If you want your child to have a fighting chance at getting into one of the country's best universities, or if you are overwhelmed by the process of helping your child select and apply to colleges, you might consider hiring a college admissions consultant.
The college acceptance numbers would seem to argue for it. The top national universities had single-digit acceptance rates in 2022: roughly 3 percent at Harvard, 4 percent at Yale, and 6 percent at Johns Hopkins, according to one admissions researcher. And about 24 others have an acceptance rate of 20 percent or less, as do 17 of the top-ranked national liberal arts colleges.
What do college admissions consultants do?
College admissions consultants, also called independent education counselors (IECs), work with students and their parents to figure out which schools a student should apply to. They also guide them through the application and essay-writing processes. Some consultancies are one-person operations; others have dozens of counselors on staff. All help compensate for the lack of time high school guidance counselors have to spend with students.
Admission consultants’ services often go beyond merely selecting and applying to schools. About half offer career advice, about a third offer test prep, almost half provide guidance on financial aid, and the vast majority advise on academic course selection, while a few provide academic tutoring services, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Planning college visits and helping select extracurricular and summer activities that will make a student a well-rounded applicant are other services admissions consultants sometimes offer. (Learn more: Hunting generous colleges)
Edward Vosganian, president and founder of College Funding 123, said in an interview that some advisors, including his company, have schools that call them to say they are looking for students with certain interests; this might be the case if the school is introducing a new program or major, for example. This knowledge can help expand a student’s options for which schools they might want to attend and what scholarship funding they might be eligible for.
Why some families hire a college admissions consultant
“I've often been told that having a consultant made life happier at home because there was no nagging needed about what progress the student was making on applications,” said Pam Rambo, a college admissions consultant with Rambo Research and Consulting, in an interview.
IECs emphasize their ability to not only help students identify and get into colleges that are the right fit for them, but also their ability to make the process of selecting a college enjoyable rather than stressful. They also say that the money families pay them is well worth it because they can help students identify schools that are more likely to offer them a generous financial aid package and that by helping students choose the right school, they are more likely to graduate on time. Both of these achievements can keep college costs down by far more than what it costs to hire a consultant. (Related: College savings calculator)
Anita Gajula, a college admissions coach with My College Planning Team, said in an interview that most parents do not have the time and energy to become experts in whatever interests their child. “They hire tutors to help with ACT and SAT test preparation. They hire nutritionists or medical experts when their child is experiencing physical problems. Why should this be any different for the college process?”
Characteristics of a good college consultant
Gajula said that most good college consultants have dedicated several years to learning how to assess and evaluate a student's interests, strengths, and abilities so they can help them choose a major and/or career. They have spent countless nights on the road touring a variety of the 4,000 colleges in the United States. They have taken classes about all the ins and outs of the financial aid and admissions process, and they are constantly reading up on the newest changes in the test-prep industry and admissions process. (Related: Student financial aid and big changes for the FAFSA)
Many consultants have prior experience as college admissions directors, scholarship directors, or financial aid directors, which gives them an insider’s knowledge. You can also look for credentials such as membership in the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) or the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), though the occupation is not licensed, so a lack of such credentials is not a cause for concern.
A good college counselor gives a student an edge by helping him or her avoid applying to too many low-probability “reach” schools and not enough high-probability “safety” schools and medium-probability “target” schools, said Jonathan M. Perkins, a college counselor with EssayWise, in an interview. (Learn more: Choosing a college)
Another thing to look for is the comfort factor.
“I think chemistry is important between the consultant, parent, and child. If you meet a consultant and don't feel comfortable with them, interview another consultant,” Rambo said.
According to the IECA, most consultants offer either a free initial consultation or a consultation where the price is rolled into the package if you end up hiring that consultant. This initial meeting allows parents and students to learn about the counseling company and its services and to see if the fit is right.
Characteristics of a bad college consultant
A bad consultant, by contrast, will fill out your child’s applications for them, write your child’s essays, or engage in other dishonest tactics in an attempt to gain an edge. Other warning signs that an independent educational consultant is not worth hiring, according to the IECA, include promises to use pull or connections to help your child get admitted to a particular school, acceptance of finder's fees from colleges, and a lack of specificity about what you are getting for your money when you hire them. The IECA also provides a list of questions to ask before hiring a consultant.
College consultants cannot guarantee that your child will be admitted to a particular school — or to any school at all. They are not the ones making the decisions in the admissions office. For the same reason, they also cannot guarantee that your child will receive a particular scholarship or financial aid package.
“There is no special secret that can get an average student into a super-selective school,” Perkins said. “There is only an open secret: that having a hook helps.”
He said that five common hooks exist for students…
- A legacy
- Belong to a family that donates lots of money
- A recruited athlete
- An underrepresented minority
- Part of the first generation in a family to attend college
He said that a college admissions counselor can identify a hook and help a student accentuate it in the application, as well as help the student avoid writing an application essay that fails to provide any memorable details. (Related: Preparing for the college acceptance letter)
Who should consider hiring a college consultant . . . and who should skip it
“As someone who has been an independent education consultant for a dozen years now, my view on the question of if a family should hire someone like me is an unequivocal and unwavering, ‘maybe’,” said Arun Ponnusamy, head counselor and vice president of Collegewise, in an interview. “Fear should not be the motivating factor. There’s loads of great, free advice out there to supplement any of the support found within a high school. A savvy student or parent — with some effort and organization — can absolutely move through this process at a high level without paying a dime to an IEC,” he said.
Ponnusamy added that for students with niche interests — recruited athletes, musical theater talent, or STEM-focus, for example — a knowledgeable expert can help reveal some lesser-known options for popular or prestigious schools. (Related: A primer on college financial aid)
College consultants can also help families with troubled students or families where parents and their child cannot agree on where to apply or attend. They can also be useful if a student has an unconventional academic background or wants to pursue an uncommon major or career.
And if your child has any other special characteristics — maybe she has a learning challenge or a physical challenge — a consultant who has worked with similar children and understands their unique needs can make it easier for your family to find the right school.
How much college admissions consultants charge
The cost of a college consultant depends on the fee structure of the company you hire and how much help you want with the admissions process.
Ponnusamy said parents can hire someone for just an hour to review a child’s college list, or they can buy a comprehensive package that spares parents the grief of learning the nuances of the college admissions process, which can be particularly important for working parents.
Many providers offer transparent pricing right on their websites. Others don’t, preferring to engage first. Prices can range from roughly $250 for a one-hour meeting to several thousand dollars for a package offering unlimited assistance for 11th and 12th graders. The IECA reported that the mean college advising package fee in 2018, the latest survey available, ranged from $850 to $10,000, with average packages in the $4,000-$6,000 range.1
For families on a tight budget, some counselors reduce their fees or waive them altogether. In fact, the IECA reports that about a quarter of families who use college counselors are working class, lower middle class or impoverished.2
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This article was first published in October 2016. It has been updated.
1 IECA, “Trends in Independent Educational Consulting 2018,” IECA Webinar, February 2020.