How to Choose a College Admissions Consultant

There is good cause to explore the consulting landscape with a healthy dose of skepticism. Our goal is to help educate you so that you can find legitimate, high quality admissions counseling services. Learn to ask the right questions to separate the wheat from the chaff so you find the right consultant for your goals.

How to Choose a College Admissions Consultant

According to independent marketing firm Lipman Hearne, of 1,264 high-performing high-schoolers, 26% hired a college admissions consultant to assist in the college search and application processes. In the aftermath of the recent college admissions scandal, people are increasingly suspicious of college admissions services and advisors. There is good cause to explore the consulting landscape with a healthy dose of skepticism. You don’t want your own college admissions scandal!

Our goal is to help educate you so that you can find legitimate, high quality admissions counseling services. Your journey into college should be glorious, not scandalous. The good news is that there are high quality companies out there to help you navigate the swamps and quicksand, while revealing invisible bridges. By asking the right questions and knowing what separates the wheat from the chaff, you will be able to find the right consultant for your goals.

What is Admissions Consulting and What Does a College Consultant Do?

A college admissions counselor, consultant, or assistant is someone who knows the ins and outs of applying to college. Based on their knowledge of best practices, standards, and pitfalls, they help students navigate the confusing paperwork, myriad requirements, and sneaky deadlines that come with the college application season.

Picking a college admissions counselor is like buying milk at the supermarket, but with much deeper consequences — whole milk, 2% fat, 1% fat, lactose-free, organic, fortified, soy, or almond. Which one? The answer depends on many factors — diet, cost, shelf-life. And every consumer prioritizes these factors differently.

This same logic applies to choosing a college application consultant. Consulting services can last up to four years, spanning the full length of high school, or for just the three months leading up to application deadlines. Whether the duration is 4 years or 3 months, you’re investing in a relationship. For your success, it needs to be a good one.

Test Prep Only

Some companies specialize only in preparing a student for standardized tests, such as the SAT I or ACT. These programs can vary in structure: 1-on-1 meetings; year-long weekend-only workshops; or even 6-week intensive daily summer classes.

Each program has its pros and cons. And your selection will also be based on your individual learning style and time commitments. No matter what program you choose, it is best to talk to former clients if possible. Each student learns differently and has different availability. Talking to former clients can give you a stronger sense of whether or not a program matches your learning style and time constraints.

Application Assistance Only

College application portals, such as the Common Application or the Coalition for College Access, are complicated and were designed for different applicant demographics. Amid the busyness of standardized testing and senior year, learning how to fill out college application portals can be overwhelming.

Some college admissions consultants only provide help filling out these applications, which may or may not include guidance on writing personal statements. Your personal statement, as the name suggests, is your chance to tell the college who you are outside of your GPA, test scores, and other merits. Your personal statement is extremely important and can be the deciding factor in a field of competitive applicants. Though your personal statement will be uploaded through one of these application portals, consulting companies often treat essay editing or guidance as a separate service from just application support.

Career Coaching

A 4.0 GPA does not guarantee that a student has desirable workplace skills or leadership skills. Career coaching involves teaching a student professional skills, such as writing resumes, speaking in front of an audience, working with others, or answering interview questions.

Career coaching services also provide actionable knowledge about common paths for specific career interests, such as medicine, engineering, and orchestral music. Understanding the core requirements expected of specific careers helps a student make sense of what they need to do now — which courses to take, what internships to seek — in order to make their goals a reality without wasted effort.

Life Coaching

“The secret to straight A’s is to wash dishes every night,” I once told a student. Based on his musical talents and interaction with me, it was clear that John had the capacity to do well in school. His problem was a lack of discipline, so he wasted time after school and on weekends such that his GPA was at a B- level.

