Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Brag Colleges and More: The Year in Review

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t always write a summary column, but there were more than enough nuggets of newness this year to put together a list that makes you remember, consider, and prepare for next year.

Test optional Many colleges have decided it’s time to go back to requiring the SAT or ACT simply because—well, they can. It’s frustrating that the test-no-test debate is based on intuition, and not data—if a college has evidence it needs a test, fine with me; otherwise, forget it. MIT (yes) and Bates (no) seem to be the only ones leading in this category. Here’s hoping other colleges will follow suit.

Self-reporting grades Like test-optional policies, self-reporting transcripts were supposed to take the burden off the college-bound student, and, largely, neither one has. Without a common transcript form, students find themselves filling out several self-reporting transcripts, making college applications more time consuming. How about if every high school gives each student a PDF of their transcript in July, and colleges let students upload that?

Admit rates It still drives me crazy that there are two headlines for schools with record applications: “College X has record applications”, and, next week, “College X admits lowest percentage of students ever.” This is the same story, but we somehow get twice the panic out of it—like we really need that.

Highly Rejective Colleges This term was originated in rebellion to the use of the phrase Highly Selective Colleges, and it really caught on this year. From what I can tell, this phrase emphasizes that the number of students the college rejects is high, as opposed to the idea that the quality of the few students selected for admission is high.

I’m not fond of either phrase, but Highly Rejective Colleges suggests the college can actually do something about this--like admit more students, even though they don’t have room for them, or be less aggressive in recruiting students, which would risk them missing applicants who would do well at their colleges.

If there are objections to the students these colleges are admitting (not enough Pell students, too many legacies), folks should say that. If they’re jealous of the college’s recruiting success, say that. But don’t blame them because they’re good at what every college wants to be good at—recruiting students. In the old days, this would be the kind of disparaging remark that would be an ethics violation with NACAC. The rule may be gone, but the need for decorum is still with us. I like “brag” colleges (or, when speaking only with colleagues, “cocktail party” colleges). Try those.

Student Aid Report Colleges continue to produce their own financial aid reports to students, each with its own idiosyncrasies that makes comparing offers impossible.

How about this? Nearly every college gets federal funding for something. Uncle Sam needs to say “Look, keep your forms if you need them. All you have to do is put this sheet—our sheet—on top of yours. It explains grants, loans, and work study very succinctly, and gives families a common form to compare with other colleges, who have to use the same form. We give the summary, and you give the details.”

There’s more to discuss, but sweet cherries are at the market, announcing the start of summer. Most of Michigan is heading to the north end of the state, home of big trees, incredibly cold water, fudge, and other great things Henry Ford didn’t invent. No matter where you spend the summer, I hope it celebrates you, salutes you, and thanks you.

Heaven knows I do, every day.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Checklist for College-bound Juniors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

With another year mostly behind us, it’s time to take what we learned after a ride on this year’s college-go-round and pass it on to juniors.

Do let your interests, abilities, and needs guide your search for the colleges that are right for you.

Do notice that last sentence said “colleges”, not “college”.

Don’t think the rules for applying to college are the same as when your older sibling applied. Testing policies, admission rates, and application deadlines have changed in the last few years. Use the college websites to get the latest information.

Do take the SAT or ACT. Even if your list is all test-optional/no-test colleges, you may fall in love this fall with a college that requires them. Plus, a strong test score can improve your application status at a test-optional school. Just don’t send them until you see them.

Don’t forget online college tours are still around, and better than ever. The pandemic made just about every college invest more time and thought to their online tours, leading them to realize what they should have figured out a long time ago; students who can’t get to campus still deserve a great look at their school.

Do put together a list of colleges you’re interested in, if there are any right now. Throw them in a spreadsheet, along with a few notes on why the school interests you, and the application deadline. Don’t forget the why; that comes in handy later on. 6-8 colleges max is plenty; 10-12 if some of those are cocktail party colleges.

Don’t let cost hold you back from applying to a college. Put your list together based on the qualities of the college. The ones you think you can’t afford may offer great aid that makes it possible. Make sure your list is balanced with colleges where cost doesn’t matter as much, and you’ll be fine.

Do take a minute to review your activities list. In theory, you were supposed to start this list in ninth grade—but in theory, Rich Strike wasn’t supposed to win the Kentucky Derby (if you missed it, watch this—he was twelfth going into the last eighth of a mile).

You can recover. Get a notebook or spreadsheet, write down the activities you remember, then—and I’m serious here—ask your parents to look it over. They’ll remember many things you forgot, and they’ll be thrilled you asked them to do something for college besides pay for it.

Don’t leave school before asking two teachers if they can write you a good letter of recommendation. Generally, these are teachers of academic subjects from junior year, and you don’t need more than two. They can’t teach the same subject— I’d even be careful about getting letters from the Chemistry and Biology teachers—and asking them now gives them the summer to think about your letter, and even write it.

Don’t do anything related to college during the entire month of July, with the possible exception of visiting campuses. Many students want to dig in and start essays right after school’s out—and without exception, those essays sound dull and tired by September. Great essays come from a rested soul that knows itself. Take July to refresh and rediscover, and dig in come August.

Do ask for help. Teachers help with essays, counselors help with college searches and applications, and online sources from folks like Collegewise and Common Application offer free, solid advice, available anytime. You bring a unique self to the process; they bring the expertise needed to make the logistics look easy. Use them.

Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Make a Difference? You bet!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’ve written a couple of articles this year urging counselors to find ways to improve their work, without waiting for permission to do so. I love you all dearly, but we sometimes devote so much time talking about what’s wrong, we fail to take the next step and do something to fix it.

Since I make such a big deal about that, it’s only fair I send a shoutout to a counselor who has not just thought outside the box, but stepped outside of it as well—and that leads me to Lynda McGee. A long-time counselor who is highly respected by her colleagues, Lynda works at Downtown Magnets High School, a place that is home to many students who will be the first in their families to go to college. Creating a college-going atmosphere has its challenges, so when you’re able to create an atmosphere that has students looking far and wide, you’ve clearly done something.

But that wasn’t good enough for Lynda. Cocktail party colleges boast low admission rates, and because many first gen students take rejection hard, finding ways to support them when a college says no is especially important.

Enter the paper shredder. Based on an idea she borrowed from another counselor, Lynda now hosts a college rejection party. Admission is only by ticket; in this case, your ticket is a rejection letter from a college. Calling students up by college, those in attendance walk up, unfold their letter, and reduce it to a snowy pulp. The student with the most rejections gets a book voucher for college, and all participants get ice cream.

Why make such a big deal out of a no? Lynda tells us in this quote in the LA Times:

“This is a celebration of the fact that you took a risk,” McGee told the four dozen in attendance. “You went for something that you weren’t sure would even work out and in some cases it did not. But you know what? You’re all going to college somewhere.”

In other words, where you don’t go is not who you’ll be.

Magnet kids get into all kinds of great schools, with aid to boot, but Lynda knows too many first gen kids who will dwell on the nos they get more than the acceptances. That’s no way to finish senior year, or to head off to a college that’s perfect for them, so the shredding party is the tonic.

What exactly did it take to challenge this well-established notion that a no is the end of the world? A paper crown, a book voucher, a paper shredder—and a counselor who knows her job isn’t to be a college counselor, but to be a counselor who works with students in the college selection process. This isn’t the first time Lynda has challenged the status quo—you don’t get first gen kids to apply to the low admit schools without breaking some long-held social constructs—and she’s done this with a heart of gold, an iron will, and a vision that sees the big picture.

Which takes us back to you. Lynda made headlines with a rejection party; more important, she made her students stronger and better with a rejection party. Think about what you can do to improve the lives of your students, and you’ll find the gumption and resources to make it happen. And don’t be afraid to borrow from other counselors. Lynda did, and look what happened to her.

Better still—look what happened to her students.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

College Counseling in Under 500 Words

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Think you can’t help a student with little time? Hand them this, and watch what happens. (No, it isn’t perfect, but it’s a start).


What is college? Most people think of college as a four-year experience, but that’s not the case at all. Take a look at these college options; some may surprise you.


How do I choose my college path? Many students start their college part by focusing on what they want to do for a living, and your counselor can help you with career exploration. Take a look at this information. Other students will choose their path by completing a college search that includes factors like college major, location, size, and cost. Some of these searches are limited to 2- and 4-year colleges, to keep that in mind. One of those searches is here.


Be ready for college The single best for a successful time in college is to make the most out of your learning experiences in and out of the classroom. Use every assignment to sharpen your study skills, and use your time after school to learn more about yourself and the world around you. Take a peek.


Visit college campuses This is going to be your new home, so you need to make sure it feels right—and no two colleges are the same. Use this as your guide for making a successful visit.


Prepare for and take either the SAT or ACT Not all colleges require you to take a test as part of the admissions process, but many four-year colleges do. It’s wise to know what you’ll be tested on, so take a look at this advice.


Apply to college This is usually easier than you think, since most colleges don’t ask for essays or teacher letters of recommendation. That’s right—most students only need 20 minutes to apply to college. No matter what the application asks for, try this site for help:


Apply for financial aid You’ll most likely need your parents’ help to do this, and you sometimes have to complete more than one form, but it’s worth it.


Apply for scholarships Private scholarships can help pay for college, but keep in mind that lots of students are applying for them. Try this.


Choose your college Once you know where you’ve been accepted, and how much aid each college will offer, it’s time to choose the college that offers the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support. Take a look here.


Stay in touch with your college Once you tell the college you’re coming, they will be in touch over the summer with lots of information. Keep checking email and snail mail, or you may lose your spot in college. Take a peek.


Ask for help once you get to college College is a different place, with different rules and different resources all designed to help you. The key is to keep asking for help until you get it! Try this.


500 words, including these.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Still Can’t Decide? Try This

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

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. 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, and 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 colleges find they still have openings, and of course, they want to fill them. Getting financial aid might be a challenge, but you never know until you ask. The National Association for College Admission Counseling keeps an online list of college 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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Advice to Juniors on Sending Test Scores

