Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Year in Review, and a Look at What’s New

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

2013 was filled with consistent change, the kind of contradiction school counselors have to get used to in order to make long-term commitments to their schools and their profession.  New data isn’t out yet, but counselors continue to report larger caseloads and more time on tasks unrelated to counseling.  While policy makers are acknowledging something needs to change, the nuts and bolts of reform have yet to be worked out—and with Congress up for election next year, it’s unlikely any real change will occur in the few short months the House and Senate will be in session before their members hit the campaign trail.

There are many highlights and promising moments to focus on, so here is just a sampling of where we’ve been, and where we’re headed:

Counselors and Common Core Implementation of Common Core standards was ramped up in many states, leaving counselors in their usual ambivalent role of part cheerleader, part referee.  The higher order thinking skills Common Core purports to measure are welcome news to counselors, since analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are key qualities to emotionally healthy students.  At the same time, the assessment of Common Core outcomes may be even more odious and time-consuming than No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which could lead to more testing and fewer electives for a generation of smart phone users that could use a little imagination stretching.  Counselors have generally responded to the possibilities Common Core offers; time will tell if these possibilities will be realized.

Common Application  High school counselors leveled uncommonly high criticism at a trusted counselor friend this fall, when the new version of Common Application debuted with significant flaws.  The most popular college application in the country, Common App 4 made it difficult for counselors to download transcripts; told students they hadn’t paid for an application when they had, and sent more than a few submitted applications to college—with nothing on them.  The fine tuning is complete, so school counselors have moved on to other heartbreaking issues—like NBC’s remake of The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood.

First Lady Leads Counselor Fanfare  Counselor hopes for improved working conditions were nurtured by Michelle Obama’s publicly demonstrated interest in improving college access and readiness for low-income and first generation youth.  Launched in November, the initiative seeks to raise public awareness of the importance of earning an education after high school, and has garnered the attention of policy makers who can improve the training and working conditions of all school counselors.  Much good is expected of this effort in 2014.

2014 offers these challenges and opportunities for counselor growth:

  • Middle- and high-school counselors will have to adjust to life without PLAN and EXPLORE, as ACT ends these successful tests and replaces them with the multi-grade ASPIRE exam.  Implementation seems easy enough—the question really lies with how well the results will relate to college readiness and Common Core achievement.

  • College access and readiness seem to be pulling counselors in different directions, as some reports indicate a four year college degree is losing its economic prestige, while other reports accuse school counselors of sending high-achieving, low-income students to colleges that don’t really challenge them.  Overeducating and undermatching are two watchwords for 2014.

  • Further change in K-16 education is expected as states begin to shift attitudes about undocumented students. Expect more colleges to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students who graduate from state high schools, and don’t be surprised if financial aid for these students becomes a bigger issue by year’s end.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So, you about ready to wind things down at school for the holidays?

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

As a colleague once said, the end of a calendar year or school year never gives educators a chance to wind things down.  It’s more like running as fast as you can towards the edge of a cliff, where the number of things you have to do grows every day, requiring you to run faster and faster just to keep up.  When the last day of school is over, there is this momentary feeling of bliss, because you realize time is up, and you don’t have to run any more—but then you look back at everything that didn’t get done, and you go into emotional free fall.

That doesn’t have to happen this year.  With a few days left before the last bell rings, take a minute to take care of your students—and yourself—with these simple strategies:

Take care of the logistics.  No one likes to come back from break with a long list of phone messages and e-mails from parents and students asking for basic information— the link to that Web site you mentioned in a career presentation, the School Code to register for the ACT, the name of that article about effective communication with relatives over the holidays. 

Find five minutes to write down every post-holiday question or concern you’ve come back to in past school years, and write down the answers to those questions.  That’s the content of a newsletter you e-mail to all parents, students and faculty, and post on your Web site—then include that Web link on your e-mail Auto Reply, and put it on your outgoing voice message.  Not everyone who calls or e-mails over the holidays will help themselves, but this gives them every chance to try—and sends the clear message that you want to help them, even when you’re not there.

Take care of your clients.  The newsletter offers blanket advice to clients making inquiries, but the clients you’re seeing on a regular basis require support more tailored to their individual needs.  Now is the time to review the lesson plans for your counseling groups and the notes from your meetings with high-needs students.  At your last meeting before the holidays, set aside five minutes to talk about the articles, community-based resources, and coping strategies they have access to while school is closed.  It may even be wise to talk about the strategies students have used when faced with challenges over a weekend, or when you were away at a conference.  Showing them how they can take care of themselves affirms their understanding that you see them capable of taking care of themselves; that in itself goes a long way to making their December break manageable and enjoyable.

