Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Commencement 2024

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Graduates, congratulations. Finishing high school has never been easy, even when it’s just the usual twists and turns of making it through 9th grade PE with your self-esteem intact and surviving senior prom. In your case, the ride has had a few more challenges, and still, here you are.

Many commencement speeches offer advice about the life that awaits you, and how you should manage it—but you’ve already kind of been there and done that. Many of you started with some online variation of high school during the height of COVID, where learning occurred online, in person, or both. But you kept at it, the masks and the days at home eventually receded, and school became school again.

I’d like to say that was the end of it for you, but not quite. For many of you, going back to school was either weird—because you hadn’t really been to high school yet—or hard, because, for you, COVID brought changes to more than just the way you went to high school.

Despite all that, today is upon us, with you here in all your glory—and make no mistake, you are glorious. You cut up frogs in Biology, learned (then forgot) what a rhombus is, wondered what the big deal was with Hester Prynne, and, with any luck, had a teacher explain the history of the Supreme Court’s quill pens. As you sit here, you’re pretty sure none of this will be of help with your life, since you have no plans to be a biologist, mathematician, adulterer, or attorney. Since COVID taught you the lessons Commencement addresses tackle— don’t look for hard times, persist if they should find you, know you will emerge with a clearer sense of self—I’ll skip those, and allow me to decode the other stuff for you.

You cut up frogs to see how things work, and how seemingly unrelated things affect each other in ways you can’t possibly imagine. You investigate these seemingly unplausible things in life to make sure they’re real. I can’t think of a better skill to have when handling the politics of a workplace, or the laundromat in a college residence hall. Take nothing for granted.

You learned what a rhombus was to discover it is neither a square nor a rectangle, even though it shares properties of both. Seeing the sameness and difference of things at the same time—and respecting both-- is arguably the most important skill you will need in life, especially during an election year. Be steadfast and steady in your pursuit of both. (And yeah—it’s a diamond.)

Hester Prynne had problems in part because of what she did, but more because of who she hung out with. Move The Scarlet Letter to Walden Pond, and there’s nothing to see. Keep that in mind if peers make you think twice about the right thing to do, or who you are. Change is a natural part of life, as long as the desire to do so is genuine and from within. Remember that when drinking—and other things—call.

The 1700s Supreme Court supplied quill pens so attorneys could take notes. This stopped being useful, but the quill pens are still handed out, so attorneys have a souvenir of their big day in court. Change is sometimes glacial, and with unintended consequences. Remember that, advocate for the practical, and leave ample room for the romantic. It matters.

You graduate today, knowing much about who you are, and how to become even more of who you are. That’s a great way to commence.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Before You Go to College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Seniors, here are some recommendations on spending your summertime. College is about trying new things, so give these a spin, and you'll hit the campus more flexible than Gumby after a yoga class.

Movie You Must See Before You Go to College The Shawshank Redemption was overlooked when it was released the same year as Forrest Gump. Now it's on TNT every month. A story about second chances, forgiveness and negotiating with the world, this isn't an easy movie to watch, but it talks about hope, determination, and always knowing what's right. It will give you the skills to handle Intro to Econ, eccentric roommates, and more.


Movie Clip You Must See Before You Go to College Call it cheesy, but the first scene in The Sound of Music is worth the four minutes and 32 seconds it will occupy in your life (the link gives you just a taste). All you see are the mountains of Austria, and all you hear is the remarkable voice of a young Julie Andrews. Success in college demands an ability to stop and appreciate that which is simple and beautiful. Watching this clip will also help you understand why your father's adolescence was complicated by having an intense crush on a nun.

Song You Must Listen to Before You Go To College The second movement of Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp is the finest piece he ever wrote, and its potential was fully realized by Jean Pierre Rampal. Rampal started as a pre-med major, but his heart had other designs, and he went on to become the premier flutist of all time. This reminds you that anyone who believes all works of Mozart are the same has no idea what listening is all about — keep that in mind.


Song Clip You Must Watch Before You Go To College It took less than two minutes for Ella Fitzgerald and the Manhattan Transfer to find their place in Grammy history in 1983 with this rendition of "How High the Moon." Your goal in college is to work this hard to make everything look this easy — and if you leave college without an appreciation for good jazz, your tuition was wasted.


Phrase You Must Add to Your Vocabulary "Ma'am." Colleges are run by administrative assistants — veteran, organized, secretaries who have a way of doing things that is older than Stonehenge. This method almost always works to your advantage, except at peak times when every student needs help, and their system of order is on the brink of collapse. That's where you come in.


