Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Helping Your Seniors Frozen With College Fear

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Most schools have only been in session for about a month, but many high school seniors are already experiencing Hump Day in their college applications. The first few days of the school year were filled with excitement about the prospect of going to college, and filling out a college application even seemed kind of fun. But now that homework is starting to build up, and students are on their twelfth draft of their college essay, it’s getting a little harder to be excited about college—especially since right now, just graduating from high school seems like a pretty remote idea.

Addressing this issue from a counseling perspective is important. Completing a college application is a lot like the work students will do in college; it offers the chance to be introspective, but it also requires students to move forward. It might be tempting—and easier—to try and motivate students with a pep talk, but students will be better off learning how to work through these challenges by motivating themselves. You can facilitate this important skill acquisition with one of these approaches:

Same time next year I had a student a couple of years ago who came into my office with a major case of application block—no matter what they did, or what they thought about, they just couldn’t motivate themselves to complete a college application. “This is pretty awful” he said, “at this point, I’ll be waiting tables after high school.” “No” I responded, “you’ll be in college a year from now. It’s just a question of which one.”

That somehow broke the trance. Realizing that he was going to be sitting behind a desk at some college—any college—was enough of a motivator for him to realize things were going to be OK. In fact, knowing that inspired him, and many other students, to look at the college application process and think, “Well, OK, if I’m going to some college, it might as well be a good one.” Many of these students went on to become college application ninjas, and ended up at places perfect for them, once they could see themselves there.

Tours do it too This same approach to self-motivation can occur when students step away from the college application process to visit a campus. Filling in an application can seem like a pretty abstract exercise to some students, especially if they have never visited the campus of the college they’re applying to. Once they breathe some college air and sit it on a class, the impression can be enough to get them through the application process, writing essays that have greater authority and voice.

What’s really interesting about this approach is that it can also work if the student visits a campus they have no intention of attending. By simply being reminded of what it’s like to “go to college”, students see the application process as more real. Yes, it’s a little weird, but it works.

Write on the weekends Students who go to school all day, have sports practice, eat dinner, do homework, and then start writing college essays at 11:00 on a weeknight all have one thing in common—the essays they write are terrible. Scheduling 1-2 hours on Saturday or Sundayfor college apps makes completing them something special, and allows students time away from the process to bring fresh energy to their writing. It also means that most students can complete one application a weekend, finish all of them by Halloween, and still enjoy senior year. Now there’s a plan.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why College Rankings Have Absolutely No Purpose

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Jason is a two-sport athlete with a B+ average.  He’s hoping to expand his interest in History in college, but he’s not sure what major to pursue.  He does know he needs to stay close to home, since his parents are close to retirement age, and he needs to help out with the family business every now and then.  He’s also looking to be an engaged spectator at a school that has, as the students say, the full college experience—for Jason, that includes a good football team.

Having been raised by a mom who sings in the church choir, Bridghette has been around music since birth, and hopes to keep her singing interest alive in college.  At the same time, she knows her talent won’t pay the bills, so she’s also looking for a school where she can study Accounting—and while she couldn’t care less about sports, she wants a school that’s near a major opera company, where she hopes to work in the front office as an intern, learning a bit more about the business side of the music industry.

Jose hopes to find a school where he can become a physician, and quickly.  Having completed all of the AP courses his high school offered as a junior, Jose is one of those students who learns with ease, which means an accelerated medical program is right up his alley.  He’s interested in becoming a surgeon, but big cities don’t interest him all that much. He was raised in one, and wants a change of scenery.

Let’s say you are the counselor for all three of these students—something that would be hard to do, since they don’t go to the same high school.  But let’s say they’ve asked you for some help in putting together their college lists.  Do you end up giving them each the same list of schools—and will those schools be in the same order, meeting their needs in exactly the same way?

I’m really hoping your answer to this question is no.  Jose wants nothing to do with a big city, but strong opera companies don’t exactly pop up in remote areas, and that’s what Bridghette is looking for.  One of these students might end up going to school with Jason, but since accelerated medical programs are hard to come by, that likely won’t be Jose—and since Bridghette isn’t crazy about sports, it’s unlikely her list will overlap much with Jason’s.  We don’t know everything about each of these students, but based on what we know, it’s pretty unlikely one list of colleges will really help these students pursue their individual plans.

Which takes us to college rankings.  The latest lists of Best Colleges on the Planet are debuting this week, but what does any of this have to do with kids? If you handed Jason, Bridghette, and Jose a copy, would that help them with their college plans, or their lives?  Would it put them in the best position to live fuller lives, and change the world?  Is there any way the people who compiled the list could know that list is going to help Jason, Bridghette, and Jose, since they’ve never even talked to Jason, Bridghette, or Jose?
There are lots of ways data can help students make strong college choices, but our job is to find data that supports the goals of the students, not create students whose goals support the findings of the data.  College guides can do that; college rankings can’t. 

