My first job after college was working as an Admissions Counselor for my alma mater. I was the junior member of a four-person staff (Director included) that was described by another college’s Admissions Dean as the best admissions staff he had ever seen. In our first year together, we brought in a freshman class that was 90 students over budget and also the best class in college history in terms of metrics like SAT scores and class rank.
At the end of that year, the Director completed the required administrative evaluation for each of us. The only thing I remember from the evaluation was that none of us received the top grade, “Exceeds Expectations,” for the category, “Is available for duties as needed.” His rationale was that we were expected to be available 24/7 and therefore none of us could possibly exceed expectations.
That logic seemed as specious then as it does today (although, to be fair, it made enough of an impression that I remember it 40 years later). But it also introduced me to a question that I struggle with every year during this season. As college counselors, are we ever “off duty”?
I’m obviously not alone in struggling with that question, because I have had several conversations with colleagues around the country who are considering, or being forced to consider, holding office hours during the holiday break to help students complete applications with a January 1 deadline.
This may not be the right time to reflect on this topic, coming near the end of a three-month marathon (I believe the operative word is “slog”) where most of my days are consumed with thinking about recommendation letters that must be written and applications that must be processed. Just last week my office processed close to 150 (those of you who don’t feel sorry because your load was even greater have my sympathy along with a request that you let me wallow in self-pity and not share with me how easy I have it).
The demands and rhythms of the college admissions season mean that I come to Christmas break (ECA doesn’t want to show up on Fox News accused of being part of the alleged war against Christmas) exhausted and, quite frankly, unable to truly enjoy the holiday. In some years (this is one) I don’t even think about Christmas shopping until school closes for the break, and as a result you can imagine the quality and thoughtfulness of my gifts. In most years, I will get sick between Christmas and New Year’s as my body’s defenses let down their guard. (I just re-read this paragraph and recognize that I come across as Scroogy or even Grinchy.)
In any case, throughout my career my policy has been that the school and the College Counseling Office are closed during the Christmas holiday. Any school materials that must be sent for applications a January 1 deadline have to be sent prior to the beginning of break, and I begin making daily announcements as soon as we return from Thanksgiving and talk face-to-face with any senior I think has a January 1 deadline that all January 1 giving precise instructions about when applications need to be turned in to my office. Students can submit their applications at any point before the deadline, but my office will not process application materials during the break. If students decide to add schools to their list on December 28, that’s fine, but transcripts and recommendations will be sent as soon as school reopens in January.
For the most part that policy has worked. I have never had the experience a close college counseling friend had where a student rang her doorbell on Christmas Eve, just as her family was about to sit down for dinner, bearing not gifts but rather college applications (this was pre-electronic submission). The policy also doesn’t mean that my office doesn’t work during the break. My administrative assistant will generally come in for a day or two to finish processing applications while it is quiet, and we review essays and meet with students as needed, but the office, just like the school, is officially closed.
This may be another of those areas where the college counseling landscape is changing. The advent of electronic submission of documents means that we can work from home during a break rather than having to go to the office. But should we?
My school changed from trimesters to semesters seven or eight years ago (is it my imagination or do all schools on semesters wish they were on trimesters, and vice versa?), and one of the negative consequences is that exams are just before Christmas rather than just before Thanksgiving. That is generally a good thing, but it imposes a greater burden on seniors with January 1 deadlines who have to work on college applications at the same time they are studying for exams. In the past couple of years I have seen more stress in my students than ever before, and this year I have a couple of good students who seem to have shut down from the college process. Is that driven by the calendar change, or are we seeing a new generation of students, the product of a new generation of parents?
The other generational change that is coming is within our profession. I have asked before whether the next generation of college counselors and admissions officers will be as committed/neurotic as my generation. Millennials want a balance between work life and professional life that I admire and think is healthier than I have achieved, but that poses a huge challenge to institutions whose economic model is based on employees who work beyond the contract, who are never off duty.
What do those changes mean for my approach to college counseling? I have always believed that the college process is not just about getting into college, but also about readiness for college. The application process is about developing the kind of ownership and independence that will lead to success as a college student. How do we help students develop that ownership and still maintain a safety net? What is appropriate help, and at what point do we not just help but enable a student in avoiding responsibility?
Having once again posed lots of questions and provided few answers, I am going off duty as a blogger if not as a college counselor, returning in 2017. Thanks for reading. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah/Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or even Festivus, have a wonderful holiday season.