Are college consultants a crutch for the weak or fuel for the strong?

By Maxine Seya

I threw up on my first day of water polo camp.

Far from the tan and lean athlete I aspired to be, I resembled a cartoonish flurry of frantic limbs fighting to keep my ears out of the 20-foot-deep pool to hear my coach’s orders lest I get left behind once again by my more graceful teammates.

I’d crawl into my mom’s SUV after practice and tell her that “it went fine,” but somehow, she knew I was struggling.

By week 2 of summer, she had found and hired a water polo coach who met me at our community pool every day after practice.

By the first week of fall semester, a little leaner and a lot tanner, throwing up in the bathroom after practice was only a distant memory. I kept not just my ears but my shoulders effortlessly above water, powering through four hours of daily eggbeaters, shoots, and drills — with energy leftover to finish all my homework at night. I remember my coach sitting on the deck with his lanyard sunglasses watching me and almost whispering under his breath “You’ve come a long way.”

My mom had asked an expert coach to help with something neither my unathletic mom nor I had any expertise in.

And it paid off. At 15, I got licensed as a lifeguard. At Northwestern, my first college job was teaching local North Shore kids to swim and managing the university swim program. Today, I swim, surf, go seacaving, and paddleboard for hours in the ocean and consider them my passions.

It was a sensible decision to find help because we all knew that telling me to “flail harder in the water” would have drowned me even faster.

Now, let’s try something.

And let’s pretend that instead of flailing for dear life in that deep pool, I was nose deep in my schoolbooks for hours a night only to earn mediocre C+ grades.

Instead of being left behind on one side of the pool, let’s imagine I was just metaphorically left behind by my higher performing classmates with clear college goals, superior writing skills, and wealthy parents with legacy status.

Let’s replace “water polo coach” with “college consultant.”

Despite the similarity of the two situations – a high schooler whose parents hire out help that they can’t provide themselves – the most common responses couldn’t be more different.

The parents who pay to put their kids in Little League or soccer camps, or who hire private athletic trainers, are lauded for their dedication to childhood development.

Yet, the parents who pay college consultants to help their kids find best fit colleges, increase SAT scores, identify powerful essay topics, and polish academic transcripts are often met with more critical responses:

“College consultants are unethical. I don’t want to bribe my daughter’s way into college.”

“Why would she need a college consultant when there are already college counselors at school? Seems like a waste.”

“Her daughter must not be very motivated if she needs a college consultant. Applying to college isn’t rocket science.”

“I know plenty of parents who helped their kids get into Ivy League schools without help. Anyone can do it…unless the kid is unmotivated.”

Why are the same people who are so eager to send their kids to paid extracurriculars like club soccer so hesitant to normalize hiring outside help for college admissions?

There are a few reasons, but first, let’s review the basics.

Where do college consultants shine?

A college consultant is not the same as a college counselor who works in the high school guidance office.

A college consultant (a.k.a. admissions consultant or independent educational consultant) is someone you hire outside of school to help your child get into college. Their services might include the common ones like test prep tutoring, essay review, and college list creation. Specialized college consultants might focus on international college admissions, college athlete placement, or financial aid optimization.

Like your CPA who helps your family find tax-saving strategies, a college consultant can help your family find tuition-saving or time-saving admissions strategies.

Like your trusted real estate agent who sends you lists of homes on the market matching your purchase criteria, a college consultant might curate a list of known and unknown colleges that meet your child’s needs.

Like your therapist who asks you probing questions to better understand your thought processes and behaviors, a college consultant might use personality tests to help your child reveal his inner strengths and ideal learning styles.

Yet, college consultants are often viewed with suspicion.

Why the suspicion around college consultants?

There are several reasons for that:

The media covers all the bad stuff college consultants do.

Last year, a bunch of Hollywood celebrities and other rich people were caught using college consultants to bribe their kids’ way into elite colleges. The existence of college consultants sprouted into the limelight for the first time in such a widespread manner. All the attention focused on them doing illegal things like creating fake resumes for clients, doctoring SAT scores, plagiarizing college essays – all while profiting millions of dollars in bribes, lying to honest high school and college admissions counselors, and snatching away opportunities from other hardworking, honest applicants with shallower pockets.

The good stuff that college consultants do are only shared by word-of-mouth.

Ask most college consultants and many of them will tell you that most of their business comes from repeat business, referrals, or word-of-mouth. Happy customers tell their friends, but outside of their immediate circle, no one will know just how helpful, inspiring, or effective the college consultant can be. So unless you have friends, coworkers, or family who’ve shared positive experiences with a college consultant, chances are you’re left only with – thanks to mainstream media’s defamatory reports – an impression of unethical college consultants and a yucky taste in your mouth.

Parents expect themselves or their kids to handle the college stuff.

Most college educated parents today got into college without much help. Northwestern accepted 42% of applicants in 1993, compared to 9% in 2020. Today’s parents of teenagers didn’t need 4.8 GPAs, 1600 SATs, 18 publications in scholarship journals, and four international championships to get into their top choice colleges. A simple application with decent grades and decent test scores ensured admittance to many quality colleges with reasonable tuition and a degree worthy of good-paying jobs postgrad. So why wouldn’t these parents’ kids with smart, educated moms and dads experience the same thing?  Many parents haven’t kept up with the vast changes in college admissions and have no idea about the intricacies of how today’s colleges select students. They expect their kids to figure it out themselves like they did decades ago. Or they think they’ll be ready to catch up on decades worth of college admissions changes and help their kids themselves during their free time. Hiring a college consultant might seem just as excessive to them as hiring a job consultant to help their kids apply for a job at Starbucks because getting into college should be, in their opinion, easy.

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Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.