Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bill Helps Counselors Stay on Top of College, Career Change

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Many college admissions decision come out this week, and most school counselors agree, the end can’t come soon enough.  We are certainly excited for the students who are receiving good news, and more than sympathetic to the students who receive other news. But this year, along with being there for our students, there is a feeling that something happened in the world of college admissions that can best be described as, as…


It’s been a year where nothing stayed the same.  SAT test scores were sent, often missing crucial college deadlines for early applications.  A general response was “Boy, thank goodness everything is OK at ACT”, but they then experiences the same problem, and ran into some irregularities in the new rubric used to score the Writing test. 

Add in the occasional public college that admitted every student who applied (and some students who didn’t), and other colleges that decided to defer students simply because the college didn’t have enough time to read all the applications, and it’s clear the admissions world has changed dramatically.  And all of that happened even before the highly selective colleges reported another “record year” of applications, leading to an even smaller percentage of admitted students.

Education blogs are replete with calls for reforming college admissions to take the stress out of the process, all in the name of protecting students.  The intent is noble, but the proof is in the tweaking, and right now, there’s something else that can easily be tweaked first.

Part of the reason school counselors feel out of touch with the college selection process is the torrid pace of the changes, but another part is the lack of access to resources that help them understand the changes.  Professional development opportunities exist that try to keep counselors in the loop, like annual updates from College Board and ACT, but too many counselors are being told they can’t leave the building, and must suffer through full days of professional development focused on classroom teachers. 

That may help build camaraderie in the building, but when your best senior comes asking for information on the latest colleges that no longer require any testing at all, a counselor’s answer can’t afford to be a year old, since dozens of colleges have dropped the ACT and SAT this year alone.

Michigan is trying to meet counselors’ needs for updated college and career information with a bill that’s currently in front of the Michigan Senate Education Committee.  Right now, counselors must complete 150 hours in professional development work to keep their license or certificate—and those hours could be in anything.  House Bill 4552 would set aside a few of those hours, and make sure counselors have access to updated training in college and career advising.

This modest tweak turns an ineffective state mandate into one with more focus, and more purpose.  Best of all, it relies on local school districts, counselor organizations, and business and industry to develop professional development that meets the needs of counselors, tailoring the training to meet the college and career needs of the students they serve. College tours, financial aid updates, tours of skilled trades facilities, and more, would become a bigger part of a counselor’s ongoing learning, making their insights into postsecondary options more relevant to students, families, and the state’s economy.

There’s no question this year will be remembered as one of huge change, and more change is slated to come in the fall.  In Michigan, House Bill 4552 can help counselors not only embrace the change; it will help them shape it, all for the better.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

College Decisions Over Spring Break

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Let’s face it—even though there school counselors are highly trained professionals, there are times we blame things on the elements—especially the moon.  How many times have students been behaving like zombies, and we mumble to ourselves, “It must be a full moon”?

As it turns out the moon really is to blame for a major counseling issue this year, as Easter falls close to the time many highly selective colleges are sending their admissions decisions.  We’d all like to be there to offer words of support for our students as they hear their decisions, but if you can’t be there due to vacation, consider sending a pre-emptive note of support—like this:

Dear Seniors:

As is sometime the case, our Spring Break will coincide with the release of admissions decisions from many of the colleges and universities where you’ve applied.  This is an exciting time, and we look forward to hearing your results when school resumes.  Until then, please keep these three important points in mind:

Consider where you hear the news.  Many colleges will release their decisions by e-mail, which means you could be anywhere when the news is released.  At first, it might seem that it doesn’t matter where you are, or who you’re with, when you open your decisions—but students often feel differently once they’ve opened an e-mail and responded in ways they hadn’t expected.  You’ve worked hard on your college applications, and there will always be time to tell someone else, once you know the decision yourself.  Consider opening your decisions in a private space; it will give you time to plan how to share the news with others.

Read the decision letter carefully, two times.  An offer of acceptance usually requires you to submit a deposit, and can include other activities to complete, like signing up for orientation, and responding to financial aid offers.  You don’t want to overlook these important, and required, events, since they may impact your ability to attend the college of your dreams!

