Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Improving College Access

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

With all respect to everyone’s best intentions, I’ve never known any of those end-of-the-year assessment methods to do any good. By the time you create the evaluation form and wordsmith the statements to everyone’s liking, the life just leaks out of it. You may have data which is impressive, but ask anyone what they would do to make things better, and they’ll refer you to page 32 of the computer-generated report—and that’s not really an answer.

Then there’s the real assessment that occurs. Somewhere around 1:30 on a sunny June day, teachers head to their cars with their Solo cup of buzz-free punch from the staff luncheon, start the car, and heave a sigh of gratitude, relief, and anticipation. Between that sigh and the time they hit the parking lot exit, they will categorize each of the following:

What went well

What could have been better

What they’d like to do more of next year

This is especially true when it comes to college counseling. Throughout the year, counselors take to social media to express concern, vent, or simply whine about the inequities of the college advising process in the US. Newbies share the watershed moment when they discover the current system is unfair. Mid-career counselors air their dismay of the Ivy League rejection of the best kid in their class. Veterans take the opportunity to raise their concerns about issues they’ve long disliked, often sharing a tentative outline of how this issue could, at least in their eyes, be resolved.

I’d invite you to all take up that last approach to our work in earnest this summer, using your parking lot assessment to guide you. Take a look at the statement below, then put together a 600-word (more or less) answer you think could increase college access and equity. Your answer needs to address the question in particular; it should include some data or otherwise indicate this problem lives somewhere else besides just your school or your head, and it needs to address the current social and political climate to explain why this new approach stands a chance at being accepted, and will make a difference.

I’ll be the sole judge of each submission, and each submission could become part of future columns (I’ll give credit for ideas where appropriate). The idea I think makes the most sense will be judged the winner, which means the idea becomes a column for sure—and the winning author gets $250.

We always say there has to be a better way to help kids make college a reality. I’m hoping a little cash will encourage you to give a little air to that wish this summer. For more information on how to submit, go to the College is Yours website.

Here’s the question. Now, pass those sweet cherries, and get writing. It’s summer in Michigan once again.

Jamie is a 14-year-old student living in a large city. Jamie’s 15-year-old cousin Blaine lives in a rural area, some 100 miles from the nearest college campus. Both come from single parent households, with Jamie’s mom holding down three jobs just to pay the rent, and Blaine’s dad making just enough from his crops each year to stave off bankruptcy. Both attend a public high school where the one school counselor meets the social/emotional, academic, and career and college plans of 1800 students, and both come from homes where they would be the first in their families to go to college.

What would the college admissions process look like if we assume every student had the backgrounds and resources of Jamie and Blaine?

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Community Colleges and a One-Course Certificate? Perfetta!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Community colleges seem to be under siege once again. Community college faculty are reporting renewed efforts by college administrators to increase the number of students who leave with some kind of credential, preferably either a degree or a certificate.

It's somewhat understandable for this kind of movement to occur at four-year institutions, which have a tradition of preparing students for either a professional career or graduate school. But policy officials looking to increase credential completion at the community college level are clearly unfamiliar with the history and mission of community colleges, which are to provide individuals—members of the community—with learning opportunities tailored to meet their individual needs, not to meet the reporting requirements of the institution, or to tick a box on the goal sheet of the current administration in Washington.

Less than twenty percent of students at some community colleges may end up with a certificate or degree, but if those students needing 12 credits for a promotion get the job they went to college to get, or a new Harley owner now has a way to work thanks to taking a community college motorcycle training class, the community college has traditionally counted those as successful students. More and more thought leaders are thinking twice about that.

Educators purposely work at community colleges because they’ll have the chance to look at things a little differently, and work with a population that either wants something different from education, or wants it a different way than four-year colleges offer. Since this seems to be causing a division between those who shape community college policy, and those who work at them, I would propose all community colleges begin offering the following certificate program immediately.

