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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Life Changing Lessons from Failure & Adversity

 by Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS

Founder, Celtic College Consultants

"If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn't have gone any other way."

- Quote from a TEDx talk.




In March, 2018, the University of Virginia became the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 in the March Madness college basketball finals. If you, like me, don't follow sports, just know that this is bad.  Very bad.

We can only imagine how demoralized the team was. When you are ranked #1 and lose in the first game of the playoffs to the team that just barely qualified for the playoffs, the unthinkable has happpened. You doubt your ability, your coach, your teammates. You are embarrassed and face joke after joke from people around you. The sense of failure must have been overwhelming. This is the kind of event that people tend to follow with a series of bad decisions, like to quit or get drunk or, well, you get the picture. However, after watching a TEDx talk, UVA's basketball coach, Tony Bennett, decided to use that historic loss to his team's benefit.

Over the next year, rather than shying away from talking about the loss, the players and coaches instead talked about it as much as possible. And they didn't simply recount the details and share their pain and start playing the blame game or wallow in self-doubt. No, each time they talked about it, the team talked about what they learned from the loss. This had to be difficult at first. After a failure, especially a public one (and you can't get more public than national television!), we tend to be blind, to resist even the idea that there are lessons to be learned from the loss. Just thinking about it is too painful. However, this was different.


What Coach Bennett learned from watching the TEDx talk is that when you tell the story about something bad that's happened, you're not telling the story to change what happened.  You're telling the story to change YOU. When something happens to you, it sits on top of you like a rock. And if you never tell the story, it sits on you forever. The weight of it crushes you, the pain is ever present, as if you were soaking in it. On the other hand, as you begin to tell the story, little by little, you climb out from under that rock and, eventually, you climb up and sit on top of it.


The story doesn’t change what happened, but the story has the remarkable power to completely change our whole relationship to what happened."

It worked for UVA's basketball team.  They faced their story - that historic loss in March, 2018.  And when the March Madness tournament rolled around in 2019, they won the championship. They climbed out from under the rock of the historic loss and sat on top of it with the championship.

So this week, think about an adversity you've gone through, face your story, and see how you are changed and made stronger!

Here's the TEDx talk that was referenced. With thanks to Scott and his team at Say it with Gratitude.

For more information about Katherine O'Brien and her College Success Program and college prep services, please visit


Thursday, July 9, 2020

20 Things to Take Care of Before Your Student Leaves for College, Even if They're Staying Home


Let's touch on a few practical matters to consider and tend to before they head off (or don't!).  Not all of these will be relevant for every family and many are personal choices.

1. Documents regarding medical records. Once our teens turn 18, their medical information is protected. It's important that your teen set these up for each state (your home state and the state s/he will live in for college): medical proxy or power of attorney. This document allows someone to make medical decisions on his/her behalf in the event s/he cannot make them. In many states, the HIPAA authorization is part of this document. Having a living will is also important for your child (and you!) to give directions for end of life decisions.

2. HIPAA Authorization or HIPAA Release. This document gives permission to healthcare workers to share your information with the people you authorize.

3. Continuing care. For those on medications or seeing counselors, arrange for a continuation of care be fore arriving on campus. Make arrangements for prescriptions and follow up visits. The student health center can be a useful resource to find local professionals who provide the needed services. The student should have a list of prescriptions for any medications, as well as for their glasses or contacts.

4. Medical facilities. Students need to know where the local urgent care and hospital are, along with pharmacies, opticians, and other providers. Check your insurance to find in network providers. Add urgent care phone numbers and addresses in their phone contacts.

5. Insurance cards. Students need to carry their own card(s) for health, dental, and auto insurance cards. While best to have actual cards, having photos of them, front and back, on their phones is another option.

6. Medical history. Students need to know their own history, including vaccinations, surgeries, hospitalizations, allergies, and major injuries and illnesses. If it's complicated, make sure they have a way to access the details, if the need arises.