Ask for help.  Long school breaks can often be a time of anxiety for students who are otherwise very much in control of their lives.  Without the day to day activities of school, some students become overly focused on pending college decisions, struggles with relatives they only see at the holidays, or a self-perceived lack of growth and achievement this past year.

It’s impossible to keep an eye on every student during the last days of school, so call on your peers for support. A quick e-mail to teachers will give them the direction they need to guide students to you who may be approaching the season with some unusual angst—and you’d be amazed how reassuring that e-mail will be to the teachers, too.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cry for Help, or Pity Party?

By: Patrick O'Connor

I once—and only once--- received a compliment about my dancing.  My wife and I were invited to a square dance, and the caller guided the group through sets of dances, each one a little more difficult than the last.  At the end of the third set, the caller motioned to us, so we walked over to him.  “You two are picking this up pretty quick” he said.  “Tell me, what do you do for a living?”

“We’re teachers” we said together.

With that, the caller took a couple of steps back, and turned ashen.  “No”, he said, “you can’t be teachers.  I’ve called dozens of square dances for teachers, and they never get past the first set before they start arguing with each other.  You can’t teach nothin’ to teachers.”

This episode came to mind when a counselor told me they felt isolated in their work.  Isolation is easy to understand; whether we’re classified as teachers or administrators, school counselors are in fact neither.  We really feel this when we’re having a bad day, because no one knows what we do, but they think they know what we do—and that doesn’t engender a lot of sympathy.

I suggested the counselor form a Counseling Advisory Committee. Established by school counseling guru Norm Gysbers, CACs are designed to help counseling offices review and implement their curriculum.  CAC members are picked by the counselor, and usually include teachers, the PTA president, representatives from the business and religious communities—people who care about kids who need to know what counselors do.  By combining their efforts, CAC members keep in close touch and create an atmosphere of support that’s the cure for counselor isolationism.

The response was understandable, but less than I had hoped for.  “Great idea, but I don’t even have time to do my job.  When am I going to have time to put this committee together?”

And that’s when the square dancing story came to mind.

There is no question school counselors are overworked and underappreciated, and there is little hope that any economic relief is in sight to solve that problem.  As we so often tell our students, when outside resources offer no sign of help, it’s time to help ourselves—so,  just as we tell our students, if we want something different, we have to do something different.

As trained school counselors, we know change has a price.  You have to find an extra hour to organize a committee; not everyone will want to serve; you may end up with the wrong mix of people, and you’ll have to start over, all while considering the number of students you could have seen during the hours you put in to a failed committee.

It’s certainly true there are no guarantees of success—but there are two things to keep in mind.  First, you may, in fact, succeed.  One school counselor used her PTA as a Counseling Advisory Committee, and told them the college counseling curriculum would really be enhanced if she could just get some funding to attend a national conference. The PTA sponsored her, she went to the conference, and the college choices for students soared—as did the scholarships they earned.

The second thing to remember is that if nothing changes, nothing changes.  This isn’t easy to hear, but important to remember when you, a well-connected adult with multiple college degrees, tell a sixteen year-old to be the change they want to become.

Good counseling is all about humility, empathy, and leading by example. The time for dysfunctional stasis is over--so grab your partners.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

College Applications and Thanksgiving

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

This holiday season brings plenty of good news for high school seniors. Thanksgiving is as late as it possibly can be, creating one more week to complete college applications before the holidays begin. This also gives you one more week to hear back from colleges that have your completed applications, increasing the chances you can share good news with the relatives you see once a year.

But a late Turkey Day date also brings a few challenges.  If you’re thinking you’ll have a few days after Thanksgiving to submit college applications with a December 1 deadline, look again.  December 1st is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, so it’s easy to see there won’t be much time to do quality application work on a holiday weekend.

In addition, one more week before Thanksgiving gives you one less week after Thanksgiving—calendars can be harsh that way.  This means any plans you have to apply “later” to colleges with a January 1 deadline may be counting on time you really won’t have, even if you work through the night before Christmas or the eight days of Hanukah.

The key to good college applications is the same as the key to good holidays—plan ahead.  Follow these steps, and you’ll make sure the only turkey you deal with is the one you eat on Thanksgiving, not the last-minute college essay you have to send in on a tight deadline.

Count your colleges and your blessings. Start by writing down the number of college applications you still have to complete.  Now, organize them by due date—not by the number of essays they require—and re-write the list in that order.

