Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The 2022 Year in Review

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

In a year where everyone pretended COVID isn’t a thing, the college counseling world saw a modest return to a sense of normal that is somewhat unfounded. Here are the highlights:

Welcome to the Family, Test Optional The honeymoon period after the COVID-based shotgun wedding between test optional admissions and thousands of colleges has led to some settling in that’s unsettling. While some colleges are returning to requiring tests, those that were forced to join the test optional bandwagon in 2020 seem to have found a way to assimilate the twist into what is, in essence, the same admissions process as before. 

The little data out there suggests gains in admission at some test-optional colleges among students of color and underserved populations—good news and overdue. In addition, many colleges are reporting that submitted scores are higher than the college saw pre-pandemic. Combined with the alarming difference in admit rates between students who submit scores and those who don’t, and it’s clear that the admissions revolution test optional was supposed to present has been somewhat muted—testing still matters a great deal. Test or don’t test, all colleges should do a data-heavy analysis of their policy in 2023, and share that widely—it’s time to stop guessing about numbers. 

Increase in Applications, Part I True growth in college admissions continues to be stunted in large part by the ever-increasing application rates at the 25 colleges Main Street Journalism covers. While some regional colleges have seen enrollment declines of 40%, the Big Schools continue to have record crowds, with a few seeing minor declines that raise their admit rate from 5% to what the public sees as a “Hey, they’ll take anybody” rate of 7%.

Some professionals have called out these colleges, urging them to embrace an “enough is enough” approach to marketing, but that’s not the real problem. A few years back, high school parents were asked what the average tuition was at four-year colleges. They responded on average by saying $40,000, when the average was, in fact, $12,500. Where do parents get these ideas? From media sources who continue to conflate cost and admit rate with selectivity and match. I’ll offer any media member a two-hour seminar on how to cover college admissions. The way it’s currently being done is tearing the fabric of our society.

Increase in Applications, Part II The average student is now applying to more colleges. Between needing to find the best deal, and perhaps continued reticence to wander too far away from home due to COVID, students are placing their bets across a wider number of venues. This leads to the question, “How well do these students actually know these places?” The answer lies in uncertain waters, but a big part of it undoubtedly lies with…

School Counselors and Duties Data from the effect COVID had on student learning and affect has led policy makers to make lots—and I mean Bill Gates-type lots—of money for school mental health programs. The good news is that means more school counselors are being hired. Unfortunately, that usually means less time is being spent on college advising.

It makes no sense to send students to college if they are less than emotionally ready to take it on. On the other hand, there is much to be said for using the college selection process to set goals and aspirations to inspire the student to return to a greater sense of self. College counseling is an essential part of mental health treatment. Here’s hoping more people feel that way in the coming year.

Have a great holiday.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Test-optional Admissions and Data

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Test-optional admissions is once again in the news, as a prominent college announced last week they would once again require submission of test scores starting for everyone applying in Fall, 2023. This announcement adds to the small, but in some cases notable, number of colleges that have announced a return to testing.

Like the announcements before it, this notice is raising the hackles of many respected members of the college counseling community. Their rationale is fairly sound; the tests have long been accused of being racially and socially biased, and claims exist that suggest students can prepare for the tests in a way that improves their score, but not the understanding of the content.

I’ve been a big champion of test-optional admissions, and still am—if the test score really doesn’t add anything relevant to the application, why are we asking students to take them? At the same time, both sides of the test-optional movement have been, and continue to be, extremely lax in the presentation of data supporting their side of the issue. Counselors know numbers don’t always tell the story of a student’s ability to learn and contribute to a college campus, but taking a stand on this issue without a serious look at data ignores a big part of the story.

And why doesn’t data play a more prominent role? Well…

Colleges simply don’t have it, Part I. Many test-optional colleges made their decision to abandon testing due to COVID. Their rationale was largely pragmatic; if a bright student can’t take the test, they can’t earn a score—and if we require a score, we can’t admit them. The dire circumstances of the testing access experienced at the height of COVID made the test-optional decision easier; without it, no score means no students, and no students means no college.