7. First aid. Have a small first aid kit for their dorm room and/or backpack. Common medications for cold, flu, cuts, etc. should be included. On a related note, for some, the inclusion of sunscreen to avoid and aloe vera to cope with sunburn would be in order.

8. Money. Students need to have ways to access cash, make purchases with a card, and receive paychecks. Have them put locations of no fee ATMs in their phone contacts. Bank routing and account numbers will be needed for direct deposit of paychecks for students who will work while at school. If they are smart, they should arrange a way for parents to transfer funds to their accounts, too.

9. Budget. Sit down with your student and establish a budget for the term, month, week. What will s/he be responsible for? What will you be covering? What happens if something comes up or they spend too much?

10. Social Security Number. Students need to have this number memorized. It will be needed. Teach them to guard it carefully and only give it out when absolutely necessary. Explore identity theft and how thieves get your data so you and your student will know how to protect yourselves.

11. Renter's Insurance. Explore with your student the potential benefits of having it as well as the costs and make a decision about it. Don't forget to decide who will pay for it.

12. Car care. Auto insurance cards will be needed and the company contacted to ensure that everything is in place to cover the student to and from and all around campus. Discuss maintenance such as oil changes and tire rotations as well as larger maintenance needs. Again, who will be financially responsible for which of these costs will need to be discussed.

13. Transportation. Discuss ways to get off campus. Is there a transit system? Does your student know how to use it? Do you need to buy a pass or pay with exact fare? What are the other options? Take time to explore and discuss these options with your student. S/he may not remember everything but will have some idea where to start to look when the need arises.

14. Alcohol. Discuss drunk driving and options for getting home if the friend who drove them is not able to drive them home. Have him or her put an ride-sharing app on his or her phone so there are options if needed. Discuss under age drinking, the impact on relationships, and grades.

15. Grades. As an adult, per FERPA, parents do not have access to student grades. (Be aware that FERPA defines all college students as adults, no matter their age.) For some families, this is not a problem since the child freely shares his or her grades. For others, having the student sign the appropriate documents giving parental access to grades.

16. Financial Aid. Again, per FERPA, school officials cannot speak to parents regarding a student's situation. The financial aid office has a form students can sign which gives them permission to discuss the financial side of things with you. Discuss this with your student.

17. Travel. If flying, consider arranging to expedite their way through security checks. Have a discussion and clearly define who is responsible for arranging and paying for flights. Explore together the options for traveling from the airport to campus. Be sure your student has a "real ID" (in many states, it is denoted by a star on the driver's license or state ID card.). If study abroad is part of his or her college plan, be sure to procure a passport well ahead of time.

18. Emergency contacts. Share your contact information with your student's roommate(s). That way, if there is an emergency, they will know how to reach you (and what your names are!) In turn, get theirs, for exactly the same reason.

19. Stay in Touch. Set up a weekly phone call time or some other routine for checking in with your student. Keeping the lines of communication open will help ground a new student while s/he gets settled in a new place and will enable you both to handle unexpected challenges or needs more smoothly. It will also help set boundaries for those (students and parents!) who want to be in touch all the time. Students need roots; they also need wings.

20. If they are staying home. Have a meeting to discuss the new rules. As a college student, their lifestyle will change. If this is their first year of college, work hard with them to help them sort out how online classes are going to work on their campus, how to organize their time, where they can reach out for help. Create some routines and strategies to help everyone cope with the continued stress of isolation. An exercise and prayer routine as well as regular episodes out in the sun are very helpful. While s/he isn't moving out, they are entering a new chapter of life. Together decide what will change and what won't. Having responsibilities around the house is certainly reasonable; s/he will have responsibilities on campus, once it's open. While some things will change, some things will remain the same. Normally, for example, college students have to determine their own sleep time. However, while living at home, consideration needs to be given for all the members of the family. Work with your student to establish boundaries. S/he needs to learn to use time well. They can't be treated like they were as seniors in high school.

21. One more thing. Files. Teach your child what to keep and how to sort their important papers, both those that come in an envelope and those that are online. Medical information and bills, bank statements, tax information, employer information. Track passwords and websites for key accounts, too.