If you have eight or fewer applications to complete, you’re in great shape. Most students can complete an application in two hours, especially if the basic part of The Common Application is now complete.  If you set aside a two hour block every Saturday and Sunday between now and December Break, you’ll find you have time to do homework and activities during the school week, give yourself ample time to write quality college essays on the weekends, and…

Take Thanksgiving Weekend Off.  Completely.  Think about everything you did last Thanksgiving—parade, football, shopping, listening to Uncle Mike talk about how LBJ is the best president ever. All of that’s going to happen this year—and you don’t want to miss a minute of it.

If family gets to be a little too much (hey, it happens) you’ll want to plan on some quality screen time, or friend time, or taking-a-breath-from-three-AP-classes time.  All of this is perfectly understandable, and perfectly healthy—and this break will actually help your college applications.  If you complete a few applications before Thanksgiving, then take off one weekend,  you’ll regain your focus when you start again the weekend ofDecember 7th,  and write better essays than you would if you were trying to “squeeze in” some writing time during Thanksgiving.  Believe me—this works.

Cut Your Relatives Some Slack.  They’ll sigh when they find out you haven’t heard from your colleges, and look at you blankly when you name a school they’ve never heard of.  They don’t doubt you—they love you—and they want to know you’ll be OK.  Show them you are OK, and college will be great—live in the moment, let college go for a weekend, and let Uncle Mike win the wishbone contest, while you tell him he’s just as strong as Lyndon Baines Johnson.  It’s all good. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A School Counselor's Request to Michelle Obama

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Mrs. Obama, your remarks this week to Washington DC sophomores were inspiring, both to the students, and to those who work with students in choosing a college.  By highlighting the White House’s progress in making college information accessible to the public, you’ve encouraged students to make the most out of College Navigator and College Scorecard.  In emphasizing the importance of daily homework habits and making the most of every opportunity available to students, you’ve inspired them to build the study skills and interests that will serve them well in high school, college, and beyond.

It is also encouraging to know this was the first of many conversations you’ll be having about college access—and as you build your schedule of college conversations, I hope there will be time for one about counselor readiness.  College experts recognize school counselors as uniquely situated to make a significant difference in the college plans of every student.  We see the students in school, we know their strengths and interests, and we take every opportunity to help them make strong choices about college.

But just like the statistic you cited that puts the United States 12th in the world among college graduates, school counselors know they could do better helping students make good, personalized college plans.  We’re well aware of national surveys where young adults report their counselor was of little help with college selection, and while it hurts when at-risk valedictorians call us “pretty lousy” and “incompetent”, we understand where they’re coming from. 

Two years of College Board survey results show counselors wish we had been better prepared for college counseling when we were trained.  Only 30 of the hundreds of counselor training programs in our country offer a course in college counseling, and only one or two require it.  We had to learn this skill on the job, and given the crisis-driven nature of school counseling, there just isn’t time to learn college advising skills while we’re putting out so many fires. We need a better foundation.

There are some professional development opportunities for counselors to learn more about the college selection process, but our students need more—and quite frankly, so do we.  Because college programs are very slow to change, it would be most helpful if you would call on all counselor training programs to develop a course in counseling in the college selection process, based on the essential college counseling proficiencies identified by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. These courses already make a difference in the lives of counselors and their students, as counselors feel empowered to help students with college counseling facts and programs they had never been able to use before, because they never knew they existed. 

Asking colleges to offer this class would create opportunities for some counselors and their students, and requiring colleges to offer this course would impact all students and families. President Obama has put a high value on a college education; an Executive Order directing all counseling programs to include this course as a degree requirement would send a clear message that the United States is determined to help all students attain the highest level of college awareness and readiness, and significantly advance us towards the 2020 objective.
School counselors have a rich tradition of supporting the goals and needs of our students, a record that helps us realize the importance of asking for help-- especially when we need it ourselves.  We long to be of greater service to our students and families by being better trained in college counseling; your support will help us attain that higher level of service.


Patrick J. O’Connor, Ph.D.
Associate Dean of College Counseling, Cranbrook Kingswood School
Past President, National Association for College Admission Counseling

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ideal Gifts for That Special Counselor in Your Life

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

In case you missed it, your local drug store is stocking candy canes this week—and that puts them a couple of weeks behind the local big box store that’s had Christmas trees up since mid-October.  These commercial displays remind us that a season of gift-giving is upon us; if you have a spare minute or two, you may want to add these professional resources to your wish list, just in case someone asks.

