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.