Wednesday, May 17, 2017

College Admissions Isn’t Fair. It Also Isn’t Simple.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



A new article about college admission is gaining a great deal of attention among college counselors. Posted on Georgia Tech’s admissions website, the goal of the article is to admit what many students have long felt—that college admissions isn’t fair.

After acknowledging that all colleges look at test scores and grades, the article goes on to suggest the real driving factor behind admissions is the school’s mission, or the reason the college says it exists. Yes, you could be a great student with high grades in AP Everything who was president of every club in your high school. Still, if your essays and teacher letters don’t indicate that you understand the college’s reason for existence, the Georgia Tech piece suggests that would be reason enough for them not to take you, since their review process would likely reveal that there isn’t a “fit” between what the college is looking for, and what you have to offer.

The piece certainly offers a great explanation for why Joey in the locker next to you got into your dream college and you didn’t, even though your grades and scores were higher than his. In connecting admissions decisions to the school’s mission, the article even offers a strongly-principled reason for why they took your sister five years ago with her lower grades and lack of extracurriculars, but didn’t take you this year. The school has a different sense of purpose now.

So, the article puts together a nice argument, with only one small problem. Admission at most colleges doesn’t work like this at all. Instead, it depends on other factors that are a little more basic, but somehow more complicated—like:

How many people apply. The article tries to emphasize the role of mission at highly selective colleges. This suggests that if these same colleges only had 600 applicants for 500 seats, they’d likely take everybody, no matter what their essays said. That doesn’t make their decisions based on mission; it makes them based on numbers. Simply put, they don’t take everyone who applies, because they don’t have to.

What the college is looking for. It’s certainly true a college is looking for certain qualities in a student, but that search is a little more pragmatic than the article suggests. An admission officer from an Ivy League college once told me “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a high school senior applying as a hockey goalie, your chances of admission just went way up.” So what happens if the essays in the hockey goalie’s application don’t reveal a deep understanding of the school’s mission? Is this still a fit?

This has less to do with mission than it does institutional priorities—the particular need the college has that year for Philosophy majors, a bassoonist, or someone who wants to do Neuroscience research. These priorities may have something to do with the mission of the college, but they aren’t as closely related as the article suggests, once numbers come into play. The virtues of athletics may be integral to the college’s existence, but they aren’t going to admit every one of the 18 hockey goalies that apply; they’re only going to take as many as they need in any given year—and this year, that may be none.

Rankings. The last ten years of college admissions have seen an increase in all kinds of devices used to get more students to apply. Snap apps, on-site decisions, and the rise in early application programs all point to a desire on the college’s part to attract more applicants, even though very few colleges are actually enrolling more students than they were ten years ago.

What’s behind the need to do that, if admissions decisions are driven by mission, and not by rankings? Is it impossible to be a solid B+ student and have a better understanding of a school’s mission than your National Honor Society counterpart? If not, why are so many highly selective colleges now denying so many—in fact, nearly all-- the B+ students who used to fulfill the college’s mission with distinction?

When most families start looking at colleges, they think the admission process is simple—take strong classes, get good grades, make sure your test scores are strong, join a few clubs, and you’re good to go. That perception works at an incredible number of colleges, but the highly selective colleges have a process that’s less clear, because they don’t have to take everyone who applies. It would be easy to assign this cause to the college’s mission, but that doesn’t reflect reality—and it also doesn’t explain why all kinds of schools say no to some B students and say yes to C students who average 21 points a game.

It would be great if mission was the only reason college admissions doesn’t seem fair, but it isn’t. Like life, it’s more complicated than that, and our students deserve an explanation more representative of that complexity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Is Free Test Prep Worth It?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The world of SAT test prep was thrown for a bit of a loop last year, when College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer free SAT prep through the well-known online tutorial website.  The idea was simple; students with PSAT or SAT scores could plug in their test results, and Khan Academy would point the student to a series of test preparation exercises designed to strengthen skills in the areas where the student most needed improvement.

This kind of approach to test prep isn’t new, but offering it online, for free, was unheard of.  Still, many questions persisted, as observers wondered if students would take full advantage of the service, and if the idea of improvement through free test prep was just too good to be true.