NOSCA’s Principal-Counselor Toolkit provides strategies, worksheets, and other tools to create a strong working relationship between you and your supervisor.  The toolkit covers everything from the right use of data (a staple when developing a strong relationship with a principal), effective communication practices, leadership, and taking your practice to the next level.  This series of downloads is free, but since busy counselors don’t have time to stand around the printer, the toolkit is the ideal gift for your school-aged, tech-savvy children to give  you, nicely wrapped in your favorite-covered binder.

Dr. James T. Webb’s  new book expands the understanding of the gifted.  Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope talks about ways to help the bright students in your school who sometimes struggle when the challenges of reality clash with their strong, clear vision of what their world—or our world—can be. 

About 30 years ago, the American education system decided to treat gifted children the same way it treats students who get straight As, glossing over the important differences in the psychological make-up of students who are achievement oriented, and students who are focused on sharing their very personal vision of the world.  James Webb has been trying to articulate the needs of the gifted for over 40 years, and critics are hailing Searching for Meaning as an ideal guide to help gifted students understand themselves and the world around them.  It’s the perfect book to save for a quiet winter day—and if you don’t have his classic Guiding the Gifted Child, make sure that goes on your gift list as well.

Top Student, Top School? How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go To College explores a different group of students, and offers a more solemn but important message to school counselors. Alexandria Walton Radford studied the college choices of high school valedictorians, and discovered that the two factors preventing low-income valedictorians from attending top colleges were the lack of college awareness of their parents, and the lack of knowledge and support of their school counselors. 

The author pulls no punches in her assessment of the students’ experiences with school counselors—the students used words like “pretty lousy” and “incompetent”—and matches that description to the irony that these high-achieving students are actually more likely than their higher-income counterparts to be admitted to top colleges and enroll in them, provided the adults in their lives guide them to the right information and the right financial resources. This may not be the ideal page-turner to read in those days of renewal during the holidays, but it’s the perfect book to keep in mind when it’s time to make that list of New Year’s resolutions that fuel our desire to make things better for our students.

Finally, a nifty little tool from Levenger is the ideal stocking stuffer for counselors who still clip articles from print magazines and newspapers. The Single Sheet Cutters allow you to save that article in the middle of the page without mangling the rest of the paper, and since Levenger has frequent 20% off sales before the holidays, it’s a thrifty decadent splurge.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Administrative Support of Counseling Programs—The Counselor’s Role

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s a busy time of year. Elementary and middle school counselors are involved with parent conferences, while high school counselors have the additional layer of early college applications to complete.  Combined with the responsibilities of fall testing, it’s easy to look back on the department goals set in September and wonder, where did the time go?

If you’re feeling the need for support, the best place to turn is your school administrator. The unique position counselors fill in the school community provides ample opportunities to create innovative programs and activities that can enrich all facets of a student’s school experience.  At the same time, a school counselor’s role is neither completely teacher, nor completely support staff, nor completely administrator.  This absence of commonality makes it challenging for counselors to feel a sense of support for their work-- but this absence increases the necessity for school administrators to provide that support.

Interviews and surveys of school counselors in Michigan revealed five areas where administrative support of school programs is essential—and while the research was conducted in 2000, the results still ring true today:

Program and Logistical Support  Administrators supply the resources needed to implement all facets of a comprehensive counseling curriculum, including curriculum development, program implementation, and program evaluation.

Programmatic and Professional Growth  Counselors always want to do more, and administrators give counselors the opportunity and encouragement to expand their services, including school-wide activities to deliver counseling services, as well as participation in professional development activities to stay abreast of new trends in the field.

Engaged Advocacy  Supportive administrators meet with counselors on a regular basis, and promote and endorse counseling programs with internal and external audiences, including faculty, district administration, school boards, and the public.

Capital Allocation   Administrators allocate physical plant and technology resources appropriate to advance counseling services, resulting in workplaces for counseling that are fresh, updated, functional, and welcoming.

Affirmation  Administrators trust the judgment and abilities of the counselor, evidenced by the autonomy the counselors are given, and by the tenor of the work relationship between counselors and administrators.

None of this should come as a surprise to either counselors or administrators, but many counselors get to the middle of the school year and realize they’ve forgotten these five essential fundamentals, and the role counselors play to receive that support.  Time is always at a premium, but try to take 30 minutes and ask yourself these key questions about your role in this important relationship:

  • What’s the best way to tell your administrator about upcoming programs and events in college counseling—e-mail, phone call, informal conversation?
  • How do you share the results and feedback of your programs with your administrator, and is that information presented in a summarized way that’s easy for them to access?
  • Is there a clear way to send your administrator a “heads up” about a situation with a student or family that could soon require their active intervention?
  • What formats exist for your administrator to share the feedback they’re receiving from others about the school’s counseling services?
  • When is the best time to discuss plans for program growth, and how would your administrator like to be approached when that time arrives?
  • How do you relate your appreciation for your administrator’s support of your program?