So why do we care about them, and why should we ever use them?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Helping Students Respond to DACA

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Writing a column about school counseling is a lot like school counseling itself. I had this great piece planned about schedule changes—it was really going to be awesome. But, just like that perfect presentation about careers has to wait when something more urgent shows up, that column’s going to have to wait.

Thanks to DACA.

I’m not going to go into detail about what DACA is, or what might happen next—if you want that information, try this link. Instead, this will be a short reminder of how to help students who are in crisis mode, either because they are DACA students, they have friends who are involved with DACA, or they’re just trying to get a hold of where all of this is heading.

Everyone responds differently to crisis. The smartest school administrator I know walked into his school the day after 9/11, and cleared out two classrooms. He put TVs in one of the empty classrooms, and told the teachers that if some kids feel the need to be informed, they are welcome to go watch TV for as long as they want. The other room was left empty, just chairs, for the students who needed a place to be quiet. Teachers kept an eye on both rooms to make sure students in the rooms didn’t go into panic mode, but that was it.

As counselors, it’s easy to think everyone wants to process their feelings about a crisis by talking. It’s very likely most everyone will want to talk about it at some time—but this might not be that time. Some students will want more information, some will just want to be left alone to think, and some will want business as usual, so they can remember what normal feels like. At this point, none of this is about avoidance; it’s about coping. Let them cope.

Do your homework. Those who will want to talk about DACA likely know more about the program, and about yesterday’s decision, than most Americans—and that could include you. That means any conversation you have with them better begin with a solid base of facts— like existing DACA permits are still good until they expire.

Some people may want to talk to process feelings, but some are likely to want to talk about facts, and what’s next for them, or for their friends. A little time reading about options, combined with a list of local resources DACA recipients can turn to, will make you the support person you want to be—so study up.

No superheroes today. Crisis times mean that the student who looks like they might need just a few minutes of reassurance might be in your office for an hour—and once they begin to open up, they don’t want to stop. That’s OK for them, but if you’re supposed to be in a meeting in twenty minutes, people can create a new crisis wondering where the crisis specialist is—and that’s the last thing anyone needs today.

It’s always good to tell someone where you are, but that’s very much the case when the wheels have fallen off the wagon. Touch base with a colleague, a secretary, or an administrator before you go into a session or a classroom. It may not be necessary, but if something comes up and you’re needed right away, it will be the best thing you can do to keep some degree of calm in your building.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What Not to Do Over Summer Break

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


It isn’t unusual for counselors to experience several “last days” of the school year.  From the last day the students come to school, to the last day the teachers are in the building, to the last day we are in the building, there are ample opportunities to reflect, review, and plan ahead.

It’s time for all of that to stop for a while, according to two experts.  The first one is my school principal, who concluded the end-of-the-year luncheon with this advice: “You’ve worked hard, and we’ve worked you hard.  Now it’s time to stop working.” The second expert runs an online blog I subscribe to that addresses social justice issues. About once a week, she posts something that says “It’s time for self-care.  What are you doing to take care of you?”

Counselors aren’t always the best clients, so it’s likely more than a few of you are trying to sort out just how much work you need, or want, or (dare we say it) should do.  If the first few days or weeks of vacation have been more unsettling than unwinding, consider these key steps to making the most of your summer:

Voicemail Most phone systems don’t allow you to turn voicemail off.  Even if yours does, you may want to consider keeping it on, since many people who call over the summer are looking for help they need right away.  If your voicemail is active in July and August, your outgoing message should be helpful and clear:

“I’m out of the office until late August.  If you’re calling for a school issue, please call the main office at (phone number). If you’re looking for counseling resources, look on the counseling website/community mental health website at (web address). If you’d like to leave a message for me, please remember I’ll be listening to it in late August.”

Once that’s done, don’t check voicemail.  Trust the system you’ve set up, or you’ll be checking every day—and that’s not restorative.

Email  The same message on your voicemail goes on your email autoreply, since parents and students might be reaching out to you for help, and need direction.  Since I’m on several professional committees that meet year-round, I check email over the summer, but only respond to professional commitments—if I weren’t on these committees, my summer would be both email and voicemail free.  A clear autoreply gives students and families the help they need.  Once again, it’s time to trust your ability to guide them to the right resources. ( I also scan email for spam and advertisements and delete as I go.  It saves all kinds of time that first day back in the office.)

“Dropping By the Office.” The simple rule here is that if you don’t have to be in the office over the summer, don’t go in.  The temptation may be strong to go in for “just a minute” to develop that one lesson plan or answer that one email—and then, somehow, you’re there for the day.