The results of a recent study suggest that College Board and Khan may be on to something.  A study of nearly 250,000 test takers showed that those who plug a test result into Khan Academy, then complete 20 hours of online test prep, gain an average of 115 points when they take the SAT.  This is nearly twice the gain made by students who don’t use Khan; more important, the results are applicable to students regardless of GPA, race, gender, or income.

It’s easy to understand why these numbers are cause for celebration among advocates of universal access to test prep.  In the past, these kinds of gains mostly belonged to students who paid impressive sums of money to private test prep companies or tutors, and often involved students attending regularly scheduled classes they had to fit into schedules that were already full.  The Khan results suggest some students can realize strong test improvement for free, working on their own, and on their own schedule, all while learning more about the role of self-discipline in academic improvement.  That’s a win all around.

At the same time, these findings come with the usual limitations and cautions of any study.  More than one statistician has pointed out that correlation (two things that seem to be related to each other) isn’t always causation (meaning one thing doesn’t cause the other to occur).  In addition, it’s important to note that students not using Khan for test prep realized a 60 point increase when taking the SAT anyway.  Finally, 20 hours is a lot of time for a student to devote to anything, and not all students have that kind of time, or focus.

Since most of these limitations can also be applied to fee-based test prep, the Khan results are worth keeping an eye on in subsequent studies.  Meanwhile, many high schools are using Khan to form after-school test prep groups, where all that’s needed for students to get test ready is access to the computer lab.  The results also give high schools reason to find ways to offer some kind of PSAT, so students will have scores to plug into Khan and begin the process of customized test prep with time, and room, to spare.

Test scores continue to be the focus of many discussions about college readiness, with recent changes to the SAT leading a large number of colleges to become test optional in their admissions policies, and causing policy makers to wonder if testing outcomes have replaced quality learning experiences as the primary purpose of education.  As those discussions continue, the results of the Khan study offer hope to low income students looking for a chance to be taken seriously by colleges that value test scores—students who didn’t historically have access to quality test prep.  That qualifies as a game changer.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Improve College Readiness by Creating a Class

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


If you’re helping kids find ways to pay for college, there’s brand new data to help your efforts. A study spearheaded by The Common Application, in conjunction with researchers at University of Virginia, Harvard, and University of Pittsburgh, shows that more students are inclined to complete the government-based FAFSA financial aid form if they receive a series of systematically designed texts urging them to do so.

The study finds that the most important part of the texts is the message. Rather than focusing on how much money the student can receive for college, the texts are most effective when they tell the student what they should specifically do, and when they should do it. Supported with a message that urges students to set up their own set of reminders on their phones or planners, these step-by-step texts lead to increased FAFSA completion. (Full disclosure: I sit on Common App’s board of directors.)

These results support a long-standing string of discoveries about college access that date back to the original Know How2Go campaign. Low income students are well aware of the importance of college, and most have a desire to attend. Study after study reveals the help they really need is understanding the concrete steps required to prepare, apply, and pay for college, and what to do to avoid summer melt.

This is an awful lot of information for counselors to pass along to students through newsletters, parent meetings, and informal conversations in the hallway. That’s why a growing number of high schools are offering an elective class in getting ready for college. They still create the Websites, assemblies, and reminders needed to keep students focused on the college selection process, but they take all of the vital college information and put it in a semester course that helps students stay focused, organized, and on task.

There isn’t a lot of data available on the effectiveness of these classes, but counselors know they are making a difference. By putting college access information into one course, counselors are able to introduce ideas with a consistency and sequence they often can’t achieve through newsletters, or even as guest presenters in academic classes. This sequencing reinforces the ability to tell students what they should do, and when they should do it, the success that’s reported in The Common Application study.

In addition to being a consistent source of information, a college readiness class gives students two other commodities they seem to be lacking—the time to apply to college, and a focused space to do so. This allows students to use the counselor’s expertise at the right moment, when they get stuck on a college application question. They don’t have to put the application off; instead, they ask the question, get the answer, and move forward.