This list should also look familiar—it’s the same series of other-centered questions we present to students when discussing effective communication.  Every counselor needs and deserves their administrator’s support, but it’s essential, especially in busy times, to make sure we put ourselves in a position to receive that support in the myriad ways it can be presented.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Every Student Finds a College in Five Days

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s hard to pick one month out of the year where high school counselors are most busy, but I think I would nominate October.  With schedule changes almost done (are they ever really done?), counselors have to gear up for the PSAT and statewide testing, and support the endless number of college applications their seniors are submitting. With all that going on, it doesn’t quite seem right to suggest one more October activity to fill your plate…

…but here goes. College Application Week started as a small but mighty idea in North Carolina.  The premise was simple: take one week in late fall to focus all of the counseling office’s efforts to make sure every high school senior applied to at least one college. Some students would certainly apply to college before College Application Week, and many would apply to more than one college; the activities and events held during the week are designed to support students who haven’t applied to college by early November, and to help them find a college match.

It didn’t take long for this idea to expand, both in scope and in breadth.  Counselors quickly realized getting every student to apply to college by the end of CAW would require more computers than the one (if there is even one) in the counseling office, and many students might need help navigating an online application.  In addition, it would probably help to offer seminars and activities to get seniors thinking about college choices before the actual week started; that would give them time to investigate different colleges and use their time during CAW to make strong, personalized college choices.

Now in its ninth year, College Application Week has burst out of counseling offices, and overtakes entire schools for a full five days.  Teachers wear sweatshirts and other gear with the name of their college proudly displayed, and most take five minutes out of every class period to talk about their college experience.  Many teachers also put up a bulletin board or door display where students can post a Success message once they’ve applied, while volunteers from local colleges and the PTA work with students in computer labs to complete the college applications.  And if you think this inspires the seniors, just think how this celebration of college impacts the juniors—and the freshmen.

CAW has also inspires principals in important ways, as the energy of the week leads them to ask, “So does this program make a difference?”  This has led to principal-led efforts to keep better track of the colleges students apply to; where they are admitted; where they attend; how they do once they’re in college, and if they complete a degree.  This kind of data helps counselors and teachers evaluate one aspect of the school’s mission, and provides clues for improving college readiness and completion.

And yes, the program does make a difference.  The first CAW in 2005 supported the college goals of one North Carolina high school.  In 2011, over 25,000 North Carolina students submitted over 68,000 college applications, and CAW programs are being initiated or in full swing in 39 states, each one serving the needs of all students, but especially those who are convinced college isn’t for them.

You may be too swamped this October to put together a College Application Week of your own, but put it on your spring calendar as an idea to investigate and implement next year.  Information on CAW can be found at, and it can change your students’ lives forever.

Plus, it might even get you out of schedule changes.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

That’s Why it’s Called College Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Part of the goal in every aspect of counseling is to help students cope with a difficult situation by understanding more about themselves and their ability to manage the dilemma.  More often than not, this work requires the student to see more of their capabilities, and to accept the importance of being patient with their growth in those capabilities. Great athletes don’t come out of the womb and slam dunk a basketball or knock a baseball 400 feet; the same is true for fully-realized individuals who start their own companies, raise healthy children, or live meaningful lives. Many will get to the top of their game, but that usually takes time, patience, and a great deal of practice.

That’s why college application deadlines can seem like such an adversary.  How can a student be required to apply to a college by a certain date when one more month of Algebra or one more semester of growth could dramatically change their grades, their outlook on life, or the quality of recommendations they receive from their teachers?  What does a student do as deadlines approach if the college of their dreams may not fit in with the plans for their life? What does a student do who has spent three years with college as their goal when their parents tell them the finances just aren’t there, and the student will have to take a full time job just to make ends meet at home.

This challenge might seem unique to college counseling, but how many of our students come to us with problems they see as other-centered, when the real solution lies in a change of the perception or behavior of the student?

“Now that my best friend and I have had a fight, I just have to get out of the class we have together.”

“I want to come to school on time, but my mom wakes me up late.”

“My grades would be better if I could study at my house, but it’s just too noisy there.”

These issues may seem to deal with a change in behavior (sit somewhere else in the room, buy an alarm clock, study at the library), but that change only occurs once the student realizes they have the power to do something about a situation they now see as out of their control. Once they know they really can do something to better themselves, it’s only a matter of time and desire to realize the change—and that puts them back in the center of their own universe.

