Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The End of the Safety School

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


It’s known as the calm after the storm. Once the October flurry of college applications are submitted, and you’ve done your best to offer words of support and praise for every one of the 62 gazillion students on your caseload applying to college, you somehow find a minute to review just who has applied to what college, just to make sure everyone has a place to land next year.

And that’s when it hits you. Dear Melody, that high-flying senior who came into your office with a color-coded list of colleges and a spreadsheet that would put Goldman Sachs to shame, has completed all of her applications to the colleges that admit two percent of their applicants—but somehow never got around to applying to State U, where she’s a sure admit for their honors program.

Steve, the bassoon player with OK grades, came in and freely admitted he wanted to apply to some colleges where his GPA and scores suggested he didn’t have a chance, but he wanted to see how far the bassoon thing could get him. He had an audition video file professionally produced, and the applications to the Reach schools are all done. But the applications to the two local schools that have heard the tape, waived the application fee, and basically said “send us an email and you’re in”? Not so much.

Welcome to the world of application clean-up, that gut-wrenching time around Halloween that is nearly all tricks and no treats. All of those nice lists created last spring that had the right mix of Safety, Target, and Reach schools are now just filler in a CA-60, as seniors show their proclivity to be—well, seniors, and think they will live forever, so why not take a few risks with college applications?

The real challenge here is that you get it—you understand why seniors don’t really want to deal with safety schools. Despite your best efforts, seniors don’t see safety schools as Plan B. They see them as Plan G, as in “Gee, too bad you couldn’t get into a good school.” You tell them a good Safety School is a place where they’d love to go to school where their chances of admission are incredibly good—but at the same time, you also know that since getting in is a given, that’s somehow seen by them as one less reason to want to go there.

What to do? Try this:

Stop calling them Safety schools. College is all about stretching to discover more about yourself and your relationship to the world, a place that is the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support. Safety is in there somewhere, but calling a college Safe portrays images of maternal smothering, paternalistic decision-making about “what’s best for you”, and tapioca pudding.

A Likely college conveys a sense of a school that would *love* to have you, that would welcome you to the fun, frazzled world of higher education with a slap on the back and a crème brulee. Yes, that’s basically tapioca pudding exposed to a blowtorch, but blowtorches are cool. No more Safety schools—they’re Likely schools.

Create a new Likely list. You might be tempted to email Melody and say, “Here’s the list of Likely schools we talked about last spring”, but that list is old news she’s trying to run away from for some reason, and she isn’t coming back. Instead, review the list of schools she’s already applied to, find some common themes, and create a new list of Likelies. Make sure at least one of them will send an admission notice before Christmas, and try to get one that will offer merit money. Students are thrilled by the first school that says yes, and by a school that will pay them to go there. That makes two Likely schools that will remain in play, in case the other schools say no.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“Why Isn’t the Transcript There?”

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



There are very few things in life that make high school counselors wish they were still changing schedules, but this is one of them.

“Counseling, how can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m calling because my daughter applied to college this morning, and the college doesn’t have her high school transcript. What’s the hold up?”

“I can help you with that. What’s your daughter’s name?”

“Wendy. Wendy Thomas.”

“Thank you. According to our records, Wendy hasn’t applied to any colleges. Has she reported her application to her counselor?”

“No.”

“Did she tell her counselor she was thinking of applying to college?”

“Not that I’m aware of. But look, I’m telling you now. Why haven’t you sent the transcript?”

Technology has certainly allowed counselors to meet transcript requests with new levels of response time, but there are still some practical limitations to what we can do—especially if the student hasn’t told us they’ve applied to college. If your goal is to limit the number of irate transcript calls you get, try these strategies:

Get ahead of the curve A surprising number of counseling offices are very good at reminding students when *their* part of the application is due, but fewer offices are as up front about when the counseling office sends in the transcript, counselor letter, and other forms-- or the need for students to tell counselors they've applied to college. Now is the time to check your counseling handbook, newsletters, and website to see just what you tell students and parents about the deadlines you have to meet.

Give a brief explanation of the big picture It’s likely parents and students will want to know just why the student has to submit applications by October 15, but you don’t have to send a transcript and counselor letter until November 1. If your office does this, the answer is really pretty simple--- while the student may be filling out 3 or 4 applications, you are sending out hundreds of letters and transcripts, and simply can’t meet every request in 24 hours. That may seem pretty obvious to you, but it probably isn’t all that obvious to them. Make sure you explain this early, and often.