If you just have to spend some time developing new units or presentations, find a way to do it at home, or at the local library.  Schedule the time, and once the time is up, head back to vacation, and pick up where you left off later.  If your contract requires you to be in the office, save all of your preparation for the office time, and let the rest of the summer be about you.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Five Counseling Trends to Watch for This Fall

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Last week, we looked back at this school year, and talked about five trends and issues that shaped our world of work, and the lives of our students.  This week, we look forward to the fall, and anticipate what new challenges lie ahead—and make sure you read to the end for a special announcement!

ESSA changes could affect counselors and counseling  Few counselors shed a tear when the federal government finally retired No Child Left Behind last year, since the program put an incredible emphasis on testing—testing generally left to counselors to administer.  Replaced by the Elementary and Secondary School Act, states were asked to develop their own plans for how they would use a lump sum of federal money known as Title IV funds, and if they planned to use that money to continue to support counseling programs.

Most counselors don’t know what their state proposed to the federal government—and those that do likely know that President Trump has proposed giving states no Title IV money at all.  It’s worth a moment of your time this summer to find out who your state’s ESSA contact is; the money you may have been getting for your program may not be there, come fall.

Return of Year-Round Pell  On the other hand, the federal government has done students and counselors a huge favor by restoring the right for students to use Pell grants and other federal funds to pay for college throughout the year, including the summer.  For the past few years, students using Pell funds in Fall and Spring terms received no Pell funding for summer.  With summer funding restored, more students can return to a year-round, part-tine approach to college attendance, allowing them to work year-round as well.

Return of IRS Retrieval Tool Thousands of students completing the FAFSA got a huge boost this year by checking a box that allowed the federal government to use IRS data submitted by the student and their parents to verify FAFSA eligibility.  This verification tool was taken down for security reasons this spring, but it will be back and ready to go come this October 1—good news for counselors and families alike.

Earlier Applications Counselors are reporting an increase in students asking for high school transcripts as early as June of the junior year, since some colleges are now accepting applications that early.  What’s going to happen when panicky parents find out school records offices are closed for the summer?  Stay tuned, and be ready to remind parents that any application submitted by October 15th must receive equal consideration.

Free College Programs on the Rise  Counselors may also want to plan on using part of August to get caught up on the many free college programs springing up throughout the country.  Most are only for in-state students, most only cover tuition, and most have lots of details to follow—but it’s clear your families will want to know more. Make sure you’re ahead of this curve, and remember that free isn’t always free.

Finally, a big thank you to Gene Kalb and the readers of this column.  Word about Counselor’s Corner has   spread, and Counselor’s Corner has been named one of the top mental health blogs for 2017 by Online Counseling Programs.com.  This is due to the loyalty and active engagement of our readers, and the enthusiastic support ofHS Counselor Week editor Gene Kalb. 

An interview about the column can be found here, and more information about the organization granting us this recognition can be found at https://onlinecounselingprograms.com/ .  Thanks for reading, and it’s gratifying to know the column is making a difference in your work with students.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Big Five—What Shaped Our World This Year

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This isn’t the last column of the year, but this is the last column when at least a few counselors still have students in the building. Since that’s often a time when computers get closed to focus on year-end activities, here’s a review of what made a counselor’s life more interesting this school year.

Renewed interest in career development dominated the second half of the school year, as increasing college debt and a shifting need in workforce have led society to reconsider the “four years of college is for everyone” mantra of the Great Recession. Economists still insist jobs that require four-year degrees will improve a state’s bottom line, but the message that plumbers are important is alive and well.

Testing trends also kept counselors on their toes, as College Board announced the first August administration of the SAT in about 50 years, and ACT announced plans for a July administration in 2018. What this will do to the testing plans of future juniors and seniors is anyone’s guess, but it does suggest a shift in test prep to the summer months. How will high schools respond?

Test prep managed to make its own headlines late this year, as a College Board report suggests students using the free online SAT prep through Khan Academy for 20 hours of guided tutoring can see impressive gains in their SAT score. If these findings stand the test of time, these 110 point increases will be a game changer.

Politics made a rare impact on the affective element of the counseling curriculum, as legal actions from travel bans to immigration raids have put man first generation families on edge. Counselors were asked to walk a fine line between supporting students without making political judgments—as a whole, they walked that line with dignity and professionalism.

Early FAFSA Filing allowed a record number of students to file for the FAFSA this year. By moving the filing date up to October 1, families were given more time to file the form, and to shop colleges by price. While some of these efforts were diminished by the removal of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool this spring, the new attention that was focused on FAFSA served its purpose, as the ability to pay for college continues to be on the minds of students, counselors, and policymakers alike.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Summer Melt: A Step-by-Step Guide

By:  Patrick O'Connor


It’s an all too familiar situation. You see your seniors off at graduation, they thank you for all you’ve done, you wish them luck at college, and you wonder when you’ll see them again—until you see one of them at the local grocery store on a Tuesday night. In October.