Certificate title: Cultural Innovation

Requirement: Successful completion of one four-credit course, The History of Pizza

Course Description: Utilizing a case study approach, students will explore the many facets of pizza and its relationship to society. Suggested toppings—sorry, make that topics—include The Origins of Pizza, The Role of Pizza in its Home Country, The Arrival of Pizza in Post-World-War II America, Pizza Varieties and American Regionalism, The Economics of Pizza in Professional Sports and Beyond, Current Trends in Pizza, and Pizza and Pineapple—Magnificent or Mayhem. Students will participate in a pizza taste-test towards the end of the class, writing a final paper analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each pizza, and produce three well-researched, data-rich, culturally-anchored predictions of the future of pizza.

Cost: Free to all students.

Grading: This is a pass/fail course.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone to like in this proposal. Students heading to community college after some time away from formal learning will be reintroduced to the rigors of academia through studying a subject that is of great familiarity and, for most, personal interest. Key academic concepts, including all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and reference-based research, can be taught in ways students will long remember. Administrators get more credential completers, and teachers get to, well, teach the way they were meant to teach at the community college level.

Appropriate preparation of a future workforce, along with advancement of a love of learning, could never be more important than it is now. At the same time, shoehorning students into degrees that will not serve them well, or creating certificate programs that have no real worth to society, devalues the worth of all credentials, ultimately hurting the society community colleges are designed to help.

Thinking outside the box is the raison d’ĂȘtre of community colleges. Policy makers would do well to remember that, and encourage community colleges to live up to that goal.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Free Summer Programs for High Schoolers That are Great

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students are wandering into your office, asking about summer programs that could fill what someone (like Mom or Dad) sees as way too empty of a summer schedule. My heart always went out to these kids, since they didn’t know most summer programs have February deadlines. On the other hand, most of those early registration programs cost way too much, and do way less for a student’s college application than most people believe. Searching now creates an opportunity for summer learning that can be a little more personalized, a lot less expensive, and significantly more life changing.

If you’re strapped for making recommendations, try these free options that require no application essays.

A free online course on mental health from Yale. College professors noticed a significant uptick in student disengagement—basically, they saw students who showed up to class, took notes, asked no questions, and went home. COVID only made matters worse, since many colleges abandoned in-person meetings for a while.

Enter a psychology instructor from Yale, who saw the current mental health epidemic in the making. She responded by producing a course called The Science of Well-Being, a course which quickly became the most popular class offered at Yale. Ever.

The course has been reconfigured for high school students, and is called The Science of Well-Being for Teens. It’s being offered online this summer for free, and is a perfect resource for students who need a chance to look at the big picture in their lives. Any teen can take the course, and the materials are designed for students from all walks of life—you don’t have to be an Ivy League candidate to take the course and get your life back.

Free use of Planet Fitness The franchise that’s made a living promoting fitness for all is at it again, giving all teens ages 14-19 a free summer pass to use the facilities at the local Planet Fitness of their choice. Teens need to register online, and the free pass is only good for one Planet Fitness location—but being able to do something cool like going to the gym that’s air conditioned-cool is a real plus. Registered students also have a shot at earning money for their school, and making a video to be considered for a scholarship. Parent permission is needed for students under 18.

Free course in financial literacy Interest has never been higher in making sure students know how to handle money— so much so that about half the states have a high school graduation requirement for a financial literacy course. Ironically, that means nearly all online financial literacy courses for high school students comes with—you guessed it—a fee.

This article provides a wide array of free financial planning courses, many that address topics for adults. This page from Bank of America isn’t so much a class as a potpourri of videos and articles on financial basics, including paying for college—and again, all free. These offer a great way for students to customize their financial education.

Others For students who want to do something more with their summers in addition to improving their mental health, getting physically fit, and making sure they don’t go broke, Teen Life has a comprehensive list of summer programs, including about three dozen free online courses for high school students in a wide array of topics. Add in any local or state free courses you know of, and your last-minute students are clearly in the driver’s seat for a laid-back summer of personal growth, all at no charge.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Transferring to High School? Remember the Five Cs

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is the time of year when counselor chat rooms are filled with posts like “Thinking about interviewing for a high school counseling position. Thoughts?”

You bet. It’s as easy as remembering the five Cs.

Curriculum Most of the people on hiring committees don’t know that, just like there’s a math curriculum and an English curriculum, high schools are supposed to have a counseling curriculum. Once you shake hands, pass out a one pager (front side only) of your version of a high school counseling curriculum, delineated by grade level outcomes for each of the three key counseling services—social/emotional growth, academic progress, and college/career planning. Add your contact information, and you’re off to a good start. This handout gives you a nice overview to consider.

