As with so many things in life, when it comes to applying to college, knowledge is power. The more you know – about colleges, about the application process, about financial aid – the better off you’ll be in terms of finding schools that are a good fit, gaining admission, and making a well-informed decision about where to go.
While some students choose to navigate the college search and admissions process alone, others turn to their school counselors for assistance. But the reality is that most high school students do not get adequate help or support from their school counselors. Consider the following statistics:
• Public high school students in the U.S. receive an average of just 38 minutes of college counseling per year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
• The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of no more than 250 to 1, but the national average in public schools is 471 to 1.
• According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling, public high school counselors spend only 25 percent of their time on college counseling.
Sometimes, parents step in and become students’ college counselors. These parents feel they can educate themselves on the various college options and on the admissions process and then can use this knowledge to help their kids. And with all of the information that’s out there, especially on the internet, that very well may be possible.
But not every parent is able and/or willing to play the role of college counselor – a role that takes significant amounts of time, effort, and patience. For these parents, an independent college consultant may be a worthwhile investment. Unlike high school counselors, independent college consultants have very small caseloads; many don’t work with more than 20-25 students at any given time. And while most school counselors’ time is split between college counseling and many other duties, consultants only do college counseling.
If you’re considering hiring a college consultant, there are some important questions that you should ask. First, what do you hope to gain from working with a consultant? If you want someone with knowledge and experience to guide your son or daughter through what can be a stressful and overwhelming process, consultants can do that. If you feel your teenager will respond better to someone who is not his or her parent and you want to avoid arguments with your child, a consultant might be the way to go.
But if you expect that a consultant will get your kid into college, that is not only unrealistic but also unethical on the part of the consultant.
Consultants help students understand their chances of admission at different colleges and assist students in completing applications in a way that makes them stand out. However, consultants cannot – and should not – guarantee admission to particular colleges. If you come across a consultant who makes such promises, look elsewhere.
What to look for when choosing a private college consultant?
As you’re evaluating potential consultants, be sure to inquire about their educational and professional backgrounds. Do they hold a relevant degree or a certificate in college counseling? Do they have experience in college admissions and/or high school counseling? Do they belong to any professional organizations? If a consultant can’t answer “yes” to any of these questions, you should think twice about hiring him or her. There are consultants whose only experience is helping their own kids with the college search and admissions process, which does not necessarily make them qualified to help others.
There are several professional organizations to which consultants might belong, including the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and state and regional affiliates of NACAC. The organizations’ requirements for joining and maintaining membership vary somewhat and may include a minimum number of years of experience, a recommendation from a current member, a certain number of college visits per year, and/or a minimum amount of professional development per year. All of the organizations require members to abide by ethical standards. It’s a good sign when consultants are members of these organizations because they are part of the professional community of college consultants and abide by ethical standards of these organizations.
You also should ask consultants about their expertise and services in regard to financial aid. Most college consultants do not have a background in financial planning and therefore are not qualified to help individuals evaluate their financial situation or figure out how to redistribute their assets so that they’ll qualify for more financial aid. On the flip side, there are financial planners who specialize in college financing, but they generally don’t have the expertise about schools, programs, and the application process that college consultants do. Some consultants will advise clients on completing financial aid applications, while others may only help students find and apply for merit-based scholarships. All consultants, however, should be able to recommend colleges that are within clients’ budgets, whether the clients are able to pay full price or will need to receive need- and/or merit-based aid.
Some people are hesitant to hire a consultant because of the cost. Yet, consider the potential costs you and your child will incur if he or she makes the wrong college choice. One-third of all college students transfer to a different college, often losing credits, time and money. Nationally, only 39 percent of students graduate from college in four years and 59 percent graduate in six years. College is very expensive and even one extra semester can cost thousands of dollars. Therefore, the importance of choosing the right college, the first time, cannot be overstated.
A consultant will take the time to get to know your child and will recommend colleges that are a good fit – places where your son or daughter will be successful, happy and more likely to graduate on time. Furthermore, if a consultant helps students with financial aid and scholarships, the awards students receive often more than make up for the consultant’s fee.
If you decide to hire a consultant, be sure to involve your child in selecting one. After all, it is your kid, not you, who primarily will be working with a consultant, and just as it’s important to find a college that’s a good fit, it’s equally important to find a consultant with whom your child is comfortable. If your son or daughter doesn’t connect with or trust the consultant you hire, the consultant will have a very difficult time helping your child through the process.
Sometimes, people attempt to do things on their own, only to realize that a seemingly simple task is much more difficult than they anticipated and that they would have been better off hiring a professional. When it comes to college admissions, “going it alone” may work for some, but for others, seeking outside help may be money well spent.
By Sara Zessar. Sara has assisted hundreds of students with the college search and admissions process. With an M.Ed. in counseling, she worked for six years as a high school counselor in private, public, and charter schools. As an independent college consultant, Sara focuses on helping students find and apply to colleges that are right for them. She can be reached at Discovery College Consulting.