Colleges simply don’t have it, Part II. Since then, the colleges that went test optional have all kinds of data they could use to measure the need for tests. Creating an institutional definition of student success, it wouldn’t be hard to compare grades, test scores, degree completion, satisfaction with the college experience and more. The college announcing its intention to require testing claims to have done just this—kind of. The press release they sent said they had “evidence” test scores helped predict student success, but anyone who’s taken a stats course knows there’s a huge gap between evidence and data. The two simply aren’t the same. (It turns out the college did use data, making one wonder why they didn’t announce it in the press release.)

Colleges don’t want to know if data matters or not. The best defense I ever heard from a college regarding required submission of test scores went something like this. We’re a very big school, and most students will take almost all of their first two years of classes where the sole means of assessment is a multiple choice test. If an applicant doesn’t “test well” with the ACT or SAT, why would we expect them to do well at our college?

That’s not a bad argument, but without data, it’s too easy to have the claim “make sense” and not test it out, since any test that suggested there was no such relationship puts the college in a rough spot.

All of this reinforces my current stand on testing—if you think you need it, prove it with rigorously applied data. If you’re not going to do that, let’s continue to make college more accessible by leaving the tests out of the admissions equation.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Number One Reasons Many Colleges Don’t Admit You

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is a time of great waiting and wondering by high school seniors who are eager to hear about their college applications. Despite assurances from the grown ups that students have worked hard and made good choices, there is an abyss between hitting Send and hearing back that often gets filled by one question: Will I get in?

If these same caring adults have been honest with their seniors, the real answer here is “It depends”. In case they were hoping for something more than two words of, um, assurance, why not try a review of the key factors for most (that’s most) applicants:

Numbers  Colleges and counselors go out of their way to assure students there’s more to an application than grades and, sometimes, test scores. That’s absolutely true; at the same time, there’s only so much the other parts of the application can do to help an applicant with a C+ average to a college that generally admits students with a high A average.

This tends to be less true with test scores, since most colleges quietly admit students can coach their way to higher results of a three-hour exam. Overlooking three years of grades is quite another matter. Don’t get me wrong—applying with a 3.4 to a schools where the average admit has a 3.6 is more than reasonable. But once we get to a difference of more than a full point, the rest of the file would have to be something exceptional.

Writing  Too many students overlook the role of essays and personal statements. This is as close as you’re going to get to having a conversation with the admissions office, and you want that to go well, since grades show them what they’re admitting, but essays can show them who they’re admitting—and the human touch is a big deal.

This is also the only element of the application you have control of as a senior. Your grades are pretty well established by then, as are your relationships with the teachers writing letters on your behalf. Essays are the space that allows them to understand the real, current you.

Nothing  The number one reason many colleges turn down an applicant has nothing to do with the student—the college is simply not big enough to admit all the qualified students who would do wonderful things on campus. Most students don’t really understand this, responding to this idea with something along the lines of “Well, they admitted (fill in name of student the student knows) and didn’t admit me. What did they have that I don’t?”

This gets hard. The other student may be from South Dakota, and the college needs geographic balance. You are a neuroscience major, and they had more of those this year than they expected. The college decided to beef up its Latin program, and that’s not who you are. These institutional considerations aren’t usually talked about, because the college often doesn’t know they exist until they review the entire pool of applicants—so they can’t possibly tell you ahead of time. Discouraging? You bet. But that’s why caring adults help students build lists that have more than one college—in case a college on your lists simply runs out of room.

The bottom line? Let the colleges do their thing, and get back to class. If they do admit you, they won’t want you spending a single day on their campus worrying about the future. Don’t do that now. You’ve done what you can to find great next schools. Now is the time to trust yourself, and move forward.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

A Gratitude Tale of Two Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It was near the top of a tall pile of emails, but deep enough into the list that my speed-skimming abilities had kicked into gear. Since it started with the ubiquitous “You don’t know me, but…”, I was ready to delete, but for some reason, I kept reading.

“You don’t know me, but I attended one of those college seminars you hold at the local public library. I already had a list of colleges, but something really struck me when you said not to be happy with what you knew—that it was important to look around the edges of your list, see what else was out there, and think about what was possible.”

“I went home and started my search again, and sure enough, there was a school that sounded perfect for me. It wasn’t in my geographic comfort zone—in fact, it was miles from home—but everything I read told me this was a place worth investigating.”

