Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How to Get Juniors on the Right Path to College

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Fall of junior year is a crucial time in the college selection process.  Junior parents see senior parents in hysterics, so they go home and ask their student about their college plans.  When the junior understandably says “I don’t have one”, the parent gets anxious, which now makes the junior anxious—and since you’re in crunch time helping seniors apply to college, neither one knows what to do, and you just don’t have time to talk.

So what can you do to help them out?  Get them talking to each other.

College admissions officers will tell you the key to a smooth college process lies with clear, frequent communication between parents and students.  That doesn’t happen when a parent asks Bobby about the PSAT just as he’s heading out to the gameFriday night, and it really doesn’t happen when Simone comes home and says “There’s a college fair across town tonight, Can we go?” 

The way to avoid this chaos is to plan ahead.  Parents and their student agree on a regularly scheduled weekly meeting where all they will talk about, for 20 minutes or so, is college.  Usually held on the weekend, it’s scheduled at a time when everyone can focus on college issues, and where no question is a bad one.  Parents can ask about testing, visiting college campuses, and ideas about majors; students can ask about going to campus with friends, a summer program they’d like to attend, or if they really have to apply to the college Mom and Dad attended.  Everyone asks questions, everyone gets answers; if some questions need research, homework is assigned, and the answers are shared at next week’s meeting…

…because that’s the next time college gets discussed. The weekly meeting is an opportunity for students to take ownership of the college selection process, something colleges say is a key to a successful transition to the independence students need once they start going to college.  By starting the 20 minute meetings in the fall of the junior year, parents are giving their junior time to grow in the role; if the student forgets to ask their counselor about the local college fair, they get a second chance to ask the following week.  That will come in handy when the less-forgiving application deadlines roll around senior year – the student has had a year to learn the importance of following through with timely college information.

The 20 meeting meetings are held every week school is in session, from the start of junior year to the middle of senior year, once financial aid applications are submitted.  Parents may wonder just what they’ll talk about for all those weeks, so it’s helpful to put together a schedule of topics for them and publish it on your Web site, through your parent newsletter, or even through social media.  College visits, college fairs, testing, college searches, kinds of colleges, kinds of application deadlines, senior year schedule, college essays, college applications, transcripts, summer programs, community service, and paying for college, make it easy to develop topics and questions for parents and students to consider—and just think of all the questions you won’t have to answer, when parents and students discover the answers together.

It’s too easy for anxious students and worried parents to stop talking to each other out of frustration or embarrassment. You don’t always have to be there to keep the conversation going, as long as the opportunity exists for them to keep the conversation going on their own.  The 20 minute meeting is one of those simple solutions that works—it’s a college game-changer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How Much College Help Can You Really Give?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This is the time of year that truly tries a high school counselor’s soul.  Sure, it’s busy, but when isn’t it busy in a high school counseling office?  We may have to deal with college applications and testing now, but financial aid will come next, and just when the college application process is dying down, we’ll get to pick up the scheduling responsibilities we have as part of those “other duties as assigned.”

So the break-neck speed of our work isn’t killing us; frankly, it’s the kids.  Consider these real-life situations, taken from conversations I’ve had with colleagues throughout the country:

  • Since August, a school’s newsletter has reminded students they must send ACT and SAT scores to the college, and it will take 2-3 weeks for the college to receive them- yet, a student comes to the counseling office the day before the application is due, asking the counselor to send test scores.
  • A student e-mails a counselor for an appointment, telling the counselor with joy that her application for State U is almost ready to be sent.  The student is referring to the application that was due in the college counseling office three weeks ago.
  • A student tells a counselor the student will be applying Early Decision to a college, and wants to know if the counselor can read their essays that were due three days ago.  Students have been told essay review takes a week; the student wants them back the next day—and the e-mail is being sent on Sunday.

The good news in each of these cases is that the student is applying to college.  This is very important to remember; there are many students who look at the myriad applications, deadlines, and requirements, and say “Forget it.”

On the other hand, this set of “almost forgot to apply” students create their own challenges, since a lack of help from the counselor suggests a lack of interest from the counselor.  That isn’t the case, but “you missed my deadline” is of little help to many students, and almost all of their parents, when an application isn’t submitted on time.

Amid the flurry of activity, it’s easy for counselors to hope there’s a magic switch to flip that will make these last-minute problems go away.  If you’re looking for ways to make sure more students get the message about the importance of deadlines, answer these questions:

  • How do you let students and parents know about application deadlines?  E-mail? Newsletter?  Text Message?  Posters?
  • What resources exist to spread the word that you aren’t using now?  PTA meetings? Back-to-School Night? Sporting Events? Teachers?
  • Do students and parents understand why you have to know about an application well before the college wants it submitted?  Is there a better way to tell that story?
  • If you have a “tell us first” deadline, is it as late as it can be?  Are there logistical tweaks to be made that can get transcripts and counselor letters out sooner?
  • If something’s going to be late, are there some colleges that will give you the benefit of the doubt?