This also creates a space for students to craft well thought-out essays, instead of trying to find time to cobble them together between work, studying, and other after-school commitments. And if they need to talk to a teacher about a letter of recommendation, the teacher is right down the hall.

Students from all walks of life have benefited from the organized, supportive atmosphere a college readiness class offers them, and school counselors appreciate the opportunity focusing part of their day on college application conversations that are sometimes hard to develop in the midst of other duties. In a time when it seems to be getting harder to get student’s attention, the structure of the classroom is proving to be a tremendous ally in the campaign for increased college readiness.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Pay Less for College? Sure, if...

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

April is a month of mixed emotions for school counselors. As students come in to share the exciting news of college acceptances and generous scholarships, an equal number of families come in with questions that are harder to answer:

“What more were they looking for?”

“Don’t they know this isn’t enough to cover my needs?”

“Why does college cost so much?”

It turns out this last question has a pretty clear answer—it’s complicated, but it’s clear.

“It doesn’t have to cost this much, if you start at a community college and transfer.”

Nearly every community college costs less than a four-year institution, especially since most community college students live at home. Students who do well at many community colleges can become members of Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honor society, which qualifies them for transfer scholarships reserved for PTK students at many four-year colleges. Finally, while it isn’t true for every four-year college, there are a good number of colleges where transfer students are more likely to earn a Bachelor’s Degree than students who have attended the college right out of high school.

You spend less money, you get more money, and you’re more likely to finish. What can go wrong?

Actually, quite a bit. While the path from community college to a four-year degree sounds simple, only about one in seven community college students complete that path in six years. It’s hard to say how many of these same students would finish if they had started at a four-year degree, but you get the idea. If we’re going to encourage students to consider starting at a community college, we need to make sure they are armed with information, and a plan.

Talk to your advisors. Yes, that’s plural. The biggest challenge community college transfer students face is remembering that their goal is to graduate from a four year college, not from community college. If you end up taking classes that don’t count towards your Bachelor’s Degree, you’re wasting the time and money you had hoped community college would save you.

That’s why it’s important to stay in touch with the transfer advisor of the four-year college you’re headed to. Even if you don’t know what your major will be, this advisor can give you the best advice about which courses you should take, and when. Community colleges have transfer agreements with some four-year schools, but those aren’t always enforced; that’s why it’s best to hear what the four-year advisor says. You also meet with a community college adviser to make sure you’re taking a course load you can handle, and you’re meeting all other college requirements.

Don’t work too much. Several studies indicate students at all college levels are less likely to complete their studies the more they work—and once work time gets to more than 20 hours a week, the failure rate is alarming. Yes, they need money to live on, but if the goal is college completion, making more money can come at the expense of paying for classes they won’t complete.

Improve transfer transparency. Most community college credits will transfer, but too many transfer as elective credits—and students don’t need many of those at four-year colleges. What we need is a smart phone app where a student types in their community college’s name; the four year college’s name they’re heading to, and the degree they want to earn. This app would then generate a list of every class this student should take that’s guaranteed to apply to that degree.

Imagine what that would do for all of us.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A New Take on College Essays

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


The end of the college application season brings the inevitable stream of columns calling for changes to the way colleges admit their students. From plans for free college to renewed efforts to eliminate standardized testing, policy makers, college presidents, and students just completing the process are eager to offer their insights on how what they see to be a flawed system could be made better.

After all these years of reading these ideas, I’ve decided to take the plunge myself—and for me, the issue is the application essay, or personal statement. A well-crafted statement that is truly written by the student can certainly add a great deal of insight into the way a student feels and, sometimes, thinks. At the same time, it is all too easy for others to “guide” the student to a “right” answer, and since most of the essay prompts require little measurement of anything other than self-knowledge, they don’t always demonstrate the academic and problem-solving skills students need to thrive in colleges. It’s also too easy for students to short circuit their chances of writing a strong essay by waiting until the last minute to put something together, an essay that comes from the heart without having ample time to be considered by the head.