That’s true for getting up in the morning, but is it really true for college deadlines? 

“If only I had more time to get my grades up.”

“Let’s look at some colleges that will look at your senior year grades as part of your application.”

“I can’t decide which school to apply to early.”

“Maybe we should talk about applying to meet the later application deadline.”

“Mom and Dad say I have to work for a year before I can go to school.”

“There are many colleges that will admit you now and let you take a year off.  Let’s look at those.”

At this busy time of year, it’s easy for our students to see no answers at all, and it’s easy for us to forget we have the answers that can liberate their perspective and widen their view of what’s possible.  We can’t change deadlines, but we can help students understand how to respond to those deadlines in ways that can change their entire views of themselves, their potential, and their futures.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The College Counseling Throwdown

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Long-time readers to this space know it is sometimes used to expound on the significant gap that exists in school counselor training.  For those needing a refresher, here are the highlights:

  • Less than ten percent of the school counselor training programs in the United States offer a course on college advising
  • A recent survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows school counselors spend about 20% of their time on college advising activities
  • A Public Agenda survey found most young adults thought their counselor was of little or no help when it came to making college plans
  • Two different College Board surveys of school counselors found that counselors themselves feel undertrained in this vital area

This is usually the point where readers are asked to seize the energy behind this need and contact their state legislators and fix this.  Today, we’re taking a detour.

People with very good intentions can get sidetracked in a hurry when they run up against large institutions—so if large institutions are too intimidating, it’s time to look local. There’s a good chance you work for a school, and there’s an even better chance that school has a board, and that school board sets all kinds of policies, including the hiring policies; you might even know someone on the school board. 

Imagine the attention you would receive if you told a board member over coffee that you, a school counselor, want the board to increase the required qualifications for any newly hired counselor.  Upon taking the job, they either have to show evidence of having completed a 45 hour course in college advising, or they have to agree to complete such a course before they begin their second year of work.  If they don’t have the class, they take it in a year—and if they promise to take it but don’t follow through, they don’t get to keep the job.

The first response will probably be the same glassy-eyed look I get when telling policymakers counselors aren’t fully trained to help students make good college choices.  There’s a good chance your board members don’t know that either, so you may need to give them the facts that start this column.  Once you do that, they still might not believe you want to add more requirements to the job—after all, you’re a counselor—but your experiences and care for your students will guide you to find the right words.

It may be obvious, but you get something out of this—in fact, you get two somethings.  The next counselor you hire will either have the training they need to hit the ground running with college advice, or at least show the interest in learning that side of the job.  Imagine what that interest and energy will do to cut down training time, and improve the quality of your counseling program.

In addition to your committed colleague, your students will get some extra college advice from me.  No school district in the country has this policy right now; if you can get your district to lead the way on this essential reform, I will give you enough copies of College is Yours 2.0  to give one to every junior in your high school class.  10, 50, 800—it doesn’t matter. Make history, and you get the books.

Hard work has its rewards, and breaking this barrier is a must if our students and our profession are going to move forward.  I’ve been saying that for quite a while; now it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is.

Who’s in?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Note You Send Every College-Bound Senior Before the Application Deadline

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Completing a college application is an exciting experience, but it’s important to make sure the excitement is a positive excitement, not a panicked one.  To reach that goal, students will want to keep the following points in mind as they plan their time to complete and submit their college applications:

You may be the person applying to college, but you aren’t the only person completing your application.  Most college applications require a completed form from the student, a signed form from your counselor, a transcript from our registrar, and a processing check from your parents.  Many other colleges also want letters of recommendation from teachers, and a letter from your counselor, as well as official copies of test scores.  That’s a lot of information coming from many different busy, caring people, and each of those people works at a different pace, and has a different schedule. 

346 other students are applying to college, too.  Many of the people supporting your college applications are also supporting the applications of other seniors, and they want to do a good job with each one.  Some of the other applications may require more of their time than yours will, and some may require less, but they will all require some time—and they can’t work on everyone’s application at the same time.

It helps you when others have time to do their job well.  Most teachers write better letters of recommendation when they have a chance to work on two or three drafts for each letter—and they can only work on letters when they aren’t teaching, coaching, or checking papers. Colleges wouldn’t ask for these letters if they weren’t important, so you ask teachers to write them who know you well, and you want those teachers to write the best letters they possibly can, so you ask them weeks before the letter is actually due. (Same for counselors.)

