Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A New Approach to College Admissions Testing Policies

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Dear Junior:

You’ve probably heard many colleges are updating their admissions policies regarding the submission of test scores. Since you’ve expressed an interest in applying to Everold College, we thought we’d reach out and let you know we’ve updated our policy as well.

Everold had long required SAT or ACT test scores, feeling these scores give us a clearer understanding of where students stood nationally. Our ability to use those scores ran into significant challenges when COVID broke in 2020, leading us to go to a test optional policy. Our reason was simple: Students can’t be responsible for taking a test they can’t get to.

Since then, and especially in the last year, the number of students submitting ACT and/or SAT scores as part of their admission materials has increased significantly, as have the number of contacts from students and parents about when scores should be submitted, and requests for us to go test blind.

A statistical review of our last 10 years of admissions suggests we are not quite prepared to go test blind. Everold has long had an algorithm that provides special consideration for students from lower income zipcodes, to offset some of the alleged biases thought to exist in the tests. In addition, the option of not sending scores has been in place for four years. This allows students who feel their scores are not representative of their best work to withhold that information.

Our review suggests this policy is insufficient. It seems clear that students from lower-income zip codes are less aware of this option, and may be equally unaware when to send or not send scores. In addition, the conventional wisdom typically given to students—only send test scores at or above the posted mean on our website—often hurts applicants whose scores may be slightly under our mean, where their GPA may be helped by submitting testing information.

As a result, Everold College is pleased to announce Hold Harmless Testing. Effective with our admissions cycle this fall, students will have the option of not sending scores; sending scores and having them considered, or sending scores and asking us to review them. Applicants who request this option will submit scores, which will be evaluated by a reader whose sole job is to look at the applicant’s materials, and decide if test scores could help the student in our admissions process.

If the reviewer concludes the scores would reduce the chances of admission, the scores will be removed from the applicant’s file. If the reviewer feels the scores may help, or will help, the applicant’s file, they will be left in the file. The applicant will then be notified of the reviewer’s decision, and have ten days to override that decision. This leaves the submission of test scores entirely up to the applicant.

Once this process is complete, the reviewed file will be forwarded to the admissions committee for consideration. If test scores were removed, no indication of that will be made in the file. In fact, the committee will never know which of the three testing options any student chose.

The reviewer in Hold Harmless will not be on the committee, nor have the opportunity to discuss their work with members of the committee. Hold Harmless reviewers have already had extensive training in reviewing files, and have a 99% accuracy when compared to the decisions of committee members.

The Hold Harmless policy is being implemented with the hopes of reducing student anxiety in the application process. Please let us know if you have any questions, and thank you for your continued interest in Everold College.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Choosing a College by Major?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

On the face of it, it seems like a simple enough question—what will you major in when you go to college? Most colleges use majors as the building blocks for departments, degrees, and even housing, so they must be pretty important. 

But there’s a dark side to all this majoring business. Ask the average 17-year-old what they’d like to do with their life, and the honest answer would likely have something to do with eating cereal for dinner, and staying in their pajamas til noon. Yet, these same juniors and seniors step through the counseling office door, and feel compelled to offer some kind of answer to “Any idea what you want to major in?” with deep conviction—even if they’re making the answer up. 

Many, many, many colleges are designed for students to spend nearly all of their first two years trying things out, making a decision about major at the end of this incredible journey, while still graduating on time. Some majors require earlier commitment, but if their heart really doesn’t know where to turn, turning to one of these colleges is the best thing they can possibly do. Well-meaning parents may not agree, making it all the more important for counselors to make it very clear that Undecided is a viable, necessary, and ultimately successful, choice for many. 

In addition—and this is important—the reason many kids don’t bother with college at all, especially students who would be the first in their family to go to college, is because they don’t know what they want to major in. While many of these families claim cost keeps them from sending a child to college, what they—including the student—mean is that they can’t see any point on spending the money they have if the student doesn’t know what they want to do once college is over. So why bother?

The end result is that many students simply make up a major, either to keep Mom and Dad happy or impress their friends. They may even convince themselves this is the right answer, until they have to actually take a class in what they’ve claimed is their life’s calling. 

What can counselors do to eliminate the Myth of Major? Easy:

Promote the fact that Undecided is a very popular major—sometimes as many as two-thirds of all students are undecided at the start of the school year.

Point out that an incredible number of students change their major several times once they actually get to college.

Show them—through programs like Big Future—that it’s possible to build a strong college list without choosing a major.

Ask college reps who visit your school to talk about how flexible their institution is in switching majors. Some may not be, but many are. Either way, the student knows what they’re getting into.

Use articles like this one to show that successful business people rarely major in business, and talk about why that matters. 

Have events like Alumni Day to bring graduates back to talk about the college experience, making sure you include several speakers who started out as Undecideds. 

The student who knew their major in the womb is terrific to work with—but so is the student who needs, or wants, to look around for a while. The first group doesn’t need to be assured their convictions are OK; the second group does. Time to counsel.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

The Four Attitudes of Learning—and Living, and Parenting, and Counseling

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

People continue to be baffled by the idea that school counseling has a curriculum. More than just the epicenter of solving problems, the counseling center is the place where students get information and skills to build and pursue goals, work through challenges, and live life to the fullest. Just like the Math curriculum and the English curriculum, the counseling curriculum is a learning experience—and the classroom to apply these counseling lessons is life.

