Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Counseling for the Second First-Choice

By Patrick J. O'Conner Ph.D.

Is counseling for the unknown an art or a science?

It’s a question that’s plagued our profession for many years, and the dilemma only seems to be getting worse.  The recent round of college admissions decisions left thousands of students and parents (and their counselors) speechless, as acceptance rates at many colleges fell below 7%, with one college—the tuition free Curtis Institute of Music—falling to 3.5%.  That would be an exceptionally strong batting average for a baseball player, but to high school seniors, these numbers sound like there’s a better chance of getting hit by lightning on a sunny day than getting admitted to college.

The same is true for middle school  and elementary counselors.  Tryouts for the 8th grade football team are coming up, and a student is concerned he won’t make the team.  After talking with you, he decides to give it a try, and doesn’t make the cut.  He goes home devastated, telling his parents you talked him into the tryout. 

If his 5th grade sister comes home with the same scenario about not getting the lead in the spring play the counselor “promised’ her, you’ve got one unhappy family on your hands—especially if the oldest child is a high school senior who applied to Curtis and was rejected. In each case, the question is the same—didn’t the counselor see this coming?

The answer is yes and no.  Yes, the counselor knew there were only so many slots for too many students, so some students were going to be disappointed; no, they had no idea which side of the decision your child would be on.  Yes, your counselor could see strengths and weaknesses in your child’s abilities and experiences that could affect their chances of success; no, your counselor has no idea what the strengths and weaknesses of all of the other students are.  Yes, your counselor has probably advised many students about these activities, so they may have some idea of the standards used by those making the decisions; no, these standards are not always consistent from year to year.

Some real-life examples can give parents something to hold on to as they grasp for grounding.  If your son was one of two fast 8th graders to try out for wide receiver, there’s a good chance they’re in; if they’re one of twenty, the chances go down.  If the 5th grade musical always has lots of roles for sopranos, your high-pitched daughter is in great shape, unless the director decides to change things up this year and feature the altos.  If some small college that took everyone last year is the new hot school, there just won’t be room for everyone this year.

The final, essential piece here is developing Plan B before it’s actually needed.  Seniors apply to more than one college in case their top choices don’t work out; lanky wide receiver wannabes are encouraged to think about running cross country if there’s gridlock on the gridiron; elementary coloraturas can set their sights on the church pageant or the community playhouse if the spring play doesn’t work out.

The science of counseling involves discussing facts in ways that offer clear pictures to clients; the art involves creating a host of possibilities the client can feel good about without thinking they’ve settled for second best.  There will always be first choices, and the pains that come from not achieving them, but the beauty of good counseling is that students and their parents will see the opportunities they do earn as second first choices, eager to make the most of them

Thursday, April 14, 2011

On a Scale of 1 to 10, How do You Feel About Evaluating a Counseling Program?

By:  Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

Don’t look now, but the end of the school year is about two months away.  For counselors, this means awards assemblies, school picnics, and graduation ceremonies for everyone from kindergarten to high school.  But thanks to school improvement programs and state mandates, the long to-do list for May and June may have a new addition—the collection of data to evaluate the effectiveness of your school counseling program.

Hard as it may be, measure we must—data is the lifeblood of most principal’s careers, so it’s time to review some basics for measuring the effectiveness of the department that improves students’ lives:

What do you want to know?  This may seem like an obvious question, but that happens a lot in counseling.  The key is to answer the question in a way that will show key groups (administrators, parents, your teaching colleagues) everything you do—so once you think you’ve answered this question, you’re going to have to run it past these groups to see if your answers make sense to them.

Suffice it to say, if this is the first time all year you’re thinking about this question, it may be time to do some fact gathering and hold off the evaluation until next year.  Bring your stakeholders together, gather some opinions, and begin your plan for 2012; chances are the administration will give you a year to put a quality assessment together, as long as you give them a good reason for the delay—like, you were too busy actually helping students..

