Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Private School College Counselor Learns About Independent College Counselors

Since I started working for Method Test Prep this summer, I have had the chance to speak with school guidance counselors and administrators from all over the country, as our company partners with schools to provide access to high quality test preparation materials to students. When I was told that we also make partnerships with independent educational consultants (IECs), I was surprised, because I didn't think that was a large market. Boy, was I wrong! Like many, I was aware of the (thankfully, isolated) stories of parents paying tens of thousands of dollars for what they hoped would help their child gain admission to a most selective college, but in the last two months I've had the chance to meet and get to know quite a few IECs, and it turns out that there are thousands of people providing private college consulting to clients in the United States, and many more working overseas to help students gain admission to American colleges and universities. Independent counselors offer a wide array of services to their clients, at a wide range of prices, and are fully equal members of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the same group that school based counselors and college admissions officers belong to. The more I've spoken with the IECs the more I realized that they fill a valuable niche in the college admissions process, and their efforts complement the services offered by schools while also offering specialized services to specific audiences. Since other counselors or parents may be like me and have limited experience with independent counselors, I wanted to share the information I've gained from my conversations with these professionals.


Between 1996 and 2015 I was a teacher at small, private, day and boarding schools in New England and Pennsylvania, and for the last eight years I served as a college counselor.  During my career I came to take for granted the excellent college counseling resources my schools provided including, but not limited to:

  • counselors who knew their students very well, often serving as their teachers, advisors and coaches in addition to their formal college guidance relationship.
  • counselors who worked with a manageable number of students. I never had more than 25 seniors and 25 juniors to work with at any given time, for instance (though I also taught 3 classes and coached a varsity sport).
  • a school culture that emphasized college above all else, and provided counselors with ample travel budgets to go visit schools all over the country (and in some cases blog about them).
There is no doubt that the college counseling department is one of the main reasons why parents choose to send their children to private schools, and it is probably the best reason; after all, great teachers can work at any kind of school, small class sizes don't always result in better educational outcomes, and there can be an opportunity cost of spending thousands of dollars on secondary (let alone primary) education. But having experienced college counselors who are able to focus strictly on the college process (as opposed to social and personal counseling) is a distinct advantage. 

We can contrast this to my own experience when I attended high school in the 1980's. My school, in a suburb of Philadelphia, had over 1,800 students for grades 10-12; there were 600 students in my graduating class, of whom about 250 went to college following graduation. The school had 6 guidance counselors who were responsible for academic advising, college counseling, personal counseling and processing forms (such as working papers and absence excuses). My counselor was very friendly and refreshingly honest, but I was disappointed when he told me that since my plan was to go to college out of Pennsylvania, he wouldn't be able to help me much. You can dismiss this as a relic of Reagan era policies, but the overload has only become worse over time. During the Great Recession, states slashed education budgets, cities lost tax revenue, and guidance counselors were among the first positions cut. In Philadelphia, for instance, schools with less than 1,500 students only had one counselor in 2014. It is hard to imagine that such overworked professionals can give meaningful help to their students, despite the best of intentions. 


I've spoken to over a dozen independent consultants from all over the country (and to two who work with students in Europe), and in my conversations I learned that their outlook, approach, and styles are very similar to that of mine and my school-based colleagues. In fact, many of them have spent years working in public and/or private schools prior to striking out on their own. Like me, they want to make sure that families focus on "fit" and work to make sure that students put their best foot forward throughout the admission process. This shouldn't be a surprise; after all, most of their clients are public school students whose parents worry that their children will not get close attention from school guidance counselors. These parents feel that several hundred or a few thousand dollars targeted on college guidance is a more efficient use of their economic resources than tuition to a private school. 

That said, all of the IECs I spoke with told me that they also work with students at private schools. What was interesting to me was that a fairly common refrain was that private school college counselors do not welcome the chance to partner with IECs. More than one independent counselor told me that they feel distinctly unwelcome at gatherings of college counselors, and that private school college counselors have told their students that they think it is redundant for students to seek help outside of the school. As a result, some have left it up to students and their families to decide whether or not to share with school counselors the fact that they are also working with IECs. 

