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.


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Fine-Tuning Advice to Transfer Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Many students made some quick changes to their college plans last spring, and many of those changes were centered around a two-college strategy—start a local community college, transfer once COVID’s over. This approach saved time and money, and kept students from going stir crazy with nothing else to do.

Those students are starting to put their transfer plans in motion, and the early returns are anything but reassuring. Despite our best intentions as counselors, many students didn’t understand the ins and outs of transferring colleges, and now they have credits that don’t “count” towards anything. Did we tell them? Sure. Did they listen? Well…

COVID may appear to be on the wane, but there will be enough students in this year’s class employing a two-college strategy to make sure they know what they’re getting into. Publish this information early and often to all families.

Get a transfer guide Four-year colleges know about the two-college strategy, and the smart ones have planned for it with the development of transfer guides, a step-by-step explanation of what classes to take locally that will keep them on schedule for a degree. If your student is going to Bloom County Community College with the goal of transferring to State U for a Business degree, State U likely has a transfer guide with the exact course numbers for the student to take at BCCC. As long as the student follows that guide, the courses will count towards a degree, and they’ll stay on track.

Talk to the advisers at the college where you’re going to finish, not where you’re starting The counselors and advisers at community colleges are caring, helpful professionals—I was one for six years. Still, if State U is thinking about changing their transfer requirements, the advisers in the transfer office at State U are going to know this before anyone else does. That’s why students should touch base with the advisers at their destination college at least once every semester/quarter. This is especially true if State U doesn’t have a transfer guide for the degree the student is pursuing, where changes can occur quickly.

Not all credits transfer, and some don’t transfer to a degree This is the single most confusing point about college credits, so it’s important students get this. A student can take a community college class—say, Algebra II—that State U will accept for credit. That’s great, unless State U requires the student to pass College Algebra to earn the degree the student’s interested in. If that’s the case, the student is earning transfer credit that really has no purpose. They may need to take Algebra II to have the knowledge needed to pass College Algebra, but that would happen if the student was going to State U right away. Either way, the student ends up with elective credits—and there’s only so many of those they need in any given degree, so they want to keep a close eye on those.

Calling Tom Cruise If it sounds like the two-college strategy has a little more risk, it does. This is especially true for students who don’t know what they want to major in, or what their four-year college will be. If that’s the case, they should stick with the basics—English, History, Science—which are usually required for most four-year degrees. There’s no guarantee, but it’s their best bet.

Publish these tips and send them home often Too many students change to a two-college strategy in the summer, so make sure this advice is handy to all families, not just the ones who ask about it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Juniors, Applying to College? Be Ready

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

One of the oddest years in college admissions is just about over, with most students finding a great place for next fall, most colleges knowing what institutional flexibility is really all about, and most school counselors both exhausted, and wondering—“can it get any worse?”

The answer is Probably Not, But. Vaccination rates in most states are on track to find college campuses open for mostly business as usual in the fall. That’s good news for this year’s juniors, who will likely be in a better place to visit college campuses in person, meet with college reps who will actually come to their high school, and write an essay about COVID in past tense.

The worst may be over, but it doesn’t mean college applications are back to pre-COVID status. Here’s what juniors should be ready for as they get ready to build their futures:

Changing Test Policies Most colleges that were test-optional with admissions this year are staying test optional next year, which puts students in the driver’s seat when it comes to SAT and ACT tests. But some schools have already changed their policy for next year, some making tests even more optional, some going back to where things were. Make sure you know what the policy will be for next year at your colleges. Admissions websites should have the latest news. If they don’t, call the admissions office.

Admissions Policies Last year, many colleges weren’t sure just how they would read no-test college applications, so they couldn’t tell students how the process would go. A year’s worth of application reading should have solved that, so if you want to know how a college is going to read your application, and what matters most, ask them—and if they hem and haw too much, ask them again in a month.

Percentage of Non-Test Admits Many colleges were test optional this year, but more than a few of them admitted far more students who submitted test scores than students who didn’t. It’s great if a school is test optional, unless they only admitted 4 test optional students. It’s unlikely they will share their percentages with you unless you ask—so, ask.

