Counseling the Detour

I once said that counseling denied students was one of the most satisfying parts of my job.  Certainly not because it’s fun.  Often it’s anything but.  Nevertheless, when a student comes to see a denial as a detour, rather than a dead-end, the situation is often redeemed.

I should first make sure it is clear that denying an applicant is not a decision that is made lightly.  We understand the sort of trauma that often accompanies the decision.  Lives are changed by that decision.  Tears will fall.  Anger will (sometimes) rise.  It’s hard on a young person to feel rejected.  We know all that, and consequently weigh our decisions very carefully.

The bottom line, when we do deny admission to an applicant, is that we really feel that the student does not have a reasonable chance of success at our institution given the evidence of previous performance.  We do not operate under the philosophy that “everyone deserves a chance to fail.”  Rather, we strive to admit students who have a reasonable chance of success in our specific environment.  If we believe that a student will not be successful here, we do not think we are doing a favor by admitting that student, no matter how intense their desire to be admitted. 

Having said that, I would go back to the concept that this decision can definitely be viewed as a detour, not a dead end.  Remember, I said that our decision is based on the evidence of previous performance.  This suggests that it is possible to pursue a course that allows for new evidence to be developed. 

Most often, when we coach a student regarding options, we suggest that they enroll in another post-secondary environment to earn transferrable course work.  This can be a 2-year UW College, a WTCS campus, or a local satellite campus of another college.  Their task while at that institution will be to change the evidenceregarding their ability to succeed in a post-secondary environment.  Generally, once a student has earned at least 15 transferrable credits with a reasonable level of success, we will reconsider them for admission.  For most students, that is not a lengthy detour.  Helping them to see that starts the mental transition from “dead end” to “detour.” 

This process of changing the evidence may be made necessary by a couple of different things.  One typical profile of a student who is not granted admission is that of a person who has terrific test scores but a very low GPA.  What this tells us is that the student has great potential, but has not used that potential in the past.  When we “coach the detour” for those students, we’re looking for evidence that s/he has become willing to apply that great potential to achieve better grades.  Another typical profile is that of a student who has achieved marginal success in academics (shown by grades and/or test scores), and who may benefit from additional preparation in an academic setting.  Some weaker students benefit from starting college in an environment where freshman class sizes are lower, for instance, and which allow for closer contact with their teachers.  There are also the students who “are just not good test takers.”  We hear that a lot.  The reality of college, however, is that grades (especially in the freshman year) are heavily weighted on a handful of timed tests (in an environment where “extra credit” is virtually unheard of to compensate for low test scores).  If a student in that situation is coached through a detour, the experience will help to provide evidence that they have learned to test successfully in a high-pressure, timed environment.  Or, the experience may get them further along in their academic career to a point that their grades become more project- and research-based.

Whatever the initial reason for the denial, the option of proving one’s ability to succeed in a different environment may help encourage a student.  The key is to make sure they have a plan. 

When I coach the detour with a student, the first thing we do is to decide which environment is most appropriate for them – UW College, WTCS, or another local college.  Then, using TIS (for UW colleges or WTCS), we actually choose courses that will 1) transfer, 2) apply toward General Education requirements, and 3) build needed skills.  We talk about whatever needs to be done to get started at that school, and we talk – in very specific terms – about what the ONE NEXT STEP is.  That keeps in manageable for most students.  Finally, I invite the student to get in touch with me when it’s time to take the step after that.  And the step after that.  And so on.  Most importantly, before the student leaves my office, I ask, “Do you feel like you have a plan?”  If they say no, we go back to whatever point is causing the confusion. 

When the student says, “Yes, I have a plan,” we can both feel good about the fact that the “dead end” has become a “detour.”

“Reflections on Rigor” – What does it mean and why does it matter?

I’m continuing to reflect on the topics that were covered during the UW System School Counselors’ Workshops in September.  One recurring theme, at least among the messages that the UW Admissions Directors were delivering, was the concept of rigor.  I apologize in advance for the length of this post, which I know may be daunting to the reader, but this is a big topic worthy of a big entry.