If you’ve been waitlisted, you want to read the letter carefully to make sure when, and how, to contact the college.  Some ask you to send in a postcard or e-mail to stay on the waitlist; some will allow you to submit additional materials for the admissions office to consider (and some won’t—so make sure you know which is which), and some will tell you to do nothing at all.  You’ll want to do the right thing, so make sure you understand how to proceed.

Share your results with your counselor when school reopens.  Most students think we know your college decisions before you do, when, in fact, we often never know your admissions results unless you tell us!   Keep your letters together (including the letters with scholarship information), and bring them in on the first day of school—remember, you have to do this in person.

It’s been an incredible honor to work with you this year.  Let’s bring this college search to a great close, as you head towards your last spring in high school—and beyond!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Best Testing Advice to Give

By:  Patrick O'Conner Ph.D

There seems to be little slowing of the changes in standardized testing, and that makes it hard for counselors to offer advice to students about which tests to take, and when. No one wants to steer students in the wrong direction, but not saying anything can be grounds for students to lose their faith in you as a trusted adviser.  As we approach spring testing season, it may be best to pull out some reliable advice that has stood the test of time—so if a student asks about testing, tell them to:

Take both tests once, and their favorite one twice.  I’ve offered this advice in the past, and some counselors think this is too much testing, but this counsel has stood the test of time.  Just like two Social Studies teachers take different approaches when discussing the American Revolution, SAT and ACT are trying to measure the same thing, but in different ways.  The only way to decide which version is best for you is to try them both—and once you know, sign up for that test a second time, to make sure you have a solid score.

Complete this testing by the end of junior year.  A growing number of students are holding off on taking their college tests until fall of senior year, especially when it comes to the new SAT.  No one has said why this is occurring, but there’s a sense students feel College Board may “tweak” the SAT this summer if the first few rounds of the new version don’t go well.

A veteran college counselor says we shouldn’t hold our breath.  Unless the highest score on the March edition turns out to be 250, College Board has never changed a test midstream, so it’s unlikely to happen this time. In addition, holding off on taking the test means you have little room for a second try until November—and given how many colleges want early applications, this can lead to narrowing college options artificially.

Send your scores NOW.  I have never understood the strategy to testing where students receive their SAT or ACT scores first, then send them to the colleges.  To begin with, the testing fee includes the right to send your scores to four colleges, and if you don’t do that, you have to pay for Every. Single. Score Result.  Since no college is known to penalize students for a low score if a higher score exists, this causes nothing but anxiety, and higher profits for College Board.

If this isn’t enough motivation, know that two colleges are strongly urging students to send test scores in the spring,  since both SAT and ACT have had trouble delivering test scores to colleges on time this year.  No test scores means an incomplete application, and that means your application gets read later—never good news at a college that practices rolling admission.

Test optional college choices exist.  Sometimes the best advice to give a student who doesn’t want to take the ACT or SAT is “OK.  Don’t.”  This not only gets their attention; it opens their eyes to the hundreds of great colleges that don’t require test scores from most of their students  as part of the admission process-  and that list is growing daily.  Take a look at , and double check a college’s Web site to make sure their policy is up to date. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Activities That Build a Better College Plan

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Like roads after the spring thaw,  the road to college has never been.  Record  numbers of college applications lead the media to wonder, “Can anyone get into college?”,  while disappointing financial aid packages changed the question to, “Is college worth it?”
The arrival of spring gives everyone a chance to stand back and look at the big picture of life after high school.  If you have questions that just won’t wait, take these steps to build a solid foundation in post secondary planning:

Understand that more learning is a must.  In this economy, a chance at a reasonable living depends on more school after high school.  This doesn’t have to include a degree from a four-year college, but a Bachelor’s degree has the best record of financial security, since four-year college graduates have the lowest unemployment, and make upwards of $500,000 more in their lifetime than high school graduates.  Certificates and two-year degrees offer their own benefits, so the message is clear; twelfth grade is not the end of the road for formal learning.

Spend two hours building a career map. The best part about learning after high school is that you have more choices in what you can learn, where you can learn, and how you can learn. The best first step in understanding some of your options is to complete a career exploration search.  These computer-based searches give you a list of possible (that’s possible) careers based on your answers to questions about what you like to do.  Once you get your list, you can find out more about each career, including wages, job prospects, and required training, including classes you should take in high school.