Welcome to the world of Summer Melt, a mysterious world where new high school graduates swear in June they are college bound, but never show up for class in the fall. As is the case with too many things in our world, Summer Melt affects more low-income student and first generation students—as many as 40%.

This leads counselors and researchers to believe that a big part of Summer Melt occurs because students don’t complete some of those crucial steps in the summer that are needed to begin their college careers. If they don’t check their emails (and they don’t), students will miss the summer notices about orientation, requests for tax returns, notices of scheduling, and more little things—little things counselors remind them to do during the school year, but now school’s out.

Several research studies on reducing summer melt are easy enough to find. There are also plans out there about creating summer melt drop-in centers and getting colleges to do more to prevent summer melt (and that’s the real answer). But if you’re looking to slow down summer melt right now, here’s your three step strategy:

Open a Remind account. Most counselors are well aware of the great programs that are out there where you can text your students without knowing their cell phone numbers—and, more important, where they don’t know your cell phone number, either. Remind is likely the most famous one of these accounts, but look around, start one, then invite all your seniors to sign up with their cell phone numbers. Better yet, ask around—someone in your school may already have the senior class on their Remind account.

Buy a disposable cellphone. Summer Melt is the ultimate problem for school counselors who really want to help kids, but need their summer to recover—and let’s face it, we all need recovery time. The happy compromise here is to buy a disposable cell phone, the kind you put a certain amount of minutes on with a charge card that doesn’t require a contract. You want to make sure you can text on it, but that’s all the frills you need—and let’s face it, a texting cellphone isn’t exactly hard to find.

Schedule your messages. The first day school is out, send a text on your disposable cell phone that tells your seniors what’s up. “It’s Mrs. Jones, and school’s out! Look for weekly reminders from me this summer that will help you make an awesome start to college.”
After that, your task is to put the phone in a place where you’ll be able to find it every Monday (or pick another day). On the appointed day, turn the phone on, text the message of the week, and turn the phone off before you hit the pool. If you’re looking for a comprehensive texting curriculum:

Week 1 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Have you signed up for college orientation? Check your email and see what to do. Still not sure? Call the college.”

Week 2 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Does your college have everything for your financial aid file? Check your email and see if they’ve sent you something. Not sure? Call the college.”

Week 3 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Does your college need a health form from you? Check your email and see. Not sure? Call the college.”

Week 4 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Are you rooming with someone at college? Do you know who it is? Have you been in touch? If any of these are no, it’s time to reach out!”

Week 5 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Do you have a schedule of classes yet? What about books? What about money for books? Check your email and see. Not sure what to do? Call the college.”

Week 6 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Will you be working at college? If so, are your job plans all set. Are you sure? If not, call the college.”

Week 7 “It’s Mrs. Jones. We’ve sent your final transcript. Does your college have it? Are you sure? If not, call your college.”

Week 8 “It’s Mrs. Jones. How are you getting to college? Is your ride all set? Will you be commuting to school? Confirm your plans—especially if you’re car pooling.”

Week 9 “It’s Mrs. Jones. You should be starting college soon. Have fun, and let me know what you need!”

You’ll want to talk with nest year’s seniors about Summer Melt in March and April, and you might want to put together a plan for how students can get hold of you, since Remind won’t let them text you. Then again, you might not, if you really want students to test their wings over the summer. Either way, these 9 texts will help get them on their way to what’s next, without doing serious damage your time at the beach.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Collarbones and 200 Valedictorians: Too Many Shiny Objects

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It started out simply enough. The student had worn a shirt that exposed her collarbones, a violation of the school dress code. The principal called this to the student’s attention, and asked her to put on a jacket, and she complied. Now we can get back to learning, yes?

Evidently not. Dissatisfied with the effect the jacket had, the principal changed his mind, and told the student she’d have to change. She wasn’t interested in doing that, so they tried to call her mother, all to no avail—so the principal called a security guard and told the student either to change the shirt in question, or be taken into custody. As a result, she will not walk the stage for graduation…

…even though she is the class valedictorian.

This would likely be less of an issue at the graduation ceremony at any of the three high schools in Dublin, Ohio, where 222 valedictorians—20 percent of the senior class—is being honored. The high school established a policy where anyone in a certain grade point range is considered a valedictorian. This, despite the fact that the definition of valedictorian is the one student who gives the valediction (or class) speech at the graduation ceremony. That’s one student, not 222.