By encouraging John to do chores, which he abhorred at first, I taught him that he had control over his emotions. By learning how to control his emotions, he was able to reduce the time spent playing video games. This helped create more time for learning video editing skills. This simple change in behavior revealed underdeveloped emotional muscles he didn’t even know he had. His ability to say no to easy, fun things so that he could invest time to learn difficult, rewarding things completely transformed John. For teenagers, this epiphany is often the doorway to attaining the discipline needed to be a straight-A student.

College admissions consulting does not typically include life coaching. But when this service is formally offered by certified life coaches or qualified adults who can teach character development, it can be particularly valuable for students who lack passion, have addictions, or who are dealing with the emotional turmoil of unfortunate life circumstances.

Study Skills

Teaching study skills is a service that sits at the intersection of tutoring and college admissions consulting. Single-subject tutors can help a student focus on just one discipline. However, they may not fully recognize the broader picture, which might reveal imbalance in the student’s areas of strength and weakness. General education consultants are best positioned to fill the gap between tutors and teachers.

Learning geometry requires different study strategies than does learning United States History. A science textbook should be interacted with differently than a novel. Faulty or missing study skills are among the main reasons that students do not reach their full potential. It takes a conscientious observer to identify a student’s needs. This service is not usually offered as its own product, but a college admissions consultant who pays closer attention to study skills is in the best position to maximize a student’s success in preparation for college.

Internship Placement

One of the most important extracurriculars for college prep is advanced training in the form of internships or apprenticeships. Most of the formal internship programs that you might find through an internet search are geared toward college students. Internships for high school students are harder to find without consultation.

Some admissions assistance companies specialize in placing students into internship roles based on their career interests: marketing, law, media, etc. These companies may or may not provide some level of career coaching, teaching professional skills to help prepare students for their internships. Some companies have a network of businesses and institutions that have prior agreements to take student interns.

Internship placement offers a tremendous advantage for students interested in advanced training. Students and parents should inquire about these resources before signing up with a consulting company. Companies may charge an extra fee for these additional services, while not covering travel and housing costs, but it’s worth the investment if parents cannot provide these opportunities through their own network.

4-Year Complete Service

The most comprehensive college admissions consulting services span the full four years of high school. Ideally, these programs should provide all of the above services. However, this is not a guarantee so parents must ask questions to find out.

The advantage of a multi-year service package is that it provides both consultants and students time to plan and change plans as necessary. For a seasoned college admissions counselor, it is easy to lay out a roadmap of courses, test dates, and specific activities for four years. The difficulty is not the roadmap, but helping a student adjust when unexpected life events happen: ski accidents, a D in precalculus, catching the flu right before finals.

A consultant who has worked with a student already will be able to make quick adjustments to remedy the situation. In order to do this well, the consultant needs to be familiar with the student’s strengths, weaknesses, and special circumstances. The only way for a consultant to know this is through shared experiences over time, which is why a 4-year service is the most advantageous — and most expensive — option.

Tutoring + Consulting

One-stop-shop programs that include a certain number of tutoring hours along with their college consulting programs are often convenient for parents and children. Combined programs are like Target or Walmart — most of what you need is all in one place. This takes the guesswork out of researching different brands for each thing you want help with.

The major advantage of companies that provide both tutoring and consulting services in the same package is that tutors and consultants can easily communicate with each other regarding a student’s special circumstances or areas of greater need. The major drawback is that some companies may be great at either tutoring or consulting, but not necessarily both. When this occurs, a family may end up hiring an additional consulting company to fill in the gaps, essentially paying for the same service twice.

When to Start With an Admissions Counselor

The proper time to start working with a consultant depends on what your goals are for your children. The following questions will help clarify what you can gain or should seek to obtain from a counseling service based on your child’s circumstances. Suffice it to say, time only moves in one direction. The ideal situation is to have the guidance of a college admissions counselor starting in the 9th grade. Some students start in the 7th grade, but these cases are not directly related to college prep, since colleges don’t count any transcripts issued before the end of 8th grade. However, guidance before high school can be incredibly advantageous for many students. Before deciding when to start consultation, ask the following questions:

What is the Student’s Level of Discipline?

