When parents ask why they should hire me (or any consultant) and whether doing so will ensure that their student will get into schools that they otherwise might not, I explain to them that there is no magic pill for admissions.   I don't have special pull at certain schools (in fact, HECA and NACAC guidelines prohibit me from advocating for individual students at any college).  But over the past 15 years, first as a public school guidance counselor and then as a consultant, I have visited numerous colleges so that I can provide first-hand knowledge of the campuses and their students to help my students find the right fit.  I do a lot of hand-holding of parents and students who are concerned that the odds of acceptance to their first choice schools are so unpredictable.  What parents are paying for is the nearly 24/7 access and support they will have to me, access that they often can't get (or don't feel comfortable asking for) at a high school where the counselors have huge caseloads and numerous non-college-related responsibilities. 

1)   My role is to help make an inherently stressful process less stressful in the following ways:
  • By helping the student take ownership of the process and helping them outline a step-by-step plan to be proactive in meeting their deadlines (and I take some of that nagging role away from the parents, as they are often more receptive to the same instructions or suggestions coming from me rather than their parents)
  • By working as a facilitator between parents and students, because no matter how good the relationship is between a parent and his/her child, tension and tempers can be in full-swing as the application deadlines approach or if the goals of the parents and the child are not aligned
  • Working to find schools that are not only a good academic fit, but also a good match for the social and emotional needs of the student.  There is no one perfect school for any student.  Different schools will meet their needs in different ways, so it's my job to help them figure out how to weigh the pros and cons and make an informed decision.  I also make sure the family, if necessary, includes at least one "financial safety school" where they could happily go if the financial aid offers aren't what they need.
    • I help with interviewing skills if appropriate.
    • If they require special accommodations for a physical or learning disability, I help them research the options at potential schools.
2)   When to do so: Parents can hire a consultant at any point.  I work with students as early as freshmen year, but for those students, it's more about helping them to understand that what they do now will follow them for the next four years (at least).  I help them with setting realistic and attainable goals for themselves, both personally and academically, again with the focus being on them owning their decisions ..."Where do you want to be in four years? Well, these are the steps you need to take if you want to have a chance of successfully competing at "X" level."  The best time to hire a consultant for the college process specifically is by the mid-point of the student's junior year.  This way the consultant can work with the student to select courses for senior year (to be sure they are taking what they need to meet minimum admissions requirements at potential schools), to help them map out a standardized testing schedule, and teach them how to make the most of college visits (usually outlining some schools they might want to check out to get a sense of what city/rural, large/small, diverse/homogeneous campuses feel like.  Also, most kids don't really know what they want to major in or pursue as a career, so I help students explore those options, helping them discover what they are good at and interested in that might translate into a career. 

3)   What percentage work with a consultant?  I honestly don't know a percentage.  I think it varies greatly by geographic location and socioeconomic status.  Obviously it is going to be more prevalent in towns or cities where families have the means to hire someone, but that being said, most private consultants, myself included, do pro-bono or sliding-scale fees and offer free seminars in their communities.  I run at least two library seminars per year, giving parents and students an outline of the college process and answering several of their questions.  Also, the fees for consultants vary greatly and it is unfortunate that consultants are maligned by some people for charging for their services.  We are providing extensive one-on-one assistance to these families and like all in the workforce, we should be compensated for what we do.  If people took the time to see how many hours we are actually spending doing research for our clients, answering their questions, reviewing their essays, etc., they would see it's really not that much per hour.  There are some exceptions, but most of us are not being paid anywhere close to the tens of thousands of dollars we are "accused" of charging for our services.  And I have just as many students in the B-/C range as the super-high achievers.  The common thread is the goal of finding a place where the student will thrive! 

4)   What must a student do to make the most of his/her consultant?  It is important for the student to be open and honest with their consultant.  I do several exercises in the first meeting to get to know the student and their parents.  I emphasize that the more I know, the more I can help them to find a good fit and keep them on target with their deadlines, etc.  They must also realize that they are building a relationship with me, so they need to be responsible and respectful in that relationship, whether that means meeting my deadlines or keeping appointments.  I emphasize to my students that I will be your biggest supporter, but I will also keep you honest and on-task. 

5)   What types of credentials should a consultant have?  I have a BS in Human Development and Family Studies and an MA in Applied Psychology with a concentration in Counselor Education and am certified as a School Counselor in NY and NJ.  I worked in public schools for several years before I became a consultant.  That being said, people come to this field from a variety of backgrounds.  The UCLA Extension program has a wonderful certificate program and many have come to the field that way.  Others come from admissions or become interested in the field through their experiences with their own kids' college processes.  The key thing is to make sure that your consultant has some sort of training in the field.   Membership in professional counseling associations, which have stringent guidelines for membership, is also very important.  

Here are some misconceptions that could merit further discussion...
  • That the only "good" schools are the 30 that everyone from your high school is applying to.
  • That how selective a school is defines the quality of the education you will receive once there.  In reality there are many schools that accept a very high percentage of their applicants and then do a phenomenal job of helping them all take charge of their own education and ultimately exceed their original academic and personal expectations.
  • That big schools are more fun
  • That small schools are boring
I also emphasize that a student's last choice safety school should be someplace that they would be happy to be if they had to be there for a year before they could transfer.  Many schools that are easy for a given applicant to get into provide a superior learning environment for that student. 

Deborah Shames
Independent College Search Consultant

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