Archive | February, 2011

For Hire: Private College Consultants

17 Feb

Since my daughter’s sophomore year, we’ve been receiving mailings from various private college admissions consultants, offering to help us apply to colleges.  Some have specific angles and pitches, like maximizing financial aid and scholarships.  They take on clients as young as sophomores and assist with class, extracurricular and summer activity selections, advice on which standardized tests to take, recommendations on private tutors, compiling a list of colleges to apply to, helping with essays, interviews, and staying on top of the process.

Thirty years ago, retaining a private college admissions consultant was unheard of, at least in my middle-class public school circle.  My immigrant parents were not as involved in my college search as we are with our daughter’s although my father did review my essay.  I was a good student so it was expected that I would aim for the Ivies with a smattering of state schools as back-ups.  There was no thought given to considerations such as, the right fit, my learning style, my strengths.  I was brought up to be flexible, to adjust to changing circumstances, so the expectation was that I would learn to adjust to whatever college I ended up at.

Times have changed dramatically and now parents in well-heeled communities hire college consultants to help navigate the increasingly murky and competitive waters of college admissions.  With rising numbers of applications, declining rates of admission and overloaded guidance counselors, a cottage industry of college consultants has sprung up, with names that are any combination of the words College, Admissions, Service, Counseling, Planning, Solutions, Advisors and variations thereof.  Even my blog shares a similar name to a college consulting service in California.

My unscientific, very informal research indicates that fees for services range from expensive to more expensive.  In our area, some charge a flat rate starting at $1200 and up for comprehensive services, and $175 an hour and above for a la carte services.  Many offer free teaser workshops in the evenings to attract potential clients.

Predictably, these consultants are somewhat controversial in college admissions circles.  Jeffrey Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale was quoted in a Businessweek article in 2007: “I believe that most of the funds expended on independent counselors are simply wasted…we do not believe they have much, if any, effect on who we accept.”  Some believe it turns college admissions into an arms race benefitting the wealthy who are willing to spend to give their children every advantage.

So should you hire a college consultant?  (Full disclosure: I have friends who do this for a living and I do want to keep them as friends.)  Like all personal decisions, it depends on individual circumstances and finances.  Many, many families do very well without any assistance from consultants.  Nevertheless there are parents who credit college consultants for getting their family through an arduous and stressful process.  Especially if the parent and child are at loggerheads with each other, it may be useful to bring in an outside third party to defuse tensions and move the process forward.  Sometimes it’s easier for children to listen to and follow the same advice given by someone else.  In our geographical area, hiring college consultants appears to be popular.

So long as applications continue to climb, admission rates continue to fall and the college admissions process is perceived as random and opaque, private college consultants will have their work cut out for them.

We Want You. Maybe.

10 Feb

“You’ve been selected!”

“You’ve impressed us.”

“We’re interested in you.”

“You’ve caught our attention.”

Flattery will get you everywhere.  Apparently that’s what the colleges are hoping for when they send marketing emails with these kinds of gushing statements in the subject line.  I had forgotten that my daughter had put down my email address on the PSAT form in October and now that the PSAT results had been released in mid-December, the colleges are sending information to her.  They’re flooding my in-box, several a day, even on weekends.  As they stream in, I’ve been madly forwarding them to her.  Just to keep organized, she created a separate folder for all these emails.

“Have you looked at any of the colleges yet?  Do any of them interest you?” I asked her eagerly.  Ok, perhaps I’m a little more excited than she is.  Some of the colleges looked intriguing to me.

Because she has been busy with schoolwork and tests, she hadn’t looked at any of the emails yet.  At my slightly disappointed look, she said, “Mom, just because they send you an email doesn’t mean you’ll get into the school.”

