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What to Consider When Choosing a College Counselor

With each day we hear about a new celebrity or corporate executive who has been ensnared in the scandal involving California college admissions coach William Singer.  Whether it’s fabricating sports achievement in collusion with athletic coaches, falsifying ethnicities, or hiring stand-ins to take college entrance exams, Singer has admitted to using illegal means to circumvent the merit-based college admissions process

In following this story, you may have wondered about Singer’s profession.  Is being a college counselor all about greasing the skids to get your child into their college of choice?  As you might expect, most are legitimate operators who were attracted to the field given their desire to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming process.

With over 4,000 four-year colleges to choose from, coming up with an ideal college list that fits the family’s goals and resources, and the student’s qualifications is a complicated task.  While public high school counselors can be a resource in this process, many have a caseload of 500 or more students and simply don’t have adequate time to work with all of their students considering college.

Is a private college coach the right fit for your family?  “College consultants are best for those families who view college as an extremely important decision; one that lays the education foundation to jump start a career,” said Mark Stucker, a college coach and author of 171 Answers to the Most-Asked College Admission Questions.  Other good signs a college counselor could help: if you find college admissions time consuming, are interested in qualifying for merit-based financial aid, want your child to put their best foot forward in their applications, or want to keep your relationship positive with your child as deadlines loom.

“Ironically a lot of people will work with a college admissions counselor to save money, as they can help identify colleges that are more likely to give merit or need-based financial aid,” said Stucker.  According to Stucker the national average for a deluxe college counseling package for a student is $4,000, although there generally are less expensive options.  If you truly get a skilled college coach that can weed through college admissions data to identify aid opportunities for your child, then the return on that investment can be quite good.  Plus many do pro-bono work or offer their services on a sliding scale if affordability is an issue.

Let’s say you want to find out more about college consultants while avoiding scofflaws like Singer.  There are two national organizations for college counselors, HECA ( and IECA (, that are great starting points for finding qualified help.  The barriers to entry to the profession are relatively low, so going with an accredited professional is a good first step.

Once you’ve narrowed down a list, ask for some time to meet to see if there’s a good personal connection.  Client references can be an important consideration.  Make sure they are a good listener, not overly prone to snap judgments about where your child should apply.  If you’re looking for someone who knows the ins and outs of financial aid packages, make sure they have that skill as many college counselors primarily work with families who can “write the check” every semester.

There are some warning signs when looking for a college counselor.   Avoid those that do not state clearly in the contract what they will do for you.  Anyone who makes guarantees to get into college or implies that their connections or affiliations can give your child get a leg up in the admissions process should be suspect.  Stucker also has a preference for those who have worked in a college admissions office.

For more information I recommend Stucker’s book, an exhaustive resource on college admissions, as well as his Your College Bound Kid podcast.