Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Remembering Deren Finks

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.
The Dream Team—Deren Finks far right

He was born and raised in South-Central LA, but his laugh could fill counties. He attended a local college, and started working in its admissions office, where his natural instincts for the work, and for people, were evident at the jump. People who met him for the first time didn’t just like him; they loved him, and had to summon everything they could not to end their first meeting by hugging this giant, effusive, teddy-bear of a man.

Word spread about this guy in the college admissions community, and it didn’t take long before he was dean of admissions at Harvey Mudd College, one of the most prestigious science and engineering colleges in the world. Quick on his feet, a keen study of human nature, blessed with a heart of gold, there was no one else you wanted in charge of a place that could become a nerd shop in a hurry. Deren simply didn’t allow it.

If you wanted to work for Deren, you had to put people first, always. Some would argue that’s easy to do at a college that has more applicants than slots, but some of the highly selectives can be pretty standoffish about their status. That didn’t work with Deren. His attitude towards work was that he hired good people, and let them work as they see fit. If some of them spent an afternoon on Facebook—and he knew if you did—he didn’t really care, as long as the work got done, and got done the right way. Deren was one of those bosses who truly believed you should have a life and a job.

Poor health led Deren to take some time off from his work, even though his employer said Deren could work from home and do as much or as little as he wanted. After a few years of healing, he returned to college admissions as a dean of college counseling at a school where the expectations were high, and the counselors were married to their job.

It wasn’t the kind of place for a guy who brings his dogs to work, but they offered it to him anyway, and he changed it overnight. Deren told his veteran staff he knew they could do his job, maybe even better than he could. This quintet became known throughout the country as The Dream Team, with Deren shaping a college counseling program that was rich with heart, joy, wit, purpose, and humanity.

And those parents with high expectations? Whenever a parent called, he waited until the next day to call back, knowing that a return call the same day would be with a frazzled parent who wanted their kid in Princeton NOW, but a call the next day would be more rational. It was magic.

Trying to change an old school prep school is tough work, and Deren’s health began to suffer again. He worked at a smaller school for a while, then left the field again. To the despondence of an entire profession, he died due to complications from kidney failure, and the admissions world was silent for a week.

October is usually seen as hair-pulling season in college admissions, where college folks spend too much time on the road, and high school folks wait for the next parent to yell at them. Deren Finks waltzed into this field with a love for all that is right and good, and showed us all how we, and our work, could be right and good. Here’s hoping we always remember the lesson of the jovial teddy-bear from Compton Country Day.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

AI and Counselor Letters of Recommendation

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

2023 may be remembered as the year artificial intelligence hit the world of college admissions head on. While AI has long been an integral part of the selection process for many colleges, the ability to use AI in application essays is leading to significant discussions of its impact on student essays in the application process.

Lost in this AI discussion is the question of whether AI has a proper place in the writing of counselor or teacher letters of recommendation. At first blush, the use of AI seems like a pretty bad idea. If the goal of recommendations is to get to know the student better as a person, the two-dimensional, factual, flat writing style associated with AI wouldn’t seem to advance that goal.

College admissions officers who have reviewed AI-generated student essays have said as much in several articles. Yes, the computer answers the question, but it gives little, if any, sense of the life of the student, and of what it means to see the world through their eyes. If that’s the case, wouldn’t AI-generated letters by teachers and counselors suffer from the same problem?

The answer here is complicated. Counselors with large caseloads often lament they can’t really give their best to letters of recommendation, simply because they are serving too many students to get to know them well. When speaking confidentially, some college admissions officers agree, saying that too many counselor—and teacher—letters of recommendation are so vague, they give little additional insight into the nature of the applicant. Letters that include a rehashing of the student’s GPA, extracurricular activities, and test scores simply repeat information found in other parts of the application, doing nothing to advance the student’s chances of admission.

This is where AI could move counselor letters forward. Counselors can have the computer create a rough draft of the letter. The counselor can then edit the text to include stories and examples of the student’s qualities that add essential personal touches, separating the student from other applicants, and raising the overall quality of counselor letters as a result.

This change means counselors need to plan ahead. Counselor meetings that are largely logistical—meetings to discuss student schedules, junior interviews, and the ever-present senior graduation audit—need to be restructured, where the nuts and bolts of what classes to take are largely taken care of ahead of time, with the student bringing a list of classes to the meeting with them.

School websites can be used to support this effort, with sections outlining what students need to consider in building a grade-appropriate schedule for their year. This won’t eliminate the need for scheduling discussions entirely, but it will minimize them, allowing the counselor a chance to get beyond the procedural issues, and spending more time getting to know the student, creating a stronger base for meaningful letter writing.

Counselors with smaller caseloads would do well to approach AI with caution. Schools with low student-counselor ratios are dedicating institutional resources to make sure counselors develop deep, meaningful relationships with students, something a higher caseload can limit. The introduction of AI into the letter-writing process could give students, parents, and administrators the impression that counselors aren’t devoting enough attention to building these relationships, an impression that can affect many facets of the counseling program.