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Juniors, welcome to the college application process. Many of you have been thinking about college, and some of you are just starting. Either way, the nuts and bolts of applying to college will soon be an important part of your life, and each part of the application has its own special needs. (Psst—need help with essays? Try this.)
That’s certainly true about sending test scores. For the longest time, the adults who work in college admissions—counselors and college admissions officers in particular—saw this as an easy idea. Make submission of test scores optional, and that will make for a much less stressful college application experience.
Then again, maybe not—and there are a good couple of reasons why:
  • If they haven’t already, there’s a good chance your counselor will offer this advice on sending test scores to test-optional schools: “If your scores are below the college’s average test score for admitted students, don’t send them. If they are higher, send them.”
As a rule, this isn’t a bad strategy, as long as you’re looking at an average that will help you make a good decision. If you’re applying to a college’s Engineering program, and all you have are averages for all admitted students, you may not be making the right choice. In cases like this, call the admissions office, or the Engineering school, and ask about average scores for admitted Engineering majors. There’s likely to be a big difference.
  •  A number of students believe test optional schools really prefer students who submit test scores. As proof of this, students point to the few colleges who actually break down their admit rates by category; in one case, a college took over 7 times as many students who submitted test scores over those that did not. This would suggest students would be wise to submit test scores, no matter what they are.
This strategy deserves a second look. Some would argue the only students who don’t submit scores are those students whose scores are low. I’m generally willing to go along with this idea, but if there’s a junior out there with a 1500 on the SAT who isn’t submitting them because they don’t think their future should be judged on one four-hour test, that’s the kid I’d take first if I were a college—and they’d get a full ride scholarship.
Building on this, the next assumption is students with low test scores also have low grades, so it doesn’t really matter if they submit test scores or not—either way, they wouldn’t get in.
This is where things fall apart. Many colleges first went test optional because they felt test scores didn’t really tell them anything they didn’t already know. Others—mostly school counselors—insisted some of the brightest students they know who would tear it up in college are just plain bad test takers. I can attest to this; I worked at a school for gifted kids, and out of a senior class of about 45, typically 3 or 4 didn’t test well. Since that represents up to 8 percent of the class, you can see where the “low scores means they can’t do the work” doesn’t hold up.
Juniors shouldn’t overinterpret the admit rates for non-test submitters. Your better bet is to look at the average GPA for admitted students; if your GPA is at or above that, and your scores aren’t great, apply anyway, and keep the scores out of it. The college may not admit many non-test takers, but the ones they do take are likely to fit your description.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

College Admissions and the French Horn

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I started my college education as a music major, but two things dissuaded me from pursuing this career path. First, five minutes at a college music program showed me I wasn’t in Kansas anymore—there were lots of folks better than me, and that gave me pause. Second, a summer camp job led me to consider education as a career, especially since I heard it came with a starting salary of — wait for it — $10,000, money most musicians never saw at that time.

My interest in music came to mind the other day when the latest round of admission data was posted. A record number of applications led to a record low in admit rates at many colleges; we’ll never know if that happened at some colleges, which decided this year not to release their admit rates at all. That’s really not much of a loss, since their admit rates last year were less than 5 percent. Once you get to that level, you already have the data you need to tell students admission to that college isn’t a sure thing.

As always, the low admit rates have led to discussions about just what colleges are looking for in a candidate. One counselor lamented that colleges with single digit admit rates aren’t admitting students; they’re admitting eighteen-year-olds who have demonstrated adult propensities.

That’s where my music background kicked in. In my music major days, symphonies had an interesting way of auditioning for open seats. The applicants would assemble backstage, where they were randomly assigned a number. Then, in order, each would walk to the center of the stage and play—except that the stage curtain was closed. Those in the audience listening to the audition couldn’t possibly know who was playing—so they had no idea if it was a friend, someone they’d played with before, what they looked like, or if they hopped on one foot while playing. All they were judged on was their ability to play.

I say this because many involved in college admissions are looking for a similar method to use when reviewing students. Admissions officers freely admit the current system is far from equitable, with every part of a college application offering an advantage to the wealthy. What’s been lacking from these “tear down the system” discussions are proposals to review applicants that are more equitable. If only it would be possible to put each applicant behind a metaphorical curtain of some kind, and ask them to do something that measured their ability to succeed in college, we’d just be all set.

The problem is that we don’t know what that is. Students with sterling high school records come home from college in less than a year, either lacking the emotional stamina to endure life outside the classroom, or unable to endure not being top banana at a college full of top bananas. Conversely, students whose high school careers were less than stellar end up in leadership positions because college makes sense to them in a way high school didn’t — that, or they simply grew up.

Some argue a new series of requirements are required in the admissions process that would even the admissions field, but as I’ve pointed out before, there is no skill out there that money can’t improve. If a college decides to let students in based on their cake-baking skills, summer culinary programs will pop up, and will only be attended by those who can afford them. It’s interesting to talk about finding the right curtain test for college admissions, but developing it is quite a different song.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

A New Group of College Counseling Videos Arrives. Are They Any Good?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s a new series of college advising tools in town. Crash Course, in collaboration with Arizona State University, is rolling out a series of YouTube videos on How to College. The introductory video promises the new series will discuss a wide array of college-related topics.

Crash Course is the brainchild of Hank and John Green, aka the Vlog Brothers, who have been sharing their insights online for quite a while with their followers, the Nerd Fighters. Subscribers to Crash Course number over 13 million, in part because of John’s well known teen books, most notably The Fault in Our Stars.

A quick review of any Hank and John video clearly shows these guys are smart, aware, and nerd savvy—but is this the sufficient mix needed to be effective aids in the transition to college? As the Crash Course college videos roll out, it will be crucial to evaluate their effectiveness the same way any college counseling tool is evaluated:

Beyond “Sit and Get” If a video is simply a presentation of facts and suggestions, the video is basically doing what most counselors do in classroom presentations—without the opportunity to solicit feedback. Are those opportunities available here? This is crucial.