What 350+ Admissions Deans Say They're Looking for from the Class of 2021

This class has had a year like no other. As they apply for college, major questions are on the lips of everyone.

"I couldn't take the SAT or ACT last Spring. Now most of my schools are test optional. How will my application be viewed? Should I try to get a seat at one of the test dates this Fall? What happens if it's canceled, too?"

"How can I show my capabilities without Spring grades or test scores?"

Rising seniors are also missing those leadership activities and summer camps they had worked toward and planned on. Differentiating themselves from the other applicants will be more challenging without them.

Parents and students across the country are concerned. Clearly, this year's applications will look different from those of previous years.

College Admissions Deans Are Well Aware That This Year is DIFFERENT!

Harvard's Graduate School of Education put out a statement endorsed by over 350 admissions deans. (Read it here.)

Here are the top five values they identified:

1. Self-care - "We encourage all students to be gentle with themselves at this time." First and foremost, take care of yourself. It's a stressful time. Students are essential workers. Some have found themselves using their part time job's wages to help pay for the basics for their families. Everyone is disoriented by the many changes everyone is experiencing on an almost daily basis. Be good to yourself. Take walks. Exercise. Rest. Eat healthy foods. Pray. Read. Write a letter to a friend (on paper!) Take vitamins. Take care of a plant or a pet. Journal. Breathe. And, most certainly, don't freak out about application season! Work with a planner or coach, get help and support, allow yourself ample time to write your essays.

2. Academics - "No student will be disadvantaged because of a change in commitments or a change in plans because of this outbreak, their school’s decisions about transcripts, the absence of AP or IB tests, their lack of access to standardized tests..., or their inability to visit campus." They will read your application in context. Use the COVID 19 essay prompt to share the facts of your changed reality so they understand what your world has looked like since March.

3. Service - "What matters to us is whether students’ contribution or service is authentic and meaningful to them and to others, whether that contribution is writing regular notes to frontline workers or checking in with neighbors who are isolated. We will assess these contributions and service in the context of the obstacles students are facing. We also care about what students have learned from their contributions to others about themselves, their communities, and/or their country." While COVID has created many opportunities to serve, not everyone is able to do so. Authenticity, always the key factor in admissions, remains central. Be yourself. Be your best self. Don't do anything to try to impress admissions. Just be you, the real, wonderful, amazing you.

4. Family Contributions - "We view substantial family contributions as very important, and we encourage students to report them in their applications. It will only positively impact the review of their application during this time."  Some students have significant responsibilities at home while others do not. If you do, be sure to include them on your application. So often students don't think they are important or will be valued. They feel like they are at a disadvantage because they can't participate in other activities since they are busy at home. That isn't the case. As an example, I worked with a young man a couple of years ago whose only extracurricular was taking care of his grandmother and his mom. Mom had been taking care of Grandma then got injured at work and needed care. The student was responsible for making sure they were fed and got their medications on time, in addition to taking care of the house and doing all the cooking and the dishes. That's a lot of responsibility for a 16 year old! At my direction, he included it on his application and was accepted at a top honors college.

5. Extracurriculars & Summer Activities - "No student will be disadvantaged for not engaging in extracurricular activities. We also understand that many plans for summer have been impacted by this pandemic, and students will not be disadvantaged for lost possibilities for involvement." When you think about it, this is the only fair response to what's happened. It's such a relief to have them say it publicly, isn't it?

Remember, admissions staff has been working from home and had their lives altered significantly, too. So, keep in mind what is really important. Take good care of yourself. Take care of those you love. Help those you can when and how you can. And be your best self. But don't sweat the small stuff. Your intelligence, creativity, resilience, etc. will shine through, despite the impacts of the pandemic.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Opportunities during the Pandemic Shutdown

Life has certainly changed. The way forward is unclear in many ways. At the same time, there are incredible opportunities that have opened up during this time.