Since the idea of a counseling curriculum seems to be just a little too abstract, it might be wise to introduce the idea by linking it to two things people know—parenting and learning. As parents help shape the way their children look at the world, what are they hoping for—what qualities will their children exhibit to show parents they’ve achieved their goal? For that matter, beyond the content of the subject matter, how will a teacher know they’ve helped students develop an outlook that will help them engage the world of math, science, etc.—or the world in general?

Enter the four attitudes. These four expressions best sum up the perspectives held by active thinkers, as they make the most of every learning opportunity, and give the most of themselves. How they do so will vary greatly—but their ability to do so is dependent on parents, teachers, counselors, and all adults modeling the attitudes for them.

“Wow!” Society marvels at the delight young children show in the simplest things—a butterfly, raindrops, the box that the Christmas gift came in (which often gets more attention than the gift itself). High school teachers often lament this attitude of wonder is gone in most of their students, so teachers and counselors need to do everything possible to nurture this intuitive sense, making sure the student stays receptive to a wide array of new ideas.

“What is that?” Once the immediate impression instills a sense of interest, the student is going to need some information—what’s this thing or idea called, where did it come from, what is it used for, what makes it work? These questions are key to providing a baseline of expertise the student can use when applying the thing, idea, or skill being introduced. Counselors want to be sure not to skimp in this area. All students may like the idea of goal setting, for example, but the details of the process are vital to support this initial interest.

So does that mean…?” Once the student is introduced to the nuts and bolts of something, it’s time for the parent-teacher-counselor to BE QUIET. Giving the student time to internalize the essence gives them time to personalize the idea, and apply it to the rest of what they’ve learned in life. Of course, exercises giving students a chance to reinforce their understanding can be a huge help here. But there needs to be a time and opportunity for students to make this “thing” their own, and connect it with the rest of their world.

What if…?” Laying the foundation for the first three attitudes leads to the jackpot, where the student sees the new concept for what it is, and takes it—or something like it-- to a place it hasn’t been before—at least in their world, and perhaps even in ours. This step combines knowledge with creativity and imagination, making for broad thinkers, doers, and life-livers—the ultimate goal of learning.

Consider how every counseling interaction advances these four attitudes. You’ll find its relation to the attitudes is the key to holding student interest, and building student success.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

An Open Letter to Education Secretary Cardona

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Mr. Secretary:

I don’t often speak on behalf of the school counselor profession, even though I’ve been president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and inaugural School Counselor Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education (ED). But, circumstances being what they are, and emboldened by this being National School Counseling Week, I’m going to roll the dice of drawing the ire of some colleagues and speak for the team.

Mr. Secretary, you owe us.

We have been moving heaven and earth to get students to consider college—not because it helps the economy, or makes our high schools look good, but because college is the logical choice for many students to advance their personal and professional goals, and many don’t know that. We put on presentations, we hold information nights, we even talk about this with students and parents in elementary schools—in short, we stand on our heads to get this information out.

And so, the now-informed families who see the advantages of college are ready for their children to attend, as long as they get some help paying for it.

From you.

Last February, 6 million families had filled out a FAFSA. This year, that number is 3 million—and, with all respect, it isn’t because the other 3 million hit the lottery. It’s wonderful the new FAFSA has far fewer questions, but if students can’t get to the website to answer them, and colleges have to wait until March to put packages together, many first-time families we won over are going to give up.

Your department is likely doing the best they can with this—but there’s more to do. If you really want to help kids think college, your department can spearhead:

A Common SRAR Many of the more popular colleges ask students to enter their grades on the Self-Reported Academic Record (SRAR). This helps speed up review of an application—but since most colleges have their own version of this form, redundancy discourages students from applying to college. An ED-produced SRAR colleges download into their data systems means students would only have to fill it out once. You could then say “Now that you’ve finished your SRAR, check here to start your FAFSA, and we’ll import your information from your SRAR so you’ll only have to answer 20 more questions.” If a college wants federal aid, they’d have to take your form.

Funding for School Counselors Federal COVID money was used in part to hire more school counselors, and the student-counselor ratio is now below 400 nationally. That’s still short of the 250 to 1 goal, but it’s progress. To help students more, we’ll need more funding.

More Counselor Training Most school counselors never had a unique course in college counseling. Syllabi exist for these courses, as does a list of course outcomes. If the 500 institutions offering school counselor training want to keep federal funding, require them to adjust degree requirements to include a separate course in college counseling.

Cash for College If you really want to win back the 3 million students now sitting on the FAFSA sidelines, announce ED will give every FAFSA filer $100 cash. Congress will fund this in an election year, and you’ll mean it when you say filing a FAFSA leads to money.

Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office is considered the gold standard in government action, largely because he didn’t really care what Congress, the courts, or anybody else thought—the need was great. When it comes to college advising, Mr. Secretary, the need is also great. Sir, it’s time to lead.