A Curriculum, or Just Videos? It’s nice to have some ideas about college on video. It’s better when those ideas are structured as a larger whole. Add a workbook or a narrative, along with some activities, and you’re good to go. (Take a look here for an example.)

Doing Something with the Information
From journal keeping to online quizzes, many videos put the students in charge of their own learning by making them do something with what they’re learning, and providing feedback on that activity in the video. Counselors know talking a subject to death is a sure turnoff; here’s hoping Crash Course has avoided that trap.

Linking Students to Counselors Many students have no college counselor or adviser to talk to at school, but many do—they just don’t connect with them. Part of this may be due to large student caseloads, but I can’t think of a counselor who isn’t going to help a student who knocks on the counselor’s door with a question. Crash Course could go a long way to connecting counselors with students if they urge students to do so in every single video (perhaps as a tag line—and devoting a video to this topic), making a crucial connection for the personalization of the advice they’re offering.

Creating a Community of Learners College-bound students benefit from talking about their understanding, and their feelings, about the college process with others. Crash Course can meet this need two ways, starting with a chat room for student subscribers. Students talking to each other about the college process always risks a sharing of misinformation, but the affective value of these rooms generally surpasses the damage that misinformation can provide, since it helps students know they aren’t alone.

The second source of processing involves counselors. If a student truly has no school-based assistance with college choice, Crash Course can meet that need by partnering with established groups of counselors and running chat rooms once or twice a month. This is the kind of work state or regional affiliates of the National Association for College Admission Counseling could take on, or independent college counselors who are members of either the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). Working with one or more of these groups will build on the content of the Crash Course videos in meaningful and personalized ways.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022


by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A letter indicating you’ve been waitlisted usually comes all by itself. The letter indicates the college is still considering your application, but must hear from the admitted students before they may—again, that’s may—offer you admission.

This is tricky for two reasons. First, it’s tough to wait longer; you were ready to hear yes or no, and instead, you got “give us a little more time”. Many students just can’t live with now knowing anymore. If that’s you, thank the college, say you’re not interested, and move on.
Second, waitlist rules vary by college—so…
  • Re-read the letter from the college to see if it gives you any information about the waitlist—how the order to making offers is determined, when it is determined, and what you need to do to stay on it. If all the admitted soccer players turn down College X and College Y, College X may only go to the waitlist for soccer players, while College Y may start offering admission to the students at the top of a pre-determined list, whether they play soccer or not. This makes for a pretty bad soccer team, but this does still happen at a few schools. Find out if you’re dealing with an X or a Y.
  • If this information isn’t in the letter, call the college and ask. They may give you some suggestions on what to do; use them, since they are basically telling you how to improve your chances of getting off the list.
Next, it’s decision time. Given the options you have, do you still feel you want to wait and hear back from this college? As you think about this, let these two questions be your guide:
  1. If a slot doesn’t open up at this college, what other college will I choose to go to?
  2. If a slot does open up at this college, what college will I select?
If the answer to both questions is the same, you don’t need the waitlist. If your decision depends in part on financial aid, remember that the amount of aid that’s available to students who come off the waitlist is usually limited. Colleges typically offer all their aid to students who are admitted; as a result, the aid offered to students taken off the waitlist is limited to the amount of aid turned down by admitted students. That’s no reason to give up—it’s just something to consider, or ask about.

If you decide to go for it, don’t be shy. “I want you to know I am still interested in attending College X this fall” sends a clear statement on where you stand; if this is your first choice college, make sure you say that, as long as you mean it. Grades in current classes, additional awards and maybe another letter of recommendation could make a difference, as long as the college lets you submit them. Send in one complete package of new material as soon as it’s ready, then call or e-mail about two weeks after that to let them know of your continued interest.

Most colleges won’t review their waitlist until after May 1, which is when most colleges want students to send in a deposit, or at least tell then they are coming. If you’re still waiting to hear from a waitlisted college on April 30, put in the required deposit at another school, so you have somewhere to go in the fall. If the college of your dreams pulls you off eh waitlist later on, cancel your admission in writing at the other school—and know you probably won’t get your deposit back.

If you want to go for it, give it your all—but remember, you already have a life; now, you’re just looking for a college.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

College Without Beer Pong, and Other Issues When a College Says No

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’m really behind when it comes to posting my When a College Says No article. Two dozen stories have floated past my social media accounts, important reminders that we make sure students know their life isn’t in a yes from a top college. Magic Johnson’s two years at Michigan State were game changers, and MSU didn’t make the US News rankings that year. (OK—there was no US News rankings then, but you get the idea.)

Since the well-being of the student is being nicely covered by others, here are two other tidbits that could come in handy when you talk to your students and your parents about plans that have become unraveled. Many of you will be talking with people who are disappointed about what Harvard and Columbia told them, but with a little creativity, these tips can even be of help to them:

The House Jamie (not his real name) closed the door to his pickup. He’d graduated from high school two years ago, and the ensuing fifteen months had been nothing but false starts. Convinced college wasn’t for him, he enlisted in the armed forces, only to discover that really wasn’t going to make him all that he could be.

He came home, waited a while, and decided maybe college was worth a shot after all. He enrolled in a local community college, taking three classes because he was told that would be a more manageable load, and off he went.

By October, it was clear he was right in the first place. He stopped by the registrar’s office and withdrew from all his classes.