March & April are busy times of receiving acceptances, scholarships, aid packages, and invitations to apply for additional awards. Many colleges have accepted student events and gatherings. With the campus closures, most, if not all, of these events are or will be modified in some way. Some schools have already announced that they will not hold students to the May 1 commitment deadline. Click the button below to get updated information on your colleges AND monitor your accounts, social media, and visit their websites for additional updates. Ask the admissions office to connect you with students who live in your area, then reach out to them in order to gather more information about campus life, both academic and social. Facebook groups and other social media is great but there's nothing like a one on one conversation to make connections and learn more about your prospective colleges. Reach out to professors in a limited way; most are overwhelmed with shifting their teaching to online modalities.
For the graduating Class of 2020 , this is a very unique spring. Not only are on-campus graduation ceremonies in question, but access to staff, faculty and on-campus academic and extracurricular resources have gone out the window for thousands of students. High school graduates need to plan to hit the ground running this August and need to maintain their strides, but now on a virtual setup. Help your senior stay on track this spring and summer in terms of academic advising, campus readiness, and post-degree planning, including grad school. A Personalized Action Plan plus one on one video consulting will propel your spring and summer 2020 forward.


The April 4 ACT has been rescheduled for June 13th and the rescheduled March SAT and May 2 SAT have been cancelled. Registered students will receive refunds. Follow the College Board's updates here. Updates about the AP exams can be found here. The next update is expected on Friday, March 20. Use this extra time to prepare for these exams. I encourage you to use ePrep's Premium courses so you have 6 full practice tests as well as 6 months to prepare. Use the scheduler to double up now, while you have extra time, then adjust it as needed. To register with my 20% off discount, click here.


A global health crisis is also an incredible learning opportunity. We’re watching public health emergency and global responses unfold right before our eyes. In mid-February, the Imperial College London launched a free class on the Coursera platform: Science Matters: Let’s Talk About COVID-19. Are you fascinated by the mathematical modeling that predicts the progression of the virus and how social distancing and other efforts “flatten the curve”? If so, you might like UNC’s online course, Epidemiology: The Basic Science of Public Health, or Johns Hopkin’s online course, Data and Health Indicators in Public Health Practice. All three are available free of charge.
With schools across the country closing for a period of weeks, high schools are moving to virtual or remote learning. Since the traditional school day has been disrupted, I encourage students to take advantage of the time to deepen your learning and find ways to help those in your community who may be struggling. I also encourage you to take a little time to journal, pray, and ground yourself. We've all been through enormous upheaval during the past week.
Some ways to leverage your time:
  • Take advantage of online courses on platforms like Coursera, EdX, MIT’s Opencourseware, Yale’s Open Courses and more. Check out this link to 450 online courses you can take at Ivy League schools for no cost. These free online courses are great opportunities to deepen your interests and keep your mind sharp.
  • Use this free time to boost your writing abilities so that you can return to school on a stronger footing!
  • Have you considered entering your work in writing, history, computer science, math modeling, and art contests? Since these can all be done remotely, this would be a great time to stretch yourself and submit your work. Do a little research and you'll find many contests you can enter.
  • Start a virtual art and literary “magazine” for your classmates, homeschool community, or the senior citizens in your community. Encourage people to post stories, poems, artwork, and music all composed in this time of social distancing. Give a theme and help people get their creative juices flowing.
  • Can you create and post instructional or “how to” videos on YouTube? Create a virtual homework club and offer it to a local library. Offer to help homebound younger students with their lessons. If you're homeschooled, help others in your area sort out how to organize their day and stay sane as they guide their children's learning for the first time, often while balancing their own work tasks.
  • Launch a virtual PE class with your friends. Challenge yourselves with competitions you can do at home – pushups, sit ups, jumping jacks, etc. Organize a virtual dance party. Get creative!
  • Explore prospective careers, colleges, majors, and more. Let's get you started! We'll have a consultation then go from there. Consultation fees will be applied to your prep program. Click below to schedule your first meeting at a time when both parents and the student are available.