You: "I need to drop a class."


Administrative assistant, peering over half glasses: "Have you seen your adviser?"


You: "Yes ma'am."


You have made her day, and she will never, ever, forget you.


This is good. Trust me. Unless the assistant is male — then, never mind.


Phrase You Must Delete from Your Vocabulary "No problem." One of these assistants may thank you for doing something. The only way you can get off their good side is to respond with anything but "You're welcome." Practice now.


Book You Must Read Before You Go To College How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Neither fiction nor a scholarly work, it's like your Irish neighbor telling you the enriched but true story of the vital role Irish monks held in restoring education to Europe during the time of St. Patrick. You won't read anything this easy or biased in college, but its story of how modest people can engage in diligent efforts that change history will stay with you forever.



Wednesday, May 15, 2024

40 Years Later

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s a teenage kid
No matter what he did
Nobody ever understands
And he don’t measure up
And he’s had enough
Can’t be his daddy’s little man
So he pulls out that hot rod Chevy
Puts in his favorite cassette
He ain’t goin’ to no college
The world is waitin’ up ahead *

It's hard to believe it’s over 30 years since Bob McDill wrote those lyrics as part of the Leroy Parnell hit, On the Roadand while some of the references are dated (cassette tapes?), so much of it is still true today.

I’ve been thinking about that, as I complete year 40 as a college counselor. When I started, I saw what our work was doing for-- and, unfortunately, to-- so many students who weren’t at the top of the socio-economic heap. I remember chuckling to myself and thinking, well, all that will be fixed by the time I hang it up.

And then I went to my first College Board fall counselor update, the annual program that let counselors know what was new and exciting in SAT land. The presenter gushed, as she talked about how the SAT had been recentered, and was designed to better measure what it purported to measure. We then took a break, so I thought I’d let them know their message really hit home.

“Wow, it’s great to hear about the changes to the SAT.”

“Yeah” she said, warily.

“So, you can fix the cultural, gender, and racial biases in the test, and create a level playing field.”

She looked at me like I was the stupidest guy on the planet. “We’re not doing that” she scoffed. “If we did, there’d be no way to compare old SAT scores with new SAT scores.”

And that, my friends, is one of the major themes of the world of college counseling—we can’t change anything, because—well, we can’t.

The goal with some of the few changes (test-optional policies, college access organizations) was clear—to de-snootify college admissions. This is an uphill battle, since—let’s face it—there’s so much money and prestige involved in making college admissions an American caste system. It’s how The New York Times education section stays in business (its latest piece on college admissions in six words or less: Harvard is hard to get into); it’s how too many (and by no means all) independent consultants charge an average of $4200 per student; and it’s how test prep organizations guilt blue-collar families into paying way too much for a test they might not even need. The message is the same: College is about being one of them.

The funny thing is, I’ve tried to spend the better part of my career telling students—and many, many, many families—college isn’t about being one of “them”. College is about being more of yourself. College can help first-gen kids make more money, but it can also help them understand the world better, and maybe be more comfortable with the gifts they may have that make them remarkable—something that isn’t always embraced in our blue-collar world. College can help upper class kids find the grounding so many of them need, getting past who they think they are, or what their trust funds say they should be, discovering an air of authenticity we all long for.

That’s why I went into the field—so students could explore their college options, and see if it opened up avenues of identity. 40 years later, it could still be much better at doing that.

I may be at this for a while.

* from "On the Road" by Bob McDill © 1992 Bob McDill, PolyGram International Publishing, Inc. & Ranger Bob Music.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

College Counseling for First Generation Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There isn’t a lot of research on the best way to talk about college with students who would be the first in their family to attend, but it’s a research field that’s growing. The Journal of College Access is a space devoted to such research (full disclosure—I am a founding editor), so I’ve had a chance to peruse some quality work on this topic. Combined with conversations with professionals who work with these students, here’s a quick guided tour of things to do to shape a college counseling curriculum for first gens:

Start early Students who only know about colleges thanks to the NCAA and what they’ve “heard” about Harvard need a full-blown introduction to college—what it is, the kinds of colleges that exist, and why people go.

For high school counselors, the challenge here is that this education for first gens needs to start way before ninth grade—ideally, no later than fifth-or sixth-grade. This means working with your K-8 counseling colleagues on college awareness—or, if push comes to shove, going down to their buildings to present it yourself. It’s better if they buy in, but either way, it has to get out there, and early.