Percentage of Early Admits Several colleges decided to admit a lot—and I mean, a lot—of students through Early Action and Early Decision programs, hoping that a large number of early admits would make a rocky year smoother. It’s likely the trend will continue next year, so students would be wise to consider applying Early Action if they can, since that only means you hear back sooner from the college. Early Decision is still a firm commitment to attend—more like getting married than dating—so proceed with caution with any ED application. And remember, it’s still easier to get admitted to Rolling Decision schools if you apply in September than in January—so don’t let the deadline fool you.

Apply for Aid Early This year’s seniors are still sewing up their financial arrangements, a trend that only has a little to do with COVID. This may continue next year, but it’s still, and always, wise to file for aid early—as in, October.

Write Essays About COVID and… Many colleges requiring essays this year asked students to write one about the effect of COVID on their lives, and one about another topic. Even if colleges don’t specify what to write on next year, consider a COVID/non-COVID essay approach if you have to write more than one essay. Yes, it was an historic year, and reflection is good—but so is anticipation. Write about both—and if they don’t require a COVID essay, don’t feel required to write one.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

How to Truly Be College Ready

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Graduate, here are some recommendations on how to spend part of your summer. College is about trying new things, and even if some of them may seem to have been around a while, they’re still new to you, and have something to show you. Give these a spin, and you’ll be more flexible than Gumby after a yoga class:

Movie You Must See Before You Go to College The Shawshank Redemption was overlooked when it was released the same year as Forrest Gump. Now it’s on demand. A story about forgiveness, second chances, and negotiating with the world, this isn’t an easy film to watch, but it talks about hope, determination, and always doing what’s right. It will give you the skills to manage Intro to Econ, eccentric roommates, and more.

Movie Clip You Must See Before you Go to College Call it cheesy, but the first scene in The Sound of Music is worth the two minutes and 22 seconds it will occupy in your life. All you see are the mountains of Austria, and all you hear is the magnificent voice of a young Julie Andrews. Success in college demands the ability to stop and appreciate that which is simple and beautiful. Watching this clip will also help you understand why your father (or grandfather’s) adolescence was complicated by having an intense crush on a nun.

Song You Must Listen to Before You Go To College The second movement of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp is the finest piece Mozart wrote, and its full potential was realized by Jean-Pierre Rampal and Lilly Laskine. Rampal started out as a pre-med major, but his heart had other designs, and he went on to become the premiere flutist of all time. This is a perfect piece to begin your discovery of “classical” music. Just remember, anyone who tells you all of Mozart’s music is the same has no idea what they’re talking about, and no idea how to listen. Keep that in mind.

Song Clip You Must Watch Before You Go to College It took less than two minutes for Ella Fitzgerald and the Manhattan Transfer to find their place in Grammy history with this rendition of How High the Moon. Your goal in college is to work this hard to make everything look this easy—and if you leave college without an appreciation for good jazz, your tuition was wasted.

Phrases You Must Add to Your Vocabulary “Absolutely.” Colleges are run by administrative assistants—veteran, organized professionals who have a way of doing things that works, and is older than Stonehenge. This method almost always works to your advantage, except at peak times every student needs help, and their system of order is on the brink of collapse. This is where you come in.

You: “I need to drop a class”.

Administrative Assistant: peering over glasses: “Have you seen your adviser?”

You: “Absolutely.”

You have restored some sense of order to their universe, and they will never, ever forget you. That’s good. Trust me.

Phrase You Must Delete From Your Vocabulary “No problem”. One of these assistants may thank you for doing something. The only way to get off their good side is to respond with anything other than “You’re Welcome.” Practice now.

Book You Must Read Before You Go to College How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Neither fiction nor a scholarly work, it’s like your Irish neighbor telling you the enhanced but true story of the vital role Irish monks played in restoring education in Europe in the time of Saint Patrick. You won’t read anything this easy or biased in college, but it’s the story of how modest people engaged in diligent efforts that change history will stay with you forever.