Hiring an Independent College Counselor

Independent counselors— also sometimes called “consultants”—work outside of the high school and are not employed by a school or school district, providing private fee-based services directly to students and their families. Hiring an independent counselor may benefit some students, the particulars of which we discuss extensively in Chapter 4, College Counselors and Advisors, in our book.

The issue of whether to hire an independent counselor is complex and parents should consider carefully the costs and benefits to their family and the student’s future.  For those families who have thought through the matter carefully and decide to hire an independent counselor, consultant Todd Johnson joins us today as a guest blogger to discuss how families can begin that process:

Not everyone needs an independent or private college admission counselor. But if you are considering hiring one, how do you find the best consultant for your needs?

There are several steps you should take before hiring any consultant. First, talk to your friends and neighbors. In some parts of the country, the use of private college consultants is quite common and you may garner many word of mouth opinions to consider. But don’t stop there. The problem with relying only on the opinions of friends and neighbors is that their information is limited. They will typically have used just one consultant who might -- or might not -- be a good choice for your student.

Second, go online and look for consultants that may be a good fit for your student.  This can be a little more hit and miss but you may be able to learn more about the clientele, expertise, and experience of a consultant from their website.

Third, do some background checking. The most important factor to look at is whether the consultants you are considering are members of IECA, the Independent Educational Consultants Association, considered by some to be the “gold standard” for college admission counseling.

Within the IECA, there are two categories of consultants -- professional members and associate members. Professional members are required to have a graduate degree, have worked in the college admission field for some time, provide references from other people in the profession, show evidence of having experience working with students and evidence of having visited a number of colleges.  Associate members may have some of these qualifications but not all.  All members of IECA are required to abide by specific ethical guidelines, which can be seen here.

To find a consultant who is a professional member of IECA, you can do a search for members on their website here. You might also check to see if the consultants you are considering belong to HECA, the Higher Education Consultants Association. Many consultants belong to both organizations. Members of HECA do not need to have a graduate degree but otherwise may often have many of the same qualifications as IECA members. They also have ethical guidelines they follow.

As a fourth step, talk to the consultants you are considering. Ask them any general questions you have about the college admission process and about their qualifications and the services they provide to help your student in the admission process, as well as how much time they will spend with your student. Most consultants will offer a free consultation, typically of about a half hour.

That initial conversation is also a good time to talk about fees the consultant charges. You may want to know what the cost is up front but it is actually better to wait and ask this question once you understand the services the consultant is going to provide.  Never feel pressured to sign up with someone right away. If you feel you are being pressured by the consultant, run.

In fact, if for any reason you are not comfortable with the consultant you are talking to, eliminate that person from consideration. Only work with people with whom you are comfortable and with whom you feel you have a rapport.

IECA has a helpful brochure entitled “12 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Independent Educational Consultant" if you are wondering about what questions to ask of a consultant.

Finally, once you have found several qualified consultants with whom you are comfortable, it’s time to get your student involved. No matter how much you may like a consultant, your student and their comfort level are the most important factors here. Schedule a meeting or phone call between your student and the consultant to give them a chance to talk and see if your student believes they would have a satisfactory and amenable working relationship.

Hiring the right private college admission consultant for your student takes a little work. But, like finding the right doctor, lawyer or accountant, taking a little time up front often results in a much better choice.

Todd Johnson is the principal consultant for College Admissions Partners. Todd is a member of IECA and HECA and an instructor at the University of California Irvine Extension Division for their certificate program in Independent Educational Consulting. He is the author of “BS/MD Programs-The Complete Guide: Getting into Medical School from High School”.

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