The empty page that seemed to be his future filled his thought, until something caught his eye. He was taking the same route home, but for some reason, he’d never seen the building site for a new home that filled his attention now. “I wonder how you get to do that kind of work?” he thought, as he pulled his pickup onto the site, deciding his question deserved a direct answer.

Jamie stopped the first person he saw with a hard hat, and asked his question. After a thoughtful pause, the hard hat—who happened to own the construction company-- said “Ya know, anyone with the guts to drive onto a job site and ask that question deserves a shot. Go buy some good boots, and we’ll see you at 7 tomorrow morning.”

Jamie didn’t know it, but he was entering a world of work that was in high demand, and paid a starting hourly wage of $20, that quickly went as high as $41 once it was clear you could do something with a hammer. True, he’d still be living at home; but with no student loans to pay, and with the sandwich shop pay only $12 per hour, in a few years he could have enough money for a new truck, a place of his own, and money to try college again if he wanted to. Keep in mind—Jamie was 19.

Life and College The second thing to remember is a factoid—the average age of most community college students is about 27. This means they graduated high school for a “good paying” job that, three kids and ten years later, isn’t so good anymore. Yes, college at 27 is a different world—one’s penchant for beer pong is typically long gone—but it’s still another try at the larger goal.

Keep these in mind. They may be more helpful than you think.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Three Phrases to Keep in Mind as Decisions Come Out

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

More than a few colleges have already sent their admissions decisions out, in a year that’s starting earlier than ever. Some feel this is a sign that the old NACAC dates—notify by April 1, decide by May 1—really are on their way out, but either way, the decisions are coming, and we need to be as ready for them as the students are.

With that in mind, I’d like to revisit three chestnuts we all seem to rely on—and sometimes, over-rely on—this time of year. These phrases are always delivered with the best of intentions, but without some critical caveats, they don’t always serve their intended purpose, which is support of the student. Ready to refresh?

“You’ll be happy wherever you go.” This oldie but goodie tries to ease the pain of a student who didn’t get into their first choice college, and was given a significant boost in the thought world of college admissions with the 2016 release of Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be. The idea here is simple; there’s more than one school where you will be able to tear up the curriculum and make the most of everything the college has to offer, as long as you are willing to work hard, take charge of your own future, and not wait for an invitation to participate.

I completely agree with this sentiment, and just wrote about a student who was in this exact position. I also know of several students where the opposite happened—they were indeed admitted to their first choice college, and chose to spend their four years either at tailgates or in their dorm rooms, deciding that a diploma with the name of a prestigious school was all they wanted out of the experience.

But these cases are something very different from picking a college at random and telling the student they’ll be happy there. Second- and third- choices—and I still believe it’s OK to call them that—are still choices that were made as a result of research and reflection. There are reasons why they ended up on the “Yes” list, even if they didn’t end up on the “YES!!!” list. Saying the student’s choice doesn’t really matter shows a lack of respect for the student, and for the effort they’ve put in to building their future. “You’ve worked hard to create great options for yourself” conveys a sentiment that the student has, and is still, driving the college bus, and it’s going to take them places, without patronizing them. Give that a try.

“We’ll see what the waitlist brings.” With rare exception, waitlists no longer serve the lone purpose of saying to a student “We’ll love to have you once we have room”. They now serve every purpose from a consolation prize (“Hey, you made the waitlist”) to one more piece of data that, in the eyes of some, increases the college’s prestige. Sure, colleges take students from waitlists, and the number varies greatly from year to year, but do your homework before you get a student’s hopes up. A waitlist of 2,000 is more likely a lottery than an opportunity. Be sure to frame the context.

“There’s always transfer.” Actually, no, there isn’t. As a rule, the lower the admit rate, the more likely it’s harder to get in as a transfer student—if they take transfers at all. Be sure to do your homework before throwing this option out there. Going as a guest student may be an option, but transfer isn’t always the gimme you think it is.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Need an Independent Counselor? Start Here

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This father called me from out of nowhere, getting my name from one of my clients at school. The father was desperate—could I please meet with him and his son to talk about his college plans? Knowing nothing about the family, the student, or the college goals, I said yes.

We met around their kitchen table at 7 PM, and, like many of my clients, the first thing the father needed to do was vent. That out of the way, I suggested we answer his questions first.

He was only too happy to do so. “OK” he said, taking a deep breath, “How do we register for the ACT?”

That best sums up the tenor of all of the questions the father had, while the son sat quietly. Once we reached the end of the father’s questions, he sighed again, his shoulders dropped, and he said “Great. Thank you.”

I checked my watch. It was 7:15, and the student hadn’t said a word.

I moved rather easily into the junior interview mode I used at my local school and the student came to life. By the time we were finished, we’d covered schedule, grades, life interests, test scores, letters of recommendation, and a timeline for applications. With all that behind us, I felt like I could take the father’s check, and still sleep at night.

Everyone has different needs, and they often need to be met in different ways. If I’m not the person who can meet that need, it’s more than OK if families reach out to someone else who can. That doesn’t make me a bad counselor; it means someone else is better suited to help this student.

With one important caveat—that person has to know what they’re doing. If someone claims to be an independent college counselor, and their training solely consists of getting their own child into college, that’s not a professional relationship—that’s a conversation over pizza. To me, this is the main reason so many school counselors don’t trust independent counselors—there are too many whose expertise don’t line up with the student’s needs.

