Should We Hire a Private College Counselor?

Question: Our friends have hired an independent college counselor to help their son maximize his Ivy League admission chances. My own son (a junior with a B/B- average) has a college list that is far more modest, but the guidance counselor at his high school is new and doesn’t seem very well informed. We are new to this process ourselves. Are we short-changing our son by not engaging a private counselor for him, too, or is that money better spent for those aiming at the very selective universities?

When it comes to life’s to-do lists, we all have different comfort zones. The same folks who trudge through their income taxes every April without the aid of an accountant might never tackle a tire change ... even in their own driveway. Likewise, some families can easily navigate the college admissions maze with only the help of Web sites like College Confidential or a short stack of guidebooks, while others prefer to have a seasoned pro at the helm.

But one thing for sure is that independent college counselors do far more than packaging prodigies for Princeton. Often it’s families like yours—with a plethora of options and unreliable assistance from the high school—who can benefit most from the information that an independent counselor will provide.

I’ve pasted below a recent blog post from the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) Web site. It was written by Jane Hoffman, a Westchester, NY-based independent college counselor. Here, Jane debunks some of the myths about indie counselors and explains how newbie families like yours might benefit from outside help:

I wish that more was written about independent educational consultants’ integral role as educators. In the current, complex and often competitive terrain of college admissions in 2012, we teach. The arguments about us often seem to range from “we are all about fit” to “they are pariahs who package and promote.” Personally, I think those two poles miss the integral role we play as educators.

I teach students about college curriculum, general education requirements, what it means to declare a major, the opportunities and options, how college differs from high school, the difference between liberal arts colleges and universities, and so much more. I teach parents how the college admissions terrain is so different than when we applied and the large role of enrollment management. I decode how colleges think and the importance many place on demonstrated interest and that they expect that families have nothing more to do than “college shop.” I explain that the student will have options and so the challenge is to self-assess and determine his or her goals and to identify and then apply and gain admission to schools that will further those goals.

Particularly as the search process is and needs to be starting earlier and earlier in the lives of high school students, I often find myself talking to 15-year-olds about college and what it means to be in college, which can feel like a remote abstraction. I teach students and parents how to quiet all the relentless “noise” out there and what to pay attention to, meaning the student’s learning style and the family’s values, and to look within rather than to start with a focus on any particular colleges.

I also believe that IECs have an opportunity and responsibility to educate college representatives about the perspectives of students and families as they conduct the college search and application process. I firmly believe that how IECs are viewed by the public, both prospective clients and those that would never anticipate hiring professionals, is something that we need to be aware of. Looking at that bigger picture, I feel a responsibility not just to my clients but also to members of the public who may not be able to avail themselves of the services that we provide. My own education and advocacy role includes trying to talk to college representatives about the tremendous stressors that families experience throughout the college search and application process.