Category Archives: Education Matters

by William J. O’Reilly

College Consultants Can Help Coax Students into the More Selective Schools

wj oreilly 120Some high school students are unstoppable in their quest to get into the most selective of colleges–the Harvards, Yales and Princetons.They don’t need much guidance, advice or support. They seem to be on some homing system that delivers them to the college and future of their dreams. But that was not me, my own kids or most of the students I have worked with over my decades of service in secondary schooling. Most high school students need to establish a rich dialogue with a coach, mentor, guidance counselor–call them what you wish. They need to start the conversation early and maintain that communication zealously over their junior or senior years of high school if they want to surpass their own goals for college and beyond.

It starts with knowing—intimately knowing–the top 50 or so schools in the US and Canada. Unfortunately, guidance counselors are generally too overworked to know the Williamses, the Trinitys, the Hamiltons and the Brandeises and to have that “sixth sense” that allows them to be able to find the right match for students and schools at the highest possible tier. Too often, the ease of placing “average” students (and I personally don’t believe in this concept) in average schools causes counselors to “just not try that hard” in the words of a former student of mine, to help students go to the next level of school, to surpass their sometimes self-imposed limit of where they feel they deserve to be admitted. This is where the outside college coach can be very effective in setting the bar high for the student and managing the applicant in a range of ways to make of themselves great candidates for great schools.
Great schools are looking for students who know who they are and know what they want. How many 10th and 11th graders fall naturally into that group? Too few. However, a professional college coach can take the time to work with a student to explore his or her unique interests and experiences that comprise the path to self awareness, mastery and mission in the world. Isn’t this what parents want and need from their children–to know what they want of life and where to make their mark in the world. Coaching done properly can serve to identify the unique skills, talents, experiences and mind set of a student that can be translated into a brilliant college essay that persuades a top tier college admissions person to take a chance with an applicant and admit them to their freshman class.
( W J O’Reilly is a school headmaster and seven year Harvard College committee-member of Harvard’s Center for Public Interest Careers; he has counseled many students into achieving acceptance by colleges thought beyond their reach; contact: [email protected] )

In Education, as in Life, It’s the Simple Things That are the Most Important

wj oreilly 120(The following is the commencement day speech of W J O’Reilly, Headmaster of The Hanal School in Ridgefield Park, NJ

We live in a world where almost everyone thinks more is better. For better or worse, it’s a world in which flashy wealth  and celebrity status count for far more than they deserve…If you don’t believe me, please note the Kardashians, Jersey Shore and other over the top reality tv shows.


In schools, too, how big the science lab, how many championships your soccer team has won and how may ivy league colleges your graduates get into are all important factors that say a lot about wealth, winning and competition. By the way, competition for wealth and winning are worthy goals in life, and I wish you all the wealth and winning you wish for, I really do. And once rich and famous, please send in your generous alumni donation to the school. Believe me, you will be asked.

But I’m here today to talk a bit about the little things that get overlooked in this gaudy, trending meme-based time in civilized history. I ask you: What about the  Little things like friendship, taking care of others, being a nice person, trying to put down our own arrogance. What about choosing not to dominate others? What about the more humble qualities like these in a world where people seem to be rewarded for rudeness, greed and general bad behavior. 
I’d like to quote one of our rising 10th graders right now. This may be awkward for the student I’m quoting, and please forgive me if this causes embarrassment, though it shouldn’t. I remember her quote as clearly as if I just heard it five minutes ago. Luren was sitting at the bake sale table in the hallway outside my office and she said—and I hope it’s an accurate quote, “people at this school have a lot of heart. That’s what I like about our school.”

A former schoolmate of mine, Harry Lewis, wrote a book that really stirred things up at Harvard University over which he presided as Dean of Harvard College. Harry was also the computer teacher of both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to Harry’s credit. The title of the book is “Excellence without a Soul,” and you may have seen it on my desk, where I’ve kept it for most of this year and last. Harry was fed up with the mentality at Harvard, a mind set in which quantity had become more important than quality. He thought it tragic that most Harvard graduates were going to Wall Street to get rich rather than becoming teachers, therapists and true public servants. Harry’s harsh expose of Harvard was asking the question (and the following is my quote, not Harry’s): “Why can Harvard attract world class scholars, but not help to make of them world class people?”  My hope  and intention is that our school will produce world class scholars who are also world class human beings. This is what the world needs, and I think Harry Lewis would agree with me on this.