Many high schools have a career search program you can use for free; so do most community colleges.  Do some looking around, and be sure to talk with a counselor about your results.

Visit tech centers and college campuses.  It’s one thing to learn about training options online, but nothing compares to seeing a school in action.  Visiting a local college campus or tech center gives you a feel for what’s possible for you.  It’s best to see these programs when they’re in full swing in the fall, but if summer is the only time you can go, call the institution, and make your plans.  Be sure to prepare a list of questions in advance—a good list of tips can be found at

Check your high school schedule.  How well you learn after high school depends on how well you learn in high school, and that means taking the most challenging classes you can handle.  Scheduling won’t start again until mid-August, but make a note to contact your high school, and make sure your classes will best prepare you for your goals.  Again, this is where your high school counselor can help.

Build your plan for paying now.  There are all kinds of ways to meet your post secondary learning goals, and most have a wide array of price tags, including public universities, community colleges with strong certificate and transfer programs, private colleges that offer significant merit scholarships.  Learn how to maximize your options by visiting  and .

Check your high school counseling office’s Web site.  Your local school counselors have helped hundreds of students make strong choices about life after high school.  Most high schools have a Web site with resources they’ve discovered that help their students build strong plans.  Take a look at those options, and stay in touch with your counselor. They’re never too busy to help a student committed to building a better tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Didn’t Get Into an Ivy? Consider This

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

We’re about two weeks away from the first Ivy League college announcing its admissions decisions   (OK,-- MIT isn’t technically an Ivy, but you know what I mean), so it’s time to brace ourselves with a few facts that might help cushion the blow for students who get any answer other than Yes.  Facts have their limits when it comes to matters of the heart, and college admissions is certainly one of those.  At the same time, sharing some of these facts now might create an opportunity for the head to drive the college admissions bus for just a little while.

Fact one—Colleges have more applicants than they can admit.  In a vast majority of cases, students not admitted to a competitive college actually qualify to go there—it’s just that the college runs out of room.  This has nothing to do with the font you used for your essay, the order in which you listed your extracurricular activities, or the teachers who wrote your letters of recommendation.  If Green Leaf U can only hold 500 freshmen before the fire marshal closes the place down, they can’t take 501.  It’s isn’t a question of qualification; it’s a question of physics.

Fact two—it’s harder to get in than you think.  The increase in applicants to highly selective colleges drives admit rates to record lows, and that’s expected to happen again this year.  What’s even more sobering is when you realize that record low—say, 8%-- is even lower for most students.  An alumni interviewer for one Ivy League college explained it this way:

  • We receive about 10,000 applications for admission every year.
  • We offer admission to about 800 students—however…
  • About 300 of those offers go to athletes.  No, we don’t win national championships, but we love athletics.  If that bothers you, you may not be happy here.
  • Another 300 offers go to children of alums, children of US Senators, and Tom Hanks’s son.  We do this because we can.
  • That leaves about 200 offers for the students most people see as “smart, good kids.”
  • The problem is, out of the 10,000 students who apply, only about 2,000 are athletes and children of alums. 
  • That means the admit rate for “smart, good kids” isn’t 800 out of 10,000, or 8 percent.
  • It’s 200 out of 8,000, or 2.5 percent.

To be sure, not every Ivy runs things this way, but this example goes a long way to explain why a prospective student visiting campus sees students who are “just like me”, but ends up not being offered a spot when they apply.  Yes, the college does take students just like you; it’s just that they don’t take very many of them.

Fact three—where you go to college does matter, but not the way you think it does.  Well-meaning adults (like me) talk to students and write articles (or books) that claim it really doesn’t matter where a good student goes to college; what matters is that the student makes the most of the experiences their college provides them.


Don’t get me wrong; I’m not promoting the “If It’s Not an Ivy, I’ll Bust” mentality, which is also baloney.  But students don’t go to college by themselves, so there’s more to the experience than buildings, internships, and study abroad.  If the students you’re living with for four years don’t challenge, support, and befriend you, you’re wasting your time. 

You want this to be the best years of your life to date?  Learn about the souls of your fellow students when you visit a campus, and take it from there.