Involve parents A good number of parents who didn’t go to college are convinced of three things:

  • They can’t afford college—any college
  • Their child doesn’t have the grades for college
  • College is a waste of money if their child doesn’t know what they want to major in

You likely address all these topics with your 9-12 students when you talk college, and the same presentations will work with parents and younger students. Hint: Some of these parents will not come to a night presentation held at school. Instead, think about a Zoom presentation, or a presentation in the mall, the laundromat—or the local bar. Wherever it’s offered in person, bring raffle prizes, serve food (pizza works), offer childcare, and include case studies of students from your school who went on to college—there’s nothing like familiar faces to encourage families to open up.

Affordability, Part 2 A nice add-in for first gen presentations is a walkthrough of the Federal Student Aid Estimator and a Net Price Calculator. The Estimator asks 10 questions that give an estimate—yes, it’s an estimate—of how much Federal aid the student could get. Net Price Calculators are college-based estimators of aid the student might get at that college—take a look at this one for Michigan State.

These are both estimators, and some students and families may jump at the idea of loans, so you need to talk about what that means. It’s also wise to direct them to a college that’s more affordable for your average family, since the goal is to educate, not intimidate.

Take College Classes in High School The very best way to help students understand what college is all about is to have them go to college while in high school. Programs like Early College and Dual Enrollment allow students to do this, with the school district typically paying for all related costs.

It’s best if these classes are offered on a college campus—that offers the student the full experience. It’s also important to work with the student to take classes that will likely transfer for college credit when they go to college after high school. Not nearly all classes transfer, so work closely with the students to choose wisely. If they can take 3 or 4 college classes in high school, for free, they’ll see college as something doable, because they’ve already done it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Advice for College First Years

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Welcome to college! The opportunities you have here to learn about yourself and the world—from exploring the world of entomology to trying your first naan—are vast, and your goal is to finish your college experience without saying “Gee, I should have tried…” too often. That means staying open to the possible, all while using sound judgment, so that you will also get to the end of your college experience and say “Gee, I’m glad I didn’t try…” (translation: cans filled with mixed liquor should be avoided at all costs).

In terms of life in the classroom, the rules are few, and pretty simple. A vast majority of students who don’t do well in college don’t consistently apply these rules. Sometimes that’s not their fault, but it’s still the reason why college turns out differently than they expected. Ready?

Read the syllabus. The syllabus is the roadmap of how class is going to work. Each class is a different destination, so each roadmap will be different. This will require you to be flexible, and it will require you to understand each roadmap as different. Read it before class starts, and at least once each week for the first four weeks of class.

Go to class. Some colleges actually take attendance, which is silly—any professor who runs a class you can pass without showing up should not be teaching. Either way, being there means you are creating a space in your busy life to shut everything else out (yes, turn off your phone during class) and focus on the task at hand. Do that

Schedule study time. There was once a book called Making College Count that suggested students treat school like a 9-5 job. Schedule every moment for 5 days, and you get weekends off, either for a social life, or to make up for the times during the week where things fell off track.

This approach may be too strict for you, but you get the idea. You’ll need 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour you’re in class to study, take notes (by hand), copy your notes over (yes, writing them again makes you know them better), and complete assignments. Scheduling the same time each week to do these things—preferably right before or after class—helps you learn.

Use office hours. Professors hold times for students to come by and ask questions. Students only go there right before exams, and ask questions that were already answered in class. It’s vital to go to a professor as the class progresses and say “I heard what you said about elasticity, but I didn’t quite understand this part.” Focus your questions, and you’ll get more from the visit. It’s also OK just to go and say hi. Profs like that, too.

Be honest. If you get behind and need help, don’t pretend you aren’t. Ask for help, and see if the college has tutors or an academic support center to help support your efforts. If life gets overwhelming for any reason (academic or personal), mental health resources abound. Use them—and if a roommate or pal is hurting, get them to those resources right away.

Embrace humility. If the syllabus says late work isn’t accepted, it isn’t. If papers have to be written in multiple paragraphs, and yours isn’t, it won’t get credit. There are reasons for these rules, and if you don’t understand them, ask your professor. They aren’t being unfair; they told you the rules at the outset, and now they are just being incredibly fair by being consistent. Understanding this leads to personal growth.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Parenting a College Student

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is the time of year when many parents aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. Years and years—and years—of chauffeuring kids here and there created a portal into their lives college doesn’t offer. In a way, that’s good; kids aren’t raised to be perpetually dependent. On the other hand, it’s wise to want to be there when their reality of adulthood is less than their vision of what it’s supposed to be.

The adult phase of parenthood is less about doing, and more about watching. You going to campus, and their coming home, are vital parts of your relationship. But the bigger part is stepping back and considering the big picture, not always easy to do when you aren’t in their lives every day.

