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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.

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