Most importantly, look for ways to help those in need in your community. Check in regularly with your grandparents and older relatives, as well as older neighbors and others in your community. Write letters, make crafts to gift, lead an online class to teach younger kids to draw pictures for the older people in their lives. Is your community seeking volunteers to help keep food banks stocked? Can you volunteer to pack meal kits? If your older college-aged siblings are home, can you work together to deliver meals and supplies to those who are homebound? Can you work together to take care of the meals and other chores in your home so your parents can teach the younger kids?
This is not the first pandemic. Great things can happen, even under these unusual circumstances. During a pandemic in 1665, Isaac Newton found himself with down time when the University of Cambridge sent students home (sound familiar?). Later, he called the year he spent away from school his “year of wonder.” It was then that he famously noticed an apple fall from a tree and came up with the ideas around gravity.
So, even as you practice social distancing and good hygiene, you can continue to stretch yourself academically and make a positive impact in your community. Who knows? You might discover some new passions and hidden talents!
Let's move your college preparations forward. Let's meet! Just click on my name, Katherine O'Brien, and select a good time for the parents and college bound student(s). Once you have scheduled your hour long personal meeting, I'll send you further information.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A Bible/Journal

A Book Review by Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS

The Tyndale NLT Catholic Inspire Bible doesn't have a catchy name.  This Bible is part Bible and part journal.

Writing in your Bible is helpful for taking notes, jotting down how you've been inspired, and helping you as you prayerfully reflect on the Word of God.  This Bible takes that to a whole new level!  Beautifully bound, the NLT Bible uses the new living translation, which is very readable.  A team of Catholic scholars evaluated the translation and it was deemed correct; this Bible has both an imprimatur and the nihil obstat.  (The nihil obstat is a formal declaration that a text contains nothing in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church.  The imprimatur is an official license to print a religious or inspirational text.)

The Inspire Bible features over 450 beautiful line drawings which can be enjoyed as they are or colored in.  The inside cover pages can be colored with markers; the text pages are the thin paper typical of Bibles so colored pencils are recommended.  The margins are two inches.  Those not featuring a drawing have lines for notes. Coloring the drawings, which are word art of verses, is a great way to meditate on the texts, even memorize them.  In addition, many find coloring to be a great practice to reduce anxiety.  What better to color and focus on than the Word of God!

The cover is light pink; the edge of the pages, rather than gold, are colored with a beautiful drawing of flowers and butterflies.

It's only $33.  I highy recommend it!  Buy it from Amazon here.

Financial Aid Awards - Evaluate, Consider, and, maybe, Appeal


It is essential to understand the net cost at each school. Unfortunately, it is often the case that financial awards are incomplete so additional research is often needed. First, what is the COA, the total cost to attend for one year? This includes tuition, fees, room, board, books, personal expenses, and transportation to and from campus. Each college has an official COA. Your personal cost of attendance will vary. To normalize the COAs, adjust them so the same amount is included for books and personal expenses at every school.  For your own calculations, adjusting the transportation allocation will give your family a more accurate idea of your actual net costs. Keep in mind, however, the official COA is the one which come into play should you appeal the award offer.

COA – Grants – Scholarships – Tuition Reductions = Net Cost

COA – Grants -Scholarships - Tuition Reductions – Work Study – Student Loans = Current Out of Pocket Cost

Do not subtract parent loans.


After having calculated the net cost, can you afford it? Remember that this is the cost for only one student for only one year. How many children do you have? What is the graduation rate at each school? (How likely is your child to graduate in four years?) is one site where you can research 4-year graduation rates. Be aware that some programs, like architecture, are 5-year programs. Engineering or other schools which have many students participating in cooperative education or internship programs which delay graduation beyond four years may also have high graduation rates. If your student’s college  is of this type, take this into consideration as you consider award offers.

Note which scholarships are renewable. These will be renewed as long as the student takes enough credits each term and maintains a specified GPA. (These can be great motivators to keep your student using top study skills once on campus, too! For many, losing their scholarship means losing their ability to continue attending that college.) Once lost, these types of scholarships cannot be re-qualified for. Scholarship award letters and notices specify whether a scholarship is renewable and, if it is, for how many terms.