All of this requires us to ask the question, just what on earth is going on in schools these days? Unless I’ve missed something, the purpose of school is to provide some reasonably orderly way for students to learn more about themselves and the world. Once the basic rules are put together allowing that to happen, everyone should get way out of the way, and leave the teachers and students to the task at hand—creating strong learning relationships.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with either of these schools. Once the principal told the student to put on the jacket, that was the end of his opportunity to influence the learning atmosphere. If it would have been better to ask her to put on a sweatshirt, well, that’s a learning experience the principal can apply next time. No student is going to be nearly as critical of the jacket-shirt ensemble as the principal, so moving on was the right thing to do. Instead, the student gets a lesson about the world, for sure. When someone in power uses poor judgement, they often see to it that they aren’t the ones who pay.

It’s really hard to say just what’s going on with the schools in Dublin. Just about every high school has been in the tough spot where one student has a 4.00 GPA and another student has a 3.99 GPA. But that’s a little different than deciding every student with a high GPA gets to be called a valedictorian. “Valedictorian” doesn’t mean you’re smart; it means you’re the best student in your class. That’s what colleges mean when they offer a valedictorian scholarship—send us your one best student, and they’ll get help paying for college. Deciding a word means something else isn’t really up to a high school.

There’s a flood of stories around, talking about how schools are failing students, and how they could do better. One place to begin the turnaround would be for schools to look at what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, and see if it has anything to do with students learning something. If it doesn’t, maybe that’s one less shiny object we could all do without, so we could get back to the matter at hand.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

College Advisers—Helpers to All Students

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

She wanted to encourage her students to think about going to college, but after a while, she realized her words were only going to go so far. Taking her students to visit a college campus seemed like a great idea, but her district wasn’t exactly awash in field trip money, and the nearest college was a two-hour ride away. Clearly, it was time to think out of the box.
And that’s just what she did. She called the flagship college in her state, and explained her situation. “You’re too far away” she explained, “so instead of us coming to you, could a couple of your professors come see us?”
It turned out that a couple of professors didn’t come see them—an entire bus load did. For one full day, every single student in that rural high school sat in on college lectures from professors tenured at one of the top schools in the nation. When the professors left to head back to campus, no student at that high school could ever again say they didn’t know what college was about; they had just experienced part of it firsthand.
If you’re thinking, “that’s one smart school counselor”, you’re not quite on track. This brainstorm came from a college adviser, a twenty-something recent college graduate whose job supports the college advising activities of the high school counseling office where she works. Often compared to students in the Teach for America program, college advisers often come from low income backgrounds, and are the first in their family to go to college, let alone earn a degree. In providing assistance to schools and school counselors, these young advisers offer a perspective on going to college high school students can relate to, since the advisers were just on campus as students themselves. They talk about the good times, the challenges both in and out of the classroom—and they talk about whether a four-year college is the right plan for a particular student.
The college adviser movement was the focus of a recent New York Times article, but the Times felt the need to focus on the success advisers were having on getting students into top tier colleges. A broader look at the work of the advisers shows a more balanced record, where a vast majority of students working with advisers end up in quality public colleges in the student’s home state. Some will earn merit scholarships, to be sure, but almost all will have completed a FAFSA, a significant step forward for a cadre of students who often think college isn’t for them, either because it costs too much, or because they don’t see themselves as college ready.
The Times piece also leaves two key questions unanswered. First, a college adviser isn’t a college counselor or a school counselor. As part of their training, advisers understand what they can and can’t talk to students about, and how to make sure students receive the support they deserve when a counseling issue comes up in working with the students. Knowing when to say when is a vital part of being an effective adviser.
The second point is the training most advisers receive. Since most advisers don’t have an education background, most training programs start from scratch, with a comprehensive approach to college advising that usually goes on for weeks the summer before the advisers set foot on campus. From how to choose a college to how to write a college essay to paying for college and more, advisers hear from seasoned school counselors and college admissions officers, typically completing more training hours in college advising in one summer than most school counselors receive in graduate school.
By partnering the fresh college insights and the role modeling of college advisers with the institutional wisdom and multidimensional viewpoint of the school counselor, college advising is taking on a more active, relevant role in schools across the country—further proof of the need for all of us to think outside the box.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

College Admissions Isn’t Fair. It Also Isn’t Simple.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



A new article about college admission is gaining a great deal of attention among college counselors. Posted on Georgia Tech’s admissions website, the goal of the article is to admit what many students have long felt—that college admissions isn’t fair.

After acknowledging that all colleges look at test scores and grades, the article goes on to suggest the real driving factor behind admissions is the school’s mission, or the reason the college says it exists. Yes, you could be a great student with high grades in AP Everything who was president of every club in your high school. Still, if your essays and teacher letters don’t indicate that you understand the college’s reason for existence, the Georgia Tech piece suggests that would be reason enough for them not to take you, since their review process would likely reveal that there isn’t a “fit” between what the college is looking for, and what you have to offer.