The main factor determining a high school student’s success in preparing for college is not intellectual ability — as is often thought — but personal discipline. One of the greatest secrets to turning a C student into a B student, a B student into an A student, or a C student into an A student — yes, it’s possible — is to help the student learn self-discipline.

Students often waste buckets of time due to bad time management. They forget to turn in homework, wait until the last minute to work on projects, or fail to take effective notes during class. Each student has a different intellectual capacity that is constantly growing, unless the student refuses to challenge himself/herself. However, tremendous academic progress can be made by focusing on self-discipline. A student can learn to prioritize studying over video games or TV without completely abstaining from these things. This discipline creates room for greater intellectual growth.

Has the Student Found Some Passion to Pursue?

Some 6th graders already know that they want a career as a novelist or aeronautical engineer. However, far more common are students who can’t even identify their favorite school subject. This question is a major factor in how students should be guided, whether they are 6th graders, 9th graders, or even 11th graders. If a student already has a passion, then they need to know how to develop skills and knowledge that are specific to that purpose. If they don’t know what to do but are capable of being passionate about something, then they need help finding that passion.

Please keep in mind that you can’t force passion on a child. A student’s parents may have good intentions when enrolling their middle schooler in Java programming classes but it could be alienating if the student hasn’t formulated a real interest in the subject matter. The unwanted result could be a resistance to computer programming later in one’s education, at a point when such instruction might have actually been beneficial.

Does the Student Exhibit Emotional Problems?

Emotional turmoil is one of the main problems that college admissions consultants must work around when guiding a student. There can be many reasons why a student is depressed or has behavioral problems. Common issues include parents who have divorced or are in the process of divorce; the death of a close family member; witnessing a traumatic event; being bullied at school, etc.

For instance, a child who endured a nasty divorce at a young age may continue to struggle with resentment and anger in spite of academic, athletic or artistic abilities. This may stand in the way of the challenging and emotionally taxing process of applying for colleges. With proper guidance and a roadmap for managing internal pain, this student will have a better chance of enduring this process and ultimately finding success.

Does the Student Suffer from Learning Disabilities?

Common learning disabilities include ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and speech impediment. Students who face these challenges can suffer from moderate to severe conditions. A student with autism, for instance, may struggle to control their behavior or communicate effectively. A college admissions consultant must have patience in order to effectively communicate with the student.

Students who have special needs will require extra work. Not all consultants or companies are willing to help in these cases. Students who must manage learning disabilities are sometimes less capable of following instructions, which means that consultants must not only develop learning plans but must also provide an extra level of supervision. That said, there are many students who effectively manage the challenges of ADHD or autism, and who are high performing individuals.

Does the Student Suffer from Undiagnosed Disabilities?

This may seem like a trick question, but when a college admissions consultant pays close enough attention to a student for an extended period of time, hints of underlying problems may begin to emerge. If the student shows signs of being very disciplined and motivated yet their transcript suggests otherwise, there is usually a reason why.

Some students are brilliant, but can’t seem to turn things in on time. Others spend twice as much time studying compared to their classmates, yet only do half as well on exams. These are all signs of something amiss, whether it’s simply behavioral or hints at a deeper psychological or medical issue.

Such was the case for Elaine, a former client of mine who worked extra hard at home on schoolwork, but could not seem to get A’s. Her educated parents could not understand why this was the case, though they focused so much attention on helping her. I suggested that they take her to an optometry clinic to test her vision. This revealed that she had a genetic condition in which her eyes were not communicating correctly with her brain. This diagnosis made so much sense given Elaine’s circumstances. It was a great relief to Elaine and her perplexed parents. With vision therapy, Elaine was able to overcome her cognitive impairment and enjoy her full potential as an eager student.

How Involved Are Parents in the Life of the Student?

