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.)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Applying to College? Clean Up Your Facebook Page

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There are three key technology rules when it comes to applying to college:
1. If at all possible, use the college's online application, and ask their tech support for help the minute you run into a problem.
2. Create a new email account just for the messages that will be sent to and from colleges.
3. Clean up any and all social media pages you have.
Students understand the first two with no problem. College applications need to be clear, clean, and thorough, so it's important to make sure you're uploading your college essays, not your prom pictures.
Ditto for a new email account. Email be old school to you, but this is how most colleges contact you, even once you enroll. This makes it easy to keep track of college contacts, and it's probably all for the best colleges not know your personal e-mail address
But try and talk the pluses of website maintenance, and students are convinced their counselor roamed the Earth with dinosaurs. The insist colleges don't care about social media accounts, and are too busy to check them -- to prove it, students will ask colleges if they look, and the colleges will say no.
Fair enough -- except when I asked a college if they looked, their answer was "Do you really think I'd tell you if we did?"
Play it safe. Rough language, risky pictures -- even having an account under another name -- can hurt you and anyone else who's in those questionable photos with you. Once you've tidied up yours, ask your friends to take anything off their pages that makes you look iffy. After that, search for yourself on the web, and see what's there. You might not need to address it or be able to do anything about it, but it's better for you to know before the colleges do.
And even if the colleges don't look, they sometimes find out in very remote ways that can do serious damage...
(Based on a true story that happened somewhere else.)
Joanna thought she was all that
She knew she was a winner
A 3.9, a 32
The gal was no beginner.
Took five APs and tutored, too
Her homework was a snap
Spent most nights on the Facebook page
Just dishin' out some smack
She posted pix of homecoming
Her folks would see as knockouts
But dog, they'd never seen them, since
Her FB page was blocked out.

You can't imagine her surprise
When her counselor said "Yo lady"
I got a call from East Coast U
The news will make you crazy!
The U was ready to admit
When in arrive their intern
'The buzz is all on Facebook, man
These pics will make your hands burn.'
The intern loaded up the page
Of some homecoming hijinx
And in the photo, there was you--
Which made our rep do eye blinks.

"They saw your picture once or twice
And thought they'd overlook it
But then they read your FB smack
And that's what really cooked it.
Your essays were all erudite
And very nicely tailored
But then they saw the real you
Has language like a sailor.
They read your app and loved you, girl,
It's you they were admittin'
But now they said they just can't take
A profane party kitten."

So dudes and dudettes, hear me out
Few colleges go lookin'
But if FB vibes come their way
That just can't be mistooken
Your full ride dough, your dream admit
Are goin' down the tank, sir
And all because you tried to be
A bad-selfed Facebook gangsta.