Career You really need to make sure there’s more to this section than an interest inventory, resume preparation, and interviewing skills. Getting students on job sites, bringing employers into the school, lessons on hot national and regional jobs and soft skills, and a comprehensive aptitude test (by end of tenth grade, so students can plan schedules) are the minimums here—here’s a nice overview to guide you.

College This tends to be the one area most interviewees fluff, simply because their training in this area was just so weak. Most members of hiring committees know nothing about college counseling either, but don’t leave this to chance. View this article and its links, and get a copy of the high school’s profile, which should show where students attend college. Once you get the job, take a brief course that covers these topics in detail, like a new one from NACAC. And seriously—if you don’t think part of your high school job is to help kids with college or college applications, stay where you are.

Credits Along with a lot of paperwork, counselors often struggle with reviewing students’ progress towards graduation, and with good reason—like schedule changes, testing, and “other duties as assigned”, this isn’t a counseling task.  Still, it ends up in our offices, so finding an effective, efficient way to complete this work is essential.  It’s unlikely you’ll get asked about this in an interview, but you never know—and again, if this isn’t your cup of tea, high school may not be for you.

Crisis Not all of the social/emotional counseling work is on the urgent end, but studies suggest more students need affective support in this post-COVID era. Now is the time to pull out those grad school textbooks on developmental psych, and get current on what other schools are doing in this area. If there’s a community mental health service in the town, it wouldn’t hurt to check in with them and see what they’re offering teens as well. No point in reinventing the wheel.

The Question That Ends the Interview, For Better or Worse If you do interview for a high school position, it’s likely you will get asked what appears to be a pretty basic question—“Why do you want to work at the high school level?” You need to construct an answer that conveys what you hope to give to the high school, and what you’re looking forward to doing, not what you’re tired of in your current job. “I’d love to work with students who speak in full sentences” may be the truth, but that doesn’t give the committee a lot of inspiration. Talk about your interests, your strengths, and what you think high school students need from their counselors. They’re looking for a reason to hire you. Hand it to them.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

A Schoolwide Conversation About College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I got involved in research as an undergraduate for the same noble reason all undergraduates do—I needed the credits to round out my schedule. It turned out to be a real game changer: I did the work at my own pace, on my own schedule, in a semester when Michigan State’s campus was at its most beautiful, and its least populated. It was one of the two or three experiences that defined college for me.

The topic also turned out to be a game changer. A Psychology professor was looking into language acquisition—how children learn to speak, and what factors shape that experience. After a summer’s worth of listening to and decoding tapes of households talking with babies present, a pattern was emerging. Babies learned language sooner, and better, if they were exposed to more adults. Not adults who were related to them, and not to English scholars. Just more adults.

High schools seem to understand this when it comes to talking with students about college. For the past 15 years or so, many schools have had a College Awareness Week, a kind of Spirit Week that focuses on what college is, why people go to college, and how students can explore and apply to college. Some high schools even have pep rallies for college awareness, even though Pomp and Circumstance doesn’t quite inspire the masses as much as the school fight song.

One element that seems to resonate with students is College Conversation Day. All of the adults are encouraged to wear their college gear that day, and the teachers are strongly urged to spend the first five minutes or so of class talking to students about their college experience—where they went to high school, what they thought about college when they were 16, how they ended up going to the college they attended, and what they think about the experience. Many also offer advice on how students should go about picking their college experience, including the factors that should and shouldn’t matter.

Now that spring is here, it’s time to start building next year’s presentation calendar, and I hope you’ll consider adding a College Conversation Day if you don’t already have one. Putting this together doesn’t require all that much; a presentation at a faculty meeting, an email reiterating the main points, a couple of trays of bagels or donuts in the faculty room on the big day (Parent Council), and a thank you email the day after.

If you’re worried you’re asking untrained adults to talk about college, don’t be. For starters, untrained adults do this all the time; besides, this actually gives you the chance to offer some gentle training. If you’re worried a couple of adults might go overboard—and you already know who those might be—that’s the teacher whose classroom you “stop by” the day of the event, ready to steer the presentation if need be.