“I did just that, and ended up applying to a school I never would have considered, and was sure I couldn’t afford. They admitted me, and offered a scholarship that made it possible—so off I went.”

“Right now, I’m flying back to campus to start my second year, and I saw this article you wrote in the inflight magazine about choosing a college. I’m glad it reminded me to thank you for encouraging me to do more.”

In a profession where you aren’t supposed to have any favorites, there was something about this student that made me root for her at every turn. She had a receptivity to living and learning that was pretty rare in a high school student, evidenced by her willingness to try out for the spring musical without ever performing in public before. She made the show and landed the lead—and with every performance, the audience was stunned to see her onstage, let alone doing so well.

The odd thing was, for as much as I liked this student, I really didn’t do anything special to help her with her college search. We met a few times, then put together a list, following that up in the fall. She went back to the wonderful life she was living—just like it’s supposed to work for every student. I don’t remember seeing her past October, but I was confident she’d end up in the right place, simply because students who know themselves well tend to feel they are in the right place no matter where they are.

A year went by, and I was getting ready to shut things down for Christmas, when in she came to my office, even more alive, more outgoing, and more receptive to what life had to offer. I asked how things were going, and off she went, telling me about the glories of every nook and cranny of her wonderful life at a college that rarely showed up on anyone’s radar.

“That’s great” I said, “but tell me, how’d you find this place?”

The tone of the room went from warm to austere for just a moment, as she looked at me wide, surprised eyes, laughed, and said “You told me about it.”

It’s the season for gratitude, and there’s much to be said for stopping and realizing just how good we have it in this life. At the same time, if conjuring up a gratitude list turns out to be too artificial an exercise, it may be wise to find a comfortable chair and simply let the unknown blessings wash over us. Their power is really something wonderful.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Ninth Graders and College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I have to admit, I’m not crazy talking to ninth graders about college. No matter what I say, these discussions almost always end up centering on test scores and essays—and ninth grade just isn’t the time to worry about either. Promise me you won’t be thinking about these things, and let’s focus in on what you can work on—being a great person.

As far as colleges are concerned, there are three things to focus on in ninth grade, and all of them have something to do with being more of who you are. The first one, at least as far as colleges are concerned, is grades. College is a lot of things—the place where the football stadium is, the home of spring break, and more—but first and foremost, it’s a place where academic learning occurs, and that happens in your classes.

One of the best ways to prepare for college classes is to learn as much as you can in the classes you take in high school and be the best student you can be. Unless we’re talking art or music school, your admission to college usually depends most on being a good student in challenging classes in high school—not just in 11th grade, but starting now. Not everyone can do this all the time—in fact, very few people can—but the closer you get to doing your best in every class, every day, the more choices you’ll have when it comes time to pick a college. And keeping your options open is what being ready for college is all about.

It’s likely you’re giving me what you think is a well-deserved eyeroll right now. “I need to get good grades? Wow, that is some counseling.”

Fair enough—but I didn’t say you needed to get good grades. I said you needed to be a good student.

It may sound weird, but colleges get tons of applications from students with great grades who don’t know anything. Sure, they got a hatful of As, but the essay asking them to describe a favorite class only shows they were glad the course didn’t have many tests. Other students take an approach where they sit in the back of the room, study hard, get an A on the exam, and then do a memory dump. That also shows up in college essays; it also shows up in the teacher letters these students get, where the teachers can say the student got great grades, but that’s about it.

That’s where becoming a good student comes in. If your math teacher assigns 15 problems for homework, do the last three they didn’t assign—those are the three that require you to think, not just solve. If your English teacher assigns 15 pages of reading, take notes as you go. This will require reading, stopping, thinking, and writing, but you can do all these things. Add to these notes every night, and be the student the teacher can count on to answer the question “How does all this tie together?”

If these last two ideas scare you, you may want to sit down. When your History teacher asks for a 250-word essay, write 400 to 500 words—in your own words—after you’ve compared the information in your textbook with what you’ve learned from a couple of other sources (and as you write, don’t forget the reading-stopping-thinking-writing thing). When you write the essay, write the words “ROUGH DRAFT” in big letters on the top page. Three days before the paper’s due, ask your teacher to review it with you. Take notes during your meeting, and use those when you write the final draft, which is turned in on time.