She’s right.  She and her friends know that colleges send out these recruiting materials but it doesn’t mean they will admit you when you apply.  The New York Times in conjunction with the Chronicle of Higher Education addressed this issue in an article by Mr. Eric Hoover published on November 5, 2010 called “Application Inflation: When is Enough Enough?” The article mentions that colleges buy names of students whose standardized test scores and grade point averages fall within certain ranges.  Nowadays, the College Board sells 80 million names to 1,200 colleges at 32 cents a name.  You do the math.  (I had to open an Excel spreadsheet since my handy-dandy solar-powered calculator couldn’t handle all the zeros).  Ka-ching!

They’ve been doing this since my generation applied to college except back then they used snail mail.  My husband recalls that Harvard sent him a letter encouraging him to apply to the college, which he did.  He was rejected.  He remembers feeling miffed, thinking, “Well, why did you ask me to apply?”  Some things have not changed in thirty years and Mr. Hoover interviews recent students in his article who have similarly felt the sting of rejection after being targeted by a college’s marketing department.

Still, it’s hard not to fall for the marketing come-ons, especially since they so cleverly play to the teenager’s ego (and by extension, said teenager’s mother’s ego).  My daughter admitted that it made her feel good to read the colleges’ adulatory acclamations about her academic accomplishments, (“You’re a successful student!”).  She felt encouraged, and it feels nice to be desired and pursued.  Who knows?  When she finally gets around to reading some of the emails, she may want to visit some of the schools.  Meanwhile, it’s best not to read too much into anything.  They want you…maybe.


A Different View: Irish Education

3 Feb

I was away in Dublin, Ireland, for several days last week, visiting friends.  As some of you know, my family and I lived in Ireland for a couple of years during the heyday of the roaring Celtic Tiger.  Our daughter attended an Irish secondary school and we obtained an inside view of the Irish education system.  Here are some of the significant differences from the American education system:

  • There is no prohibition against teaching religion in public schools.  In fact, over 90% of primary schools (comparable to elementary schools for kids age 4 to 12) are affiliated with the Catholic Church while the rest are associated with the Church of Ireland and other Christian denominations.  I know of one private Jewish secondary school and there are at least two state-funded Muslim primary schools in the country.  Teaching about faith is an accepted part of the curriculum.
  • After primary school, students attend secondary school beginning from age 12 or 13 through age 18 (comparable to American middle and high school).  At the end of secondary school, Irish students take a series of college entrance examinations in six to eight subjects, collectively known as the Leaving Certificate Examinations or Leaving Cert for short.
  • Unlike in the United States where students apply to individual colleges for admission, Irish students apply to the Central Applications Office for college admission.  Admission to university is determined solely upon the number of points accumulated on Leaving Cert exams.
  • The Leaving Cert exams take place over a two and a half week period in June, and to make it especially galling to test takers, this time period usually coincides with some of the best weather in Ireland.
  • Test results are released in mid-August so Irish students have to wait until August to find out where they will be attending college.
  • The government pays tuition fees at Irish colleges for Irish and European Union citizens.  Students are charged a registration fee, which fee for the 2009-2010 year was 1,500 euros or approximately US$1,995.  No wonder my friends in Ireland who follow this blog are  aghast at the high cost of attending college in America.  The days of low tuition fees may come to an end as the Irish government grapples with ways to reduce its budget deficit.  Still, the tuition has a long way to catch up to exorbitant American tuition.


Despite differences in education systems, one thing is the same on both sides of the Atlantic when it comes to college admissions – stress, stress, stress.  The Leaving Cert exams are a source of great anxiety and pressure for Irish students and their parents.  Because everything rides on the Leaving Cert results, the last year of secondary school is a frenzy-whipped marathon of studying and test preparation.  I remember around Leaving Cert time, the newspapers would publish various articles giving advice on stress reduction and test taking strategies (e.g. getting a good night’s sleep, eating healthy foods, no cramming the night before).

During this visit, an Irish friend spoke of her anxieties about the Leaving Cert, only five months away.  She worried that her child was not applying himself to his studies.  As she talked, I could see the apprehension and frustration in her eyes and I was reminded of an American friend who lamented that her child was going to end up at a “no-name” college.

Concerns about children’s academic futures will always lay claim on parents’ hearts, regardless of culture, education systems, or national boundaries.


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