Keep a close eye out for unusual deadlines Explaining all of this ahead of time will really cut down parent and student stress, but it might also raise the anxiety of some parents who think their child is a special case. If they contact you, be sure to do your homework to see if they may be right—some colleges outside the US have earlier deadlines, and a few colleges have special deadlines that are scholarship driven.

If the student is truly an exception, work with the parent to create a turnaround time that’s going to work for everyone. If your research shows that the student really isn’t an exception, you’ll want to explain that “State U has a November 1 application deadline for all students, and they don’t start reading any applications before then. As long as we get the transcript in before then—and we’ve done that for every application for the last 15 years—your child’s application will receive full consideration.”

Make sure you tell everyone about this The best way to get a rumor started that “counseling doesn’t know what they’re doing” is for a student to complain about a missing transcript to a teacher or administrator who isn’t familiar with your policy. It’s always wise to send a reminder to them, or discuss this at the first faculty meeting of the year. This also makes it easier for teachers to send their letters with less stress.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Two Important College Application Trends

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors are starting the college application season with the discovery of two trends they may not have seen much of in the past.  While these two trends have been popular in certain parts of the country, they seem to be taking hold nationally.  So it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at them, and how to advise students on how to best handle them.

The first trend is self-reported grades.  After years and years of holding up application decisions until the student’s high school sends a transcript, several colleges have decided to let the students report their own grades on the application.  Using the self-reported grades means colleges can make a decision sooner on the applicant—and if the student is admitted, they must have their high school send an official copy of their transcript before they enroll, so they can confirm the student’s grades.

This approach is seen as a win for all kinds of reasons.  In addition to speeding up the process, the responsibility of reporting grades now lies with the student, not the school, meaning the student takes more ownership of the application process in general.  Students tempted to report grades that make them look a little smarter than their transcript might suggest know that they have to send their real transcript in for verification—and if the two transcripts don’t match, the college won’t let the student in.  Add in the savings of clerical time, and the trees saved by not printing paper transcripts to schools the student doesn’t want to attend, and this idea’s time has come.

The key to explaining this to students is to gently remind them to tell the truth when they fill in their own grades.   You’ll also need to make sure students have access to an accurate transcript, but that’s likely easy enough to do.

The second trend that’s popping up is self-reported test scores.  Test scores made a big splash a few years ago when a number of leading colleges made test-score reporting optional—in other words, if you weren’t a great test taker and didn’t want to report your test scores, you didn’t have to.

The list of test optional schools is well over 800 now, and other colleges are thinking about giving students the chance to self-report their test scores.  The process is the same as self-reported grades; the student submits their test scores as part of the college application, and only has to send an official copy of test scores to the one college they plan on attending.

The plusses of self-reported test scores are similar to  self-reported grades, along with one other big bonus—the money students will save.  Once you take the SAT or ACT, it costs serious money to send test scores to colleges.  A student applying to five or six test optional schools could find themselves saving enough to pay for another college application fee—and, once again, this is one less piece of the puzzle to go wrong.

Counselors advising students on self-reporting test scores will want to make sure they thoroughly understand which test scores each college wants.  While most colleges tell students to only send their best scores, some colleges require students to send the results of all test attempts. Failing to disclose all scores at these schools could lead to trouble later on, so it’s important to be clear.  It will also be important to make sure student send official scores to their one college in the spring.  Given how crazy spring of senior year can be, that could prove to be a very important task.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Early FAFSA Year 2—What to Keep in Mind

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Last year’s big news about college affordability was the new deadline for the FAFSA, the form most colleges require students to complete in order to receive help paying for college.  By opening the FAFSA filing period on October 1, students and parents can now apply for college and financial aid at the same time.  This is aided tremendously by another change, where parents filing for aid can now use the tax information they’ve already submitted to the IRS—so no more waiting for forms that never seem to come.

Early FAFSA  is now in its second year, and high school counselors are ready to help families apply for college help with even stronger Paying for College programs and FAFSA completion events.  At the same time, some things haven’t changed since last year that may still offer filers some challenges.  Here’s a  quick review of what to pay attention to:

The New IRS Retrieval Tool  Last year, if you wanted FAFSA to access the tax information you already gave to the IRS, you just had to check a box, and boom—you could see all the figures FAFSA pulled from your tax reports.  Easy peasy.