This kind of learning helps you connect ideas to each other, to the world, and to the way you see the world—and yes, it’s the kind of learning colleges like to see. This may require some changes to your social schedule (there are always study groups!), and it’s always a good idea to talk to your teacher about study tips (chances are the study skills guru in your building teaches special education—really). In two or three months, you’ll see this is most important, since it will make you a thinker and a doer who knows and loves how to learn. That gets you halfway into college. More important, it will make sure you graduate from college.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Need a Breather? Try College Farming

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The first major college application deadline has come and gone, and you’re taking stock. Students ignored your deadlines, they ignored your advice, and everything they asked you to do they wanted done yesterday. that makes it all too easy to wonder if you’re really making any difference at all.

Fair enough. Here’s what I think. 

1. It would be great if kids leapt out of their chairs and said “What a life changing suggestion! Thank you!” This doesn’t happen— kids rarely acknowledge our work made a difference in their lives, even when we do. This means counselors can’t be in the work for the accolades. We have to have the self-confidence to do the best job we can, given the Herculean task we are given, and be happy with having the chance to make what difference we can.

2. This also means you are likely making a bigger difference than you realize. Again, it’s unlikely you’ll be showered with thanks, a raise, or Fruit of the Month, but if you’re making an earnest effort, some kids will feel that. You have to trust that.

3. I built thousands of college lists, and offered millions of hours of advice— and the vast majority of it was ignored. I had lots of sleepless nights, until I realized I really wasn’t a college counselor; I was a college farmer, planting seeds of college ideas for minds to nurture or ignore. Keep tending those crops of ideas; you might not see much of a harvest, but kids, like farmers, generally aren’t all that showy when it’s time to bring in the crops.

4. Your client is the student. It’s easy to forget this when well-meaning parents over-email, and even easier if you have an administrator that doesn’t know (or care) about what you do. But parents stop calling and emailing when they see a change for the better in their kids, and administrators tend to leave you alone if parents are leaving them alone. That means a lot of the adults’ behavior is based on your relationship with the student, and you’re good at that. Never let that go.

5. Be your own best client. Everybody has a bad day, a few minutes of self-doubt, and often the situation calls for either or both. But if you find yourself honking the horn in traffic for no apparent reason, or the dog runs away from you when you come home, it might be time to think about what’s going on in your world, and who can help you better understand it.

Professional helpers are the worst at seeking professional help for themselves, but see yourself through the lens of you being your client; it makes it easier to understand when intervening steps could really help you out. This is particularly true if the best part of your day is spending two hours in a dark room with the Three Wise Men. If that’s where you are, it’s not time for help; it’s time to start over. Reach out.  Someone will be there.

6. Lead from a wise heart. This saying exists for a reason: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Counsel in a student-centered way that opens doors; this shows them you believe in them, whether they walk through the door or not, and if all they walk away with after interacting with you is knowing someone believed in them, you’ve done half your job— getting a chance to do the other half is largely up to them. Realize that, and you’ll be a healthy counselor.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Don’t Bet on Future Loan Forgiveness

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

October is known as the busiest month in college counseling offices, so it’s always nice when something comes along in the fall that lifts our spirits, and gives us something to cheer about.


For millions of students—and more than a few counselors—that happy news has come in the form of forgiveness of student loans. Debt forgiveness made its debut just a few weeks ago, with promises of forgiveness of up to $20,000 in debt for some students. Better still, the website that takes applications for forgiveness is working like a charm; users say the form is concise, easy to follow, and free of technical hiccups. This is why applications have easily gone into the millions in a brief period of time—when someone wants to forgive your debt, and makes it easy to do so, the result is a triumph.


It's clear the forgiveness program has not come without its detractors, including states with concerns about the implication of debt forgiveness to their economies, and the lamentations of those who took second and third jobs to pay for college without going into debt. This last group is easy to understand, and as someone who did exactly that to make sure his kids left college debt free, it’s fair to say I may have rethought my strategy, had I known my loans weren’t really loans at all. On the other hand, those who found a way to stay debt free found it, while those who had no such options are now deciding how to spend the money they’re no longer paying back. The economic plusses of that, for all of us, should not be ignored.


