Red Flags When Hiring a College Consultant: A Comprehensive Look

By Maxine Seya

I’m still surprised at how little many college consultants know about their own line of work.

Not long ago, I heard an upset college consultant ask a group of other consultants why his student didn’t get into Yale EA despite perfect scores and an almost perfect GPA.

Sorry buddy, but merely high stats hasn’t gotten kids into selective colleges since before texting with our thumbs became a thing.

And by the way, how did he even get into the industry with such little knowledge about college admissions?

The commonness of bad college consultants is frustrating for me, but it’s even more worrisome for parents looking for a college consultant operating under higher stakes.

The college admissions industry is unregulated. Anyone can sign up for an online “College Counseling Certificate” — yes, there truly is no admissions requirement. It might as well be YouTube. Because of the low barriers to entry, I don’t want you to hire a lemon.

During the initial consultation, it can be a red flag if your college consultant:

  1. Makes admissions promises. If the college consultant you’re interviewing is making some sort of guarantee that your child will definitely get into certain schools, consider this a red flag. Not even admissions officers themselves have the power to make these commitments.
  2. Recommends that you donate large sums to their foundations. If your college consultant claims that your kid can secure entry to college with an educational donation to some sort of foundation, run away. These lies were central to a scam that got a prominent college consultant and his clients in deep legal trouble in 2019. Unlike donating hundreds of millions directly to universities (which may not even guarantee admissions), this type of “donation” is an undercover bribe and 100% illegal.
  3. Bashes other college consultants. The best college consultants understand that success depends on a strong consultant-child-parent relationship. Some consultants’ services, personalities, and approaches are simply not your cup of tea and they should respect you for finding a consultant who fits your family’s needs. If your consultant is insulting other college consultants (their competitors) or getting upset that you are looking for a different type of personality, this is a warning sign. They’re more concerned about collecting your money than looking out for your best interests.
  4. Overcriticizes your child in order to charge more. Students have reported detrimental mental health struggles from the criticism received from college consultants. This is all on top of the teenage stress of school, social life, and simply growing up. In the initial meeting, your college consultant might criticize your child’s grades, test performance, extracurricular achievements, or even writing style to push you to buy more “fixer upper” services from them. Contrary to a tough love approach where a college consultant gives straightforward, but honest feedback, this approach is constantly negative, critical, and possibly insulting to your child because it’s driven by greed. Your child may not really be all that bad, but your consultant is preying on a desperate and out-of-the-loop parent with money to spend. This is a red flag that your college consultant cares more about the money than honestly evaluating your teen and building him up.
  5. Name-drops their other clients and their situations. If your college consultant mentions the names of several past or current clients or openly shares their income details, academics stats, or personal statement, you can consider this a warning sign that they will also blabber about your family to other clients. Like a therapist, your college consultant should always maintain your family’s privacy, including conversation details, names, and other identifiers.
  6. Tells you they can do everything. College consultants, like many other professionals — CPAs, lawyers, psychologists, etc. — are eager for your business. But consulting is a time-consuming profession that requires individualized attention to each student’s unique situation and each family’s specific needs. If your college consultant is answering “yes” to all of your specialized requests and saying they’ll handle it all, it could be a red flag that they’re overpromising and will likely underdeliver.
  7. Claims they’re overbooked. Maybe the consultant is not overbooked, but wants to instill a sense of urgency in you to sign the contract. Or maybe the consultant truly is overbooked. Either way, a lying consultant doesn’t have your best interests at heart and worse, an overbooked consultant is a red flag pointing to burnout. A burnt-out professional will not be able to bring the required energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to help your student succeed.
  8. Follows outdated information. As a member of the industry, I’ve met so many college consultants who hang on to outdated strategies or info about college admissions. They might still believe that straight A’s and a 1600 SAT are enough to get into top colleges. They rely on other college consultants to fill them in on the latest admissions changes, test score policies, acceptance rates, etc. This type of college consultant might be useful as a hand holder throughout the admissions process, but is not one with the resources and pre-existing interest to give your child a new vision. Like you and other parents of teenagers, they’re also merely trying to keep up with all the admissions changes and policies. This is a red flag that you’re wasting money on something you or your child could probably do yourself.

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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.