Experienced college parents suggest this approach:

  • Make sure they don’t settle socially The best college experience comes for students who don’t simply trust their first roommate, dorm colleagues, and classmates will be lifelong chums. It does sometimes work that way, but if they come across brooders, or the high school students who still think they need to be on the fringe, it may be time to sit at a new dining table, or find a different place to hang out. Many first-year students have a heart that may feel the need to be the one sane person a challenged student needs to keep going. They certainly can do that, but they can do that *and* meet their own needs for growth. Keep an eye out—and if you sense they’re in a relationship where the other party needs help, find a kind way to say that, or to help your child connect their friend to the college-based help they need. 

  • Keep an eye on the relationships with high school chums Some students leave high school intending to keep close with their friends, while others are looking for a fresh start. This is a delicate balance. Too much reliance on high school chums stunts the college experience. Running far away from unexpected high school faces on campus may deny them a chance to see that person in a new, better, and delightful light. The kindergarten song rings true—make new friends, and keep the old, as long as they are healthy and true relationships.

  • Don’t settle academically I went to a summer basketball camp that, I believe, scarred me for life, but the one piece of good advice I got was “always play people better than you”. College opportunities are rich, and the only way students make the most of them is to seek them out. I had a student who got underfunded at their first college choice, so when they attended their second choice, they owned the place, ultimately being the first student to run their much-vaunted foreign policy summit. Those experiences don’t come to those waiting for an invitation.

It's also important to see college years as something beyond a campus experience. Colleges are in communities that need volunteers; colleges have departments with professors eager to help students publish in academic journals; parts of the world have college campuses to attend as a guest student or study-abroad participant. Students were admitted to college in part because they used their high school years to think about “what’s next”. A similar attitude about college will yield the same success and rich experience.

  • Schedule a regular time each week for a phone call They get their life, you get your lifeline, and it’s well organized. Generally, anything more than weekly is excessive. You helped them grow wings. Time for them to fly.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

FAFSA Foul-Ups? Apply Anyway (For Your Students)

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students, I get it.

I used to work for the US Department of Education, and they’re supposed to be helping you get an education—but it sure doesn’t seem that way, if you’ve applied for financial aid for life after high school. They changed the FAFSA form—the one used to apply for aid—and it was supposed to make applying easier.

It didn’t work. The new version had flaws, and more flaws are discovered nearly every week. Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect formulas used to calculate eligibility—and this means many colleges won’t be sending out financial aid awards until May. This isn’t the fault of the colleges—and it isn’t your fault, either.

Colleges understand this, and they are doing everything they can to let students know two things:

  1. We want you to apply to our college.
  2. We want to do everything we can to help pay for it.

Students and families applying for aid are understandably frustrated with everything that’s happening. Given that, here’s my advice:


It’s never great when the people who are supposed to help you actually get in the way of you achieving a goal, but that doesn’t mean the goal is less important—it just means it’s a little harder to achieve. Some of you didn’t pass your driver’s test on the first try, but you still got your license, because it mattered. Some of you weren’t exactly LeBron James when you first picked up a basketball, or played the guitar like Prince when you first picked up your musical instrument. But you stayed with it, and you got better.

Applying for financial aid, at least this year, is kind of the same thing. It’s only supposed to take one try, but for some reason, this year it’s going to take more than that. If you’re completing a FAFSA to go to college, college is still cool, and you still deserve to go. Persist.

If you’re using your FAFSA for technical training, that training is still cool, and that job is still going to pay way more than the local sandwich shop now, and will pay way, way more over 30 years. Persist.

No matter why you’re completing your FAFSA, you’re likely going to end up making more money, living a better life, and understanding more about yourself if it helps pay for the experience you’re looking for. That’s still cool. Persist.

Help is here if you need it. Start with your high school counselor—and yes, I know they see a zillion students, so getting to see them might be a challenge. You’re worth putting in the time—persist.

If that doesn’t work, call the financial aid office of the college or program you’re applying to, or thinking about applying to. They want you to apply, and if FAFSA is getting in your way, they will likely have some advice on how to overcome that hurdle.

This FAFSA nightmare was never supposed to happen, and many of the adults involved with helping students go to college are asking for big changes to make sure it never happens again. It’s hard to say how long that will take—but then again, that kind of doesn’t matter. For now, we’re going to focus on you, and what we need to do to help you reach your goal for life after high school.

For better or worse, the next step is yours to take, but we’re here, with real help, when you take it. Persi—well, you get it.