Computers don’t always work.  You found this out when you waited until morning to print the History paper you’d written the night before, and it was gone.  It isn’t a great feeling, but it happens—and sometimes it happens with the school’s computer that holds your transcript, the counselor’s computer that holds your secondary school report, or your teacher’s computer that holds your letter of recommendation.  All of that information can be found or reproduced, but only if there’s some extra time built in between the time you ask for the information, and when it has to be submitted. (Keep this in mind when you work on your college essays and save them.)

There’s no such thing as a college counseling emergency.  The teachers and counselors supporting your college application have been helping students make good college choices for a combined 243 years, and none of us has ever encountered a deadline or request from a college that required a response the day the request was first made—and none of those requests ever asked for information to be sent on Christmas Eve.  If you’ve lost track of what’s due when, everyone will do their best to submit materials on time, but no one can turn the clock back on a deadline that’s passed, and no one can give quality work less time than it deserves.

Applying to college is a sign you want to embrace a larger understanding of who you are and how you relate to the world.  Part of that larger role requires growth in supporting and thanking the people who support you.  Accept that challenge, as you lead the team that will help you build a brighter future. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Three Tech Tools to Move Your Counseling Forward

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s never easy keeping up with the latest developments in technology.  Before you know it, the state-of-the-art gizmo you just bought has been replaced with something more sleek, and your kids or neighbors are gently chiding you for having a piece of technology that debuted with the dinosaurs.

School counselors usually get a little more slack for using ancient tech.  It’s true that most people don’t know what we do, but they do understand it has to do with people, not machines, so it’s OK if our page on the school’s Web site is still wishing everyone a great summer.  Still, there’s something to be said for being able to make a technology connection with our students.  If you’re wondering what’s out there that can help you bridge the divide, take a look at these three somewhat new, very cool, counseling technology enhancements:

Remind 101  I continue to be amazed when my students tell me they don’t use e-mail because it’s too old school.  I know the trend is towards short messages, and I get that the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words long, but is it really possible to explain how to do a college visit in 140 characters?

Enter Remind 101. This free Web site allows you to send text messages to students and parents, and the service is free (the text may not be, depending on your phone plan). You can create different groups of students to text (all juniors, students in AP classes), and you never see their phone numbers—just like they don’t ever see yours. This allows you to text them with a quick message and a link to the article that talks about college visits in detail—and that’s a winning combination.

Podomatic  This most visual of generations finds it hard to focus when you talk about test prep in their English class, but put the same presentation on a podcast, and their ACT scores will hit 37.  Podomatic has two levels of service, and the basic account is free.  It comes with all the tools you need to give your counseling office a Web presence, but you might want to have a fundraiser to upgrade to the Pro Account—and either way, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the president of the Tech Club walk you through your first couple of podcasts.

Scholly  We all knew the day would come when students would ask if they could search for scholarships on their smart phones. To those of us who used to search through remarkably large scholarship books, this is a sacrilege—if kids want money for college so badly, they ought to work hard to get it, doggone it.

Thankfully, Christopher Grey didn’t see it that way, so he’s developed Scholly, a smart phone app where students can look for scholarships by all kinds of metrics—state, GPA, major, and more.  The database is perpetually updated, and the site includes sample essays students can use to write scholarship essays.  The good news is that these essays are good enough for students to learn how to write their own, but not quite so good that students would use them on an application—and that’s a perfect mix.

Scholly isn’t free- it’s 99 cents on the App store—but it’s worth it, since you get to see the graphic of the a cute dog in a mortarboard, and because Chris is a Drexel student who found $1.3 million in scholarships for his  own education—so he knows what he’s doing.  Find out more at

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

This Really Can’t Wait. Really?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

One of my best professional development experiences occurred when I came back from a conference.  I attended my first annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and was almost giddy from the amount of pamphlets, pennants, information, and college bling I brought back to the office. 
I was stunned when I walked in Monday to find a stack of mail and memos on my desk that was at least twice the height of the pretty pamphlets I’d brought home.  A quick flip through the stack showed paper after paper with highlighted titles like “Respond Now!”, and “How many credits is a yearlong class?  I have to know by tomorrow.”

I put aside the small stash of imported information from the conference, and dove into the more important trove of student questions and teacher issues that threatened to fill my morning.  Digging in with the same energy I always applied to the mail, the first fifth of the pile was gone in a flash— since I’d been gone five days, this meant the “urgent” business of Friday was now taken care of.

The project took on an entirely different dimension when I came across the third memo sent by my principal marked “Reply needed ASAP.” Her request was dated last Thursday, and it asked for my input on a pep assembly that was held last Friday.  It ended with “Let me know what you think right away.”  Too late now, I thought, as the paper ended up in the garbage can.