Something else that shouldn’t be ignored is the possible effect this program could have on collegebound students and their families. It would be easy to have this program shape the “paying for college” strategy for the Class of 2023 and beyond. If debt forgiveness happened once, it could happen again—especially if this program leads to spending that boosts the other parts of the nation’s economy.


While it may be reasonable to think that, it isn’t wise. When my kids were very young, there was a consensus among many families—interesting enough, largely among dads—that “something would happen” to make college more affordable, and ease the burden on families. It was never clear what that “something” was going to be, but when it came time for that generation to head to university, no relief appeared. Some of those students are undoubtedly experiencing some relief now, but they still had to put together a college payment plan where loan forgiveness wasn’t part of the formula.


High school seniors and their families would do well to take this same approach. Loan forgiveness is certainly adored by our current president, but the other party isn’t exactly running to the idea with open arms. Future efforts at loan forgiveness would have to run a political path that is rocky and unpredictable. If hoping for the best leaves students with more debt than they can truly manage, the goals and plans of this generation would be in even more peril than those of the current generation before loan forgiveness was introduced—and their path was fairly dangerous.


Loan forgiveness has the potential to benefit millions of students and our national economy, but since the jury is still out, it’s wise for collegebound students to stick to the script—keep your borrowing at a minimum, and plan wisely for life after college. Later applicants may have more data to work with, but this group doesn’t. Don’t betray your future.


Wednesday, October 19, 2022

College Essay Advice for Seniors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This piece was a big hit when it first appeared a few years ago, and many counselors on social media are looking for advice to give students about college essays.

In an encore presentation, I still live to serve.

Students, you amaze me. You love to share your opinions. I know this, because you share them everywhere—Chattersnap, Gramphoto, and all the rest of those social media sites I know nothing about, other than you use them because you love to talk about yourselves.

Except when it comes to college essays.

If I asked you for 650 words on your impressions of Riverdale, you’d go on for weeks. But colleges want 650 words about your favorite place in the world, and you say things like “The library. Gotta love that big dictionary.”

I’ll die alone. I’ll sing alone.

Your college wants you to come to campus, talk with them for three hours, eat lunch, and go home. If they did admissions that way, they’d probably get great students—and by the time they were done interviewing everyone, each of those students would be 45 years old.

So you aren’t writing essays—you’re having a conversation, except you’re putting what you have to say on paper. That means you’ll want to do this:

Stop guessing. When a college asks “Name a problem you’d like to solve”, there’s no one right answer for everybody. Cure cancer? Great. The need for your mother to work three jobs? Absolutely. The squeak in your garage door? That can work, too—as long as it means something to you, and you can convey that meaning. This isn’t Algebra; you get to decide what the answer is, and why it makes sense. Put it down on paper, put the commas in the right place, and you’re good to go.

Tell a story. Remember the time you told your best friend about the first concert you went to, or the best pizza you ever ate? You were on fire at the end of the story, genuinely excited at the chance to share part of your life with them. That’s how you should feel once you’re done writing a college essay. This isn’t a speech you give to thousands of people; it’s a story that means something to you, and you’re telling it to someone who really wants to hear it. Save the speech; tell the tale.

Head or heart? Some students think the key to a great essay is to pack it with facts that make you sound like a brainiac, while others say the college will only beg you to come if they need a whole box of tissues to get through your essay. Life is a little of both, and so are college essays. Show the colleges what you think about, and why it means something to you. This will let them know you’re past the drama and trauma of teenagehood, and eager to embrace the tasks of becoming a thoughtful, caring adult.

Answer the question. If the college asks “Who do you admire?” and they still don’t know your answer once they’ve read your essay, you’ve given them one more reason to reject you. Ducking the question may work in Washington, but it doesn’t play well in admissions offices. If they want to know, you need to tell them.

Your goal is to write an essay that sounds so much like a conversation, they’ll be surprised you aren’t in the room with them when they’re finished reading it.