The piece certainly offers a great explanation for why Joey in the locker next to you got into your dream college and you didn’t, even though your grades and scores were higher than his. In connecting admissions decisions to the school’s mission, the article even offers a strongly-principled reason for why they took your sister five years ago with her lower grades and lack of extracurriculars, but didn’t take you this year. The school has a different sense of purpose now.

So, the article puts together a nice argument, with only one small problem. Admission at most colleges doesn’t work like this at all. Instead, it depends on other factors that are a little more basic, but somehow more complicated—like:

How many people apply. The article tries to emphasize the role of mission at highly selective colleges. This suggests that if these same colleges only had 600 applicants for 500 seats, they’d likely take everybody, no matter what their essays said. That doesn’t make their decisions based on mission; it makes them based on numbers. Simply put, they don’t take everyone who applies, because they don’t have to.

What the college is looking for. It’s certainly true a college is looking for certain qualities in a student, but that search is a little more pragmatic than the article suggests. An admission officer from an Ivy League college once told me “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a high school senior applying as a hockey goalie, your chances of admission just went way up.” So what happens if the essays in the hockey goalie’s application don’t reveal a deep understanding of the school’s mission? Is this still a fit?

This has less to do with mission than it does institutional priorities—the particular need the college has that year for Philosophy majors, a bassoonist, or someone who wants to do Neuroscience research. These priorities may have something to do with the mission of the college, but they aren’t as closely related as the article suggests, once numbers come into play. The virtues of athletics may be integral to the college’s existence, but they aren’t going to admit every one of the 18 hockey goalies that apply; they’re only going to take as many as they need in any given year—and this year, that may be none.

Rankings. The last ten years of college admissions have seen an increase in all kinds of devices used to get more students to apply. Snap apps, on-site decisions, and the rise in early application programs all point to a desire on the college’s part to attract more applicants, even though very few colleges are actually enrolling more students than they were ten years ago.

What’s behind the need to do that, if admissions decisions are driven by mission, and not by rankings? Is it impossible to be a solid B+ student and have a better understanding of a school’s mission than your National Honor Society counterpart? If not, why are so many highly selective colleges now denying so many—in fact, nearly all-- the B+ students who used to fulfill the college’s mission with distinction?

When most families start looking at colleges, they think the admission process is simple—take strong classes, get good grades, make sure your test scores are strong, join a few clubs, and you’re good to go. That perception works at an incredible number of colleges, but the highly selective colleges have a process that’s less clear, because they don’t have to take everyone who applies. It would be easy to assign this cause to the college’s mission, but that doesn’t reflect reality—and it also doesn’t explain why all kinds of schools say no to some B students and say yes to C students who average 21 points a game.

It would be great if mission was the only reason college admissions doesn’t seem fair, but it isn’t. Like life, it’s more complicated than that, and our students deserve an explanation more representative of that complexity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Is Free Test Prep Worth It?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The world of SAT test prep was thrown for a bit of a loop last year, when College Board partnered with Khan Academy to offer free SAT prep through the well-known online tutorial website.  The idea was simple; students with PSAT or SAT scores could plug in their test results, and Khan Academy would point the student to a series of test preparation exercises designed to strengthen skills in the areas where the student most needed improvement.

This kind of approach to test prep isn’t new, but offering it online, for free, was unheard of.  Still, many questions persisted, as observers wondered if students would take full advantage of the service, and if the idea of improvement through free test prep was just too good to be true.

The results of a recent study suggest that College Board and Khan may be on to something.  A study of nearly 250,000 test takers showed that those who plug a test result into Khan Academy, then complete 20 hours of online test prep, gain an average of 115 points when they take the SAT.  This is nearly twice the gain made by students who don’t use Khan; more important, the results are applicable to students regardless of GPA, race, gender, or income.

It’s easy to understand why these numbers are cause for celebration among advocates of universal access to test prep.  In the past, these kinds of gains mostly belonged to students who paid impressive sums of money to private test prep companies or tutors, and often involved students attending regularly scheduled classes they had to fit into schedules that were already full.  The Khan results suggest some students can realize strong test improvement for free, working on their own, and on their own schedule, all while learning more about the role of self-discipline in academic improvement.  That’s a win all around.

At the same time, these findings come with the usual limitations and cautions of any study.  More than one statistician has pointed out that correlation (two things that seem to be related to each other) isn’t always causation (meaning one thing doesn’t cause the other to occur).  In addition, it’s important to note that students not using Khan for test prep realized a 60 point increase when taking the SAT anyway.  Finally, 20 hours is a lot of time for a student to devote to anything, and not all students have that kind of time, or focus.