When I first heard this I was disappointed, but I heard it over and over again. My personal perspective is that students should get help from as many sources as they can (such as college counselors, parents, clergy or other advisors) and I know that I never worried about competition. More than one IEC I spoke with told me that they don't want to replace school college counselors, they just want to help students use their school counselors to the best of their ability.  I feel bad for students who think that they have to hide something from their college counselor, because I always strove to have a very open and honest relationship with the kids I worked with. 


In my role as a college counselor it was very convenient for me to find students at school and I could pretty much always meet with them face to face whenever I needed to. Working as I did at a boarding school, I was used to interacting with students day and night, and often responded to emails at all hours. I was very impressed to learn that IECs also tout their willingness to work with students when they need it, and how expertly they use modern technology to make this possible. Many of the IECs use Skype or FaceTime to video chat with students, and nearly all of them use GoogleDocs to collaborate on personal essays. An unexpected (to me) benefit of this is that the independent counselor and her student do not need to be in geographical proximity. Some of the IECs work with students from multiple states (and countries); they find that working on their own allows them to adjust as necessary to time zone differences and give the kids the help they need when they need it. What this means is that families can choose the best IEC they can find, and do not necessarily need to restrict their search to the local area.

In my experience, families usually seemed to trust the school's college guidance department and I did not encounter many "helicopter parents". I asked each of the IECs about their clients, and specifically asked who they thought they worked for. I was very interested to learn that nearly all of them perceive the students as their primary client. That said, none of them will start working with a student without having at least one (preferably face to face) meeting with parents to go over expectations. While the college search is mainly up to the student, the decision of where to matriculate is a full family decision. In many cases I worked with students for years and never interacted with their families, so I think it is excellent that IECs make a point to meet the parents.


In my previous job I would start to work with students in 10th grade, at which point I would introduce college search tools available on Naviance and on the web, describe the general college timeline and come up with a standardized testing plan. In 11th grade I would meet with students in December and based on an in-depth interview, generate a preliminary list of 20+ colleges for them to research. Students were encouraged to reshape the list on their own by August of 12th grade, and meanwhile we spent time honing Common Application essays. Once senior year began kids would have a final list of schools, and we would work closely to make sure that the applications were filled out completely and effectively. By "effectively", I mean that I worked to help make sure that when students described their roles in various activities they did so in the most helpfully descriptive way possible. I also wrote the school statement, and shepherded teacher recommendations. 

Independent counselors do not have the opportunity to write a recommendation for their students, and they often do not know the teachers at their clients' schools, but otherwise the work they do is pretty similar to what I did. That said, for every parent who starts working with an IEC in 10th grade, there are more who don't hire someone until senior year, which naturally makes things much more intense and rushed. Nevertheless, the IECs I spoke to strive to get to know their students well enough to provide meaningful advice. Many described to me the approaches they take with students to help them decide which teachers to ask for recommendation letters. I was surprised to hear that it was essentially the same conversation I had despite my having the advantage of knowing the teachers and their reputations (as well as their letter-writing ability).

Like me, independent counselors visit colleges and universities to build their "college knowledge" and quite a few of them make an effort to meet with traveling representatives of college admission offices. Another interesting thing I learned is that many IECs specialize, choosing to work with, say, athletes, or artists, or international students. This specialization can give them a wealth of detailed information that can help students in that particular niche. In my own experience, I was more of a "generalist"; but I think that if families can find someone who can prove that they have extensive experience working with a particular group of students it may well be worth the cost to form a working relationship.


When I first set out to talk with independent counselors, I was curious how they set their prices and how they felt about charging for their services. Several of the IECs I spoke to had received a professional certificate through UCLA, or other institutions and they told me that pricing was an important subject they learned about during that process. Others surveyed their markets--New York City, for instance, can bear much higher fees for service than my new hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Some told me that they actually struggle with the fee-for-service model and have considered returning to work at a school.

Parents pay for private college counseling either directly (when they hire an IEC) or indirectly (when they send their child to a private school). In my previous job it was easy to think that I was above any commercial interests, but that was just me being delusional. A college education might be the most expensive thing anyone ever buys, and parents are justifiably worried about "getting it right" for their offspring.  If families can afford it, why wouldn't they want to invest a little money upfront to make sure that their children can attend the college that will fit them the best? And just like any good private school will strive to create a financial aid package to allow qualified kids from lower and middle income families to afford the cost of attendance, many of the IECs I spoke with told me that they have sliding cost scales and often do pro bono work.  