If you (or a client) are looking for some kind of reliable independent help, there are two ways to find it. Look for independent counselors who have earned the Certified Educational Planner (CEP) credential from the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners. Earning this credential requires the counselor to complete a rigorous exam of their knowledge of colleges, college counseling, and the college admission process. The counselor has to visit at least 30 college campuses before taking the exam, and it requires the counselor to visit college campuses to maintain their CEP status once they’ve earned it.

The CEP exam is no walk in the park—it includes two case studies the counselor has never seen before, where the candidate is asked to develop a list of potential colleges, and why they work, in about an hour. It may not be a perfect system, but it sure beats leaving a student’s future to chance, or to someone whose kid really got into college because they were from South Dakota, not because of anything the counselor did.

The other way is to ask around and see who else has used an independent counselor—but be careful. Meeting one student’s needs doesn’t make this counselor a perfect fit for all students. Ask lots of questions about their background, and especially how they go about getting to know a student. If they’re starting from ground zero, they’re going to need a lot of background. Ask how they do that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Michael Sorrell and Our Ability to Innovate

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

One of the stars of higher education is at it again. Michael J. Sorrell., president of Paul Quinn College in Texas, announced last week that 400 students were admitted to the college—along with two other family members. This means that these 3.0, Pell-eligible students who live locally will have the chance to bring their support team with them to college. Part of the motivation behind the program is giving up on the notion that, according to Sorrell, “engag(ing) in a hero narrative about one person (will) somehow rescu(e) everyone”.

This kind of innovation inspires counselors and admissions professionals across the globe. Just as counselors are about to begin a new round of scheduling for next year, and begin meeting with juniors to discuss college plans, along comes a real-life example of doing things differently. To those professionals caught in a mindset of “Here’s what we do, and there’s nothing we can do about it”, along comes a new approach that isn’t just an idea—it is an idea with wings.

And that leads us to an important question. Long before he was superstar Michael Sorrell, we had lawyer Michael Sorrell, a talented team member of many organizations, who could have gone along with the system he was part of, or presented just enough change to keep his bosses off his heels. But the goal or the vision was never sustaining a system that helped kids, if a different system could help more kids, or help kids more. There were doubtless days of business as usual before he attained positions of leadership, but those days weren’t the focus. Education was; students were; society was. As a result, 400 kids are now starting college with a built-in, on-campus support team. I wish I could say I did that; this is just one innovation of many for President Sorrell.

So here’s the question. What are we doing to emulate Michael Sorrell in our own world? Sure, it’s important to be inspired by him, to see what he’s done as a leader and let it energize us through another round of meetings or transcript reviews. But it can do more, and it should do more. It should lead you to ask three questions:

What needs to be changed that I can change? This new program is a boundary-stretcher to be sure, but it was built by asking a key question—what needs to be different, and can be different? Every one of us has control over some aspect of our work, and we can make it better. It’s important to remember that; it’s more important to act on it.

How do I go about changing it? This is where many good ideas get lost. The mechanics seem too complicated, the processes too overwhelming. Keeping the goal in mind, and organizing a plan of action, brings more change than you can imagine. Get it in writing.

What’s the timeline and budget? Ideas also get lost when we share them with others without a realistic eye on the resources the institution will have to contribute. Planning these out ahead of time gives you plenty of time to rework the plan, anticipate objections, and Make. Real. Change. This may require working with others, but isn’t a little profession collaboration (and humility) worth the progress for the kids?

It's easy to see Michael Sorrell as inspired. But his example shows something else—he can be inspiring, too. What change will you make, thanks to him?

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Umbrella, Pager, and Heart in Hand

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I was part of a conference planning committee, and they asked me to put together a session on the importance of diversity in higher education.

It’s OK—you can take a look at my picture again and wonder just what made anyone think I knew something about diversity 20 years ago. The request surprised me, but I had a surprise for them in return—and best of all, he was on speed dial.

He showed up about ten minutes late, but given that he was press secretary for the Detroit mayor, I was grateful he was able to show up at all, since the only advance planning we’d made was one 40 second phone call. He had an umbrella in one hand, and a pager was popping off his hip every 30 seconds. Right then and there, I was humbly grateful—he showed up, even though he and I weren’t the closest of high school friends, during a time when squeezing stuff like this on the agenda wasn’t really supposed to be a priority. But we went to a high school that nurtured instinct, and he knew what an event like this could do, and since you don’t get to move mountains every day, he was here.

I introduced him, making sure to highlight his success as an all-state basketball player and one of the best non-DI college players of his time. I talked about how he came to our private high school in the Detroit suburbs as a Detroit resident, who was promised a better education in exchange for making us a better basketball school. That handful of scholarships brought our high school enrollment to maybe 10 percent black. Maybe.

I meant to ask him if he knew that before he agreed to leave Detroit every day for one of the richest suburbs in America, but once I gave him the mike, it was clear I should, as every good counselor does, shut up and let the client talk. He talked about how proud his family was to have a child honored like this, going to one of the best high schools in the country on a full scholarship, and how his athletic accomplishments were legendary. He was pretty tall to begin with, but when he told this story in that room full of counselors, his 6-5 frame easily expanded to 6-10. He couldn’t wait to start school.

Until he got there, and he couldn’t wait to go home. He’d put on his best clothes—not the stuff he had to wear to church, but the green open collared shirt and matching pants and cap that, in his words, emulated Curtis Mayfield of Superfly. He walked up the stairs to the front door, ready to have the entire school impressed, and walked into the chaos that Roeper School is known for to this day. Brilliant kids—and I mean, truly brilliant kids—going to a school that believed you helped the students understand the big picture of learning, then got out of their way, coaching more than teaching, seeing learning as a mutual journey of exploration. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, the guy—at least, he thought it was a guy—with the mop head of hair and ripped jeans that welcomed him with a “Hey Man” was enough to remind him; he wasn’t in Detroit anymore.