Since most of these limitations can also be applied to fee-based test prep, the Khan results are worth keeping an eye on in subsequent studies.  Meanwhile, many high schools are using Khan to form after-school test prep groups, where all that’s needed for students to get test ready is access to the computer lab.  The results also give high schools reason to find ways to offer some kind of PSAT, so students will have scores to plug into Khan and begin the process of customized test prep with time, and room, to spare.

Test scores continue to be the focus of many discussions about college readiness, with recent changes to the SAT leading a large number of colleges to become test optional in their admissions policies, and causing policy makers to wonder if testing outcomes have replaced quality learning experiences as the primary purpose of education.  As those discussions continue, the results of the Khan study offer hope to low income students looking for a chance to be taken seriously by colleges that value test scores—students who didn’t historically have access to quality test prep.  That qualifies as a game changer.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Improve College Readiness by Creating a Class

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


If you’re helping kids find ways to pay for college, there’s brand new data to help your efforts. A study spearheaded by The Common Application, in conjunction with researchers at University of Virginia, Harvard, and University of Pittsburgh, shows that more students are inclined to complete the government-based FAFSA financial aid form if they receive a series of systematically designed texts urging them to do so.

The study finds that the most important part of the texts is the message. Rather than focusing on how much money the student can receive for college, the texts are most effective when they tell the student what they should specifically do, and when they should do it. Supported with a message that urges students to set up their own set of reminders on their phones or planners, these step-by-step texts lead to increased FAFSA completion. (Full disclosure: I sit on Common App’s board of directors.)

These results support a long-standing string of discoveries about college access that date back to the original Know How2Go campaign. Low income students are well aware of the importance of college, and most have a desire to attend. Study after study reveals the help they really need is understanding the concrete steps required to prepare, apply, and pay for college, and what to do to avoid summer melt.

This is an awful lot of information for counselors to pass along to students through newsletters, parent meetings, and informal conversations in the hallway. That’s why a growing number of high schools are offering an elective class in getting ready for college. They still create the Websites, assemblies, and reminders needed to keep students focused on the college selection process, but they take all of the vital college information and put it in a semester course that helps students stay focused, organized, and on task.

There isn’t a lot of data available on the effectiveness of these classes, but counselors know they are making a difference. By putting college access information into one course, counselors are able to introduce ideas with a consistency and sequence they often can’t achieve through newsletters, or even as guest presenters in academic classes. This sequencing reinforces the ability to tell students what they should do, and when they should do it, the success that’s reported in The Common Application study.

In addition to being a consistent source of information, a college readiness class gives students two other commodities they seem to be lacking—the time to apply to college, and a focused space to do so. This allows students to use the counselor’s expertise at the right moment, when they get stuck on a college application question. They don’t have to put the application off; instead, they ask the question, get the answer, and move forward.

This also creates a space for students to craft well thought-out essays, instead of trying to find time to cobble them together between work, studying, and other after-school commitments. And if they need to talk to a teacher about a letter of recommendation, the teacher is right down the hall.

Students from all walks of life have benefited from the organized, supportive atmosphere a college readiness class offers them, and school counselors appreciate the opportunity focusing part of their day on college application conversations that are sometimes hard to develop in the midst of other duties. In a time when it seems to be getting harder to get student’s attention, the structure of the classroom is proving to be a tremendous ally in the campaign for increased college readiness.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Pay Less for College? Sure, if...

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

April is a month of mixed emotions for school counselors. As students come in to share the exciting news of college acceptances and generous scholarships, an equal number of families come in with questions that are harder to answer:

“What more were they looking for?”

“Don’t they know this isn’t enough to cover my needs?”

“Why does college cost so much?”

It turns out this last question has a pretty clear answer—it’s complicated, but it’s clear.

“It doesn’t have to cost this much, if you start at a community college and transfer.”

Nearly every community college costs less than a four-year institution, especially since most community college students live at home. Students who do well at many community colleges can become members of Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honor society, which qualifies them for transfer scholarships reserved for PTK students at many four-year colleges. Finally, while it isn’t true for every four-year college, there are a good number of colleges where transfer students are more likely to earn a Bachelor’s Degree than students who have attended the college right out of high school.

You spend less money, you get more money, and you’re more likely to finish. What can go wrong?

Actually, quite a bit. While the path from community college to a four-year degree sounds simple, only about one in seven community college students complete that path in six years. It’s hard to say how many of these same students would finish if they had started at a four-year degree, but you get the idea. If we’re going to encourage students to consider starting at a community college, we need to make sure they are armed with information, and a plan.

Talk to your advisors. Yes, that’s plural. The biggest challenge community college transfer students face is remembering that their goal is to graduate from a four year college, not from community college. If you end up taking classes that don’t count towards your Bachelor’s Degree, you’re wasting the time and money you had hoped community college would save you.

