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.