How will you measure what you want to know?  Everyone may want to know if the college advising program is successful, but if the parents think the way to measure that is in scholarship monies earned, the principal thinks it should be measured by students going to Harvard, and you think it should be measured by how happy the students are about their college choice, you have a lot of talking to do.  (By the way, never—never—measure a college counseling program by the number of students who were admitted to a college in a given year.  Too many factors are involved that are out of your control; if you don’t believe me, just Google “admissions decisions 2011” and have the smelling salts at hand.) Make sure you reach consensus here, or people may insist you’re trying to hide something.

What will be a satisfactory level of response?  I’m not suggesting you do this, but let’s say you want to measure the counseling program’s stress management program by giving random students a stress level test. What kind of outcome will be considered successful—if the average score is below More Tightly Wound Than Big Ben, or if 75% of the students have lower stress scores than their pre-tests last fall.  Remember, if you decide to go with a pre-test model of some kind and you didn’t do the pre-test levels, let this go until next year—the data you get with post-test only can only be used in wrong ways.

How, and when will you share the results, and with whom?  Once the results are in and analyzed, you can’t keep it secret for long.  Decide now how the information will be shared, remembering that results can be shared in different ways with different groups that have different needs—if this sounds like counseling, you’re absolutely right.

The key here is not to rush into this.  Look at what other schools are doing, make sure everyone has a common sense of purpose, and your efforts will leave everyone happier than the last day of school.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

How to Help Students Deal With College Waitlists

By: Patrick J. O'Connor, Ph.D.

Photo by Lars Leetaru-WSJ Online
The last big round of college admissions decisions have been released, and counselors are very busy helping students and parents understand what it all means. Adding to the confusion this year was a significant increase in the number of colleges putting students on a waitlist—and with good reason.

It’s hard to be a waitlisted student.  On the one hand, you have to plan to attend a college where you’ve been admitted; on the other hand, you have to keep looking at your e-mail to see if another college still wants you. This waiting game can sometimes go on into the summer, and just like the last three months have been hard on all college-bound students, the next two months can be real agony for those students on a wait list.

Counselors can help waitlisted students by asking these simple questions:

If you were called off the waitlist today, would you still want to go to that college?  Since the student applied to the college, you’d think this would be an easy question to answer—but it isn’t.  If a college says “maybe”, the student may think twice about how good of a fit this college is after all, or the student may simply look at the two or three colleges that have said “yes” and decide that’s good enough.  Asking this question can help the student focus on what matters to them now, and that can only help.

What are you willing to do to still show interest in the college?  Colleges sometimes tell waitlisted students to send back a postcard or an e-mail to indicate an interest in staying on the mailing list.  In most cases, this is an unspoken invitation for the student to make another brief contact expressing their interest in the college (check with the college).  A two or three-paragraph update of the student’s achievements and accomplishments since they applied is a great way to show continued enthusiasm, and some students even ask another teacher for an additional letter of recommendation.

These are great communication tools, but they also take time.  With AP and IB tests coming up, not to mention prom and other social events, waitlisted students simply may not have the time or interest in putting this update together.  If all they want to do is return the postcard, that’s great, but it’s fair for them to know other students may not be going quietly when it comes to the waitlist.

Is financial aid a factor?  It’s hard to tell what will happen in this very unusual college admission season, but waitlisted students in past years often found little or no financial aid waiting for them for their first year.  It could be that the student’s interest in the college is so strong they would go anyway, and of course the student may get much more aid in their second year, but students and families should know that a waitlist admit can decrease their chances of getting of getting complete aid.  If this is an issue for the student, have them call the college and ask.

Do they have a Plan A?  This last question is also simple, but important.  A student MUST have a college to commit to come May 1st—without one, they may have nowhere to go come fall.  Be sure to find out.

Waitlisted students have a lot to think about, but these guiding questions can be a huge help in getting students to focus on what matters most as March Madness threatens to extend into May.