Andrea O'Gorman, Scarsdale High SchoolPosted on Sun, 12/02/2012 - 17:46
Andrea O'Gorman, Director of Counseling at Scarsdale High School, is our December Counselor of the Month. O'Gorman oversees a department of nine counselors at this Westchester County, New York, public high school, serving 1460 students. Named as "one of the 144 exemplary schools to which others may look for patterns of success" by the United States Department of Education, Scarsdale High School serves a diverse community with a large international population.
"The thing that I enjoy most about working here is that students and faculty are so engaged in the learning process," says O'Gorman. "There is so much going on, so many new ventures. Education is the industry of Scarsdale. People come here because they want a school system they can invest in and parents, faculty and the administration are invested. Everyone feels like a stakeholder."
A graduate of the State University of New York at Geneseo, O'Gorman holds a Masters degree in school counseling from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a P.D. in school administration from the College of New Rochelle. A native New Yorker, born and raised in Mt. Vernon, she jumped at the chance to return after graduate school.
One of the biggest challenges at Scarsdale is helping students and families manage the stress. "Most of our job is about cutting through the noise with good sound advice," says O'Gorman. "I really try to send a message of transparency. Applying to college doesn't have to be a big mysterious process. Before you panic about what you heard in the grocery store, I would rather you call me and say 'this is what I heard, is it true?' There are people who have good information and I'm one of them. I'm right here and I'm free. So use me."
Outside of school, life is focused on raising a family, and achieving the work/life balance so many women are trying to achieve. For O'Gorman, that's equilibrium between "trying to be a dedicated counselor and a great mom." She has two children, ages 1 and 4, with her husband, Kieran, a special education teacher at Fox Lane Middle School in Bedford, New York -- whom she met in first grade!
Read on to take advantage of what O'Gorman knows about applying to college, her best advice for students and parents, and her strong feelings about the "topic of your choice" prompt on the Common Application:
How did you become a college counselor?
I always wanted to work in education. I taught middle school social studies for several years and then realized that my true passion was working with individual students. I wanted to get to know students on a personal level to help them realize their potential. I felt I could do more of this work as a counselor, so I pursued a Master's Degree in School Counseling.
What is your motto?
I’m not sure I have a personal motto, but my college counseling motto comes from a colleague. I like to tell people that “college admission is not a team sport.” This is my response when parents and community members ask “how did we do?” with regard to our admission rates at a particular school or in a particular year. I want them to see admissions as individual decisions for individual students.
Is freshman or sophomore year too early for students to start working with their college counselor?
I am lucky to work in a school that values a developmental model of counseling, where counselors work as generalists. We meet our students as freshmen and remain with them through graduation. This allows me to get to know students and families well and it helps me guide and support them throughout the high school experience. The college counseling is then a natural step in a much longer process.
What advice do you have for students who are contemplating going to an independent counselor?
For my own students, I feel an independent counselor is almost always an unnecessary expense. Our counselors have the expertise, time and resources to give them everything they need in this process. However, if a student is coming from a high school where counselors’ caseloads are too high or resources are scarce, then I can see where an independent counselor would be helpful. I recommend working with someone who has worked in a high school setting as a counselor, or who has worked in college admissions so they have a real understanding of how the process unfolds.
What are some of the “do's and don’ts” for students as they work with their counselor?
DO share honestly your needs, desires, feelings and priorities in this process.
DO keep your counselor apprised of any changes to your plans.
DO understand that counselors have your best interest in mind, even when we deliver information that is contrary to what you want to hear.
DO know that your counselor is your partner in this process.
DON’T take your counselor for granted. They invest time and energy for you and love when students say thank you.
How about parents? What advice do you have for parents who are concerned about their student’s college application process in some way?
Communicate with your student’s counselor. We are here to help and can offer advice and suggestions that can make a difference.
What are some of the do's and don’ts for parents?
DO empower your student to take control of this process.
DO allow your son or daughter to navigate the process with support from you.
DO send messages of love and acceptance regardless of what individual colleges decide.