It’s not as simple this year, thanks to a hacker who allegedly tried to use this system to gain access to President Trump’s tax records.  The only thing the hacker succeeded in doing is making things harder on this year’s filers.  A new security procedure still allows you to have FAFSA pull your IRS information; it’s just that you won’t be able to see the actual figures they pulled to make sure they’re accurate.  This will likely be a little frustrating to first-time filers; the best workaround is to enter the tax information yourself, which may take longer, but is also more transparent.

Award Letters May Not Come Any Sooner  You’d like to think that filing for financial aid sooner means you will get more financial aid packages from colleges sooner, but that hasn’t been the case.  Many public colleges relying on state money to fund financial aid programs are still waiting for legislatures to approve annual budgets, or for money to show up during the next fiscal year.  This can limit their ability to send financial aid packages any earlier than February or March.

The same has been true for many private colleges.  Even though their funding isn’t tied to state budgets, many private colleges still have late application deadlines—and many are hesitant to make financial aid offers to any students, before understanding the financial needs of all the students they’ve admitted.  This will require patience on the part of students and parents; if you want to know when you can expect an offer, call the college’s financial aid office and ask.

Net Price Calculators  One thing that also hasn’t changed is the availability of net price calculators, the magic web page each college is required to have that allows you to get some idea how much you’ll be expected to pay for college.  By answering just a few questions, you can get a rough estimate what college will cost at that college, and that’s good.

Now that net price calculators have been around for a while, it’s important to remember their limits.  Some will include merit-based scholarships in their calculations, but some won’t.  In addition, most calculators don’t tell you how much of any financial aid package you get will be loan—and that’s just as important a figure as the amount of cash you’ll pay now.  So continue to use them, but use them wisely.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Helping Your Seniors Frozen With College Fear

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Most schools have only been in session for about a month, but many high school seniors are already experiencing Hump Day in their college applications. The first few days of the school year were filled with excitement about the prospect of going to college, and filling out a college application even seemed kind of fun. But now that homework is starting to build up, and students are on their twelfth draft of their college essay, it’s getting a little harder to be excited about college—especially since right now, just graduating from high school seems like a pretty remote idea.

Addressing this issue from a counseling perspective is important. Completing a college application is a lot like the work students will do in college; it offers the chance to be introspective, but it also requires students to move forward. It might be tempting—and easier—to try and motivate students with a pep talk, but students will be better off learning how to work through these challenges by motivating themselves. You can facilitate this important skill acquisition with one of these approaches:

Same time next year I had a student a couple of years ago who came into my office with a major case of application block—no matter what they did, or what they thought about, they just couldn’t motivate themselves to complete a college application. “This is pretty awful” he said, “at this point, I’ll be waiting tables after high school.” “No” I responded, “you’ll be in college a year from now. It’s just a question of which one.”

That somehow broke the trance. Realizing that he was going to be sitting behind a desk at some college—any college—was enough of a motivator for him to realize things were going to be OK. In fact, knowing that inspired him, and many other students, to look at the college application process and think, “Well, OK, if I’m going to some college, it might as well be a good one.” Many of these students went on to become college application ninjas, and ended up at places perfect for them, once they could see themselves there.

Tours do it too This same approach to self-motivation can occur when students step away from the college application process to visit a campus. Filling in an application can seem like a pretty abstract exercise to some students, especially if they have never visited the campus of the college they’re applying to. Once they breathe some college air and sit it on a class, the impression can be enough to get them through the application process, writing essays that have greater authority and voice.

What’s really interesting about this approach is that it can also work if the student visits a campus they have no intention of attending. By simply being reminded of what it’s like to “go to college”, students see the application process as more real. Yes, it’s a little weird, but it works.

Write on the weekends Students who go to school all day, have sports practice, eat dinner, do homework, and then start writing college essays at 11:00 on a weeknight all have one thing in common—the essays they write are terrible. Scheduling 1-2 hours on Saturday or Sundayfor college apps makes completing them something special, and allows students time away from the process to bring fresh energy to their writing. It also means that most students can complete one application a weekend, finish all of them by Halloween, and still enjoy senior year. Now there’s a plan.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why College Rankings Have Absolutely No Purpose

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Jason is a two-sport athlete with a B+ average.  He’s hoping to expand his interest in History in college, but he’s not sure what major to pursue.  He does know he needs to stay close to home, since his parents are close to retirement age, and he needs to help out with the family business every now and then.  He’s also looking to be an engaged spectator at a school that has, as the students say, the full college experience—for Jason, that includes a good football team.

