Elite Colleges and Independent Counselors


For the last couple of weeks, we've been following a lively discussion in the wake of a blog post from Lynn O'Shaughnessy -- Elite Schools Dissing College Consultants. In her words, the blog post shares her take "on why I believe the Ivies and other elite schools routinely dump on independent college counselors. The use of high-priced consultants reminds these schools that the system is rigged and most students need to be rich to get into these institutions." Independent counselors, high school counselors and admission deans have weighed in via a discussion on LinkedIn and in the Comments section of her blog.

Like many issues in the application process, the decision to hire an independent counselor is complex. Students and their families must carefully consider the costs and benefits and the decision should be driven by the student.  In our book -- coauthored by a former dean of Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence -- we take a very balanced approach, outlining the situations where an independent counselor can be a beneficial addition, with the main focus on how to find and properly evaluate a counselor for those who will go that route.

Honestly, admission deans see the full gamut of what all counselors -- independent and otherwise -- do. Counselors see their own work and perhaps that of those with whom they are close. Admission deans see thousands and thousands of applicants a year. And when you see thousands and thousands of applicants every year, you see a broad swath of approaches, behaviors, and skills.

As Jon Boeckenstedt, DePaul University Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management, noted in the Comments section of O'Shaughnessy's blog, "When you read thousands of applications a year, you can spot the polished ones, the ones who pad the resume with soft accomplishments, and the ones who speak with a voice that sounds ten years older than it should."

It’s not our experience that, as O'Shaughnessy says, “the vast majority of independent college consultants get characterized as hired guns for the rich” by the elite colleges. The deans at elite colleges do in fact distinguish between the “hired guns" and the good guys. In our book, Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard, addressed the subject of independent counselors and the overpackaging of applicants:

I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer here. In many high schools there are no counselors left because of budget cuts, and in many high schools the ratio of counselees to counselors is 500 to 1 or more. So especially in those situations, it would seem, if parents can afford it -- and a lot of independent counselors take on a considerable number of pro bono clients -- using an independent counselor might be a rational thing to do. But it’s not an easy call. There are many highly effective independent counselors who do not go over the line and overpackage candidates. Many of them are just there to give advice about college and talk about visiting colleges and the application procedure. They’re not writing essays for people. They’re not essentially creating a different candidate from the real candidate as they help people think about how to put their applications together.

There’s no right way to apply to college. The vast majority of people apply to Harvard without an independent counselor. But there’s a whole industry out there that has decided that packaging is the way to get into college. It’s very unfortunate.

Bottom line: There are many good -- and not so good -- independent -- and even high school -- counselors. (See our Orange County excerpt for the lighter side -- page 31 in the book. Sorry we can't link to it.) Deans of admission can tell the difference and understand that many independent counselors serve their clients well.







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