“Where Do Independent Educational Consultants Fit?”

By Peter Van Buskirk

Getting into a “good” college is a big deal these days—so big that many families are investing thousands of dollars into a range of credentialing experiences for their students with the expectation that somewhere, somehow, there is a competitive “edge” to be exploited in the admission process.

Chief among these investments is the engagement of private consultants—folks who offer fee-based assistance to families outside of the high school environment. Such assistance can come in the form of private tutoring, test preparation, reflective self-assessment, college list development, essay editing, dedicated “advocacy” in the admission process, and planning support for students with special needs. It’s a long list that features some incredibly gifted people who provide high-quality services. This space has also become attractive for opportunists with marginal, at best, credentials, so “buyer beware!”

I’d like to offer a few observations and suggestions in the event you are considering the involvement of a private counselor.

  1. Don’t overlook the fact that a lot of high schools, public and private, feature highly trained college access professionals and offer an abundant supply of college planning resources. Explore them first. They’re already part of the educational environment of which your student is a member and they will be integral to the presentation of his credentials.
  2. Manage expectations. It is more important that you help your student find and get into colleges that are good fits for her than it is to try and “shoe-horn” her into a place that will satisfy your social urges, but not her educational needs.
  3. Despite their pedigrees or prior work experiences, private counselors don’t get students into college. While they can help students calibrate the process and prepare effectively to compete for admission, it is the student who must carry the day in the admission process.
  4. Engage private counselors for the right reasons. Ask yourself why you want or—more importantly—need the help. Is the college counseling available through your student’s school truly deficient? Does your student have specific needs that need to be addressed? Or do you simply want the peace of mind of having access to an expert who can interpret the process for you as you move forward? Many consultants are experts about specific areas such as learning differences or family relocations or financial planning. Make sure you know what you need and the counselor truly has expertise in addressing those needs.
  5. Make sure the student is regarded as the lead client. To the parents, that means, “pay the bill and then stand back.” I see far too many situations in which the parents are engaged with the consultant as though the student isn’t even present!
  6. If you are considering a consultant who lives near you, make sure your student meets with that person before “signing on.” Ask to see evidence that s/he is well educated (former admission officer, college advisor, Certified Educational Planner, etc.) about the college admission process and has been actively engaged in professional development activity over the last 2-3 years. Look for honesty, sincerity (don’t buy what you don’t need!), accessibility and compatibility with your student. This exercise won’t work if your student isn’t buying into the concept or the person delivering it.
  7. Get referrals and ask for references. Don’t settle for a sales pitch or target a consultant because of that person’s reputation. A consultation that seemed to work for your best friend or colleague might not produce the same level of satisfaction for you.
  8. Consider cost and the projected time commitment. You shouldn’t have to pay more than 15% of the cost of one year at the colleges your student is considering for qualified assistance (you can often get what you need for less). And working with a consultant should not detract from your student’s ability to do the things that are important to her/him.
  9. Finally, be wary of individuals who make guarantees. As I said earlier, consultants do not get kids into college! They should not manage the process nor should they write essays or complete applications for them. Students must take ownership of the process and the required tasks.

On the other hand, good consultants can help young people find the most appropriate colleges and they can provide assistance in gaining perspective on how a student might best present himself/herself in the admission process. Make sure the consultation is student-centered and you won’t go wrong!

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