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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.


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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.

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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.  

11 comments:

  1. Ethan, thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and comprehensive review of the work IEC's do! It is very much about making sure the student is able to make the most informed decisions about colleges that fit him or her academically, socially and financially. The more we are all able to work together on this, the more good will come of it. Keep up the great work!

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  2. Thank you, Eric! I've been getting a lot of responses since the article went up and I am glad that it seems to have struck a chord with so many people.

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  3. Ethan, thank you. As a retired professional school counselor, now working as an IEC, I appreciate your description of the work my colleagues and I do on a daily basis.also, thank you for pointing out that we do not replace school counselors; we supplement the work they do and bridge the gap where necessary.

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  4. Thank you for writing this! I'm an IEC who used to be a college advisor at a small charter school. I really appreciate your thoughtful description of the work IECs do - it really isn't all that different from a counselor at a small school! The majority of my clients attend larger public schools, and they seek my help for the exact reasons you described.

    Another facet of service which you didn't mention (which many IECs are starting to offer now) is consideration of costs and potential financial aid. When a family tells me that cost will be a factor in a where their student attends college, I help them crunch numbers and examine financial aid data to estimate how much each of the schools they are considering will cost. This helps them build a college list that also in line with their budgets, and avoids the huge surprises when the award letters come, and is also a valuable lesson in personal finances for the student - for example, realizing that attending their dream college will be very difficult, or impossible for their parents to finance. It's especially useful for families who have more children to put through college, or who live in an expensive are of the country (since cost of living isn't always accounted for by the colleges when making aid offers).

    Thanks again for your article!

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    1. Thank you, Nicole. Your point about helping families make sense of and consider the financial aspects of their college decisions is a good one. It makes sense that IECs would add that service to their menus. I appreciate your bringing it up.

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    2. Thanks you for this. I have no problem with independents, as long as they have well-established, prior experience working in a school. But where I live in the SF Bay Area, many have never worked in a school, and their only experience is having had a child who went off to college. Most do enroll and complete UC Berkeley's extension program in college admission advising. All well and good, but some have no idea how the high schools, other than the ones their children went to, operate. I have had unreasonable requests for classes from students based on what the independent counselor has asked. I also know how our students fare in admission at various colleges around the country, but the independent does not have access to this information. We use Naviance for filing all documents with various application systems and sometimes my students do not use the program, but the one their advisor suggests. I find students see me less when an outside advisor is involved, when it is I who write the recommendation. A friend of mine, who is retired now, was an independent but she had worked in schools and understood school protocols. She encouraged, urged, her clients to see their counselors often. But I do not find this the case with those who have never actually worked in a school. I do have years of experience and have probably visited more schools than many of the advisors that are in our area. By the way, unless they have a counseling degree, they cannot call themselves a counselor. I realize this sounds negative and I don't mean it to be so, but these are some of the issues I and my colleagues have to deal with.

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  5. Thank you for this post, Ethan. One of the points that struck me, and that Belinda and Patricia referenced above, is that IECs should be working in tandem with school-based counselors. The students are the ones who matter most in this process and it only benefits them if they have added support through this complex process.

    To Patricia's point about the title issue, she is on point. The only "certification" or credential that exists for IECs is the CEP - Certified Educational Planner. I teach in the UC Irvine program for aspiring IECs and I make sure to drive home the message that completion of this program, or any others, does not make you a "Certified College Counselor" or "Certified Educational Consultant"...neither of which exist. In addition to checking an IECs professional memberships in organizations such as NACAC, IECA or HECA, families can search for CEPs through the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners site at www.AICEP.org.

    Thanks again for your positive words and best of luck to you at Method Test Prep!

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  6. Thank you, Ethan. It is great to finally be seen as a profession that is really trying to help our children, and we SHOULD DEF be working in Tandem with the child's support team. Thanks again for a great article! Mind if I share it on my website?

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    1. Thank you! I'm glad that you liked it.

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