On the other hand, if you’re worried this might lead to more students coming down to your office and asking about college, I’m just wondering why that would be a worry. More college conversations means more college awareness (“I’d never even heard of that college!” “Mr. Jones went there? Maybe I can too!”), and better understanding of the language and world of college. You know your stuff, and you have time to prepare the next steps for all kinds of terrific questions that will feed their inner college beast. You’re just widening the funnel, increasing the chances your students will have their own life-changing college campus summer of research and wonder. What a deal.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Reforming College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s spring, and with most college decisions out, calls are blossoming for college application reform like daffodils. This call is usually led by counselors who are either exhausted from running the application gauntlet, or are disillusioned when a top student is denied admission to their dream school. Either way, they feel there is a better way to do this.

I’m always eager to see things improve—keyless remote car start is genius—and I’d love to return a student’s senior year back to the business of, well, being a senior. Still, it might be wise to develop a common understanding of what’s meant when we say we want the application process to improve. What might that look like, and how would we know it’s better? Here are some outcomes I’ve heard.

More students end up at their top choice school My top student (perhaps ever) was deferred by a college where he was well beyond the mean. It turned out that was the problem—the college decided the only reason a student that qualified would apply there would be to use it as a backup, and they resented the implication, so they decided to see just how serious he was.

If improving admissions means colleges stop doing things like that, I’m game. On the other hand, if the goal is to simply get more students in at their dream school, that’s just not feasible. Harvard would no longer be Harvard if they admitted twice as many students, and some students, bless them, don’t have a realistic understanding of what a particular college expects of them.

It should be easier to apply I like the spirit of this idea as well—six drafts of a personal statement is about three too many, and overburdened teachers shouldn’t have to write a student’s second letter of recommendation if the college gets the gist of the student with just one.

At the same time, the notion of making applying to college as easy as ordering at a drive thru—“One Ivy admission with an extra serving of Big Ten safeties”—can easily lead to students applying to schools without really considering if this is a place that offers the right mix of opportunity, challenge, and support. This isn’t about being a gatekeeper; it’s about making a responsible choice.

The real question, at least to me I enjoyed the last 15 years of my work at 2 schools where every student went to college, and I’d like to think I helped them make good choices. Still, there’s a good chance all those students would have attended a college that met their needs, if only because they went to a high school where every student went to college.

If we’re really serious about changing admissions, I’d suggest we start with this question, and see where it takes us:

Jamie is a 14-year-old student living in a large city. Jamie’s 15-year-old cousin Blaine lives in a rural area, some 100 miles from the nearest college campus. Both come from single parent households, with Jamie’s mom holding down three jobs just to pay the rent, and Blaine’s dad making just enough from his crops each year to stave off bankruptcy. Both attend a public high school where the one school counselor meets the social/emotional, academic, and career and college plans of 1800 students, and both come from homes where they would be the first in their families to go to college.

What would the college admissions process look like if we assume every student had the backgrounds and resources of Jamie and Blaine?

Ready? Begin.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

College Admissions, Juniors, and COVID

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This will be the last high school class that will have the culture-changing year of 2020-21 as part of their secondary school experience. While this initial year of COVID brought many changes to learning and college plans, the question arises—does this interruption of school as usual affect the class of 2024, who were ninth graders at the time? The answer is yes, but it’s likely to have less of an effect than it has for the students in the past three graduating classes. Here’s what that means to the world of college admissions:

Academic preparation Ample studies suggest student learning took a serious blow during the COVID-intense school year of 2020-21, when classes largely met online. For the Class of 2024, it also means they were denied a year of in-person ninth grade learning, a year that often includes instruction in study skills and other executive skills that serve as a foundation for successful learning in high school and beyond. This means these students returned to “high school as usual” in tenth grade without a thorough understanding of what it meant to be an in-person high school learner.

What does this mean to colleges? This lack of learning fundamentals may have been addressed by tenth- and eleventh- grade teachers, who realized what their students had missed as freshmen. However, the absence of a national plan on how to address these gaps left a hit-and-miss approach to making up this essential year of understanding what it means to be a student. Rising seniors will want to take a moment to honestly consider how this experience affected their learning, and if the holes of ninth grade were ever filled.