And suddenly, the spell was broken.

The next memo was from the Honor Society sponsor, asking for volunteers for last Saturday’s dance. Sorry.

The Wednesday memo about the faculty pot luck on Thursday?  Nope.

The Tuesday afternoon note from a student who just had to have a copy of his transcript Thursday for a scholarship application?  He either got it from someone else, or is working on another funding source.

Almost three-fourths of rest of Mount Memo was issues that had come and gone in the time I had gone and come back. When my first student came to see me that morning, I had two items that required my attention, and those were taken care of by lunch.

I’m heading to this year’s NACAC conference, and I’m more excited than ever.  It’s great to see colleagues and talk with colleges about this year’s special applicants, but the best part is knowing my students will have to make do while I’m gone.  Texting, e-mail, and “preferred admissions” applications have accelerated the college application process in ways I couldn’t have predicted at my first NACAC conference twenty years ago, and my seniors are too easily caught up in the rush.  Thanks to the marketing mania that has replaced much of the thoughtful discourse in a good college search, applying is all about doing it now, getting it over with, or getting someone else to do it for you.

That won’t happen this week, as my students with essay drafts will have to wait to exchange ideas that can only occur in person, and build Plan B when I respond to a complicated e-mail with “We really need to talk about this.  Set up a meeting for Monday.”  I’m not worried they will melt before then; a generation of bright seniors that preceded them suggests they’ll be just fine.

And as for the mail waiting for me?  I’ll run through the top fifth, then toss what’s left in the recycling bin.  It turns out the rest really could have waited.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

All Hail the College Road Warriors

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

We’ve talked about the dos and don’ts of college road trips—basically, anything done by Raven and John Belushi is out, and never do something that would make your mother want to shout.  Another kind of road trip happens when college admissions officers visit your high school.  Knowing that not every student has the time or coin to make it to campus, thousands of college reps put up with rush hour traffic, GPS systems that have never heard of your high school, and rental car agents who say things like “Where is THAT college located?” just to talk to you on your home turf.

College reps aren’t salesmen; they are dream weavers, and their task is to take what they know about their college, apply it to what you know about yourself, and see what kind of tapestry the two of you can create.

Since an expert on a college that might be your next home is coming to town, it’s important to make them feel welcome.  Here’s how:

  • Check with your counselor.  There’s a good chance the college has e-mailed, tweeted, or called to let you know they’re coming, but they might not tell you what time, or where the meeting will occur.  Double check with your counselor.

  • Go directly to the principal’s office.  Your high school might only allow college reps to visit during lunch.  Talk about a good first impression!  What other place in the high school (or for that matter, Dante’s Inferno) has the special ambiance of the cafeteria, where French fry grease, tightly packed student bodies and quietly rotting lunch bags create a bouquet that is nicely complemented by the din of 800 students all talking at the same time?  If this is your school, it’s time to throw a food fit; ask your principal to at least give the rep a conference room where interested students can get something out of the visit.

  • Do your homework.  The night before, hit the Web to visit the college’s site.  Get a flavor for the college’s size, location, and admission requirements, then notice what themes occur on the site—lots of pictures of sports, six pictures of the same tree in full fall foliage, etc.  See if the school’s newspaper has a Web presence, and learn what’s going on at campus.  This way, the rep can slim down the introduction of the college, and answer questions that will personalize the visit for everyone.

  • Bring two questions.  Just like class, you want to use a visit to find out things that aren’t on the Web or in a viewbook, so give some thought to these ahead of time.  Also, make sure they’re phrased in a fact-gathering way:  It’s good to say “Do you plan to offer more science majors?”—not, “Do you plan on improving your science majors?”

  • Fill out an information card, even if you’re on the mailing list.  Reps use this information to show their boss the visit was worthwhile, and it increases the chances they’ll be back next year.  Be selfless.

  • Thank them for coming.  A rep visit isn’t a “thank you note” experience, but a clear, direct “thank you” as you leave makes the long drive and bad hotel food worthwhile.

  • Once you get home, write your impressions down in your college journal.

Like most of the adults involved in your choice of colleges, reps want you to have clear, real information about their college—and the best way to make sure that happens is still face-to-face.  This is more free learning; make the most of it.

(NOTE TO COUNSELORS:  It goes without saying that, if a college rep comes to your building, they automatically get at least 15 minutes with you. Ask them what's new at their school, tell them what's new at your school, use the time to give them a heads up on a student or two-- but make it worth their while.  Colleges have tight budgets too, and they think enough of your school that they're still coming to see you.  The least you could do is say thank you-- this is the best way to do that.)