Kind of like Gramphoto. But with words.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Building a List: The Real Story

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The shortest counseling session I ever had lasted four seconds. The student came into my office, and I handed him the (then) paper application for his first-choice school. He said thanks and left, catching the door before it fully closed from his entering the office.


Part of me wishes that would be the case for all of my students—finding a place that they love that, from every indicator available, would welcome the chance to admit them. But the bigger part of me knows better, and understands that if we’re really doing our job, we find each student where they are and walk the walk forward with them, whether that’s one visit or many.


In order to make sure students have the same kind of firm understanding about their menu of options my four-second student did, we often work with them to build a list of possibilities. Ostensibly, that list is about where the student wants to apply, but lists are more versatile than that. Consider these uses:


A chance to confirm that the walk matches the talk. How many times do students answer our question “What are you looking for in a college?” with lofty, detailed descriptors, then respond to “That’s great. Do you have some schools in mind?” with a list of schools that has absolutely nothing to do with the qualities they just listed? There are many reasons why this happens, and it’s important to understand which of those reasons are at play for each student. It’s time for more discussion.


A chance to confirm that the fall list matches the spring list. Those counselors fortunate enough to have the time to do junior interview in the spring will want to revisit the list in the fall. A summer experience, family circumstances, or simply being seventeen for another two months could lead the student to a different set of goals come the fall. Don’t guess, and don’t be surprised if it does—it likely means the student is engaging in thoughtful reflection about college, and that’s the goal.


A chance for balance. Mike came into my office in the fall with the same list we had discussed in the spring—all the Ivies, plus Stanford. We continued our discussion about balance. “There’s no doubt you’d do great work at any of these schools, Mike, and they’d be lucky to have you. But the admit rates at all these schools are pretty small, and we need to make sure there’s at least a school or two on your list where the admit rates are a little more generous.” This gives you a chance to offer some additions, and even if they reject them, they’ll likely provide some of their own, which is great—unless it’s Northwestern and Johns Hopkins. Then it’s time for more talking.


A chance for representing affordability. I still believe no school should be ruled out because it costs too much, but when the entire list consists of $50,000 schools, it’s time for a little more conversation. For students who will need help no matter what college they apply to, this is a time to discuss schools with more generous aid programs, and the role loans should play, given this student’s interests and vocational goals.


My four-second student was admitted to his only college, and I hear he now owns half of Manhattan. That’s rare, but if you make the most of the list as a counselor, your students will have the same kind of success in finding the next right home.


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

I’m possible

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Christine Ha had a problem. She was in the middle of a very competitive cooking event, where the task was to make an apple pie. Simple enough, except that, for reasons unknown, she took a little too much time preparing the pie, leaving only 18 minutes for the pie to cook. (In case making apple pie is new to you, most take about 40 minutes.)


When it came time for judging, the time element was clearly on her mind. Through tears, she apologized for the quality of the pie, and promptly received support and encouragement from judge Gordon Ramsay, the chef best known for yelling and swearing at chefs.


It turns out the pie was, in a word, perfect—not easy to do when juicy apples make most pies soggy. Christine was greatly relieved to hear this, in part because she couldn’t see what the pie looked like.


That’s because Christine Ha is blind, the first blind contestant on Master Chef, and therefore the first blind contestant to win the competition, including a prize of $250,000.


Mandy Harvey started her music audition in a rather unusual way. She took center stage in front of hundreds and promptly made herself at home by taking her shoes off. Counselors don’t typically encourage this behavior for job interviews, but Mandy explained her shoeless feet could feel the rhythm of the music better, leading to a better performance.


The approach paid off. The judges were impressed with her singing, her ukulele playing, and the composition of the original song she performed. Combined with her sunny disposition, Mandy passed the audition, and went on to the final round of the auditions with ease, even though she couldn’t hear the roaring approval of the audience.


That’s because Mandy Harvey is deaf, having lost her hearing in her late teens. Despite this, a lifelong love of music eventually helped her build a different approach to her passion, an approach that made all the difference in the world. “After I lost my hearing, I gave up” she said, “but I wanted to do more with my life than just give up.”


Paul Potts was also a musician, but he had a different challenge. A cell phone salesman, Paul has the look of someone who spends the better part of his weekend watching football, an appearance that often hid a dream he’d long harbored that had little to do with football. He wanted to sing opera.


