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Hiring a College Advisor: Bogus or Bonus?

When my daughter, who has great grades and test scores, announced she would apply early decision to a school other than my Ivy alma mater (known for its popularity with “power” offspring), there was a palpable look of relief on her advisor’s face. You see, high school counselors are under huge pressure to produce results, so much so that it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that their main job may be to lower expectations. Unfortunately these counselors turn out to be less than the optimum source of guidance or anxiety reduction through the stressful college application process.

This hyped-up atmosphere has spawned the proliferation of private admissions counselors. “Let’s face it,” says Katherine Cohen, Ph.D., top guidebook author and CEO of consultant firm IvyWise, “the student-counselor ratio in most public schools is about five hundred to one, and maybe thirty to one in some prestigious private schools. The idea that hiring a private, independent counselor is somehow unfair has long passed.” As Cohen points out, “A recent study stated that some 25 percent of private-college students had used an outside consultant.” Matthew Greene, Ph.D., of Howard Greene & Associates, explains it this way: “It’s not about buying some sort of advantage, it’s about getting help through a complex process.” According to John Katzman, CEO of leading SAT prep company Princeton Review, “The problem is that the number of applications just keeps rising; kids now apply to twice as many schools.” And in 2005 acceptance rates at the most se- lective schools dropped into the single digits. “To navigate the process, it’s all about branding,” says Katzman. “An applicant has to clearly identify his own ‘brand’—writer, math whiz, tennis champion—and hope the school is looking for that. Weak grades and test scores may be the initial sieve for obvious rejections, but a strong application differentiates itself from all the others.”

The director of Alumni College Advising at a major university demurs, acknowledging that some admissions offices worry about “manufactured” applications produced by consultants. Her office works with the children of alumni to help find the best fit, and that kind of objectivity can be a breath of fresh air.

Choosing the Right One

Before you sign up with any private advisor, certain criteria should be met. Ideally, a consultant should have real credentials: an advanced degree in counseling or education and experience as either an admissions officer at a competitive college or a col-lege counselor at a major high school. Several industry organizations (such as the Independent Educational Consultants Association and National Association for College Admission Counseling) promote a code of practices and professional development, making membership a plus. To assuage any elitist guilt, most top counselors give their time pro bono to those who can’t afford it, something subsidized by their significant fees. Others have particular strengths working with special needs students.

Counselors should also provide a clear description of their placement record, keep track of transfers, and offer to continue helping through college, with an eye on graduate school. They should visit colleges religiously and attend conferences and college admissions fairs. It’s a plus if their work has been published. (Beware: If a counselor claims a special relationship with admissions offices, that person is on very shaky ground.) An alternative to hiring individuals is the larger counseling companies that may emulate an admissions committee, pulling together staff and reviewing as a group each client’s application to ferret out any potential issues or problems. Note, however, that no single advisor should have more than 20 clients at a time. And if you request it, a counselor should be comfortable talking to your child’s school guidance office to coordinate efforts and work out any conflicting opinions.

Most important, says Greene, parents need to answer some questions themselves, such as “Is it all about prestige, or is it about finding and getting accepted to the school that is best for your child?” Being frank with yourself about your kid’s prospects can be difficult, he says, but you have to be prepared to accept a professional’s considered opinion, advice, and assistance.

Following the advice

Once hired, private consultants will help your child choose a high school course load that looks challenging and offer suggestions for extracurricular activities, sports, and summer programs. Many in-school advisors will tell you not to choose your extracurriculars just because they’ll look good on a college application. By my lights, this is the same canard as To thine own self be true. If your own self wants to get into Brown and Brown wants female athletes because it has Title IX needs, being a competitive show jumper or fencer can make up for big holes in your transcript. Directors of admissions at several major schools say publicly that since they could fill their classes several times over with students who have 4.0 GPAs and 2,200-plus SAT scores, they are looking for diversity of personality and involvement. One stated simply that the average student was barely going to come up for air over four years, so it might be a good idea to add some dancers, drummers, and even dilettantes to your demographics—otherwise, you’ll end up with a pretty boring campus.

Introducing different schools and winnowing down the final list is perhaps an advisor’s most important function. Any counselor should help keep the process organized and make sure everything gets done and submitted well in advance of deadlines. There is no doubt that application essays should get a careful review and edit, but resist the temptation to allow anyone to write them for your child. The new writing section of the SAT is available to admissions offices and will likely expose any shenanigans, according to Greene. Each completed application should be thoroughly examined for typos or other errors. “But completely taking over the application,” he says, “can rob your child of the satisfaction and self-esteem that comes with an acceptance letter.”

Getting your money’s worth

The price of this kind of service is in line with other private education costs: high. For a single visit and review of a completed application, expect to be charged up to $1,000. A regular review of courses taken and extracurricular choices through high school, including help in constructing an application, can cost $5,000 to $10,000. Clients can also spend as much as $30,000 to $40,000 for constant monitoring, coaching, and filling out extensive applications for multiple schools. The leading consultants draw clients from all over the world and will even travel for face-to-face meetings (with appropriate charges applied, naturally). But most of this work can be done over the phone and via the Internet—some even use webcams for live chats. Good advisors are everywhere, though not surprisingly, the Northeast is the epicenter. At the bare minimum, counselors can help keep a daunting process organized.

Several excellent online tools are also worth exploring. Two I like are Collegeboard.com and the more comprehensive ApplyWise.com, which includes calendars and even text-message prompts that remind you to get those essays written, transcripts sent, campus visits scheduled, and forms filled out.

Last year my wife and I survived our daughter’s college admission process along with our son’s high school admittance. Fortunately we learned that the cliché is true: There is a great school for everyone, and if you are in the demographic that can realistically consider using the services of a private consultant, things are going to work out fine. Both our kids got into their first choices; they’re happy and working hard. As for my family, the music starts again in a couple of years, when our son has to apply to college.

Mike Offit spent more than two decades on Wall Street, during which he was head commercial mortgage trader at Goldman Sachs.

Who to Call

Independent Counselors

All three of the top firms listed here have several offices in addition to the main ones given.

CollegeWise

2081 Business Center Dr., Irvine, California 949-417-1299; info@getcollegewise.com

Howard Greene & Associates

60 Post Rd., West Westport, Connecticut 203-226-4257; counseling@howardgreeneassociates.com

IvyWise

140 W. 57th St., Suites 3C and 3D, New York, New York 212-262-3500; info@ivywise.com

Organizations

Independent Educational Consultants Association

educationalconsulting.org

National Association for College Admission Counseling

nacacnet.org

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