Should you work with an independent counselor?

By Suzanne Shaffer

I was speaking with a parent the other night about advice her daughter received from an independent college counselor regarding standardized tests.

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High School Parent | College Parent

The counselor told the student not to bother with the SAT or ACT; they weren’t necessary. He made this statement before receiving a list of colleges and asking if she was applying to test-optional schools! The parent questioned the validity of this advice, and rightly so.

With college admissions becoming ever more competitive, it may seem logical to consider working with an independent counselor. They can offer expertise and a personalized approach to the complex, time-consuming and often stressful college search and application process. But ask any group of parents and you will hear a variety of opinions. Some believe engaging an independent counselor is an essential part of helping their student be a competitive applicant to his top choice schools; others question whether hiring someone adds value beyond what a student can already receive from parents and the high school.

Some parents choose to guide their student through the process and some choose to hire a professional. Neither is right nor wrong. The decision should be based on each family’s individual needs and resources.

Can the high school counselor help with college planning?

You would be amazed at the amount of material that comes across your high school counselor’s desk: scholarship, volunteer and leadership opportunities; communications from college admission offices and deans; and of course hundreds of counselor recommendation requests. Making friends with the counselor may be the most important and valuable relationship your student cultivates during high school.

story-icon-bar-convo-3When choosing an independent counselor, ask for personal recommendations. Talk to parents and students who worked with the counselor to find out if they were happy with the result. Do they feel the money was well spent based on their student’s outcome?

But high school counselors often have limited time to counsel students on college planning. According to research by the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, 50 percent of all high schools had student-to-counselor ratios of more than 250-to-1. Counselors at public high schools had a larger median caseload (299 students) than counselors at private high schools (106).

The high school counselor is a valuable resource for you and your student. However, if your student will need more time and personal attention than the school counselor is able to provide, it’s a good idea to consider additional options.

Is an independent college counselor necessary?

Before making the decision to hire an independent college counselor, you should consider three factors: your student, his needs and the cost. Does your student have a strong grasp of what’s involved in applying to college along with a commitment to stay on task and do his part? Are you well suited to partner with him or would it be better to involve a neutral party?

As for costs, determine if you are comfortable paying the fee a counselor charges. If it’s not within your means, this helps make the decision. The cost was prohibitive for us, but I also felt my daughter and I could figure out what needed to be done and our relationship lent itself to good teamwork.

That said, you might also consider the potential return on such an investment. Independent counselors can cost from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. If the counselor helps your student find best fit colleges, market himself as an asset to those colleges, and earn merit aid in the thousands, the fee will pay for itself and be well worth it.

How do you choose an independent counselor?

Begin by consulting professional organizations that offer affiliation:

All of these associations post a series of requirements and ethical standards for private consultants. Counselors should not claim special influence or guarantee admission to highly selective colleges. They should, however, offer help in all areas of college planning including curricular choices, creating the college list, crafting the essay, and helping analyze financial aid packages after acceptances arrive.

Accreditations and certificates are important but there’s nothing better than personal recommendations. Ask for them. Talk to parents and students who used a particular counselor and find out if they were happy with the result. Ask if they felt the money they spent was worth it based on their student’s outcome. Positive testimonials and referrals speak volumes — good past outcomes mean you have a good counselor.

If you choose to guide your student, what should you know?

Going it alone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek guidance and advice. Make sure to request a meeting with the high school counselor during the spring of junior year (one may not be automatically offered). Attend any and all college planning workshops offered by the school. Take time to create a thoughtful college search strategy.

There is a wealth of information online — including right here at UniversityParent. As the parent in my story did and as I did, ask questions. Do some research, do some reading, and foster social media relationships. Get to know who the influencers are and follow them. Experts are more than willing to help and offer advice when you need it.

The choice to hire or not to hire an independent college counselor is an individual one. When you weigh all the factors, you are sure to choose the path that is best for your family.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s new High School Parent eNews and purchase the Guide to Supporting Your Student’s Freshman Year for a preview of what’s ahead. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow High School parents by joining our High School Parent Facebook group.

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