Should you use a private college counselor?

Two women talking about if you should use a private college counselor

For a certain portion of families going through the college admission process, private college counselors are a recognized part of the landscape. Many families consider hiring an Independent Education Consultant (IEC) as just another expense in applying to college. According to a survey of “students who scored in the 70th percentile or higher on the SAT (at least 1150 out of 1600) or ACT (a composite of at least 25)…, 26 percent admit to hiring an IEC to help them in their college search.”

What do private college counselors do?

Basically, IECs help students apply to college. This doesn’t mean the counselor fills out the college application for the student. In fact, that’s probably the one thing most private college counselors don’t do. What they do is make sure students have all the information they need to complete the forms and more importantly, that the students are applying to the right schools.

The primary goal of a good private counselor is to make sure students are applying to colleges that provide the best fit for the student. Ideally, they will be able to guide students through the process of identifying their own strengths, weaknesses, and goals as well as colleges that will provide the best match. Given the cost of some private colleges is approaching a quarter of a million dollars for four years, this seems like a good thing.

Can’t families do it themselves?

Of course, this is something families can do themselves. In fact, until recently most families would never even consider using a private college counselor. They usually relied on their high school counselor to provide general guidance and as a go-to resource for any confusing issues.

But today’s reality is that most high school counselors have an overwhelming number of students. The national average is 491 to 1. In California, the ratio is 822 to 1 and in New York it’s 624 to 1. Furthermore, college counseling is only one part of the high school counselor’s job description. Ultimately, while there are some amazing high school counselors out there, they simply aren’t going to be able to devote the same amount of attention and resources to individual students that a private college counselor can.

That doesn’t mean that parents can’t do it themselves. Many do quite successfully. In our survey of 121 parents (we aren’t claiming that the results are in any way statistically valid), approximately half, 58, didn’t use a private counselor. One of the reasons why they chose not to was because they could already find the information they needed. They believed they could do it themselves.

However, the most common reason for not using a private college counselor was the cost.

What do families get for the cost?

Of the 61 families who said they had used an IEC, knowledge was the most often cited benefit:

Helping our student to consider schools he had not been aware of.

A more sophisticated understanding of how college admissions officers think

She was able to offer a large list of schools we never would have considered otherwise.

Insight into the admission process and what factors are considered by the adcoms.

up to date info, especially on colleges I wouldn’t have known to consider

Inside knowledge on colleges and the application process.

A good private college counselor will have the time and knowledge to guide families efficiently and effectively through the college admission process.

The families in the survey also valued the objectivity of the IEC. In other words, the students were more likely to listen to the private counselor than the parents:

Keep my son on a timeline and stop me from being a nag

having a non-family member work with the kids made the process so much smoother, especially with essay reviews!

Helping avoid conflict between parent and child

not have to nag about applications.

My children heard the same message but it was from someone other than mom and dad who know nothing.

Having a third party deal with the kid so our opinions don’t drive the kid nuts (especially on the essay)

My daughter and I were butting heads.  It took me out of the equation until some work was done (essay and good list and SAT scores)

What was interesting about the survey is that people took more time to explain this aspect than the knowledge part.

So what does it cost?

There’s a reason why cost was listed as the main reason why families in the survey decided not to use an IEC. Even though the majority of private college counselors do not charge $40,000, the personal attention is going to be a significant investment. According to Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association:

Many college consultants charge around $85-$150 an hour, according to the experts. Package deals are pricier, with the national average hovering around $3,600, says Sklarow. If you live in a large city like L.A. or New York, expect to shell out $5,000 to $6,000.

Is it worth it?

The ultimate question is are the services worth it? About half of the people in our survey who said they used an IEC said they would do so again. Some of their reasons were:

yes I would again, especially to get info on schools known for scholarships for out of state students
Absolutely. It helped my son organize, and my spouse and I understand the process, including financial aid.
Yes – time saver and peace maker.
Overall, it reduced the stress level of the process.
Yes, because kids don’t get enough time with their school counselor, and those counselors don’t know colleges like my IEC did.
yes – saved us a lot of time — also helped a lot on filling out the common app

But that was only half of the respondents. The other half wouldn’t for some of the following reasons:

This person in particular was unethical in how she billed.
 Saw someone different at each appointment and learned nothing that wasn’t available online
For the most part, she wasn’t concerned with the cost of the schools she recommended.
Too rigid, slightly dated information, lack of chemistry
equivalent information was not hard to find elsewhere
I would look closer into the components of their offering and perhaps pick only those which I feel I really need.
I really feel I didn’t get a value that was worth the money we spent.  The list that was provided was almost identical to the list that I had come up with for my daughter, I feel I could have helped her with the applications and I don’t feel they helped her much with her final decision.

As they say, your mileage may vary.

How to find a good private college counselor

Using an IEC is going to be a financial investment and finding a good one is going to require a time investment as well. You need to take the time to do it right because just like going to college itself, this is an expensive one-shot deal where it’s expensive to recover from any missteps.

Just think about it. Unlike choosing a doctor, chances are you’re going to be paying the counselor a significant amount of money upfront before you even start the process (although some like Collegiate Crossings, a non-profit, do have payment plans). With a realtor, you pay at the end of the process. And in both cases, you probably know a lot more people who have experience with either these professionals who can recommend them. The following are some of the reasons why people decided not to use an IED again:

I would look closer into the components of their offering and perhaps pick only those which I feel I really need.
I would check out what others experiences were before jumping in.
Not with this person, ever. She was awful and we only found out later just how disappointed others were with her.

Even those who said they would use a counselor again, had disappointments:

Not very detail-oriented. I still had to review the application for accuracy.
We were disappointed at the changes they made in our students writing style on essays, we didn’t feel they helped in that area.
not connected to financial viability, which mostly has to do with timing issues.
Personality not a fit
For the most part, she wasn’t concerned with the cost of the schools she recommended.

It’s critical that families make their expectations clear. Not all consultants can help you with the financial aid issues of college admissions. If you expect them to complete the FAFSA or PROFILE for you, you need to let them know.

Make sure it’s a match in terms of personality and goals as well. There’s no point in paying for someone who specializes in admissions to prestigious universities if your student isn’t interested in those kind of schools. And it’s a good idea to involve your student in the selection process to avoid any obvious personality conflicts.

Learn More

Independent Educational Consultants Association Has a section for families. Make sure you get their 12 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Independent Educational Consultant.

Higher Education Consultants Association Has a section for families.

National Association for College Admission Counseling Look for college admission help under their News and Publications section.

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