Extracurricular preparation The world of extracurricular activities was less affected by COVID, in large part due to many parents who insisted high schools continue to offer these experiences, since, to them, “that’s what high school is really all about.”

The mild effect of COVID, and the speedy return of nearly all extracurriculars since, means next year’s seniors largely had every opportunity to engage in a rich array of learning experiences outside the classroom. Colleges that value these activities are less likely to overlook students who took a complete pass on extracurriculars , in the last four years, since opportunities to participate in many activities, if only online, have been in play.

Explaining COVID to colleges Students who feel COVID limited their high school experience and success would do well to use the essay portion of their college application to give the colleges a clear, cogent understanding of their circumstances. As is the case with any student experiencing unusual circumstances, the colleges will be more interested in how the students have overcome the challenges they’ve faced, and if the student feels they will be able to give their all, and make the most, out of the college experience.

Reports from the field suggest many of this year’s seniors are appealing admission denials with the claim that the college didn’t understand just how strong a role COVID played in limiting their high school success. Appeal admits are rare, so the time to provide a thorough explanation of those circumstances is during the application process, not once a college says no. This will be especially true for next year’s seniors, since their high school experience was an additional year away from the epicenter of the pandemic.

It’s great juniors are planning ahead and looking forward to college. Doing so with their COVID experience in mind, and explaining its effect to colleges early, can only strengthen the student’s success in finding strong college matches.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Community Colleges and “Completion”

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Many of the students I worked with as a counselor at a community college had a story like this one:

He took a job right out of high school with a small business run by a neighbor. That was ten years ago, and the time had come for the owner to retire, creating a shift in administration that left a need for a manager. The student had a track record of solid work and commitment, and the owner said the job was his to have, provided he could earn sixteen credits in business courses before the owner retired in fourteen months.

Since the sixteen credits could be from any business classes, this schedule wasn’t too hard to put together. We reviewed the catalog, found some classes specifically designed for small businesses, and threw in the general survey courses in business and accounting. Thirty weeks later—and five months ahead of time—the student got his promotion, and a hefty raise to boot.

If you’re thinking, how great, the student accomplished his goal, you’d be right—unless you are the federal government. For the better part of ten years, the government has been urging, nudging, and flat out questioning community colleges and their completion rates, or number of students who leave their community college experience without a degree, certificate, or other credential. The rationale for this concern seems legitimate enough at first, since there is ample data showing the average salaries of US workers as it relates to educational attainment.

But relying on averages is where this discussion also begins to fall apart. Our student realized everything without a degree or certificate that most students want who are pursuing some kind of credential. It’s just that, in this case, the student didn’t need to spend extra time and money taking classes he didn’t need. Still, according to most observers, this student is a failure because he is a non-completer, and that just doesn’t sit well with many government officials.

The completion argument also falls apart when one considers the origins of the community college system. Community colleges were created to meet the higher education needs of the local community, hence the name. While those needs could include credential completion—many nurses and first responders are trained by community colleges—it can also include students who need to start locally to improve their academic reputations to transfer to a four-year college. Since transfer requirements vary widely from one four-year college to another, most of the students I worked with who wanted to transfer were better off not completing a community college credential, taking individual courses that were sure to transfer.

Much more important, the mission of community colleges is to provide opportunities to learn, not to provide credentials. The nontraditional student returning to take a class or two in History, since they now have the time and genuine interest to study it. The mid-career student who needs to pick up some essential courses before admission to a graduate program. The computer programmer who needs to upgrade their skills after five years away from the field. Their goals can be met by taking courses; their time would be wasted by completing degrees.

I’m a big fan of accountability, but I’m a bigger fan of everyone playing to their strengths. Not everyone needs to go to college; not everyone needs to go to a four-year college, and not everyone needs to get a credential from a community college. Threatening community colleges with outcomes they were never meant to achieve only hurts the people they are meant to serve. It’s time to reconsider this credentialing movement.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Deposits, Deferrals, Waitlists, and Your Second First Choice

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A first occurred last week, when I had two columns in a row that solicited reader comments with recommendations for future columns. I’m happy to oblige. 