If you are a parent or student considering hiring an IEC, you might want to consider asking the following questions:
  • What is your background? Have you worked in college admissions? A high school guidance office? - There is no "right" answer, but more experience helps.
  • What national and/or international organizations do you belong to?- Again, this might not mean very much, but if they at least make an effort to keep up with best practices and current trends it will augur in their favor.
  • How often will we meet (face to face or electronically) and what will those meetings cost?- The optimal numbers here may be up to you, but it will be good to get expectations (and requirements) in writing at the outset. Also, knowing the sum of predicted expenses at the start of the process can avoid any unfortunate surprises and the acrimony that can accompany them.
  • What will you do to make sure that the student completes assignments on time?- Teenagers rarely listen to their parents, but they often listen to other adults. It is likely that an IEC will be able to get your student to meet deadlines, but you might want to inquire what methods the counselor uses, and how successful they have been.

This article only skims the surface of what I learned in my discussions with independent college counselors. I learned a lot about a side of my own business to which I had previously been largely ignorant. I came away from my discussions very inspired by professionals who, like me, are strongly motivated to help young people achieve their dreams. If you are an independent counselor I applaud you and encourage you to keep up the good work. On the flip side, if you are a school-based counselor, I encourage you to see IECs as potential partners, not as competition.  

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to the University of Virginia

In early August I visited the University of Virginia, the flagship university in the Commonwealth, and a perennial presence on "top public universities" ratings lists.  I attended an information session with about 100 people in attendance, and then took part in a student-led tour. The University is quite old, having been founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 (only a few years after Lycoming College--which I've previously featured--opened its doors) and boasts a sprawling campus (or "Grounds", as they say at UVA) with red-brick buildings and abundant, ancient looking trees. For many people, it is probably the consummate college campus. As I noted previously, I've recently moved to Virginia and since then I have been struck by the respect accorded to UVA; it is the most desirable college destination for the majority of the prep school audience I've met, even more than well-known private universities. Among many anecdotes that have been related to me, I heard a story about a student who was admitted to UVA and Princeton, whose friends and family could not understand why the choice of UVA wasn't automatic!  Despite temperatures near 100ยบ, and a tour and info session that left a lot to be desired, I enjoyed my visit to the University and as I've learned more about it, I agree that it is an extremely impressive place. Any student with excellent grades and test scores interested in a university with great traditions and campus culture (as well as great weather) should give UVA a serious look. 

University of Virginia At A Glance

A little over 15,000 undergraduates (approximately 54% men/ 46% women).
Programs of Study:
84 majors across one College (Arts & Sciences) and six Schools (Architecture, Leadership & Public Policy, Commerce, Education, Engineering & Applied Science, Nursing). Bachelor, Master and Doctorate degrees awarded--approximately 6,400 graduate students attend UVA.
NCAA Division I; 23 varsity teams (11 women's, 12 men's); numerous intramural sports.The baseball team was the NCAA Division I National Champion in 2015.
Campus Life:
Over 900 clubs and organizations on campus. 30 fraternities and 16 sororities; about one-third of the campus participates in Greek life. All first-year students live on campus and housing is guaranteed for all four years. Downtown Charlottesville, a quintessential college town, is a short walk away.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $56,500 for out of state students ($27,000 for Virginians). UVA is, remarkably, need-blind in admission for American citizens. Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS PROFILE. UVA will meet 100% of demonstrated need, and the average aid package for first-year students is just about $25,000.
UVA has Early Action and Regular Decision options. EA has a deadline of November 1, and the RD deadline is January 1. Students use the Common App with supplemental essays.
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old scale SAT are 1870-2180 (CR+M+ W) and 28-33 for the ACT. ACT takers should make sure to choose the ACT with writing option, and scores from TWO SAT Subject Tests are "strongly recommended", including the Math II test for anyone planning a major in the sciences.

Amphitheater near The Lawn at UVA
The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is about 70 miles west of Richmond and 120 miles south of Washington, D.C. Charlottesville is a small city (c. 45,000) in the central part of the commonwealth. Charlottesville has a thriving shopping, dining and arts culture and with a third of the population made up of University students, it is a major college town. Like many college towns, there is a good music scene; unfortunately we also have Charlottesville to blame for the Dave Matthews Band, but no place is perfect.   