I asked him for about 35 minutes of time, and for the next hour, the pager popped and he flowed—what it was like to live in two worlds at the same time, and how it shaped his view of the world. One particular conversation he mentioned was from a party he went to in his hometown neighborhood, where everyone else was celebrating the local high school’s qualification for the state basketball championship. He was supposed to be on that team, but he took the scholarship instead, where his team got to the district championship, and that was it. Worst of all, when that announcement was made at his new school’s weekly assembly, about 6 people clapped. Half-heartedly.

After about an hour, his pager had been jumping on and off, and he had to stop a couple of times to compose himself. I kind of figured he wouldn’t have time to write a speech for this, and I was right. This had been an hour of speaking from the heart, and when his heart was too full, he had to let it even itself out, all in front of a room full of counselors who knew what they were witnessing; catharsis, humanity, honesty, and power. We asked for questions, but the participants were smart enough to realize that would only spoil the effect. That was why the only question he had to answer was “My high school needs to hear you. When can you come?”

He hurried away because the pager finally showed a number that had to be answered. For about 15 years after that, we saw each other at basketball games (where he coached and sang the national anthem), talked to students of color about what college and life meant to him, and the philosophical space he thought our high school should move to. His advocacy for movement, for doing things, for helping those society had too long ignored, inspired his work as journalist, coach, teacher, civil rights advocate, and citizen of the world.

Cliff Russell left this world far too soon, before he got to make all those speeches, before the larger world could see what I had witnessed every time I spent time with him. This was a mighty man with a heart of gold, who treated the world fairly, and worked to show the world how it could be more fair. His story kept a room full of counselors at full attention for a Friday afternoon; his legacy left Detroit poised to be a better place. We close Black History Month promising, as we always do, to find new ways to work toward that goal. I close this day, as I always do, grateful for the role model I had who changed the world of counseling for an afternoon and forever— umbrella, pager, and heart in hand.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Parent Time, Post-Applications

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It would seem something has happened since you first carved time out of your week to talk with your parents about college. To begin with, they’ve learned to give you space; most parents think it’s crazy to limit themselves to 20 minutes or so a week to talk about college, especially during the weeks in the fall when you were working on applications and telling them absolutely nothing beyond their allotted time. They’ve learned to trust you more, which will come in handy over time—like when you go to college, when you buy your first couch, and name your first child after a Game of Thrones character.

But something else has happened. Because you met once each week when no one was rushing to get you anywhere, your parents had a chance to see what you’ve made of yourself since the last time things weren’t so crazy—which for most families is when you were about four. I have to tell you—they really liked what they saw. And they’d like to keep seeing it every week for 20 minutes.

This probably makes no sense to you, but when you came home and said “Last Winter exam! Yes!”, they said, “Last Winter exam? No!!” They told you they cried when you went to this year’s Sadie Hawkins Dance because they thought you looked nice, right? Nope—last one. And remember how they once dreaded having you home from school for any reason? Not so much now.

Through the 20-minute meetings, your parents realize they have a child who is smart, knows who they are, and understands a little about how the world works—and that child is moving out of the house in six months. Giving you up then is something they’ll figure out; giving you up now is something they would just as soon not do.

Of course, you don’t have to talk about college—now is not the time to sit in the living room, holding hands and listening to the cuckoo clock chirp away until the college decisions arrive. Order some food in, catch up on a movie, work a jigsaw puzzle—do something, and do anything together.

Love is as much a verb as it is a noun, and showing them what you feel at a time of uncertainty (for you and them) can make a memory that will last far longer than whatever East Coast U has to say in a couple of weeks.

No college decision will change the way they feel about you, just like it shouldn’t change the way you feel about yourself. Twenty weekly minutes of meeting time that isn’t “required” will bring that home as nothing else can, and build a stronger base for whatever is waiting after Decision Day.

Give it some thought as you work on your next scholarship essay. They’re sure thinking about it—they’ve told me as much.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Why You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It just figures that National School Counseling Week starts during Super Bowl preparations. The country gorges on guacamole-covered chicken wings for football, and when America’s most misunderstood group of educators asks for three nacho chips and a high five, no one notices.

In some ways, we don’t mind. The last time we made headlines, most people surveyed felt that school counselors were more of a hindrance than a help in applying to college. Before that, we were the punch line of a car ad — “Your guidance counselor drives a minivan” — or we were known as the washed-up teachers who were given offices close to the principal so he could keep an eye on us.

But Jenny doesn’t see us that way.

Jenny was the quiet, slender girl who didn’t cause anyone trouble, except herself. When two or three students saw Jenny needed help, they went straight to the school counselor, who called Jenny into that office close to the principal to talk about it in a safe, confidential place. Jenny got help, and became an even more beautiful person.

Steve doesn’t see us that way either. Three weeks into school, he had his fifth unexcused absence, and was on his way to flunking a required course. He told his school counselor he was working late to support the newborn son no one knew he had. His counselor asked the teacher to give Steve one last break, but never mentioned why. Steve got it, graduated, and got a full-time job that paid enough to take care of his young family.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not supposed to. When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well.