Circumstances that warrant an appeal letter:

1.     Change in family size. Should a family member die or move away, parents’ divorce, or a new child (or more!) arrive, it is important to notify the financial aid office immediately as you have likely grounds for an appeal. Such a change in circumstance may result in additional expenses, a loss of income, and other significant changes in the family.
2.     Loss of job or income.  One of the most powerful reason to appeal a financial aid award is that there has been a significant loss of income since the filing of the FAFSA or CSS PROFILE form. If this is due to a circumstance beyond the family’s control, this circumstance is one which enables financial aid officers to adjust the student’s aid package. The financial aid office will want to know the date of the change and the circumstances. They also will want to know the amount the earnings have been reduced and any reasonable estimate of how long it might be until a new position is procured or the income is restored. Whenever possible, provide documentation of your statements.
3.     Significant non-discretionary additional expenses.  A serious injury or illness in the family, or needing to move an elderly family member into your home, or a natural disaster that results in damage to your home, vehicle(s), or family members are all events which can be grounds for an appeal. Document your expenses as best you can.
4.     Better offer from a similar school. Some schools will adjust their offer in the event your student has received a more generous aid offer from a competing institution. It is important that the schools be similar to the one you will be appeal. Enclose a copy of the competitor school’s award letter with your appeal letter.  This sort of appeal can be even more effective the later in the season it is, as colleges scramble to fill their classes. At the same time, very popular schools tend to fill their class early so being prompt will be more beneficial in those cases.

Important Guidelines for Writing a Financial Aid Appeal Letter.

Should you determine that an appeal might be helpful, check each school’s financial aid page on the website to see if instructions about how to appeal are listed. Some schools have a form they required to be completed.  Most schools, however, do not have appeal instructions online. In those cases, give the office a call and ask how they would prefer you present your appeal.

1.     It is perfectly acceptable for parents, rather than the student to communicate directly with the financial aid office. This is not the case with the admissions office. However, it is fairly common for the financial aid office to require your student to sign a FERPA waiver giving them permission to speak with you.
2.     However, it is ideal, especially if this school is your child’s first choice school, for him or her to write a note to attach to your letter saying that this is his/her first choice school and that s/he has asked his/her parents to appeal for more financial aid to enable him or her to attend that school. Have the student include a statement that s/he will attend the school, if the finances can be worked out.
3.     In all communication, clearly identify the student by legal name, date of birth, high school, whether a first year or transfer applicant, and the application round (early decision, early action, regular decision). Clearly identify yourself and your relationship with the student.
4.     I encourage you to express some sort of happiness or gratitude that your child was accepted into the college and express gratitude for any grants and/or scholarships which have already been offered.
5.     Early in your letter, identify it as a letter of appeal.  Ask them to review their offer of financial aid in light of the information you are providing in your letter.
6.     State your information concisely.  Let your appeal be based on clearly stated numbers, dates, and events beyond your control.  Proofread your letter to ensure that the situation(s) you are describing are presented in a way that someone completely unfamiliar with them can understand them and that how they affect your ability to pay for college is evident.
7.     If possible, make it clear what you are asking for.  If you need the grant to be raised to $10,000 in order to make your child’s attendance at that school affordable, state this clearly.  If this amount makes the net cost at your child’s top choice school the same as a rival school, state that clearly as well. Reiterate your child’s comment and state that you’ll agree to their attending this school if your appeal is approved.
8.     If you can visit the aid office, mention in your letter that you would like to arrange a meeting as soon as possible after they have had a chance to review your appeal.  Otherwise, let them know that you will be following up in a few days by phone.  It is easiest to say no to someone in a letter, more challenging by phone, and even more difficult in person.  When you meet, be courteous and that them for their time.
9.     Finally, be sure to thank them for taking the time to review your case.  Explain that your family’s finances play a significant role in determining which college your child can attend. If this school is the first choice school, be sure to state that as well.  And express your hope that they can make it possible for him or her to attend.

For assistance with evaluating, negotiating, and appealing your financial aid award, please contact Katherine at