Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Helping Teachers Talk College Counseling

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

An English teacher’s daughter got into Princeton, so now she tells every Ivy League applicant just what to do to get in. A History teacher’s son got no financial aid, so he now tells students not to bother to apply.

Welcome to our world. Like it or not, the best way to reduce this unhelpful helping is to replace it with what you’d like them to say about college—more specifically, what you’d like them to say about college advising.

Tell them what you do The vast majority of teachers are really more than happy—and far too busy—not to offer college advice. But that can be a problem as well. If a student comes to them with a college question, they’re more likely to say “I can’t help you” than “That’s a great question. Your counselor likely has the answer.”

To turn the tide, you need to start by making sure teachers know just what postsecondary planning services you offer. Your message needs to emphasize your services include all plans for life after high school, not just four-year colleges (most teachers think we only talk four-year college, because they only went to four-year college). Ideally, you’d get about 15-20 minutes at a faculty meeting or professional development day, spending about half of it on your college counseling curriculum and how it’s implemented.

Tell them what you don’t do This presentation should also briefly address some common misconceptions about the counselor’s role in the college advising process. Like many parents, teachers often think we are the ones who “get students into college”, or that we will “generously edit” student essays. Briefly touching on the things we don’t do can clear up a lot of confusion in a hurry.

Walk them through the student process This may sound like a lot, but this is something you can do in about three Power Point slides. Using this as your guide, this explanation gives teachers some idea what their students are going through in the process, and when. This can sharpen teacher’s college radar, knowing when to send students for your help at specific times of their search. You might even consider sending out a faculty email at the start of each month, reminding them which part of the process students are involved in by grade level. This kind of communication is valued by teachers, as long as it’s short and to the point.

Tell them how they can help We’re going to devote next week’s column to this topic, but it’s important for now to save the last 5 minutes of your faculty presentation for a summary of how teachers can help in the process. This has to include some reasonable questions, comments, and activities they can do that won’t take much time. It also has to include more than “Just send the kids to us”, since there really are some practical things teachers can help with that will allow you to focus on more complex issues—and since saying that turns teachers off to your program.

Telling them what not to do You may want to address some common misconceptions about the college selection process in general, but don’t try to fix individual behaviors in a public setting. The teacher who tells students not to bother with FAFSA needs a conversation with you, if only so they can get their frustrations off their chest for once and for all, and get a better understanding of how they can help students. “Praise in public, correct in private” is definitely the rule of the day.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Building a College List

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

At this stage of things, you’re heading into the home stretch of the first part of the college search. By studying hard, giving back, thinking about your place in the world, and having fun, your high school years have been great to experience and great to grow on—something to build, not just a college application on, but for applying yourself once you’re in college, and once you’re out. Because you built these qualities up over time, you’re not burned out about college; because your parents and your counselor are on board with you, they’re not on your case; because you’ve learned about the colleges in great detail, you’re focused on finding schools that are right for you, not finding ones that are “right” colleges.

You really need to hold on to that last thought tight from now until June of your senior year. Lots of well-meaning folks at the family reunion, Thanksgiving table, or New Year’s Party will ask you where you’re going to go, and what you’re going to major in. If you don’t give them the answer they want to hear—that you’ll be majoring in Business at one of “those” colleges—they will likely do things with their faces you swore were limited to cartoon characters who eat too many Cocoa Doodles for breakfast.

Of course, it’s fine to major in Business at a name college—if that’s right for you—but if that’s not where you are, that’s not where you should go. Don’t get me wrong—the last thing you want to do is go to college without thinking about your plans. But if you’ve thought about them and don’t have a major, then finding a college that doesn’t care if you have one right now is a plan, even if it’s at a college people haven’t heard of, and even if you change your major a lot once you’re there (which most students do—even the business majors).

Keeping your focus in the midst of all these opinions and cocoa doodles may not be the easiest thing to do—so you need to focus on something else. As you continue to research colleges, remember your goal is:

  1. A list of 4-8 colleges you’d like to apply to, which includes:
    1. At least one college in your home state;
    2. Two colleges where your grades (and if it applies, test scores) are above the averages for most of the students admitted there;
    3. A couple of dream schools you can’t quite figure out how you’ll get into or pay for;
    4. All colleges you’ll be happy to go to.

This doesn’t have to be a “one and done” exercise, so dream on, keep thinking, be strong in the work you have done so far…

…and don’t forget to fish out the cereal that landed in the cracks between the sofa cushions.

Also—write your list down, and put it somewhere you can see it every day.

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Working with Your School Counselor

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students, driving the life-after-high school bus means taking care of all the passengers, and that includes someone whose role is pretty important—your school counselor.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

“Hang on. So I meet with my parents every week, and I have to stay in touch with someone I’ve only met once when I changed my schedule?”

Exactly right—and that’s the problem. If you look at most college applications, there’s a section that has to be filled out by your school counselor. It doesn’t matter how well the counselor knows you. It doesn’t matter how many other students they work with. It doesn’t matter how many other things your counselor does besides help students get into college. The colleges want to hear from your counselor.

That means one of three things will happen with the space the counselor has to complete. It stays blank; your counselor scribbles something in it that could apply to anyone; your counselor has so many helpful things to say about you they have to write “continued on attached document”.

Two questions here. First, if you gave this form to your counselor today, what option would they choose? Second, which option are you rooting for?

Thought so.

This isn’t hard. For the first two years of high school, see your counselor when you need to—when you need to change a schedule, discuss a personal issue, apply for a summer program—and, if they have time, talk about college. Like it or not, your counselor is way overworked. So go see them if you need them; if not, space is good.

In most cases, the time to ramp things up is in February of junior year. If your school is like most, this is when you’ll schedule classes for senior year. By the end of January, you’ll want to type up a summary of your community service and extracurricular activities, along with any awards and recognitions you’ve received. Complete this with 1-2 paragraphs explaining why you want to go to college. This way, the notes or letter your counselor writes for the college will be more than just a list of what you’ve done; it will show them more of who you are. That makes a difference.

You’ll also want to have your senior schedule written up and finished. Your counselor may have scheduled this meeting to talk about your classes, but you don’t want to do that. Instead, put all these materials in a folder that has your name on the front. Hand it to your counselor when your meeting starts, then say:

“Mrs. Jones, I know you’re really busy, so I got a copy of my transcript from the office and planned my senior schedule already. I also want you to know I’m scheduled to take the SAT in April, and I’m doing some in-person and online college tours over spring break. I don’t know if I’ll see you before I apply for colleges before fall, so here’s a list of what I’ve been up to in high school, along with my thoughts about college. I’ve highlighted the activities that mean the most to me, and my cell number is at the top of the page, so you can contact me right away if you have any questions. Thanks for helping me with this. If I have any questions, what’s the best way to contact you?”

I promise you—if you do this, your counselor will look for reasons to see you from now on, and that’s a good thing.

Counselor on board? Drive on.