An Early Yes With Required Deposit One reader provided feedback on the column about colleges wanting students to commit to coming before they’ve heard from all their schools. The response, in a nutshell, was that the column was short sighted and written from a privileged point of view, because I was assuming the student could afford to pay an enrollment deposit when saying yes early. 

Dear reader—no. The question addressed by that column was “If a college wants an early yes, what do you do?” The different question you wanted addressed was “If a college wants an early yes and a deposit, what do you do?” In that case, try this:

  • Is it refundable? If the college really has the temerity to ask for an early deposit, ask if the deposit is refundable, and if so, is there a deadline where it becomes nonrefundable. They may not provide this information willingly. Persist. 
  • Request a waiver If you need a fee waiver for any college deposit, ask. Since your financial aid forms will back you up, it’s going to be really hard for them to say no. 

If you have the funds to make the deposit, but simply don’t want to, your best bet is to tell the truth. “I’m really not in a position right now where I can pay an enrollment deposit. If there’s any way you can give me an extension on the deposit of 90 days, I’d really appreciate it.” This is nicer than saying “forget it”, so there’s a chance they’ll say yes. 

  • Is it time to be brave? If they say no to the waiver, it’s time to choose. This could be a sign they’re going to be inflexible with other issues in the future. Are you willing to deal with that for four years? 

Either way, another viable option is to simply say Yes to the offer and not send in the deposit. It’s likely this will lead to a series of letters from them that remind you about the deposit, a series of letters that gives you more time to hear from other schools.  Warning—this could also lead to your being kicked off the admit list without them telling you, so if you choose this option, you’re rolling the dice. Talk to your counselor before you make this move.

Waitlists and deferrals Another reader liked the column on how to deal with colleges saying no, and asked about handling waitlists and deferrals.

This should help with deferrals, and even though it’s a little old, it’s still sound advice, as long as it’s a sincere deferral. The same advice holds for waitlists.

The problem is the changing nature of deferrals and waitlists. Both have become ways of issuing a polite no—at least some colleges see it that way. If you aren’t sure, call the college and ask two basic questions: 

“How many students did you defer (waitlist) last year?” 

“How many on that list were ultimately accepted?” 

Each year is different, and you may have a special quality that increases your chances of getting off the list, so keep that in mind. At the same time, if a college has a list of 3000 names and admits 5 off that list, it’s time to assume you’ll be learning somewhere else. Keep pushing at your first choice, but start thinking about your second first choice. It’s the wise thing to do.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

College Admission and the Best in Class

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselor chat rooms are already filling up with comments from colleagues who are in a state of disbelief.

“I can’t believe they didn’t take him. He’s the best kid this school has seen in five years!”

“She took 14 AP classes and three at the local community college.”

“What else did they want her to do. Walk on water?”

Before things get really intense in the weeks to come, it’s time to keep a few things in mind.

Only so many How many best-in-the state oboe players are there in the United States?

Right. Each state has one, and only one, and while there isn’t a competition in any state to earn the title of Best Of, you get the idea.

Given that, let’s try Question 2.

Of those 50, how many is Juilliard likely to admit? How about Curtis? How about Eastman?

I don’t have the inside information from any of these fine music programs, but no matter how good any and all those oboists are, these premier programs will say no to many of them—likely as many as 40 of the 50, if not more.

As it goes with oboists, so it goes with students in general. Well-known colleges run out of room well before they run out of highly capable students. They’re still smart, well accomplished, and going to knock the socks out of their college experience. But not all of them can be admitted, and so choices have to be made.

More applicants than ever Regular readers of this column know I cringe when papers print the two stories they always print this time of year:

“Fancy School U Reports Record Number of Applicants”

“Fancy School U Admit Rate Reaches All Time Low”

This is one story, not two. Fancy School U isn’t likely to take more students, and if they do, it likely won’t be enough to offset the impact several hundred applications will have on admit rates. But our friends in the media are counting on America’s extreme dyscalculia to provide not one, but two opportunities to throw our hands up and declare college admissions to be a biased system.

In some ways it is, but not with the admit rate. This isn’t inside politics. It’s math, and it means it is harder than ever for even your best student to get admitted.

“But they did everything” They took all the hardest classes, aced the tests, spent summers in interesting ways, contributed to meaningful service programs, wrote amazing essays by themselves, and even got the teacher who is generally unimpressed to write a passionate letter. What more, you ask, could they have done?