UVA is a truly venerable institution; not only was it founded by Thomas Jefferson nearly two hundred years ago, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its cultural and historical importance. The campus definitely feels old, but it is extremely well-maintained. I saw signs of maintenance and renovation all around me. Some of the most desired student rooms, for instance, were part of Jefferson's "Academical Village" design and centuries later, the single rooms with fireplaces and ancient wood floors are still in use. As befits an old, established institution, there are many customs and traditions that must be adhered to, as well as nomenclature unique to the University. This video gives a good overview--learn the lingo and impress the locals if you visit!
The Rotunda-Jefferson's original library-is undergoing a
two-year renovation. It should reopen in 2017.

Despite its size, UVA prides itself on "feeling like a smaller, private college", as we were told during the information session. The admissions dean also noted that the majority of students studied in the College of Arts and Sciences, which is "the quintessential liberal arts experience", with over 2000 different courses to choose from. UVA claims the highest four year graduation rate among state universities. 

One way to help make this a reality is that professors are relatively accessible; some hold office hours in the library cafe spaces and all first-year students take a seminar with 20 or fewer students taught by a tenured faculty member.  While there are definitely many large lecture courses (with smaller discussion sections led by teaching assistants), 84% of undergraduate classes have 50 or fewer students and 55% have fewer than 20. My tour guide just finished her second year at UVA, and she had a class this past semester with six students.

Virginia has 23 varsity sports, all of which compete at the NCAA Division I level (football is a Division I-A program). One very odd feature of my info session and tour was the utter lack of information about sports or recreational athletics. This was the only college I've ever visited that did not show me a gym, or a student work-out facility and the information session didn't mention sports at all, which considering that the baseball team are national champions, seemed like low-hanging fruit.

This was also the only tour I've ever been on that didn't go to either a dining facility or a dorm. Many colleges omit the dorms for security reasons, but I've never not been to a dining area. Despite the recent trend against it, I find it surpassingly strange that admissions offices won't try to take people through a freshman dorm, and security concerns are a bad excuse. It can't be hard to give tour guides a swipe card to get them into a building, and I can't imagine that it is very disruptive to campus life to provide these tours. To a certain degree all dormitories look alike (and having worked at three boarding schools, and visited about 50 colleges and universities, I know what I'm talking about) but for students and parents who are considering a life-changing decision, every bit of information is important. That said, UVA does have photographic tours of all of their dorms on their website.

According to my tour guide, there are three dormitory areas for first years: "Old", "New" and "Gooch-Dillard". The first two are traditional hall-style dorms, and the latter is a suite-style arrangement. "Old" was build in the 1950's and lacks air-conditioning. This sounds like a nightmare to me (having visited on an incredibly hot day), but my tour guide insisted that her third floor room was perfectly comfortable with just a box fan in the window.  Students who are sensitive to heat may want to investigate this further. As far as dining options go, we were told that the food "isn't bad, but enjoy your mother's cooking while you can".

Montage of images from demonstrations
following Rolling Stone story. Marshall Bronfin
In 2015, another thing that must come to mind when people think of UVA is the story about "rape culture" at the University published in Rolling Stone in 2014. The story made specific allegations of gang rape, but was eventually retracted by the magazine after numerous journalistic failings (most notably, relying on a single source without fact-checking) were made public. When the article came out, however, there was uproar on campus, with a mass gathering in the Amphitheater drawing over 1,000 people, acts of vandalism against frat houses, and the temporary suspension of all Greek life at UVA.

