counselors working with undergraduate admissions applicants were thrown, asking the very fair question, “If that can happen at law school, what keeps it from happening at the undergraduate level?”

In the long run, the answer to that question is, nothing. Many undergraduate programs are hurting for applicants this year, so they wouldn’t dream of creating a deposit scheme that has The Hunger Games written all over it. But some undergrad programs had record high applications this year, most of them schools that are well endowed, many not known for being overly accessible to low-income students and first generation students as it is. This approach to deposit roulette has the potential of making that bad situation worse—yet, there are doubtless college administrators out there looking at this approach to enrollment management, and thinking, “Hmmm…”

This is one more reason to wonder if the Department of Justice really did students any favors when they stuck their nose under the college admissions tent. Just two years ago, DOJ said many admissions practices required of members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) violated either the letter or spirit of antitrust law. These rulings did serious damage to the May 1 deadline most colleges had for depositing to one, and only one, college.

The feeling at the time of the DOJ rulings was a fear that recruiting and student poaching would last well into the summer. But very few observers could have predicted a deposit strategy that had a deadline before May 1, or an approach that makes Lord of the Flies look like ballroom dancing.

It’s hard to see how that’s helping students, if it makes it to the undergrad level, or how it’s helping law students now. Stay tuned.