Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Helping Students with Admissions Decisions—A Couple of Things to Avoid

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The last few college decisions are coming out this week, so your office will soon be filled with all kinds of students who have received all kinds of news.  As you try and meet these very different needs, here are a few responses you may want to hold off on, at least for now.

The News is Theirs to Share  The entire school community has invested a great deal into the college applications of every senior.  From teachers to counselors to those in charge of transcripts, it truly does take a village to apply to college, and everyone hopes for the best outcome.

That sense of teamwork has no limits when it comes to applying, but it should have some limits when it comes to sharing the decisions—that’s the student’s job.  This is especially true when there’s good news; you may want to go running into the faculty room with news of every “Yes”, but part of the fun in getting in is when the student gets to see the genuine look of delight on the face of everyone they tell.  This is hard, but you’re a pro; if you have to, send a memo to the faculty, reminding them why you can’t share the news, and encouraging them to do the same, letting the student revel in the moment of glory, or be allowed the best way to share a rejection or deferral.

The Safety Net Exception  The one and only time this “Students First” rule is broken is if you are certain a student is having an exceptionally hard time living with a rejection, but isn’t quite ready to talk about it.  Students experiencing this frustration usually don’t come by your office, so you’ll have to keep your antennae up, and spend ample time in the hallways.

If you discover a student who might have a tough time making it through the day, go easy—there’s a good chance they aren’t ready to talk about it, or they would have sought you out.  If they turn down your invitation, get the word out to their teachers—this is best done in person—and let the teachers know you’re there to offer support. 

Rushing the “Plan B” Discussion  Students who do come in to share the news of a No usually come in two groups.  The first group comes in to let you know they were denied, and have decided to go to a different college.  These students generally come in for affirmation, not counseling—and they also come in to reach closure.  If they volunteer their new plan, the best thing to do is offer a modest condolence for the rejection, congratulate them on their choice, and thank them for the chance to work with them.

Students in the second group come in and simply tell you they’ve been denied.  When you offer a response, they may quote parts of therejection letter about the number of students who applied, but they haven’t really digested the information—they’re more on auto-pilot, and are asking for help working through the news. 

All kinds of good strategies can come into play here, but looking too far down the road isn’t one of them.  They may not say it, but they already know they’ll need to make another choice, and most of them realize that college will work out well—but right now, they need to review their process, remember their worth, and get ready for next hour.  Focus on those three objectives, and they’ll come back to discuss the Big Picture another day.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Helping Parents Understand Financial Aid Offers

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Last week, we talked about the challenge of working with a student when a college has turned them down.  This can be a difficult conversation to have, to be sure…

…but it’s nothing compared to talking about financial aid offers to the family of a student who’s been admitted.  Everyone is so delighted with the news from the admissions office, they don’t always pay full attention to the news from the financial aid office.  Here’s how you can help them make a college choice that is both academically and fiscally sound.

No two award letters are the same.  Financial aid recipients  will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) from every college offering them money.  While many of the same terms are used by colleges, some terms are different—and on top of that, every letter is designed differently, making comparison of offers a pretty hard thing to do.

You solve this with a legal pad or spreadsheet.  Create four rows (“Grants”, “Work Study”, “Loan”, “Other”) and one column for each college that sent an SAR.  Fill the information in one square at a time, and suddenly, you’re comparing apples to apples.

Terms can be confusing.  There’s still room for misunderstanding once the kinds of aid have been sorted, especially when it comes to loans.  Subsidized loans may not sound as appealing as unsubsidized loans to some parents, while others may try to use outdated terms from their days as a college student.
You solve this with a neutral reference parents can go to time and time again.  is the place to begin to make sense of the terms; turn parents to this resource, and you’ll find they can begin to teach themselves. 

Parents don’t know what financial aid officers do.  It’s common place for school counselors to call college admission and financial aid officers, but that’s not the case for parents.  Many families see their finances as a very private matter, so it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t want to talk about them with a stranger who has to adhere to a set of rigid government regulations.

You solve this by telling them financial aid officers are caring professionals.  Because they take their job seriously, financial officers have to keep a family’s financial matters confidential.  Since they want to bring every admitted student to campus, they’ll gladly answer a family’s questions, hear about financial circumstances that couldn’t be explained on the FAFSA, and use their professional judgment to meet a family’s need as much as they possibly can. You know the parents, and you know the financial aid officer; do everything you can to give each one a cordial introduction to the other.

The dream college may still seem out of reach.  Some parents encourage their children to apply to a dream college, never dreaming they’d actually get admitted, while others believe in their child’s chances, and simply say “We’ll figure out how to pay for it”—but now need some help coming up with that solution.