Paul took lessons, and largely kept his dream to himself, until he finally decided to go to an audition. The big day came, and Paul’s demon appeared—self-doubt. What if he wasn’t good enough? What if he got too nervous? He went to a local bar before the audition, and concluded the best way to decide whether or not to audition was to flip a coin. And off he went.


Over 2 million record sales later, Paul Potts is living the dream he almost denied himself, still rather reserved. I don’t know if he watches much football.


Fall of senior year is a pretty busy time, and everyone has their challenges, many of which would want to rob us of our hopes, our dreams, and our ability to move forward. Overcoming those obstacles involves two things—knowing you can, and knowing others have come before you and overcome their challenges.


All that’s between you and the college dream is a form that takes 25 minutes to complete—85 if there’s an essay. Christine, Mandy, and Paul are living testimonies to the possible. It’s time you joined their company.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Afraid of Applying to College?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I've never understood why students get so nervous about applying to college. I'm not talking about searching for a college- I'm talking about filling out the actual form. Students learn about all kinds of colleges, work hard to get good grades, do great things outside the classroom, take the right tests-everything your counselor has talked to you about. Then, it's show time, time to fill out the application and have all that work pay off.

And they freeze. They just can't fill out the form.

I know there's a lot riding on a college application, so students worry that one small mistake on the application could be seen as a deal breaker. But that's pretty hard to do with most college applications, and when it does occur, those mistakes can be pretty easy to fix.

Don't believe me? OK—try this. Pull up the online application for your local community college. If you don't have one, try looking up Montcalm Community College's online application-it's pretty easy to find.

Got an application on your computer now? Great. Fill it out, then come back here. I'll wait. 

Seriously. Go.

It's likely been about 20 minutes, and you've applied to college. Congratulations! Chances are, you didn't have to look anything up, you knew all the answers right away, and you didn't need to contact anyone for help. Not such a mystery after all, is it?

I know, I know. You're pretty sure not all college applications are this easy to complete-in fact, you know the application for the school you love wants essays, maybe even letters of recommendation from a teacher or two. Much more complicated.

Really? Tell me-have you ever written an essay before? A little bit of work, sure, but once you know the topic, is it really hard to do?

And teacher letters? You know teachers, right? And some of them know you? Well, they know how to write, too, so it's really just a question of asking them on time.

This is sounding a little more doable, isn't it?

It turns out that applying to college is kind of like getting ready for prom, or some other school dance. There are a few things you have to do to get ready, and some take more time than others. But once you know what needs to be done, it's more about making the time to do them than anything else.

Still doubt me? Go back to the application you just submitted. What was the first question?

Right. "Name".

Trust me, you can do this. In fact, you just did.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Rigor of Coursework

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The world of college counseling has changed a great deal in the last couple of years, so it’s oddly reassuring when some of the questions counselors have to address are chestnuts that come along every year, just as sure as there will be a new edition of the Fiske Guide.  Many of these questions come up this time of year, as students consider modifying their schedules through the drop and add period.

“Is it better to take the AP class and get a B, or take the regular course and get an A?”

“Would colleges rather see students take AP classes at the high school, or take entry level college courses at the local university?”

“If a student is going to be a business major, are they better off taking Statistics as a senior, or staying in the Calculus track?”

Like most questions about rigor and curriculum, the answers are sometimes not that easy to parse—but as a rule, the answer to those questions depends on the answers to other questions:

What’s the student like?  Questions about course selection and rigor too often assume the student will earn the same grade in a more challenging class as they would in a regular track class, and that simply isn’t always the case.  A quick email to the student’s last English teacher could be quite revealing when a discussion comes up about Honors English.  If the A that was earned in English 11 was a generous one, the course to take in Grade 12 is an easier choice.  It’s likely the student knows this already.  Start by asking them about their classroom experience.

What’s the rest of the schedule look like?  Another assumption behind questions about rigor too often assume the student has an unlimited capacity for tough courses.  Many students eating off the top of the rigor menu in three subjects may find a fourth top course too much to handle, or they may devote so much energy keeping that grade afloat, their remaining classes pay the price, and grades begin to dwindle.  Review the schedule as a whole, and make sure this review includes a look at time devoted to work, extracurriculars, and family commitments.  Homework won’t get done if there isn’t time to do it.