Having been raised by a mom who sings in the church choir, Bridghette has been around music since birth, and hopes to keep her singing interest alive in college.  At the same time, she knows her talent won’t pay the bills, so she’s also looking for a school where she can study Accounting—and while she couldn’t care less about sports, she wants a school that’s near a major opera company, where she hopes to work in the front office as an intern, learning a bit more about the business side of the music industry.

Jose hopes to find a school where he can become a physician, and quickly.  Having completed all of the AP courses his high school offered as a junior, Jose is one of those students who learns with ease, which means an accelerated medical program is right up his alley.  He’s interested in becoming a surgeon, but big cities don’t interest him all that much. He was raised in one, and wants a change of scenery.

Let’s say you are the counselor for all three of these students—something that would be hard to do, since they don’t go to the same high school.  But let’s say they’ve asked you for some help in putting together their college lists.  Do you end up giving them each the same list of schools—and will those schools be in the same order, meeting their needs in exactly the same way?

I’m really hoping your answer to this question is no.  Jose wants nothing to do with a big city, but strong opera companies don’t exactly pop up in remote areas, and that’s what Bridghette is looking for.  One of these students might end up going to school with Jason, but since accelerated medical programs are hard to come by, that likely won’t be Jose—and since Bridghette isn’t crazy about sports, it’s unlikely her list will overlap much with Jason’s.  We don’t know everything about each of these students, but based on what we know, it’s pretty unlikely one list of colleges will really help these students pursue their individual plans.

Which takes us to college rankings.  The latest lists of Best Colleges on the Planet are debuting this week, but what does any of this have to do with kids? If you handed Jason, Bridghette, and Jose a copy, would that help them with their college plans, or their lives?  Would it put them in the best position to live fuller lives, and change the world?  Is there any way the people who compiled the list could know that list is going to help Jason, Bridghette, and Jose, since they’ve never even talked to Jason, Bridghette, or Jose?
There are lots of ways data can help students make strong college choices, but our job is to find data that supports the goals of the students, not create students whose goals support the findings of the data.  College guides can do that; college rankings can’t. 

So why do we care about them, and why should we ever use them?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Helping Students Respond to DACA

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Writing a column about school counseling is a lot like school counseling itself. I had this great piece planned about schedule changes—it was really going to be awesome. But, just like that perfect presentation about careers has to wait when something more urgent shows up, that column’s going to have to wait.

Thanks to DACA.

I’m not going to go into detail about what DACA is, or what might happen next—if you want that information, try this link. Instead, this will be a short reminder of how to help students who are in crisis mode, either because they are DACA students, they have friends who are involved with DACA, or they’re just trying to get a hold of where all of this is heading.

Everyone responds differently to crisis. The smartest school administrator I know walked into his school the day after 9/11, and cleared out two classrooms. He put TVs in one of the empty classrooms, and told the teachers that if some kids feel the need to be informed, they are welcome to go watch TV for as long as they want. The other room was left empty, just chairs, for the students who needed a place to be quiet. Teachers kept an eye on both rooms to make sure students in the rooms didn’t go into panic mode, but that was it.

As counselors, it’s easy to think everyone wants to process their feelings about a crisis by talking. It’s very likely most everyone will want to talk about it at some time—but this might not be that time. Some students will want more information, some will just want to be left alone to think, and some will want business as usual, so they can remember what normal feels like. At this point, none of this is about avoidance; it’s about coping. Let them cope.

Do your homework. Those who will want to talk about DACA likely know more about the program, and about yesterday’s decision, than most Americans—and that could include you. That means any conversation you have with them better begin with a solid base of facts— like existing DACA permits are still good until they expire.

Some people may want to talk to process feelings, but some are likely to want to talk about facts, and what’s next for them, or for their friends. A little time reading about options, combined with a list of local resources DACA recipients can turn to, will make you the support person you want to be—so study up.

No superheroes today. Crisis times mean that the student who looks like they might need just a few minutes of reassurance might be in your office for an hour—and once they begin to open up, they don’t want to stop. That’s OK for them, but if you’re supposed to be in a meeting in twenty minutes, people can create a new crisis wondering where the crisis specialist is—and that’s the last thing anyone needs today.

It’s always good to tell someone where you are, but that’s very much the case when the wheels have fallen off the wagon. Touch base with a colleague, a secretary, or an administrator before you go into a session or a classroom. It may not be necessary, but if something comes up and you’re needed right away, it will be the best thing you can do to keep some degree of calm in your building.