You solve this by going very slowly.  It takes a lot for a parent to come to you with this dilemma, so give them plenty of options, including sources of aid, contacts at the college, and transfer options that save money and still lead to a degree from a first choice school.  They may need help asking the right questions or finding the right words to talk to their child, but they’ve done the right thing by asking for help.  Give them clear options and a chance to ask more questions, and you’ll help them build the best possible plan. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Working with Students When Colleges Say No

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The slow trickle of college decisions builds to a rushing stream this week and gains tsunami proportions by the end of the month.  Predictions are for a record number of college applicants, which most likely means a record number of students going to college in the fall…

… but students don’t always see this bigger, better picture if one of their top colleges turns down their application.  Not every student who was waitlisted or turned away asks for advice, but these three concepts can help you support and encourage those who do:

Your first job as a counselor is to listen.  It’s all too easy to over-react to a sobbing senior holding a rejection letter in his hands, or the student who keeps staring at her phone, reading the same text over and over again from a college that has said no, blank expression on her face. These tell-tale signs clearly indicate some college-induced disappointment- but they don’t provide a single clue about why the student feels the way they do.

Enter your counseling skills.  Your office provides the space far away from fist-pumping admitted students and “You’re in” text messages, and gives a student the chance to gain perspective, poise, and the words to describe what they’re thinking.  The quietude of your office gives them the right place to try out how they’re feeling, with only a question or two from you to guide them. Never assume you know why the decision makes them unhappy; create an atmosphere that encourages them to tell you.

Watch out for the silent majority.  Not all students treat college decisions like the end of the Super Bowl—in fact, most students have heeded your counseling advice and are calmly happy with the admission offers they’ve received from other colleges.  At the same time, some of these reserved students may need help understanding what their college decisions mean; they just don’t want to call attention to themselves by seeking you out.

The most important work you can do as a counselor is sort out the quiet, happy students from the quiet, questioning students.  Wander the halls, walk the cafeteria, talk to your teaching colleagues and ask how the students are doing.  Good teachers know the difference between a quiet student who’s working well and one who’s working through a challenge; count on them to find the students who most need the help, even if the student can’t find the words to ask for it.     

Always point them forward.  Exploration of why a college made a certain admissions decision can help heal the past, but it does only so much to help the student to face the future with a sense of purpose and expectation, key qualities to a successful college transition.  That’s why it’s vital that the end of any exploration of what hashappened to a student’s college plans ends with a discussion of what will happen with a student’s college plans.

The next step may be a small one—how to break the news to Mom and Dad, how to decide among the colleges that offered admission, or even how to organize their homework for the next day—but every step forward reinforces the underlying message of all college admissions counseling: College decisions aren’t character indictments; you are the same complete person you were this morning; what happens tomorrow is largely determined by what you do with today’s opportunities. Regardless of what admissions offices send out this month, accepting these key premises is the best college decision any senior can make. Guiding them to that acceptance is the privilege of our work.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Newsletter you Need to Send to your Juniors, Now

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors across the land have been caught off guard with a handful of colleges sending some admissions decisions to some students in the last week.  It’s hard to sort out why this is happening, but it certainly gives counselors more to talk about—especially with the students who have heard nothing from these colleges, and want to know why.

Since admissions decisions are only going to get messier, it’s time to send one last e-mail reminder to your juniors.  They’re going to have to take a backseat to the admissions merry-go-round that’s ramping up, but there are a few things they need to hear from you, as they get ready for Spring Break.

Here goes:

Spring Break Plans All in Place?
Many juniors have plans to visit college campuses over Spring Break.  This is a wonderful time to get to know a college better—just make sure you follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Call ahead.  You want to make sure the college isn’t on some kind of break the day you’re visiting, so be sure to call the admissions office to make sure the college will be open.  You also want to make sure they’re offering tours that day; tours are the best way to get a feel for what a college sees as its strong points, so make sure you sign up for the tour.

  1. Personalize Your Visit.  Make sure your visit includes time to sit in on classes, talk to professors, catch up with friends attending that school, or simply sitting in the middle of campus to get a good idea what the college “feels” like.  You may need to contact specific departments to schedule appointments or class visits, but start with admissions.

  1. Record your impressions right away.  You want to make sure your memories of a college are accurate and fresh, so be sure to write down your thoughts about a college in the car, right away—before you talk, Tweet, or share your thoughts with anyone else. If your parents are going with you for the visit, write down your thoughts before talking to them, then share your ideas freely.

  1. Don’t know where to go?  Start local.  If you aren’t sure where to visit, think about visiting a college that’s close to home.  By taking the tour and sitting in on classes, you have something to compare other colleges to—and you may be surprised at what a great college choice you have that’s just down the block. It’s best to visit a college campus when students are there, so don’t wait until summer—call that college down the street now.

And Don’t Forget Testing Plans!
Given the early application deadlines many colleges will have in the fall, students want to be sure to have at least one set of ACT or SAT scores on file by the end of junior year. Counselors have talked with students about their plans during the first appointment—but if a student has to follow up by registering for the test, now is the time, since seats are filling up for the spring test sessions.

Vacationing?  Be Safe
Some juniors may be heading to warmer climates for Spring Break, with or without your parents.  It’s always good to take a break from school, but it’s never a bad idea to keep your wits about you.   Your impressions of Spring Break should be good ones you keep in your heart, not bad ones you have to share on a college application; make good decisions about where you go, what you do, and who you go with.