A successful college admissions consulting strategy must involve at least one parental figure or a guardian who is present in the life of the student. By far, the most successful cases are those in which at least one parent is engaged with the successes and failures of the student. Excellence, whether in the form of athletics, music, or academics, requires effort. Good things do not come easily, so failure and disappointment are a given. Students who don’t have a strong emotional support structure at home may crumble under the pressure of school, standardized exams, and society in general.

On this matter, parents can also be too involved in their children’s endeavors, which can itself create a crippling pressure to which the parent is blind. This is also a job for the consultant to parse out. Children need encouragement, but they also need space to make mistakes and grow into young adults who learn to trust their own judgements. This is one of the trickiest situations for a college admissions consultant to resolve. If a “helicopter parent” hovers too closely to the ground, the air pressure from the propeller will squash the child who is trying to grow.

Warning Signs of Dubious Consulting Agencies

The journey to greatness, whether as an athlete, musician, or academic will not be easy. Beware of companies that promise something that is too good to be true. If their promise does not include the sobering reality of hard work, this is a major red flag. This is especially true if they are promising admissions to high-ranking or elite schools.

Check the Company’s Reviews on Yelp and Other Rating Websites

One of the most valuable assessments of a quality service is customer satisfaction. Yelp and informal online forums are a great place to search for previous discussion threads about the quality of a company. While it’s unrealistic to expect every single client to be fully satisfied, negative reviews can provide hints, especially when there is a statistically significant amount of negative buzz.

Detailed reviews may also help direct you toward or away from specific service offerings or individual consultants. Recurring negative reviews that mention the same problem are usually a strong indication that something is wrong. Take these recurring negative reviews at face value.

Beware of Companies That Have No Former Clients With Whom You Can Speak

In addition to reading online reviews about a company, you should ask to speak with former clients. A company may cite privacy issues as to why they cannot reveal the identities of former clients, but it’s a bad sign when they have no recent clients who were satisfied enough to offer their opinions to new clients. If a company cannot provide contacts, try asking on online discussion forums or talking to other parents in your community. Talk to parents at sports clubs and community centers about their experiences with various education consulting companies.

Beware of Companies That Emphasize Only GPA and Test Scores

The biggest misconception about getting into highly ranked schools is that GPA and test scores are the only factors that matter. FALSE. These two things are very important, but the deciding factor will be a student’s extracurricular activities. These are the features that help you stand out from the crowd. The top schools have the luxury of picking from a pool of nearly perfect GPAs and nearly perfect SAT scores, so these two things alone will not impress them.

Can a Company Really Guarantee Admissions to Top School?

All guarantees in the college admissions consulting industry are conditional guarantees, even if the fancy advertisements you see leave out the word “conditional.” Conditional means that the student has to meet certain standards in terms of GPA, test scores, and achievements in order for the plan to succeed. Any guaranteed contracts that do not require a student to meet rigorous standards are either unethical or are promising something that isn’t worth your money.

Signs of a High-Stress Environment

Getting into a competitive college is hard, but everyone should try because people grow by facing challenges. However, this should not be done at the expense of your mental health. Some companies can send stressful signals just as soon as you walk through the door.

For example, if the first thing you see upon entering the office is a poster showing top test scores from former students, or highlighting only the top colleges that have admitted former students, you can bet that this place will be high pressure. Inspiration is not the same as competition. Inspiration encourages people to grow, while competition intimidates people towards despair. Your value as a person cannot be measured by a GPA or test score, or even both.

You should also recognize that people succeed at all sorts of colleges, not just the famous ones. The vast majority of America does not attend a top 40 university, yet many grow into successful adults.

Consultants and Students Should Meet No Less Than Once Per Month

If the consulting service does not include specific live meetings — in-person or online — at least once per month, the consultant will have a hard time helping you address your mistakes in a timely fashion. Students and parents inevitably forget deadlines and need quick advice. What course should I drop? What course should I take? I’m barely getting any sleep, so what activity should I cut out? Unless the client and consultant meet at least once per month, and have regular communication via email, the amount of time allotted to the client is likely insufficient.

