The Case for College Admissions Consulting

April 30, 2014

test_group_ct2As college admission consultants, we are aware of the negative labels attached to our profession. In a field occasionally described as exorbitant, unregulated, and even predatory, we work hard to demonstrate the value of our service, as well as our commitment to the students we guide. Although the rapid rise of the admissions consulting industry should suggest that we serve a purpose, others argue that private college counselors have simply become the latest “status good”—another unnecessary marker of privilege.  While admission consultants are indeed more likely to work with an affluent demographic, their function should not be confused with that of a diamond ring or luxury car.

College is a significant investment. Students commit as much as $200,000 (not including foregone earnings) toward an experience that has the potential to shape their personal and professional lives, and yet few choose to, or are able to, seek the advice of a college planning expert. Even in the wealthiest communities, high schools, and school counselors in particular, are increasingly unable to devote sufficient time to college planning—the average counselor is responsible for approximately 500 students, while the average student receives only 38 minutes of college-related advice during their high school career.

The need for greater college guidance is clear, but not every family needs outside assistance.  For example, students attending high schools where counselors are competent, accessible (e.g., responsible for about 100 students or less) and primarily devoted to college planning may not require additional help.  However, if you attend a high school where college-related support is lacking, you may benefit from private guidance, particularly in these cases:

You want to attend a selective college. At College Transitions, we emphasize fit over prestige and stress the importance of “big-picture” thinking; but for many of our students, their “best-fit” colleges are also the most prestigious. In these cases, it’s important to relay a very hard truth: the admissions process at the nation’s best institutions is more complex and competitive than ever before.  Excellent grades and test scores, while necessary, are no longer sufficient. “Ivy-minded” and other high-aiming students will also be judged on a variety of intangible factors that speak to their authenticity, intellectual motivations, and ability to make distinct contributions to a particular campus.  In this context, personal interests, extracurricular participation and other seemingly ancillary components of a student’s profile assume center stage and may make or break an application. Ideally, a college admissions consultant works to identify and cultivate the best of what a student has to offer—through course selection, career/interests assessment, activities planning, college essay coaching and other things that improve his or her prospects for college admission and personal fulfillment.  Unfortunately, these services are rarely provided in our high schools, and not even discussed until junior or senior year, when it is often too late to develop a consistent and coherent record of accomplishment.

You want to save money.  Despite the significant costs associated with private college guidance, a college admissions consultant should ultimately reduce your college-related spending—for example, by pointing you to good-fit colleges that are (relatively) inexpensive and where you are likely to receive significant (need-based and/or merit-based) financial aid. Our consultants, in particular, also teach students/families how to maximize their financial aid eligibility, complete financial aid forms, locate suitable scholarship opportunities, shorten their time to degree (e.g., through early college learning, advice on navigating general education requirements, etc.), and identify majors and careers that pave the way for professional fit and success.  Any admissions consultant worth his/her salt will help families realize college-related returns that dwarf any amount of money put toward private college planning.

You are a non-traditional college applicant.  Due to their location, learning styles, and/or learning preferences, many students are without access to a school counselor who can accommodate their unique circumstances and guide them into good-fit institutions. For example, homeschooled students and virtual schooled students rarely benefit from the advice of a school-based college planner, despite facing additional and different hurdles/requirements in the college application process. International students may have access to a school counselor, but one that is not adequately familiar with U.S. higher education. Finally, students with learning disabilities rarely have access to a school professional who can identify the colleges and college support services that are likely to facilitate their postsecondary success.  In contrast, college admission consultants, as a result of their training and focus, should have knowledge and skills that enable them to address the unique college-related needs of each population.

Ultimately, if you fall into one or more of the above three categories, you might consider hiring a college admissions consultant. But how do you go about finding the right consultant? Affiliation with a professional organization—such as the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA)—suggests adherence to an important set of professional and ethical standards; however, requirements for entry are relatively lax and membership in either does not indicate competence.  Therefore, it is important to do your own research.  Inquire about the consultant’s background and experience—have they worked as a college admissions officer and/or school counselor? Do they have licensure in a counseling-related profession? How long have they been practicing? Additionally, ask to see written material that reflects both their knowledge and perspective (blogs, publications, etc.). Ask for references. And finally, inquire about costs.

Admittedly, admissions consulting can be expensive, for two particular reasons: (1) effectively guiding students through the college admissions and financial aid process requires many hours of work (it’s not uncommon for us to devote 40-50 hours to our students); and (2) demand for admissions consulting is high.  At College Transitions, counselors limit their practice to 30 students per grade level, despite the fact that we receive far more requests, and because taking on additional students would compromise the quality and responsiveness of our service. Therefore, we set price points that enable us to balance the demand for our services with our capacity to serve.  We also offer multiple plans, which allows us to reach more students and accommodate families that cannot afford our most comprehensive package.  Currently, our prices range from $500 to $4000, but rates can and often do change, especially later in the admissions cycle, when demand is particularly strong.  Cost-conscious families who desire private guidance are advised to inquire about payment plans and commit to services earlier in the year before “admissions season” begins.  All families are urged to avoid counselors charging in the neighborhood of $10,000 or more—not because such counselors are incompetent or untrustworthy, but because any student in any circumstance can find an equally effective counselor charging far less.

Some final thoughts about access and affordability: Private counselors are often criticized as giving an unfair advantage to wealthier applicants.  This argument holds some truth—we mostly offer services to people who can afford them—but similar arguments can be made about other professionals who also seek to do well by doing good, including doctors, lawyers, personal trainers, etc. Moreover, many admissions consultants, including us, devote a substantial amount of time to pro-bono work and regularly disseminate free advice through writing and/or presentations. Ultimately, many of us pursue private consulting because we like helping people—rich, poor, and anyone in between. We believe in the value of early planning, and we know that comprehensive college guidance can help students avoid the academic pitfalls and professional dissatisfaction that so many others experience. Ideally, we help students realize their best selves, and in doing so, provide a service far more important than anything you can park in your driveway or put around your finger.