These are all key ideas to consider in trying to help students be timely—but remember, all you can do is help.  If a thorough review of your policies and communication approaches leave you with the conclusion that you really have done everything you can, chances are you really have.  Feedback from parents and students may help you see something you’re missing, but when all the analysis is over, there are some kids that are just late—who will need some careful guidance developing Plan B. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The College Application Mistake That Can Really Hurt You

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph. D

I always encourage seniors to relax a little.   I'm still sticking to that, but it seems there is one part
of the application that could benefit from a little more, shall we say, focus.

Most students complete a college application in the order it's written: giving their name and address, listing their awards and test scores, embracing the large essay that outlines their life (or wrestling with that essay, which is a special kind of embrace) and completely overlooking that dinky little essay that comes near the end.
With many colleges, that dinky little essay asks a question like, "What specific programs or qualities attract you to our college, and lead you to believe your college goals will be attained if you are admitted? (150 words)"
In other words, it's great you want to go to college. Why here?
After laboring through the larger, more personal essay, students come across this question, see the word limit, think about how great it will be to go to bed once this app is submitted, then write down something about how cool the campus is and how the football team is awesome. Finis.
Yes, you are indeed finished. So, so finished.
This response is overlooking three important rules about applying to college:
1. Colleges never ask for information they don't find useful. If a college really didn't care about what you see in their school, they wouldn't ask -- yet you just answered the question as if it didn't matter. Colleges know it matters to them, and now that they've read your hasty answer, it's clear it doesn't matter to you. Big oops here.
2. Every essay is a chance to go the extra mile. A successful college application always -- always -- stands out in a good way from the thousands of other apps the college received. This essay gives you the chance to do some solid research on the school that goes beyond a cursory look at the website, and move your application to the top of the heap. Did you manage to do that with the 30 seconds it took to come up with your answer?
3. This is one more chance to bring them into your world. The first rule of good application essay writing is, "don't tell them, show them." Most students do this with 500-word essays, creating introductions and narratives that take the admissions officer out of their office and into your life. But these same students get to this shorter essay and write geometric proofs:
"I want to be a political scientist."
"Southeastern Michigan U has a good political science program."
"Therefore, SMU is for me."
This may work at Euclid State, but for the rest of the college world, the same rules apply to short and long essays. Start by showing them your world, then show them how their school and your world would work wonderfully together. Use your impressions from when you visited campus, talk about the programs you feel set them apart from other schools and show them what you'll do with these opportunities that will help the college and you. Don't get overly dramatic and promise to win a Nobel before you graduate: Describe what you see when you see yourself on their campus, and you're just about there.
It isn't easy to write big in a small space, but when it's done well, it's memorable. The Ten Commandments weigh in at under 100 words, and they're still getting some serious attention; you get 50 more words, and only have to have a fraction of their impact.
So pick up the pen and begin again. Why there?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Didn’t Apply in July? It’s All Good

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The college application season got off to an unexpectedly rocky start this year when a number of colleges decided they didn’t want to wait until September to start recruiting students. Instead, these colleges sent notices to juniors as early as July, encouraging them to apply as soon as possible—and in many cases, students applying in the summer would eligible for special scholarships as a reward for their timely behavior.

This approach may have played well with college presidents and boards, but the lack of advanced notice left a very sour taste in the mouths of many:

·         School counselors were unable to advise students on how to approach these applications, or to discuss if these colleges were right for some students who received the invitation.
·         Many high schools were left scrambling for resources to send transcripts, since many school personnel who handle records are off in the summer months.
·         Uninformed students returned for the first day of high school only to discover some of their friends had already started—or, in some cases, finished—the college application process, getting an upper hand at some of the same colleges uninformed students were interested in.

Some say colleges moved up the application opportunity to get the attention of students who wouldn’t otherwise notice the college in the usual deluge of fall college mail. Others suggest colleges are working off of the long understood notion that students are more likely to attend a college if it’s one of the first ones to offer them admission—and the best way to move up the clock to Yes is by moving up the clock that let them apply.

Given the inconsistent awareness of these summer opportunities, students now applying to these schools are asking themselves a simple question—is it too late to apply, even though it’s October?

The answer is a resounding no, thanks to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Colleges who are members of NACAC must comply with a code known as the Statement of Principles of Good Practice, and when it comes to summer applications, the mandatory section of this code couldn’t be clearer:

All postsecondary members agree they will:
Not establish any application deadlines for first-year candidates for fall admission prior to October 15 and will give equal consideration to all applications received by that date.

Just to drive the point home, NACAC members approved a clarification of this requirements when they met last month in Indianapollis:

Colleges and universities may welcome the initiation of applications from first-year students prior to the notification date and earliest deadlines. Any incentives offered, including but not limited to application fee waivers, essay waivers, scholarships, housing, etc., must be honored at least through October 15.

Among other things, this requirement means that any student applying to one of these colleges in the next two weeks:

·         Has to be judged by the same academic standards for admission as any student who applied in July
·         Is eligible for the same scholarships or other bonuses offered to early applicants
·         Can’t be told they won’t be considered for admission to special programs because all of the seats were taken by July applicants

Any student who feels they may not be given these equal opportunities because other students applied this summer should discuss the issue with the college’s admission office.  If they don’t agree, contact the NACAC member near you who oversees NACAC’s principles of good practice.

It’s chillier in most places now that it was in July, but that doesn’t mean a college gets to leave you out in the cold.