Marty O'Connell on the Lessons this College Season Offered

College admissions offered a number of twists and turns this year to veteran college counselors-- but how was this year perceived by a college counseling newbie?

I asked Marty O'Connell to address this issue, as only she can. This is Marty's first year working as a college counselor at Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills, MD, but her fourth decade in college admission. After working for many years on the college side, Marty served as Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives, a non-profit organization that has something to teach every student and counselor who want to understand the best way to approach the college selection process.

Marty is now Executive Director Emerita of CTCL, and she shares her insights here on high school students who are on the receiving end of the recruiting and application information she's known so well in her previous careers:

It turns out there are "bad" words that I need to tell my college admission colleagues to stop using when they speak to high school students -- and I don't mean the four-letter word-bombs that might have just popped into your mind. I mean Passion. Bad word. Unique. Really bad word.

After almost four decades on the college admission side of the profession, I'm currently adjusting to my new life on the other side -- as a college counselor at a high school. I now spend some portion of each day trying not to feel defensive when students share their worries about these specific words, on top of their myriad other frustrations as they search for colleges.

When I was a college admission dean, I knew that students worried about what colleges wanted, but now I feel the full force of that worry every day -- with every course choice, exam result, test score, and choice of co-curricular pursuit or missed opportunity to engage in one. And I hear how much they hang on every word they hear from well-meaning admission counselors.

"PASSION???" "What do they mean??" "I think I have a passion for theatre, but maybe it's just a love...what should I tell them?" asked a worried junior. Or this from another of her classmates, "How can I find a passion--right NOW?!"

I attempt to explain that college counselors are just trying to get them to talk and write about the things that are really important to them, the activities they spend more time doing and thinking about than the other things in their life. Their response? "Okay, well why don't they just say that?"
The implication that they need to have a passion for something in order to be an adequate applicant is a major stress-inducer for most college-seeking 17-year-olds. However, asking about strong interest, enthusiasm, and devotion don't evoke the same panicky response, even as they provide that catalyst for the conversations and essays colleges are seeking from applicants.

And that other word? "Unique! Unique! Unique!" Following spring break college tours, a student shared this observation: "I just visited three colleges this weekend and they each said they had a unique first year experience program, unique career advising center, and unique senior capstone experience -- but they were actually all the same. Don't they check out each other's programs before they call themselves unique?"

That pretty much cuts right to the point and offers very good advice for colleges, and it didn't come from a pricey consultant. High school students really do listen, and when they hear about characteristics of successful, engaged students at specific colleges, they can begin to decide if your college is right for them.

So the advice I'm passing along to my colleagues is this: choose your words wisely, and tell your college's story by sharing current student examples. Give prospective students something to relate to, stories and people they'll remember and can tell their friends, teachers, and counselors about when they get home.

As for passion? I'm learning that this side of college counseling is my P word.