Meetings should also not be too frequent. It is rarely necessary for clients and consultants to meet more than once per week. Students need time to follow the instructions given by their consultants and to apply novel strategies before receiving advice on the next steps.

What to Look for When Picking a College Admissions Consultant

A college admissions consultant is like a chef. Good cooking comes from more than just following recipes word for word. Anyone can find a recipe for roast beef online, but making it tasty is not necessarily as straightforward. You also have to consider your setting, time constraints, and the diners themselves. Frozen microwave dinners are great for occasions when time is limited, but proper nutrition is essential for feeding athletes and fast-growing brains. A similar logic applies to consulting. Below are a few key questions to ask when picking a college admissions consultant.

A Self-Employed Consultant or a Large Consulting Firm?

As with everything in life, there are pros and cons to a self-employed consultant vs. a large consulting firm. The advantage of a large firm is that it may have more resources for helping a student. This includes a brainbank of consultants with varied career and educational backgrounds. However, the drawback of a large firm is that it expects consultants to take on a heavy workload that can lead to a high burnout rate.

Burnout means employee turnover. This may cause a company to switch consultants on a family. When this happens, the trust and familiarity that took years to build are gone and there’s nothing students and parents can do about it. Another disadvantage of large firms is that the quality of their consultants can vary dramatically, so it may take extra sleuthing to find detailed information about service quality.

By contrast, a self-employed consultant can offer consistency in terms of who will be guiding the student throughout the length of the program. If a consultant is successful enough to manage a company of their own, this likely speaks to a wealth of experience. The solo consultant also has more to lose when delivering bad service, so the level of quality control may be higher.

That said, there is also some risk in going with a solo consultant, because anything which incapacitates this individual — whether health matters, family issues, or otherwise — may leave a student without guidance at a critical moment in the search or application process.

How Much Attention Are They Willing to Offer?

There is a balance between excessive attention and negligence. Consultants should meet with students at least once per month, but not necessarily once per week unless circumstances require it. The dynamic nature of high school and unexpected life situations will inevitably create the need for quick advice on what to do. Consultants need to be available at least by email for impromptu questions. While consultants need to maintain work-life balance, there should be a protocol in place for emergency meetings. Sometimes, it is the job of the consultant to help a student put out a fire before it can grow into an inferno.

Do They Care About the Student’s Mental Health?

I’ve witnessed numerous students break down in tears under the pressure of living up to their parents’ expectations that “you should get into X university.” Parents may not intend to deliver the unspoken message of “We won’t really love you unless you get into a famous university,” but often that’s what children perceive.

On top of parental expectations, TV and social media bombard students with false standards of success. Not everyone will be Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, and not everyone needs to be. There are plenty of high-paying careers outside of the tech industry. And within the tech industry, there are many high-paying jobs that involve people skills, not science or engineering skills. A student is not a soulless commodity on which to make a profit. A good consultant is more than just a strategist. He/she must be a mentor who sees students as vulnerable people — even the superstars — who need protection.

Do They Convey the Fact That a Person Can Be Successful Without Graduating from a World Famous University?

The vast majority of college-educated Americans do not attend top 40 national universities, yet many still enjoy financial and personal success through hard work and career connections. The experience of attending a top-ranked school may not be for everybody.

While college admissions consultants do know the strategies for getting into competitive universities, it’s not an easy process so students need reassurance that they have value as people in society regardless of what school they attend. Excessive pressure is unhealthy and can backfire on the academic potential of a student.

Do They Specialize in Helping Athletes, Musicians, or Artists?

Universities often have special programs for athletes, musicians, or artists that require a special process in addition to the usual college application. Students seeking scholarships or recruitment based on these achievements need to make sure that their consultant is aware of the special circumstances, best practices, key submission items, and timelines specific to their track.