Using AI as a first draft tool in this case may be tempting, but counselors with small caseloads would do well to explain in advance why they’re using such a tool, in the interest of avoiding misunderstanding in the community.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

A 20 Minute Counselor Letter of Recommendation? Yup

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselor chat rooms are filled with lamentations about writing college letters for students. I get it—you think this is time consuming, with 100 seniors on your case load. But you just spent three hours a day on schedule changes; why not write up to three letters a day in those three hours?


What’s that—you can’t do a letter in 20 or 30 minutes? Try this:


Plan ahead Most counselors do senior reviews, to make sure seniors will graduate on time, and ask about future plans. Instead, take 30 minutes each morning to review the files of the seniors you’re going to see that day, checking on their graduation status, and reviewing your note from their junior interview on future plans. If you made them complete a junior interview sheet, review that as well. If that sheet didn’t include a “describe a moment that changed your life” question—or if you didn’t have an interview sheet at all-- go back and add it.


Your senior interviews now go something like this. “I checked your schedule, and you’re on track to graduate, and last time we talked, you were thinking about State U for life after high school. Is that still the plan?”


Once that’s tackled, go deeper. “What’s happened in your life you’d like me to tell the colleges about? What has being a student here meant to you? What are two memorable moments from your time here, either in or out of the classroom? What would you like your college experience to be like?”


Time to write Three senior interviews of 30 minutes each leaves you ninety minutes to write three letters.


Intro Start with one of their memorable moments. “Jimmy Jameson didn’t consider himself much of an actor, but then he tried out for the school play on a dare from his friends.” Finish that story in another sentence or two.


Paragraph two You now enter your observations of Jimmy, even if they’re just based on the junior and senior interviews, and other notes or observations, including those of teachers that may have come your way. “That’s the kind of good-natured student Jimmy is. With a strong groups of friends, Jimmy has taken some of our most demanding classes (discussing academic caseload is a must) and done well with them. He also made school history as the first qualifier for the state math competition’s top 100 (what makes him notable—another must), doing all this with a can-do attitude that is open to the thoughts of others and eager to take on new challenges.”


Paragraph three Use the answers to the questions from senior interview to conclude. “Jimmy takes these strong qualities with him to his next school, where he hopes to study Biology as part of a pre-med experience. He looks forward to being part of a spirited college campus, and is eager to share his own skills on the field through club sports. Given his openness to new experiences, I can’t think of a better student to belong to a campus with ample opportunities to try new things.”


That’s it. If the student had unusual experiences that kept them from realizing their full potential, mention that, and ask the college to call you.


With a little practice, this letter takes twenty minutes; tells a story (skip the list of extra curriculars—that’s somewhere else in the application), giving life to the student, and fits on one page, which is a must. Three of these a day gives you 100 letters in seven weeks, just by swapping schedule change time for writing time. More counseling magic.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Schedule Changes? Puh-lease!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

School has just started in many districts, and the counselor chat rooms are already rich with concerns about the subject we love to hate in the fall—schedule changes. No sooner do we get through with orientation sessions where we tell the students how much we care about them, and we’re saying no to a schedule change that “will ruin their lives.”


It's a little late to change the rules in the middle of the game, but there will always be more schedule changes with the next trimester or semester. Giving some thoughts now about how to change the schedule change process can be invaluable with the next round of changes.


Schedule changes are really not your job Unless you are required to do so by contract, there is nothing—and I mean, nothing—about being a school counselor that suggests you should be changing schedules. Administrators who try and sell schedule changes as an outgrowth of academic advising are confusing a counseling duty (academic goal setting) with a logistical need (someone to move classes around. Think about it: Once you get past “Why do you want to make this change?”, what skill set is unique to counselors that teachers, administrators, or parapros don’t possess—or could, with practice?

It's important to remember this so you’ll stop beating yourself up about “not doing my job.” Once you realize this has nothing to do with counseling, you can leave any impressions your students have of you as Schedule Changer behind when it’s time to be a Counselor—and keeping that in mind can make the paper shuffling infinitely more manageable.


Review your process I worked at a high school where schedule changes were done without any student-counselor interaction. The student filled out a form, indicating what they wanted to change, and why. It was submitted by a particular deadline, and counselors processed the changes in the order they were received. The counselor’s response to the request was written at the bottom of the form, and returned to the student through their first hour class. Unhappy students who wanted to press the issue could always set up an appointment after that, but the vast majority of schedule changes were executed by the counselor, at the counselor’s pace, without the pressure of having armies of students waiting in line. Changes were made more efficiently and effectively, giving counselors more time to do, well, their real job.


Administrators will overrule you. So? Counselors often feel undercut when they deny a schedule change, using the established guidelines, only to have an administrator approve the change when the student—or, more likely, the parent—appeals the decision. 


It’s easy to see why this may be bothersome, since this could appear to undercut your authority—except this isn’t your job in the first place. Administrators set the schedule changing rules, and if they decide there’s an appeals process, let them own it. You don’t need to.


Give families a heads up Review your scheduling paperwork, and look for where—and how—you tell families the ground rules for schedule changes. The information needs to be clear, brief, and distributed frequently. That way, if someone fumes about a No, you have a strong process to fall back on.


Get schedule changes out of your office Principals don’t know what a time killer schedule changes are. Point out what else you could do with all that time, especially in the name of student mental health. That may get them off the dime, especially if you have a suggestion about a different process (like hiring temporary parapros).