The answer here is nothing. Assuming the application conveyed that the student was actually engaged in life and learning, the student did exactly what they were supposed to do, as did most of the other applicants. There may have been too many Neuroscience applicants, or they needed more applicants from Massachusetts, or they decided to revive the field hockey team. You didn’t know that. The student didn’t know that. Sometimes, the college doesn’t even know that until after the application deadline. So there is no second guessing.

It isn’t easy to accept a No you were convinced was a sure Yes—and if you feel that way, imagine how the student feels. Keeping these points in mind helps you move the student to the next phase, where they find the best home among their great Yes schools—and in the process, moves you to that next phase as well.

How lucky your students are to have you lead by example.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

“We’ll Take You—Right Now”

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The student was unsure what to do. One of the colleges she applied to notified her she had been admitted. After offering their congratulations, the college then told the student that, since the program she had applied to had only so many slots, she had to tell them if she was accepting the offer by March 10th—about 15 days later.

The challenge here is that the student hadn’t heard from all the colleges she applied to, and while this program had a lot to offer, she wasn’t certain this was the best choice for her, and she wasn’t sure if this was the only choice for her. To her way of thinking, this put her in a tough spot. If she says she’s coming, and she gets more offers later on, she could later be perceived to be a liar—and who wants to live with that? If she says no, she risks losing a seat at a good program that may not be perfect, but has a lot to offer. If only she had more time.

The good news, dear student, is that you do have more time, if you will do just one thing—tell the college you’re coming. While most colleges give you until May 1st to make a fully-informed decision (it used to be that all colleges were *required* to give students this long to decide), some believe they need to know sooner. This often happens with arts programs, so drama programs can make sure they don’t enroll too many playwrights and not enough thespians, or music programs can make sure they don’t get too many bassoonists.

If you have any feeling you’ll be lying to the college by saying yes, reconsider what they’re asking. They want your answer today—so, based on how you feel today, and based on the colleges you’ve been admitted to as of today, is this the place you’d pick? If the answer is yes, tell them that. If the answer is no, telling them early really isn’t an issue. If the answer is you don’t know, you’re thinking too much about what you’ll know in the future. Based on Right. Now. Would you go there? If yes, you’re being honest in telling them yes, and in saving your spot.

But, you say, what if you change your mind once you hear back from other programs?

I know a counselor—let’s call him Pat—who got a call from his wife, asking what he wanted for dinner. His wife was a great cook, so he suggested a dish she loved to make. Three hours later, Pat’s brother called to say he got a promotion he wasn’t expecting, and could he and his wife join him for dinner to celebrate. They did, and a good time was had by all.

In other words, time went on, new information was available, and they changed their mind. That’s not lying. That’s life.

Any college that wants you to make an informed choice before you have the chance to get all the information should either tell you that when you first apply (like Early Decision programs do) or expect to get a lot of students who say yes to an offer, and never come. Colleges that don’t do that, but still want a rushed decision, are forgetting their real mission—to serve the students. Search your heart, give them an honest answer based on what you know today, and look forward to reconsidering that answer if you get more information tomorrow. This is how the world works, and it’s more than OK.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Colleges—About Those Rejection Letters

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I offered my condolences to the father of a student turned down by their dream school. The father seemed to be taking the news in a calm, but disappointed, manner.


But his goodwill had its limits, which was clear when he talked about the letter his child had received. “The second half of this letter is absolute nonsense” he said. “It says, ‘You have a great deal to offer as a student, and we know your future will be bright.’ What is that all about? If he has so much to offer, then why didn’t they take him?”


Rejection letters are tricky things, to be sure, and it’s wise for colleges to offer as much support as possible when communicating a no. At the same time, these letters need to consider the cognitive domain of the reader as well as the affective domain. If all you have to offer is a hug after just saying no, that’s not going to confuse everyone—it’s going to anger them, which is what the colleges wanted to avoid in the first place.


What would have helped this rejection letter? Well:


Data Once a student is told they weren’t admitted, it’s pretty reasonable they’d like to know why. This is where a few basic numbers can be a college’s best friend. “We saw an increase of 14% in our applicant pool over last year, which meant we had to turn down many students who would have otherwise been admitted.” “The average high school GPA of our admitted students this year was a 3.7, a significant increase over past years.” Anything along these lines gives the student some idea as to where they stood, and why they landed where they did.