DON’T put unrealistic pressures on your student. If you are unsure of what is realistic, speak to the counselor.
DON’T frame the college admission process as “life-defining.” While the decision is meaningful and important, it is only one of many students will encounter in life. Overstating its significance only adds to feelings of anxiety or even inadequacy.
What is the one thing a high school counselor should never do?
Impose their own values on their students. It is a difficult line, but sometimes we have to be reminded that what is important to us may not be what is important to a student or their parents.
What is the most important thing a high school counselor can do?
Listen – actively and intently.
What is your best advice for families about financial aid?
Communicate with each other. If financial constraints exist, speak about it early on in the process. Consider reaching out to financial aid offices when you visit colleges. Clear information early on can make a real difference for families.
What is the biggest mistake you see a student make in applying to college?
The college search and admission process can be a wonderful opportunity for students to reflect on their growth, development, goals and learning styles as they try to envision what their college experience should be. It is disappointing when students miss these opportunities because they are caught up in the process itself, or the stress and competition that can arise from it.
What is your single best piece of advice for applicants?
Stay calm and be organized. While that sounds like two pieces of advice, they are related. When students have a plan and know what is expected of them, the process doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Organization is the key to staying calm.
How do you encourage your students to broaden their college search and look beyond the four or five schools that they know best?
This is a constant struggle. Students and families often arrive with a pre-conceived list of schools that are acceptable based on familiarity, reputation, distance, etc. It can be difficult to move them past this original list to consider exciting possibilities that may be a perfect fit. When students are open to this it is so much fun! If not, I try to get them to consider at least a few places that they are less familiar with. I even ask them to “look into it as a favor to me.” This actually has worked in the past and can even lead to students matriculating at a place they were not originally looking at.
Do students who come from homes without a college-going culture or from homes where they would be the first to attend college have a different timeline or need to approach the application process differently?
Yes. When students come from homes where college is not a given, it requires both more time and more guidance. These students would benefit from more hands-on assistance, both with creating a timeline for the process and with the actual applications. If they can start earlier, it can give counselors more time to explain the language of college admission and gives students more opportunities to see campuses and consider entrance requirements.
Which national issues in admissions most concern you and why?
I worry about how the rising cost of higher education impacts admission decisions. Colleges and universities have worked so hard to level the economic playing field and I worry that as costs rise, these advancements will see a setback.
With so much in the news about diversity and affirmative action, was there a time in college or your career when you had an “aha” diversity moment – a time when being in a diverse environment yourself taught you something valuable?
This is easy for me. After spending most of my early education in Catholic schools, which were fairly homogeneous, I attended an inner-city public high school for grades 11 and 12. This was my first experience with public education and the setting could not have been more different than what I was used to. This experience exposed me to so many different people with varied ethnic, religious and socio-economic backgrounds and was the foundation for incredible personal growth. After a successful end to my high school career, I knew I was ready for anything college had to offer and I am grateful for these experiences.
When you think of deans of admission you admire, without naming any names, what are the qualities you admire in them?
The deans of admission I admire most are those that are honest, candid, approachable and human. I appreciate when men and women in positions of authority stand up for ideals they value and are willing to speak out when necessary. A sense of humor is always a plus.
Which Common Application prompt would you choose if you were writing the Common App essay?
Anything but “topic of your choice.” This would be a killer for me. I would spend more time worrying about what to write about instead of working on the actual piece. I encourage students to start with one of the actual questions to get practice in writing in their own voice. This allows them to brainstorm ideas and try things out, which helps to have a natural topic emerge.
I love that she says that the key to staying calm is organization. I'm an organizer -- and if you ask some people, I spend too much time organizing. But, I always say that "outer calm means inner calm."
First of all, son did all of the apps himself while I was busy dealing with something else urgent.
The financial aid part of the college process (i.e. my domain) has been shockingly hard for me to wrap my arms around and feel like I've got it under control. I've got spreadsheets and binders -- I must have spent 20 (or more?!) hours "organizing." And I'm still not done!
Glad to hear that it's important though!! I find "organizing" to be a soothing form of procrastination with fringe benefits.