Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Letters and Venting

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselors seem to do a lot of venting this time of year. It’s easy to understand; there’s only so much energy to devote to the noble task of finding new ways to say “Wonderful” without having at least a little of it spill over to, as much as we love our students, wishing we were past this. That’s when those little things that typically sit quietly in the corner of our view take on a life of their own, leading to social media posts that say “Why do the colleges do this?”, “Why don’t the colleges do that?”, and the many variations of “Why do students come with parents?”

Some of these heat-of-the-moment murmurings have true merit. That came to mind last week with three announcements that garnered lots of attention. Smith College announced it was joining the rare air of colleges that include no loans in their financial aid packages. Smith joined Earlham College in the headlines, as Earlham announced it would now be tuition free to all low-income Indiana students. Finally, Amherst College joined the newsmaker when it announced it would no longer consider legacy as part of an application.

The Amherst news made the biggest splash, in part because legacy admissions is seen as the current roadblock to access and equity at many colleges (a gentle reminder that every part of the college application process is biased by wealth and privilege). When a storied place like Amherst makes this change, it suggests maybe all the muckety-muck schools may be poised to do the same.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep perspective. Smith, Amherst, and Earlham are all great schools, but they are also private, small, and mighty expensive. The number of colleges that, by themselves, enroll more students than these three combined is staggering, it’s easy to see why most counselors—and certainly most students—would look at these announcements with a pronouncement of “Yeah? So?”

And there’s the problem with trying to change college admission—yes, the system is skewed, and far too many bright students are denied access to colleges that would do them a world of good. But how exactly do you fix that? By calling on individual institutions to be their own change agents, or by affecting public policy to move the entire profession in a different profession?

There are clearly limits to both. Colleges have the admissions policies they have because they work for that particular college. It takes a lot of humility and vision to say “Hmm, maybe this doesn’t need to be in the mix after all.” It also takes a lot of courage, since every change runs the risk of, well, change, including at the bottom line—and once the ledger is involved, it brings the attention of more than just school counselors or admissions folks.

On the other hand, the notion that one public policy change will fix all problems is simply wishful thinking. The moment the free college folks start talking about free food banks and child care for all, we’re not really talking about just free college, and are talking about lots of equity issues. That complicates things, and may make good the victim of perfect.

The visions we get during letter writing season of a more just and equitable process run the gambit from small to huge, and are vital to the progress of the profession. Grand or petite, they have their value—but they do take commitment, and they require action beyond a social media post or two. That’s the nature of change; it’s a great idea, but it’s also a project.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Transcript Frustration? Tell the Colleges

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s that time of year again. Students submit applications on Tuesday, and get an email from the college on Wednesday, saying “We don’t have your transcript.” Trouble is, the student—and more likely, the parent—reads it as “WE DON’T HAVE THE TRANSCRIPT!!! GOOD LUCK IN YOUR FUTURE ENDEAVORS.”

And do they call the college? Uh, no.

Counselors flock to social media and beg colleges to stop this process, all to no avail. Why? Because colleges are convinced the counselors are just blowing off steam.

One very thoughtful enrollment manager has suggested it would only take about ten school counselors to contact the colleges who engage in these counterproductive behaviors and ask them to stop. Of course, this entails counselors finding the time to write the letter (you can use the same one with different colleges—like the kids!), and the restraint to craft a tone that isn’t along the lines of “You do realize you’re ruining my life?”

You’re busy folks, so I’ll tell you what. Here’s an example of a letter addressing this issue. It would be better if you didn’t send this one to the colleges—unique submissions are always best—but if you’re hard pressed, I think they’ll understand. I’m going to send mine along, but you’ll need to tell me what colleges should get this—you know, the ones that practice this odious policy. Email me here, and I’ll get it away right away. But make sure you do your part and send your letter—you are in the field, and that makes it real.

Dear Bill (Hint: you lose them if you don’t address them by name):

I’m writing to ask you to modify part of your application process that I believe is causing a great deal of excess stress among students. This is the practice where, within 1-3 days of receiving the student’s application, you send them—and only them—an email saying their application is incomplete, and you need their transcript, letters, etc.—things sent by the student’s school.

I don’t know what it’s like in other schools, but at my school, nearly all the students request their materials to be sent only after they send in the application. Under the current process, this usually means they ask me to send their materials within a day or two of when they apply. Meanwhile, they get the email from you that tells them things are missing before the school has the chance to send the materials, and both the student and their parents panic.

We all know the application process has its own challenges, but I can’t overstate how much anxiety this causes students. Just when they think they’ve done everything they’ve needed to do, they get a message suggesting they haven’t, even though most of the time, they have. I know it’s important to get a complete file to you right away, but given the caseloads and other duties most counselors have, I really think the transcript system we have in place gets things out as quickly as possible—in most cases, within a week (NOTE: say this only as long as it’s true).

If you could set up your application review system to send the counselor an immediate reminder of what’s due, then only send one to the student if you’ve received nothing after ten days, that meets everyone’s needs in a clear, sane way.

I’d be happy to talk about you more about this. Here’s my contact information.

Please understand, I am writing in the best interest of my students, our mutual focus of attention.