 I believe the directors are in agreement that rigor is a factor when evaluating a student for admission.  “Rigor” can be defined in various ways, but I think it’s safe to say that there are elements common to most of our evaluations:

  1. the level of challenge of a given class – for instance, AP, IB, “advanced” and “honors” courses would generally be recognized as more rigorous, while courses that are remedial, basic in nature or meant to review/reinforce earlier studies would be recognized as less rigorous.  Naturally, there’s a continuum with many courses between the two extremes.  Course descriptions can be very instructive when we try to evaluate the rigor/challenge of any given course.
  2. the specific discipline of a course – there are five general disciplines that fall into commonly-accepted definitions of “college preparatory” – English, math, science, social studies, and foreign language.  These are the disciplines that most directly prepare students for the expectations that will face them in a competitive college environment.  College professors expect students (even freshmen) to be able to research and write essays and papers; to gather, synthesize, and present information; to have an understanding of national and international issues and social structures; to be able to use mathematics not only in respect to pure math, but also in relation to disciplines in natural sciences and the social sciences; to have knowledge in the natural sciences that prepare them for college laboratory science courses; and to communicate effectively verbally and in writing.  These skills will be necessary for all students, regardless of their eventual major, since all students will devote a significant proportion of their college degree to general education-type requirements. 

 At this point I think it’s very important to stress that this does NOT mean that we think courses outside of the “college-prep” disciplines are unimportant.  Indeed, studies in the fine arts, computers, family and consumer education, business, agriculture, technology, and the like are all very important in defining a well-rounded person, and a well-rounded education.  Courses that prepare students for life are important!  The UW System reinforces this in its overall admission policy which allows for the inclusion of these courses in campus admission evaluations.  Please understand: Students are not penalized for taking these courses!  Rather, it would be the absence of core college-prep courses that might reflect negatively in an evaluation.

 Rigor in the senior year is especially important.  We know that some students will satisfy most graduation requirements prior to their senior year.  It may be tempting for them to take a less-challenging schedule during the senior year in an effort to increase/maintain their GPA, or to simply “take a break” after working hard the previous years.  This strategy, however, can backfire.  Here is an analogy frequently cited by Alan Tuchtenhagen, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services at UW-River Falls: If you have a student who is a candidate for a college athletic scholarship, is it likely that the student would tell the coach that s/he wants as little challenge as possible during the senior season?  No!  The student will want to maintain or improve their skills in order to be better prepared for college-level competition.  This is exactly what should be happening academically during the senior year – academic conditioning!  Students need to be prepared for the academic competition inherent in the college environment, and this means taking a challenging senior schedule.

 ACT has also taken a strong stand on high school rigor – on its importance, that is.  Please see my October 1 entry, and the links to ACT research, for more details.

 A final note on rigor, as it applies to students who begin high school science, math, or foreign language in 8th grade.  The purpose (in our minds, at least) for starting high school work in 8th grade is so that the student can go farther in that discipline in high school, not so they can quit sooner.  If a student takes algebra in 8th grade, then quits math after algebra 2 in 10th grade, we would not view that as a good thing. 

 The bottom line is this, in regard to rigor:  We are trying to admit university graduates.  “Getting in” as a freshman really isn’t the point.  Graduating from college IS the point.  We’re not trying to make it harder to get into college; we’re trying to make it easier to graduate from college.  Expecting and enforcing rigorous high school preparation for college-level study simply makes sense.  It is in the student’s best interest to do so.  And, ultimately, I think that’s what we all have in mind:  the student’s best interest.

Affirmations:  Because of broad agreement about the importance of rigor among my UW System Admissions colleagues, I asked them to let me know if they were willing to affirm their agreement with this entry.  Those who affirmed this entry are:

UW-Eau Claire – Kris Anderson, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-La Crosse – Kathy Kiefer, Director of Admissions

UW-Madison – Tom Reason, Interim Director of Admissions

UW-Milwaukee – Beth Weckmueller, Executive Director of Enrollment Services

UW-Oshkosh – Jill Endries, Director of Admissions

UW-Parkside – Matthew Jensen, Director of Admissions

UW-Platteville – Angela Udelhofen, Director of Admissions

UW-River Falls – Alan Tuchtenhagen, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services

UW-Stevens Point – Catherine Glennon, Director of Admissions

UW-Stout – Joel Helms, Assistant Director of Admissions

UW-Superior – Tonya Roth, Director of Admissions

UW-Whitewater – Jodi Hare-Paynter, Interim Director of Admissions/Registrar

The Applicant Statement

I once heard a story (I have no idea if it’s true) about a man who asked President Abraham Lincoln how long a man’s legs should be.  (Apparently the President had long legs and a gangly build.)  President Lincoln allegedly answered, “Long enough to reach the ground.”

