11 Questions to Ask College Admissions Counselors

  • How many students do you work with each year?
  • Where do most of your students matriculate?
  • How many years of experience do you have?
  • How much essay writing assistance do you provide?
  • Do you help with international college admission as well as US college admission?
  • Do you help students with their teacher, counselor, and “other” recommenders?
  • Do you provide advocacy for students with special skills or talents?
  • Do you have any college connections?
  • Do you offer a money-back guarantee of admission?
  • How would you describe your counseling style?
  • How much do you charge?

Parents who are navigating the college admission process for the first time, or even the second or third time, often find the process daunting. On a very superficial level, it is relatively easy: pick some colleges, fill in questions on the common application, write some essays and invite a couple of recommenders. If you follow these steps, you are likely to get into a few colleges, as long as you have included some safety schools on your list. However, the goal for most students is not to get into just “a few colleges.” The goal is to be accepted at the “right” colleges and to have advantageous choices of where to attend. This takes a little more work. Unfortunately, many families start later than they should, either at the end of 11th grade or the beginning of 12thgrade. For these families of underclassmen, college is just a distant painting hanging on a wall in the far corner of your home.

When I was teaching my daughter to drive a car, one piece of advice I gave her is to always focus on the furthest point down the road that you can see. Most new drivers focus their attention only a few feet out from the front of the car and that does not allow them to see conditions or obstacles that are fast approaching. By focusing your attention down the road, your brain automatically activates your peripheral vision to see conditions between distant points and the front of the car. This way, you can plan for twists and turns gradually as opposed to reacting suddenly when those twist interns are already upon you. This strategy makes for a much smoother and safer drive. This is the same advice I give to my counselees. Focus far ahead and take advantage of all the opportunities that come your way in 9th grade through 11th grade. By the time you get to 12th grade, most opportunities to enhance your application have already passed you by. Of course, there are still effective strategies that can make your application as compelling as possible, to help you stand out from the crowd of students who are all fighting for the same seat.

All of this raises the question of who is guiding families? Who is helping to make important decisions throughout high school? How do families know what is right and what is wrong with respect to the many components of college applications? In a perfect world, the answer is: your high school’s guidance counselor provides this information. However, we do not live in a perfect world. School guidance counselors cannot possibly provide students with the individual attention that they need. National surveys conducted by NACAC, The National Association of College Admission Counseling, regularly confirm the fact that school-based college counselors are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of students requiring assistance. As a result, most advice from school-based counselors comes in the form of class presentations and information sessions. There is very little (or any) room for one-on-one discussions. There are virtually no meetings set up in 9th or 10th grade when students should be engaging in the kinds of activities that will help support their case for admission. In 11th grade, there may be one or two very brief meetings. In 12th grade, counselors are simply making sure that students perform the basic necessities of admission to get their applications done on time. Statistics indicate that the average school-based college counselor spends a total of 45 minutes with each student over four years. Clearly this is not enough time to provide personalized advice. Once they realize this, many families turn to private college admission counselors to bridge the gap.

Both the quality and extent of advice given by private counselors varies dramatically. This is to be expected given the fact that there are tens of thousands of private counselors located throughout the country and internationally. Some counselors are focused on access, which roughly translates into getting into any college that will take them and that a family can afford. Other counselors focus exclusively on the essay, either editing or writing original essays for students. Some counselors charge for a set number of hours, and others charge by the number of colleges or services they provide. Some counselors specialize in regional colleges, and others have a more national or international focus. There are counselors whose expertise is in locating scholarships, and others who focus on gap years. Like a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates, college admission counselors come in a wide variety of flavors—not every counselor is right for every family.

If you are considering using a private college counselor, you would be well advised to learn as much as possible about that counselor.

Questions to ask college admissions counselors How many students do you work with each year?

This question is important because the number of hours in a week must be divided by the counselor’s number of counselees. Done right, personalized college admission counseling takes time. So, if a counselor has a lot of students, he or she may be scratching the surface with all, or many of them, while possibly giving more attention to higher value clients. A lot of students does not necessarily indicate that they are doing a good job with any or all of them.

Where do most of your students matriculate?

Some counselors are more comfortable working with students who are candidates for top colleges such as those in the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, USC, Carnegie Mellon, UC Berkeley, Duke, Northwestern, Amherst, Williams, Pomona, etc. Other counselors focus more on colleges offering scholarships or on college access. It is best to know where a counselor’s expertise lies.

How many years of experience do you have?

Some counselors are very new in the field and even though they may seem to have the right qualifications, experience is the greatest teacher of all. Also, it helps to have experience on the high school side rather than on the college side. In other words, actual college counselors know things that college admission officers may not, such as opportunities for scholarships, internships, and advantageous summer programs.

How much essay writing assistance do you provide?

These answers will range from basic editing to actual writing. At the very least, a counselor should provide guidance on the best topics to write about, and make sure that there are no typos did in final product. Many counselors will go beyond this basic level of service to provide “heavy editing.” Here, there is a rather gray line between writing and editing, and there are counselors who will do both.

Do you help with international college admission as well as US college admission?

Some families may be applying to colleges outside the US. For most of these, the process is separate and distinct from the process of applying to US schools.

Do you help students with their teacher, counselor, and “other” recommenders?

Recommendations are a critically important part of the college admission process. Some counselors will assist in creating “brag sheets” or other forms of information to be provided to recommenders. Others do not provide this service which can be time consuming.

Do you provide advocacy for students with special skills or talents?

There are counselors who specialize in working with gifted athletes, artists, and musicians. Other counselors have no particular expertise in this area. Still other counselors can provide support for students who have a particular talent but who will not select a major related to that talent. Advocacy (reaching out directly to a particular college department in order to obtain a recommendation to the admissions committee) can be effective for a student who has a true gift or talent.

Do you have any college connections?

Be highly cautious of any counselor who tells you that they have specific college connections and, as a result, is more likely to help you earn admission though your credentials do not warrant it. This warning is especially important for the most competitive colleges. The days of calling in favors from college admission committees are largely over. There is simply too much scrutiny on the admission process nowadays for personal favors to take precedence over impressive credentials.

Do you offer a money-back guarantee of admission?

Some individuals or college counseling companies may offer you a “money-back guarantee of admission” in exchange for a higher price. In most cases, these companies make their money from the portion of the original fee that is not refunded. Guarantees are sales ploys rather than indications of confidence. Other companies may ask you (or you may offer) to pay a bonus if your student is accepted at a top college that might be considered a “super reach.” Typically, this is far more authentic than a guarantee of admission.

How would you describe your counseling style?

This is a question that not many parents know that they should ask. While typically parents pay for the counselor, it is the student who must work with that counselor. Therefore, there should be a good match between a student’s learning style and a counselor’s counseling style. One of the best ways to determine compatibility is by setting up an initial consultation. Ideally, this consultation would be free. You should be hesitant to pay for a consultation even if the price you pay will be folded into the price for service should you decide to continue.

How much do you charge?

The range of prices you will find for college admission counseling may shock you. It can range from a few hundred dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars. Similarly, the range of services can vary dramatically. Some college counselors charge by the number of hours while others charge by the level of service or based on their experience. If you are just seeking basic help, you can likely find a counselor who will charge by the hour. Typically, standard counselors charge between $200 and $400 per hour. If you prefer to work with a highly seasoned and experienced professional. You should expect to pay between $20,000 and $40,000 for full service counseling which will likely include significant help writing essays. Unlike counselors who charge by the hour, full-service counselors may spend 5 to 10 times more time between sessions than they do for actual face-to-face meetings.