I remember our rising senior Wonyoung saying recently “the depth of the relationships” is something special here, too, you know, how closely students can relate with one another, and students and teachers, too. I happen to like that, probably because what Loren and Wonyoung focused on are the most essential aspects of powerful educational experiences, powerful life experiences. When people talk about character, warm human exchanges allow for the creation of “good character,” and good character is essential for a long, happy and successful life. It shouldn’t matter that much how fancy your car, your watch or your bank account. The quality of a persons life means much more than whether or not you have granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances in your kitchen. Of course, you should have both in life: good character and granite counter tops. 

Some of you have heard my story about the high school I attended. Elite private boys school, founded in 1645. 33% of my class going to Harvard, highest SAT scores in the country. Only one very important thing was missing, in my view: its heart. Clicks gathered together for protection, bullying was an unspoken, permanent part of our experience, kids weaknesses were exposed and exploited and some of the teachers were just plain mean, arrogant and even sadistic to the students, at times, i. I’m told that the Roxbury Latin School in Boston has become more of a caring environment, and I certainly hope it has.

Of course, the irony of it all, is that I probably wouldn’t have gone into education if I had had a more warm and fuzzy experience at my old school. My motivation for getting involved in starting and operating schools (and this is the fourth such school I have come to start and operate) my motivation for being in schools has been to prove that you can have a rigorous academic program that operates largely in a respectful, humane and positive environment. And this is our school–most of the time–respectful, humane, positive. And when it isn’t, at least we have built into our school the power to communicate about things,  for when you have the power to talk about what’s wrong, you can make it right once again. In this environment, the heart stands a chance of  remaining open, protected and positively influencing everyone within the family of our school.

My dream for Hanal? It’s for us to have all the goodies that everyone wants to see in a school–all the science and computer labs, libraries, student lounges, soccer teams, theatres and music rooms. But let’s build the school of our dreams on a foundation of heart and open dialogue. I know how far that can take us in the world as scholars and as people. Heart can take us very, very far indeed and make of the world a better place. Congratulations to each of us on a challenging yet heartfelt year, and many, many more to come.

Be well, and may good fortune and happiness abound in your lives.  Thank you.

InnerMotivation: Great Teachers Enhancing Student Trust in Their Own Ideas

wj oreilly 120From the first day I stepped into a classroom to teach, 21 years ago, I knew I had found the exactly right profession for myself. Teaching, by the way, is not dispensing knowledge. It’s inspiring people to become curious enough to teach themselves. Isn’t that what doctors are supposed to do—enable the patient to heal. 

The word innerMotivation is an important one to me. As  a teacher, what must I say, do or be in order to ignite the passion of a student to pursue relentlessly his or her mission in life. How do you do it? I don’t know exactly, but for one thing it means you have absolute respect for students and for what they bring to the picnic, so to speak. You must also show them what it means to be a passionate learner. In reading literature, finding innermotivation means validating the interpretation of the student–not cramming down their throat the widely held interpretation of, say,  a short story. IF, as a teacher, I can suppress my own egotistical idea that I know the truth about everything, then I give my students a chance to test their opinion and follow those intellectual threads inward to their own self discovery.

That’s innermotivation, and it’s why I call myself a teacher every day.

(W J O’Reilly is headmaster of The Hanal School in Ridgefield Park, NJ ( and “thehanalschool” on Facebook)  He is also producer and host of “The K-12 Conversation” a show about all things educational for PBS and NPR affiliate WVIA-TV in Northeast Pennsylvania)

COMMON CORE Can Deliver Rigor to US Schools If It’s not an Iron-Clad Mandate


wj oreilly 120Make way for the Common Core, coming soon to a public school near you. Some are thrilled, others bored, and still others terrified of the prospect of the government “telling teachers how to teach.” Let’s explode myths as soon as possible on this, the next “flavor of the month” in American K-12 schools. However, let’s be necessarily wary of pushy national mandates that consider education as boot camp and not as the art form it really is when it’s working.