Institutional priorities Every college has its own quirks in the admissions decisions each year, and they aren’t always the same. A lack of engineering applicants increases the chances that students who wanted engineering are more likely to be admitted, while an increase in History majors means a smaller percentage of them are going to get a Yes. Some of these priorities are established at the start of the year, while others are shaped by the applicant pool. Either way, it’s not unreasonable to share them with applicants whose hopes have been dashed, since it provides context.


Encouragement to apply again This year’s applicant pool may be record setting, but that may not be the case next year. Following up a little bit of data with the suggestion they consider applying again, either as an incoming freshman or a transfer student, drives home the idea that the college really did think the student had possibilities. And with a big drop in high school seniors coming up, it’s not a bad idea to build next year’s applicant pool now.


That said, there is one thing that should never go into a rejection letter. Suggesting that the student wasn’t admitted because the college sensed the student didn’t align with the college’s mission or values statement is nothing short of insulting. Sure, oboe majors shouldn’t apply to engineering school. On the other hand, saying a student isn’t admissible because of some philosophical divergence is pretty cheeky. Would this student really not have been accepted if the applicant pool had dropped by 20 percent?


It’s commendable that colleges want to support students when they hear bad news, but support suggests a framework that lifts them up, not one that leaves them with more questions, or hurt feelings. Keeping it real is the key to an effective No letter, and the best way to respect a student’s intelligence.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Why We Do What We Do

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

He walked into my office with his head down, eyes glued to the floor, and shuffling his feet like his shoes were tied together. My best “Hi, how ya doin’?” registered just the smallest of smiles on his face, as he made his way to a chair in my office. It was just early October, so I wondered what this lad would be looking like by February.


He got right to business once he sat down. “I applied to my first-choice college three weeks ago, and I haven’t heard anything” he said. “I was wondering if you might be able to tell me if they’ve told you anything.”


I explained that colleges almost always tell the student first, but since he was here, we could certainly call the admissions office together and see where things were. With that, his face brightened significantly.


Younger readers may want to read this next section carefully, since you can’t do any of the things today that I’m about to describe. In this order, I: 

  • Picked up my office phone, and dialed it. Yes—dialed it.
  • Called the office of admissions, and spoke with the real, live receptionist who answered the phone on the second ring. No pressing 1 for admissions, 2 for financial aid, and so on.
  • Explained the purpose of my call to the receptionist, who then said “Oh, sure.” Not “I have to connect you with an admissions officer.” Looking up admissions statuses was right in the wheelhouse of receptionists.
  • When asked by the receptionist, I supplied the student’s Social Security Number, which the student gave me when I asked them.
  • Waited patiently as the receptionist confirmed the student’s name, then, en route to another computer screen, said to me “Oh my, with those grades and scores, we’d better have taken them.”
  • Thanked the receptionist for confirming the student had been admitted, and she advised me to tell the student their letter would be in the mail soon.

Given what I knew about the student and their first-choice college, I could have predicted the student would be admitted. That, and my enormous counseling caseload, may explain why I rather nonchalantly said “Congratulations, you’re admitted” as I focused my attention on making a note of the decision in their file, rather than looking at the student.


He got my attention rather immediately, when I heard what I could have sworn was crying. “Really?” I heard him say, as I finished my note. Now that he had my attention, I took a long view of him, and realized what was going on. The first student in his family was going to college, and that news was eliciting a compelling mix of happiness, tears, wonder, and uncertainty. We just sat there for a moment, to let the moment have its proper due.


I never put paperwork ahead of students again. What I saw as a sure thing that was no big deal was certainly a big deal to them—which meant it should be a big deal to me. It has been ever since.


Time marched on, and May came around, with an invitation to a graduation party. Except it wasn’t for that student, and it wasn’t that May. It was about 28 Mays later, and it was for that student’s oldest daughter, who was now going to be the second generation in her family to go to college. I hadn’t done a thing to help them go to college. Apparently, their father felt otherwise.


Same student, new lesson. Lucky me.