That’s why it’s important to stay in touch with the transfer advisor of the four-year college you’re headed to. Even if you don’t know what your major will be, this advisor can give you the best advice about which courses you should take, and when. Community colleges have transfer agreements with some four-year schools, but those aren’t always enforced; that’s why it’s best to hear what the four-year advisor says. You also meet with a community college adviser to make sure you’re taking a course load you can handle, and you’re meeting all other college requirements.

Don’t work too much. Several studies indicate students at all college levels are less likely to complete their studies the more they work—and once work time gets to more than 20 hours a week, the failure rate is alarming. Yes, they need money to live on, but if the goal is college completion, making more money can come at the expense of paying for classes they won’t complete.

Improve transfer transparency. Most community college credits will transfer, but too many transfer as elective credits—and students don’t need many of those at four-year colleges. What we need is a smart phone app where a student types in their community college’s name; the four year college’s name they’re heading to, and the degree they want to earn. This app would then generate a list of every class this student should take that’s guaranteed to apply to that degree.

Imagine what that would do for all of us.  

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A New Take on College Essays

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


The end of the college application season brings the inevitable stream of columns calling for changes to the way colleges admit their students. From plans for free college to renewed efforts to eliminate standardized testing, policy makers, college presidents, and students just completing the process are eager to offer their insights on how what they see to be a flawed system could be made better.

After all these years of reading these ideas, I’ve decided to take the plunge myself—and for me, the issue is the application essay, or personal statement. A well-crafted statement that is truly written by the student can certainly add a great deal of insight into the way a student feels and, sometimes, thinks. At the same time, it is all too easy for others to “guide” the student to a “right” answer, and since most of the essay prompts require little measurement of anything other than self-knowledge, they don’t always demonstrate the academic and problem-solving skills students need to thrive in colleges. It’s also too easy for students to short circuit their chances of writing a strong essay by waiting until the last minute to put something together, an essay that comes from the heart without having ample time to be considered by the head.

One way to address these issues is to modify the existing writing components of the current standardized tests. Instead of giving students less than an hour to make sense of a handful of documents they’ve just received, give them three hours to work in a room that has research materials, so they can fully explore multiple aspects of the questions they get once they arrive. The questions themselves will have both academic and affective components. They would have enough cultural and academic breadth that it would be reasonable to expect every student could be familiar with the context of at least one of them (and they’d only have to answer one), but also require them to do some research before putting together a thoughtful response. For colleges that aren’t crazy about standardized testing, students could sign up for an Essay Only option, where they would show up for the writing exercise, and nothing more.

This approach would require some changes, to be sure. Colleges would have to be willing to forego the creation of most of their own essay questions (except for “Why Us?”), the confidential questions would have to be genuinely new with each test administration, and admissions officers would have to be prepared to wrangle with the factual content of more essays than they do now. This isn’t to say admissions officers couldn’t become well-versed in everything from the works of Ai Weiwei to the moral proclivities of Rory Gilmore; this new approach just might require a little more time on background than the current version of the personal statement.

I’m as biased as the next person, so the six examples below are undoubtedly missing a key element of cultural breadth, but just to present some idea of what this might look like, here goes. Enjoy.

There is much speculation over which of the three Gilmore Girls changed the most through the seven-year series and the one-year sequel. It’s been argued that the answer to this question is largely generational. In that context, and in your opinion, which Gilmore Girl changed the most for the better, and which one changed the most for the worse? How would Theodore Roosevelt answer that question? How about Gabriel Garcia Marquez? How about the person who cuts your hair?

The proof that .̅9= 1 has been used to suggest that mathematics is not as precise as it claims to be. Present arguments to support and refute that claim, then include two examples from the world of sports to support the side you believe to be true.

Lin-Manuel Miranda is about to release his new musical, which is a tribute to the life and music of Philip Glass. Given the proclivities of both the subject and the composer, describe any three songs from this two-act play, which includes a total of 14 compositions.

One of the justifications for studying history is the well-known quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Take an event you learned in a history or science class and show how this quote was proven true in a subsequent event by someone who hadn’t studied the past. Next, use the same event you learned in class to show how knowing the past led someone else to realize a different conclusion.

It has been argued that Paul Simon’s album Graceland is an example of cultural misappropriation. Discuss both sides of this argument. Does your argument change at all after listening to this? Is the wide use of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech a better example of cultural misappropriation than Paul Simon’s album? Explain.

There is a copy of the front page of today’s New York Times in the examination room. Pick three of the stories, and relate one to any poem by Emily Dickinson, one to any poem by Langston Hughes, and one to any work by Ai Weiwei.