Firstly,  the CC isn’t a curriculum, but rather a series of scaffolded outcomes in American education. For instance, in English class, students should, among other things, read about and be able to discuss main characters. Nothing radical here, gratefully. And in math, you’ll have basic operations (adding, subtracting, etc.) on up the scholastic food chain to the solving of life’s mathematical issues, one imagines, like computing the price and amount of paint to cover your apartment walls. Again, no complaints here on this seemingly benign and pragmatic approach. 
In the plan, which is supported by the White House and was originally heralded by the Mayors of US cities, no specific books are asked to be purchased, though there will be materials available for purchase that will be geared to testing the topics that CC covers. The total cost of implementing this plan is in the billions ($2-8 billion by some estimates.)
To me, the biggest problem with state -sponsored approaches to teaching and learning is making it the “only game in town,” and creating a culture that rewards the me-tooers and punishes the outliers. I spent some years in the NYC Department of Education when perfectly wonderful discoveries of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College like the workshop model approach to teaching (teacher demo and student working on learning in collaborative groups) turned into “must do’s” that wound up decimating the already depleted morale of NYC teachers. As I thought as principal of an urban middle school on the Upper West Side, “why should I force some of the most successful middle school teachers in my school to change their approach to teaching, when they’ve been succeeding admirably for a generation?” 
What works in schooling is to create an authentic, humane and interactive environment that welcomes fresh new ideas and ways of doing things. I truly hope the Common Core is, as they say, a suggestion rather than a mandate.
I heard it once said that “the truth believed is a lie.” I witnessed that myself in the city schools which tried to get everyone doing education the same way. Despite city press releases that have tried in vain to attest to the success of this approach in such matters as graduation rate and high stakes testing performance, top down lock steps in education are destined to fail as have so many other politically-generated mandates. If Common Core is a loose-fitting garment that every teacher can work into his or her teaching wardrobe, it may deliver rigor to a fading American school system.

W J O’Reilly hosts and co-produces “The K-12 Conversation,” a show about America’s schools for PBS affiliate WVIA-TV in Pennsylvania; his pilot tackled the Common Core and may be viewed here:  

Getting Into That “Highly Selective American College”: Get Involved in Your World…NOW!

wj oreilly 120These are the schools your parents want you to get into, your friends want to get into–you may even want to get into one of them yourself. They run the gamut from Harvard to Williams, Brandeis to Trinity, Brown to Bowdoin, Tufts to Princeton.
Some say it’s all in the SAT….others say it’s the GPA…and still others say it’s all in the extracurriculars.
By the way, you’ve got to know how these determinants are changing in the world of the highly selective college admissions. If you get great SAT’s and your GPA is lower than a B+, you’re an underachiever. If have a high GPA, high SAT’s and nothing in the specialty category, then the most selective schools will pass you by like yesterday’s baguette. What then is the formula?
Well, don’t forget that the SAT is under fire and will be going through major changes by 2016, and some highly selective schools don’t really care all that much, as long as you score high enough–say 2000 and above.
Extracurricular activities are great, as long as they are consistent, long term and show the commitment of the individual. And, by the way, one activity for three years counts way more than three activities over three years.
Great essays demonstrate the growth of the student over time–they paint the picture of a student who has had experiences in school and life that taught them something important about maturity, growth and making a difference in life.
Oh yes, and whoever is serving in the capacity of guidance counselor needs to know you and be prepared to sell you to that committee. A student’s relationship with that person is crucial to getting the most out of that recommendation. Unfortunately, some guidance counselors are only interested in getting all students into college, not each student into a great college.
Bottom line, find something to get involved in as early as possible, become an expert in something, do something for others in the community, grow as a person and be prepared to document that growth. That’s what’s going to get the attention of all the great schools. And, that’s probably going to make you a happier and better person, fortunately.
W J O’Reilly is Headmaster of The Hanal School, a seven year committee-member at Harvard College’s Center for Public Interest Careers and a resident of Navesink, NJ. His views on education have been heard on CNN and PBS.