I was disappointed that this was not mentioned in the info session. I have visited other universities that have been more outgoing about scandals and controversies. My tour guide broached the topic of fraternities and sororities in a way that made it sound like it was not very central to life at UVA. She told us that "30 percent of students are involved in Greek life, so if you like that, you will have 30 percent of students with you. But 70 percent of students are not in Greek life, and if you don't want to be, 70 percent of students will have your back." I asked her what it was like to be there during the controversy, and she indicated that it was hardly noticeable, because it happened so close to final exams, though she did acknowledge that Greek life (including her sorority) was temporarily suspended. She did go on to say that "even thought the story was falsified" it was productive because it led to the University adopting the "Green Dot" program of bystander training; she said that all faculty have been trained, and that all students will be trained over the next two years. She also noted that UVA was a safe campus, with escorts and blue light phones widely available and that the campus just got a grant to increase lighting by 50%. I was also impressed by a service that would provide vans "driven by off-duty policemen" within 2 miles of the center of the campus from midnight to seven in the morning, as well as one where students walking late at night could call a switchboard and talk to someone while walking home for an extra measure of security.

Circulation Desk in the Brown Science & Engineering Library
The University has numerous libraries on campus, all of which are open nearly around the clock. Typically they feature social areas (including cafe spaces) on the main floors and get progressively quieter as you descend to lower floors. Besides being places to research, sometimes libraries are sites for exams. UVA has one of the oldest student-run honor codes in the country. Students pledge not to lie, cheat or steal in Charlottesville, Albemarle County, or anyplace where they represent themselves as UVA students. Violators are expelled. Our tour guide described picking up a final exam at her professor's office and taking it to the library cafe to finish.

Outside Peabody Hall, home of the Admission Office
Students interested in applying to the University of Virginia should use the Common Application. Despite receiving over 30,000 applicants each year, we were assured in the info session that admission to UVA "is not numbers based" and that it is "holistic within reason".  According to the admissions dean who gave the presentation (and confirmed by multiple publications) the most important part of a student's portfolio is the high school transcript. Further, we were told that "grades and rigor" trump test scores. As an example, a B in a hard course would look better than an A+ in a lesser course. We were also told that "a B- on your transcript is nothing to worry about", though nothing was said about a C.

With my new job at Method Test Prep, I am particularly interested in the role of standardized tests in college admissions. All we were told about standardized tests was that "the stronger your score is, the better", which reminded me of the John Madden quote about football ("usually, the team that scores the most points wins the game"). Students need to submit either the SAT or the ACT with Writing, and are "strongly encouraged" to submit two SAT Subject Tests (with one being Math II if they are interested in majoring in science). The published test scores of admitted students are remarkably high: the SAT ranged from 1870-2180 and the ACT from 28-33. These eclipse the national averages by a considerable margin; the national average SAT score was 1497 in 2014, and the average composite ACT score was 21.

I believed the dean when she said that student applications are read closely, and I even believed her when she said that essays might be read "by up to 45 people". But I have trouble believing that numbers play no role in UVA admissions. According to their own numbers, UVA admitted 8,990 out of 31,028 of applicants for the class that entered in 2014. That is just about 29%, which puts UVA on the list of top 100 most selective institutions in America. They also say that 92% of their students were in the top 10% of their high school classes. It looks to me like students who are merely average would be better suited applying to other schools.

That said, UVA can claim some very impressive statistics, including a 97% retention rate, which indicates that the students who are admitted to the University really like it, and doubtless helps account for a 94% six-year graduation rate (tops among public universities) and the highest African-American graduation rate among public universities (for 20 straight years).

Like most state universities, there are two tiers of pricing for tuition, with non-Virginians paying more. All students (in-state or out of state) interested in applying to UVA must submit the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE. It is unusual for a state school to require the CSS PROFILE (which costs money to complete), but UVA's financial aid policies are also unusual: they are "need-blind" in admissions and pledge to meet 100% of demonstrated need for all admitted students. This is truly amazing; the number of "need-blind" institutions has shrunk dramatically over the last decade, and state universities (which often depend on state revenue for part of their funding) are often quite parsimonious with financial aid. Outstanding students from families with middle income or lower should definitely consider the University of Virginia when compiling their college lists.

The University of Virginia has a great reputation in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and based on what I was able to see, it seems to be well-deserved. I think it is definitely worth a visit. That said, I would encourage prospective students and their families to visit during the school year, preferably over a day or so to be able to see the Grounds filled with students, to be able to check out the surrounding area, and to be able to ask to see dormitories, dining facilities, and maybe to sit in on a class. The late-summer tour was a little too much "tell" and not enough "show" for my tastes. Please let me know your thoughts about the University of Virginia in the comments below, and check out the other articles in this series.