One way to address these issues is to modify the existing writing components of the current standardized tests. Instead of giving students less than an hour to make sense of a handful of documents they’ve just received, give them three hours to work in a room that has research materials, so they can fully explore multiple aspects of the questions they get once they arrive. The questions themselves will have both academic and affective components. They would have enough cultural and academic breadth that it would be reasonable to expect every student could be familiar with the context of at least one of them (and they’d only have to answer one), but also require them to do some research before putting together a thoughtful response. For colleges that aren’t crazy about standardized testing, students could sign up for an Essay Only option, where they would show up for the writing exercise, and nothing more.

This approach would require some changes, to be sure. Colleges would have to be willing to forego the creation of most of their own essay questions (except for “Why Us?”), the confidential questions would have to be genuinely new with each test administration, and admissions officers would have to be prepared to wrangle with the factual content of more essays than they do now. This isn’t to say admissions officers couldn’t become well-versed in everything from the works of Ai Weiwei to the moral proclivities of Rory Gilmore; this new approach just might require a little more time on background than the current version of the personal statement.

I’m as biased as the next person, so the six examples below are undoubtedly missing a key element of cultural breadth, but just to present some idea of what this might look like, here goes. Enjoy.

There is much speculation over which of the three Gilmore Girls changed the most through the seven-year series and the one-year sequel. It’s been argued that the answer to this question is largely generational. In that context, and in your opinion, which Gilmore Girl changed the most for the better, and which one changed the most for the worse? How would Theodore Roosevelt answer that question? How about Gabriel Garcia Marquez? How about the person who cuts your hair?

The proof that .̅9= 1 has been used to suggest that mathematics is not as precise as it claims to be. Present arguments to support and refute that claim, then include two examples from the world of sports to support the side you believe to be true.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is about to release his new musical, which is a tribute to the life and music of Philip Glass. Given the proclivities of both the subject and the composer, describe any three songs from this two-act play, which includes a total of 14 compositions.

One of the justifications for studying history is the well-known quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Take an event you learned in a history or science class and show how this quote was proven true in a subsequent event by someone who hadn’t studied the past. Next, use the same event you learned in class to show how knowing the past led someone else to realize a different conclusion.

It has been argued that Paul Simon’s album Graceland is an example of cultural misappropriation. Discuss both sides of this argument. Does your argument change at all after listening to this? Is the wide use of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech a better example of cultural misappropriation than Paul Simon’s album? Explain.

There is a copy of the front page of today’s New York Times in the examination room. Pick three of the stories, and relate one to any poem by Emily Dickinson, one to any poem by Langston Hughes, and one to any work by Ai Weiwei.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Times That Test a Counselor’s Soul

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Counselors everywhere can empathize with the hurdles Michigan counselors are facing this week, as their time in the office is dominated by bubble sheets, packing tape, and the coveted No. 2 Pencil.

It happens this time every year, which leads me to ask the same question every year.

Why are counselors in charge of schoolwide testing?

I’ve been a school counselor for a long time, and I have never, ever heard a good answer to this question.  Three answers always come up when I ask the question, but they just don’t work, when put to the—yeah. 

“You’re trained in testing, so this is a counseling duty.”  Most people buy this response, because it’s true that nearly every counselor training program includes a class in testing and measurement.  So, yes, we are trained in testing—in interpreting their results, not in how to arrange them.  Give me a student’s PSAT results, and I can tell you what they should do to improve their score in a heartbeat.  Hand me a state exam in Social Studies, and I can tell you in a moment where the student might need remediation, and where they might need challenge.  That’s what I learned in graduate school.

Graduate school did not teach me how to divide the junior class into 25 alphabetical sessions and assign them testing rooms.  It did not teach me how to schedule testing around three lunch periods and the bus that leaves for the career-tech center.  It most definitely did not teach me how to band pencils together in groups of 27, just in case two of them break.  Those are not counseling tasks; those are administrative tasks.  That’s not me.

“But the counselors don’t have classes to teach.”  OK—two things wrong here.  First, most of us do have classes to teach.  We partner with English and Science and Health teachers to present all kinds of programs regarding careers, college opportunities, social media skills, and more.  In any given week, most of us are seeing as many kids in the classroom as the average teacher.  So there’s that.

