Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Student I Never Knew

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

As I recall, the subject line of the email was so plain, I almost deleted it in the preview screen—but off we went, and it went something like this.

“Dear Mr. O’Connor:

“You don’t know me, but I attended one of your college application seminars at the public library two years ago. You said that building a college list only worked if you looked around enough to understand all the possibilities, and that too many students settle for the easy answers. It’s important to make sound choices, you said, but don’t be afraid to follow your heart a little.

“I went home and realized I hadn’t done that, so I started looking again. I came across a small school in California, so much of a better opportunity than the schools I had on my list. I did some additional investigating, applied, and was admitted. I can’t tell you what a wonderful first year I had last year. It was everything I’d hoped college would be.

“I was flying back this week to start my second year, when I noticed an article you wrote in the in-flight magazine about choosing the right college. This gave me the perfect opportunity to thank you for helping me find the right place for me. I’m most grateful.”

I was once told that a counselor could only retire once they helped a student they hadn’t met. I first figured that meant I’d work forever. But I got this email at least fifteen years ago, and did kind of retire at that point—I retired any doubt that I didn’t know what I was doing.

It made a world of difference. Students who had no idea what came after high school got even more words of understanding than before, since I was no longer afraid I’d be fired for failing to “get them in.”

A parent argued—in front of her own senior—that the student wasn’t bright enough to get into his first-choice college. “Their GPA is too low” she insisted.

I picked up his transcript—which didn’t have a cumulative GPA—and looked at it with 20 years of calculating GPAs behind me. “Gee” I said, “They’ve probably got a 3.42.”

The words barely came out of my mouth before the mother yelled—yelled—“It is not”.

That used to be enough to cause a week of sleepless nights. But I knew that I knew what I was doing now, so I started to use the phrase that would come in handy with every scared parent—and every parent who yells is just scared—I would ever meet again.


I calculated the GPA when they left, and I was wrong. It wasn’t 3.42. It was 3.43.

Meetings with students became more open-ended. I stopped asking about college, asking instead “What’s next for you?” I knew the ones who answered with a college list really didn’t understand the question, and if Harvard was the dream, they’d need a lot of backups. The ones who answered with what they wanted to study, the places they wanted to see—or, best of all, the questions they wanted to explore—had the sense of self that could sustain the fragile boasting of the rich pretenders in The Yahd. They were going to be just fine wherever they went.

Thanks to that student, I now know every student I helped bring what’s next to life had this quality—it was all them. That’s the best you can hope for in a profession that requires students to be first.

That, and helping a student you never met.

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