What is the college looking for?  Susie was ready to take on the challenges of Calculus, even though her Precalculus experience was anything but smooth, and her interest was far away from high level math.  Four quick calls to the admissions officers of her college choices—calls she made, not the counselor—showed that three of them weighed the courses identically in the admissions process for her particular major, and one gave Statistics an extra plus—so, as the British say, Bob’s your uncle, and Susie was a happy stats student.

On the other hand…  More than a few colleges, including the ones that garner most of the headlines, are likely to tell students and counselors they have no required level of math (or English or…), and simply want the student’s course selections to represent the highest level of challenge the student can reasonably manage.  Understanding the reason why college provide that answer, it doesn’t help much.  If the student feels they have the ability to do well in either, say, Stats or Calculus, the issue isn’t the student’s capability or stress level—it’s what the college prefers to see.  If a college doesn’t really answer the question, a quick peek at the transcripts of past admitted students could guide the counselor’s advice.  Thank goodness for SCOIR and Naviance!

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

New Mental Health Resources? Make the Most of Them

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Thanks to COVID, heading back to school has been a different experience each fall, and this year is no exception. With test scores down, and students spending much of the last two years learning online, many students are returning to school with social-emotional issues about learning, working with others, and facing life in general.


With many states offering record funding for mental health services in school, counselors need to make sure they make the most out of these opportunities. Here’s how:


Appropriate staffing Michigan holds one of the highest student-counselor ratios in the nation, with a whopping 638 students per counselor, and nearly every state has a ratio well above the recommended level of 250 students per counselor. Common sense suggests this is just way too many students for counselors to conduct an effective mental health program. Hiring additional school counselors has been a task that’s long overdue in our state. Now that we have the money to do so, it’s time to make the most of those dollars.


Best use of time Too many adults remember their school counselor as the person who changed their schedule, or did lunch duty. Important as those tasks might be, they have little to do with mental health, and nothing to do with the vital skills where counselors have received training. School officials need to work with counselors to review their duties, and maximize counselor time with students on growth in mental health.


Tailored curriculum With a number of new, pre-packaged mental health programs available to schools, it may be tempting to pick one and see it as an easy add-on to the current counseling curriculum. School leaders would do well to work closely with the current counseling team to make sure any new mental health elements complement the existing offerings, and blend with the school’s larger academic and personal goals.


Team-based support School counselors are rightly viewed as the leaders of a school’s mental health curriculum, but this doesn’t mean they should be the sole implementors of the curriculum. A team-based approach to mental health, including teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators, coaches, and parents, will surround the student with support and opportunity, two attributes students desperately need after two very challenging years. Adequate time for training, practice, and feedback need to be provided so counselors can nurture these partners forward.


Community support This same kind of comprehensive support can be achieved when school mental health officials partner with community leaders to extend an atmosphere of support to students outside school. Local social workers, social agencies, therapeutic centers, youth programs, and religious leaders should be engaged to create an atmosphere of support that makes it easy for students to seek any help they might need. This should also include the business community; anywhere students spend time after school is a place where mental health healing can begin, and the more partners a community has, the better.


Plans for the future Development of a strong sense of self often includes the development of plans for the future, and that includes the counselor’s role as a college and career counselor. Too much counseling literature in the last two years has emphasized the need for better mental health programming in schools, without specifying just what that programming should include. Self-esteem, self-awareness, and effective interpersonal skills certainly play a key role this programming, but it’s just as important for students to develop an understanding of what they could become.


Goal setting can create a sense of purpose in a student who would otherwise look at their current situation and lose hope. It’s the fresh start students often yearn for, a chance to escape the limitations their peers, community, circumstances, and family have placed upon them. At a time when too many students have felt boxed in by the few choices COVID has left them, what better time to expose them to vistas of new opportunity and hope, the outcomes of a successful college and career awareness curriculum?


It’s comforting to know we can reasonably expect a school year that feels a little more like business as usual. Creating a student-centered school where mental health comes first can go a long way to making the most of that opportunity.