The second part of this comment is harder to parse out, but it boils down to “Well, you aren’t teaching, so you have lots of free time.”  If we accept that premise, administrators aren’t teaching either, leaving them just as much time to organize testing—and given the weight tests have in our society (for better or worse), can they really say they have something more important to do?  Counselors, on the other hand, have something much more important to do; see students.

“But what else would counselors do?”  This response drives me crazy, but I get where this is coming from.  People are so used to seeing counselors arrange testing, they think it’s a given, and they just can’t imagine a world where we’d do something else—like, our jobs.

But try this on.  Imagine if, instead of spending hours with the logistics of testing, counselors had hours to prepare, and present, test prep programs to students.  The materials are out there for us to use; it’s just a question of finding the time to fine tune those materials to meet the needs of our students and our school, then presenting them.  Research shows that increased test awareness leads to better achievement-- and with the training we really did get in graduate school, we could make that happen.

Good test prep isn’t giving students the answers—it’s giving students the skills and confidence to show what they already know.  And the masters of instilling confidence are?

Looks like you just passed the test.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Ten Things We Learned This College Application Season

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and the students are now nicely nestled on waitlists or orientation schedules—but what can this year’s juniors learn from this year’s seniors about applying to college?

  1. This is about you. A few of the seniors in your school are just discovering this, as they try to figure out how to tell their parents they’d rather go to the local college no one’s heard of, instead of the famous college that admitted them that they really hate. You don’t want to be that student next year—so don’t apply to any college you’re sure you don’t want to attend.
  2. That means you drive the bus. The only way you get to stay in charge of things is for you to keep track of who’s doing what—and to make sure you end up doing most of it. So, you write your essays, you submit the applications, you call the college with any questions you have, you ask the teachers for the letters of recommendation, you talk to your counselors. Colleges say they’re hearing more from parents than students, and that hurts your chances of getting in. Grab the keys, buckle up, and get busy.
  3. If you need help, say so. You don’t have to be a team captain or a born leader to get into college, but you’ll need to know how to ask your high school for your CEEB code, because you’ll need to ask your college for all kinds of things. And when you get the answer you need, remember that someone just made your life better. Say thank you.
  4. There’s more to college than classes. If you ask any adult about their college experience, they’ll talk about the friends they made, the trips they took, and the life lessons they learned. Classes are part of the college experience, but only a part. Visit the campus that could be your home to make sure it feels like home, both in and out of the classroom.
  5. College is expensive. Nearly everyone’s college plans depends on how much aid they’ll get to pay for it—but how much will you need, and how much might end up being loan? The time to start finding out is before you apply, not after. You’ve already had one awkward talk with your parents, about where babies come from. It’s time to make it two.
  6. Lots of people want to go to the same college. Not everyone will get in. That could be you. 95% of the students applying to Ivy League schools can do the work, and hundreds—that’s hundreds—of valedictorians—were denied admission to the Ivies this year. You may never need Plan B for college, but you’ll need to know how to make a Plan B once you’re in college. Now is the time to practice. Find two schools you’d love to attend where your chances of admission are greater than getting struck by lightning. They exist.
  7. A little planning is good. Many colleges with February deadlines are actually rolling admission schools, where it’s first come, first serve. Find out which of your colleges are rolling, and apply by mid-October. They are harder to get into in February. Much harder.
  8. A lot of planning is bad. There’s a lot to consider when applying to college, but two hours charting the probabilities of your admission under different early action plans are really two hours that are wasted. Watch this Or this.
  9. The first year of college isn’t Grade 13. College classes meet on a different schedule, and cover material at a different pace, so your study skills will have to be flexible and your mind will have to stay sharp. Learning does that for you, so keep paying attention to high school until you’re finished with high school.
  10. You’re a senior. Act like it. Applying to college is a temporary, interesting hobby, not a lifestyle. Work on your college applications a couple of hours each weekend, and leave the rest of the week for studying, bonfires, dances, and French fries. Lots and lots of French fries.