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.

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