What is YOUR Role in Receiving Help From a College Admissions Consultant?

The best pair of running shoes or the most expensive, state-of-the-art tennis racquet is useless unless an athlete actually trains for the sport. The strategies from college admissions consultants are like equipment tailored to a specific athlete’s needs. However, if the student doesn’t learn how to use this personalized equipment, he or she will have little chance of winning in an actual competition. The student and parents are like athletes in training. They must allow themselves to be coached by a consultant. They must learn and practice basic techniques in order for the consultant’s strategies to bear fruit.

You Have to Follow Instructions

This may seem like a given, but students and parents sometimes don’t follow instructions. A college admissions consultant’s strategy is only as good as the student’s willingness to follow through. This means turning things in on time and prioritizing the right things.

“Why would someone pay a consultant for help, yet not follow instructions?” you might ask yourself. You might be surprised at how much complicated family relationships can affect a consultant’s ability to guide a student. These are rare cases, but frequent enough to warrant mentioning. A good consultant is one who knows how to parse out these complicated dynamics and who has the patience to navigate them.

The Student Must Be Honest With Himself and His Consultant

There are strategies for helping every student in every situation, but they all rely on the fact that the student wants to do it. Some students, due to privilege, just don’t see the point in working hard and developing life skills. Other students, due to hidden emotional pain, have good intentions on following through but just aren’t present enough in the right state of mind to be consistent.

Some students need greater support in understanding their own situations, and in particular, how near-term decisions can impact future prospects. A student may be eager to grow, but may also harbor an excessive fear of failure because of how successful her parents are. There is a solution to each case, but students have to be forthcoming about their outlook, or their motivation for certain decisions. Without this honesty, the consultant cannot create effective strategies for growth.

The Parents Must Be Honest With Themselves and Their Consultant

Parents who pay for college admissions consulting are clearly interested in the success of their children. However, parents can be overly eager to push their children towards stardom without understanding the excessive pressure that they create. Which parent doesn’t want their child to continue a proud family legacy?

However, parents are typically far removed from the challenges they once faced as students. They may inadvertently impose the expectation of perfection on their children. This can be emotionally crippling. A consultant may advise parents to back off a bit or to trust their students to make their own decisions, and to learn from their own mistakes.

Students Should Not Engage in Illegal or Unethical Behavior

Do not hide a criminal record, even if it’s just a misdemeanor, from a college admissions consultant. If you’ve gotten bad grades in the past, do not hide them from your consultant. Colleges do background checks and know every education institution at which you registered as a student. If they find that you lied about your records, even in just one class, that will warrant enough suspicion to instigate an investigation that results in revoking their admissions offer.

After you have received your admissions offer, don’t engage in vandalism, property destruction, or discriminatory behavior on social media. Colleges can and will revoke their admissions offer. Why work so hard for four years, and emerge with a triumphant admissions offer, only to fail because of a character problem? In fact, you should have fixed any offending social media content long before you’ve submitted your college applications.

How Involved Are Parents in the Life of the Student?

A successful college admissions consulting strategy must involve at least one parental figure or a guardian who is present in the life of the student. By far, the most successful cases are those in which at least one parent is engaged with the successes and failures of the student. Excellence, whether in the form of athletics, music, or academics, requires effort. Good things do not come easily, so failure and disappointment are a given. Students who don’t have a strong emotional support structure at home may crumble under the pressure of school, standardized exams, and society in general.

On this matter, parents can also be too involved in their children’s endeavors, which can itself create a crippling pressure to which the parent is blind. This is also a job for the consultant to parse out. Children need encouragement, but they also need space to make mistakes and grow into young adults who learn to trust their own judgements. This is one of the trickiest situations for a college admissions consultant to resolve. If a “helicopter parent” hovers too closely to the ground, the air pressure from the propeller will squash the child who is trying to grow.