 Which leads to one of the first questions I usually hear regarding the applicant statement:  “How long should the applicant statement be?”  Well…long enough to say what needs to be said.  For one person it might be 100 words; for another it might be1000.  It’s a bit of a balancing act, crafting a statement that is complete but not overly wordy.  I think most Admissions people would agree that a good applicant statement can be extremely influential in the application process.  However, I think most would also agree that we don’t really want to read three or four pages – unless the candidate has truly extraordinary circumstances that require extensive explanation.  So, write as much as it takes to say what needs to be said, and then be done. 

 “What should I write about?” is the next most common question.  Well, first, if the instructions tell you what to write about, it’s a good idea to write about that.  For instance, the UW System application asks for applicants to write about which activity is most important to them and why.  There’s a reason for that question, and to over-coach a student undermines the value of that question.  When a student answers that question honestly, it tells us something about that student as a person – what s/he values, what is important to him/her.  And that’s what we want to know about – who is this person applying to our school?  What can we learn about him/her that we cannot learn from the numbers (rank, GPA, test scores)? 

 As for the more open-ended questions, again I have to defer to the individual circumstances of the student.  Certainly, if there are extenuating circumstances that need to be explained, then by all means write about that.  However, some students claim that nothing interesting or unusual has ever happened to them (their parents are healthy, living, and still married; they’ve never been poor or disadvantaged; they’ve received a good education at a good high school…)  That may be true – but it does NOT mean that THEY are not interesting or unusual.  Everyone has circumstances and experiences that shape them – and if those circumstances are healthy and stable, then it’s valid to write about how they have been shaped as people because of their stable environment.

 One other thing that all students should be able to write about is why the school they are applying to is a good fit.  All of us in Admissions want to admit students who will be a good fit for our institutions.  And every student has a reason for applying to the school(s) that they are.  Tell us about those reasons.  Is it the size?  The location?  The major?  Certain extracurricular opportunities?  Did you fall in love with the campus during a visit?  Why is UW-Green Bay the best possible place for you?  And why are you the best possible student for UW Green Bay?

 Finally, make sure the statement is well-written, spell checked, and proofread.  No text abbreviations please.  Be careful with punctuation.  Capitalize appropriately.  We draw conclusions about a student’s academic ability by this writing sample, so it is worthwhile to take care with it.  And finally, if a student composes the statement in Word, then cuts and pastes it into the application, be sure to edit the name of the school for each application!  It is amazing how often applicants forget to do that, and you can bet that the red pen comes out to highlight that blunder before the application gets reviewed!

 If pressed for a short answer to the “What should I write?” question, I would say, “Tell me who you are and how you got to be who you are.”  Everyone has that story to tell.

The Truth About Timing

You know you’re a school counselor if September 15 is more frightening than October 31.

 You know how it goes:  A bazillion anxious seniors descend on your office clamoring for you to fill out the UW System application completion form and mail their transcripts.  “Now!” they shout.  “Now!” the parents shout.  I salute you for not whimpering and crawling under your desk.  (Well, most of you don’t, at any rate….)

 Here’s the reality – IT’S OK TO SLOW DOWN!  And, yes, you can quote me on that.  Back in “the day” – and by that I mean the era of restrictive enrollment management within the UW System – it’s true that there was some urgency for early application.  Campuses did close admission, sometimes as early as January (our record at ‘GB was January 18).  However, it has been years since UW System schools were closing really early.  Many UW campuses this past year were open into the spring and summer months.  At GB we closed on May 18 for most freshmen, with the exception of local students.

 Please understand, I’m not advocating procrastination here, and there are many good reasons to apply and be admitted to “short list” schools by the winter holidays.  It just doesn’t all have to be done on September 15. 

 Seniors have enough on their plates as the school year starts – as do you.  It’s OK to wait until October – and later – to submit an application.  Even uber-competitive Madison assures “equal consideration” for all applicants up until February 1. 

 Now, there’s a caveat here that is very important – at some campuses, some programs have limited enrollment and do close earlier than the general closing date, some have early scholarship deadlines, and some campuses with housing limitations suggest earlier application.  So it’s still important that students do their research for the campus and program they are interested in.  Rest assured, however, that it will be the exception rather than the rule to find it necessary to rush the application. 

 At ‘GB we recommend being admitted by the winter holidays so that students can apply for housing in a timely fashion.  Our housing is in high demand and we generally go into the summer with a housing waiting list.  But, I say it again, October (and November, and most of December) is fine! 

 It may be too late for the seniors – they’ve probably already beaten down your door.  But it’s not too early to start reaching the juniors.

 Wouldn’t it be nice if Halloween went back to being the scariest day of the year?