Thank you for all you do,

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The College Essay

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

When completing a college application, students freak out the most at the college essay, or personal statement—and it’s easy to see why. Every other part of the application is basically a done deal. Your grades aren’t likely to change all that much; you aren’t going to join 10 activities now, and if you do, you just gave the colleges one more reason to say No; and your teachers think of you what they think of you, so don’t bother with the Lamborghini.

That leaves the essay, where you get to show them who you are, behind the lists, facts, and figures. I’ve already offered some strong essay advice on this in a blog that’s worth looking at again. Read that, and think about these additional comments as you get ready to write the Mother of All Stories:

It’s Not an Essay. Essays are for book reports, History papers, and What I Did Over Summer Vacation. This isn’t that—it’s your part of a conversation. Colleges really want you to visit them in person and spend a couple of hours with you, hearing your life’s story. They can’t do that; instead, they want you to write down part of that conversation and send it to them. As you write, stop and read what you’re writing out loud. Does it sound conversational? That’s the goal.

It’s Not a Speech. Students see this as a big deal, so they think it’s worthy of big-deal treatment—like they’re giving a speech, or accepting an award. This is a different kind of big deal—it’s the chance to tell some caring, interested adults about who you are and what matters to you. That’s not the kind of stuff that goes into speeches, but it really belongs here. So don’t worry if you don’t quote Aristotle, or think George Washington is the figure who inspired you most—once you get to the “why” part, you’ll see you’re out of gas with those ideas anyway. You’re not trying to inspire them; you’re trying to bring them closer to you as you say “Hey, let me tell you about this. I think you’re gonna like this.”

No Lists, Franz. This also isn’t the time to recycle your list of awards, the classes you took, or any kind of brag sheet. Those things are somewhere else, and while they’re important, they’re about breadth. Here, you want depth—a rich look at one, maybe two ideas you walk around with. Think of the friends, relatives, or celebrities you’d spend hours listening to. They’re not yelling; they’re drawing you closer to them with words and ideas that light your imagination and connect with you. Lists don’t do that, so out they stay.

Name Dropping? No. It is really more than OK if you had this truly amazing conversation or evening with Lin-Manuel Miranda that got you thinking about life differently, and write about it. Unless, of course, it was more like he was leaving the theater, he looked at you while he kept walking, and you snapped a picture. Otherwise, don’t think mentioning him gets you closer to any school (even Wesleyan), or including quotes from leading thinkers will wow anyone. If a small quote brings home the point of your story—and you’re writing a true story—use it. Otherwise, save the dog and pony show for another occasion.

A great college admissions officer once said the true test of a great “essay” is if they look up when they’re done reading it, and they are surprised, because you aren’t in the room. Stories transcend the time-space continuum. Write a college story.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Think Paying for College, Not FAFSA

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s October, and that means it’s time to file the FAFSA. The financial aid form that has to be filled out every year (keep that in mind), FAFSA tells students how much college money the federal government will provide, and what kind of aid it will be.

FAFSA is a little long, so it’s easy to understand why students heave a sigh of relief when they’re done and say “Thank goodness that’s over.” But conquering the FAFSA should be seen as the first step on a greater goal—developing a strategy to pay for college. It would be great if the federal government met everyone’s full need, but that’s not usually the case. So, we have to think bigger.

There’s no one approach to this, but give this a try:

Find out how much a college is going to cost you. Every college has a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on its website. Students put in basic financial information and get some idea what it’s going to cost them to go there. NPCs aren’t always completely accurate—some don’t include merit scholarships—but it’s still a good place to start.

Fill out (sigh) another form. Many colleges want more information about your finances, and the finances of your parents. They’ll often ask for a form called the CSS Profile, or their own institutional form. More forms may not sound like fun, and the CSS Profile has a fee (it can be waived), but the more they know about your situation, the more they can help you.

What about work study? Once the college has what they need, they’ll send you a financial aid offer with three parts: Grants, or money you don’t have to pay back; work study, or college money you earn while working at college; and loans. This is just an offer, and you can turn down parts of it—so you can take the grants, and say no to the loan. If you do this, don’t count on the college offering you more grants. Typically, you’ll have to fund whatever part of the offer you said no to.

Some students don’t like the idea of working while they’re in school, so one way to say no to work study is to earn more money over the summer. It’s important to keep your grades first as much as possible.

What about loans? Loans are typically seen as evil things, and it’s easy to see why. The average student who takes loans has $32,000 to pay back when they graduate—that’s a pretty nice car, or payment on a house.

But loans aren’t always bad.

Tight budgeting can make this possible for many students, while others have jobs that would allow them to pay the loan off quickly—like the petroleum engineer making $85,000 a year out of college. Talk to a money manager about this, or the financial aid office.

Private scholarships. and other websites show you other scholarships you can apply for, if you’re willing to write more essays and do the search. These are national scholarships, so they have a big audience, but someone has to earn them. Many local groups offer smaller scholarships as well, money that can add up if you received 3 or 4 of them. Ask your counselor.

Long term financial aid. Many colleges offer more scholarship opportunities for students the longer they’re in college, since the college really wants you to finish. These often take the form of teacher assistant grants, or free housing and tuition for dorm advisers. Ask the financial aid office about money opportunities for returning students.