Of course, we aren’t perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

I bet you didn’t know that either.

Old habits die hard — school counselors know that for sure — but if you have a minute this week, stop by and thank your school counselor for everything you don’t know they’re doing, and put in a good word for them with the principal. We might not score winning touchdowns or drive fast cars, but when the goal is to drive 450 students to win their own big game, the minivan really rocks it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Death Knell for the SAT?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

You’ve likely read a lot about changes to the SAT already, so let me just cut to the chase by raising two points, and you can decide if you want to read the rest of this column, or pursue the perfect cup of hot chocolate instead.
  1. It’s likely these changes will accelerate the death of the SAT.
  2. If you’re looking for game-changing college admission announcements, tune in around 10 AM Eastern today (Thursday the 27th) for a blockbuster that has nothing to do with testing. That’s all I can say.
OK—so, on with the SAT talk. A brief review of the changes, taken largely from testing guru Adam Ingersoll (and if you don’t follow him, you should—clear, thoughtful, engaging):
  • These changes will affect 9th graders—everyone else is safe;
  • The test will be online, but students still have to go to testing centers to take them. Students can use their own computers, or those at the center;
  • The test is now two hours long, not three;
  • Reading passages are just one paragraph, and will have only one question to answer;
  • Students can use a calculator on every math problem;
  • Students will get their scores back in a matter of days, not weeks;
  • Each topic will be divided into two sections, where the questions the student gets in the second section depends on how well they do in the first section;
  • Plans to create a chart converting new SAT scores to old SAT scores, and new SAT scores to ACT scores, are still up in the air.
These last two points are the real head-turners. If the content of the second part of each Math exam is based on how well the student does on the first exam, how is it possible to use scores as a point of comparison across students? Past SATs have had different versions, but they were basically at the same level of difficulty. This new approach means the difficulty of different test versions will be vastly different—so how can colleges effectively sort out one score of 540 from another?

The problem gets worse if efforts to create conversion charts bog down. The SAT has been updated in the past, but each update came with a way to compare new test scores to old test scores. If the new test isn’t of uniform difficulty, how exactly do you do that—and what does that mean to colleges, where consistency of scores is, for better or worse, an anchor of many evaluation processes?

These last two reasons could form the basis of several actions, none of them beneficial to SAT:
  • A migration to the ACT. The number of students taking ACT always goes up when a new version of the SAT premieres. Given all the changes this new version is touting, that transition is likely to be greater than ever before—and may lead some colleges to go back to preferring ACT.
  • Colleges using the new version as a reason to remain test optional. Since two scores on the new SAT represent different levels of knowledge, how can colleges compare test results across students with any integrity? Right now, this sounds like comparing apples to oranges.
Many details remain to be ironed out, but the early responses leave many wondering just what’s in it for the students, other than a shorter test, and what’s in it for the colleges, period. That last point needs to be made clear soon, or the future of the SAT may be far from what its thought leaders are hoping for.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Next Letter You Need to Write

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We need to face a hard truth. Year in and year out, counselors keep wanting the college application process to change—fix this, drop that. I talk about this as much (if not more) than anyone else, and like anyone else, I really thought we were heading in the right direction when so many colleges became test optional. There were so many promises of revamping the entire process, not just dropping test scores.

Where are we now? A new breed of “coaches” has come up offering advice on when to send scores, and articles are popping up everywhere claiming colleges didn’t go test optional to help the students, as much as they did so to prop up their average test scores.

It’s been argued that every single part of the college application process favors the wealthy, and many have tried to come up with a system where that doesn’t happen. This is harder than it looks. If colleges dropped every single admissions requirement they had today and replaced it with one factor—grades, eye color, push-ups—a new genre of coaches would show up to help students game the system using the new criteria. Yes, there are ways to make the system more fair, but as test optional shows, the odds of creating a system that’s truly fair are pretty slim, at least for now.

So what can we do? Every year, hundreds—yes, hundreds—of new school counselors emerge into the market place with absolutely no working knowledge of college counseling. Most received no training in college counseling because their graduate program didn’t offer any, focusing almost exclusively on the mental health aspect of school counseling. Those that had some training had it in a few hours of a course on college and career counseling, where the emphasis is always more on careers. The skills needed to get a meaningful job are important, to be sure, but once a student realizes they need more training after high school, what becomes just as important? College counseling.

It’s easy enough for folks like me to secure this college knowledge once we’re on the job, because I generally worked at schools where students were already expected to go to college—so off I went to every workshop that taught me how to help them. That only maintains a status quo that is awfully biased, and just plain awful. The counselors who really need that training can’t get out of their building, in part because the caseloads are too high, in part because their administrators don’t think it matters—and counselors don’t have the training to be able to explain why it does. But this misses the larger point—why are we learning the job on the job, when graduate school training in mental health runs into the hundreds of hours, and college counseling training is, as a rule, zero?

The answer is easy—a three-credit graduate course in college counseling. The courses exist, and the syllabi are easy enough to find (Need one? Email me!), so starting one up isn’t hard, provided the educators running counselor training programs are prepared to admit that college is as important as mental health. This isn’t about program certifications or some other credential; this is about helping students build meaningful futures, which is why we all got into this business. A letter to your grad school pointing that out couldn’t be more timely, so we can end a bias that’s killing lots of bright futures.

Year in and year out, counselors keep wanting the college application process to change. What really needs to change is counselors.