Vetting Your College Consultant: Dos and Donts

Teenage me would have laughed if you said I’d one day work as a college consultant.

I have vague memory of my mom saying her friend’s son had his “college portfolio” reviewed by a professional, to which I said “eww” and dodged the topic.

The day college apps were due, I quietly hit submit, successfully avoiding any adult intervention — what I considered the dreaded “prying eyes” of teachers and parents.

A year later, after having gotten into my dream school, my floormate at Northwestern mentioned a friend who’d used a college consultant. That was the first time I’d heard of such a thing.

Six years later, I was sitting behind a wooden desk consulting a family from my hometown on their college-bound daughter’s “portfolio.” In hindsight, I quickly realized I’d become that person that 16-year-old me had thought was gross.

Funny how things work out.

So I’ll preface this week’s installment by saying that I’ve never used a college consultant myself, neither as a parent nor as a student. I have, however, worked alongside my fair share of college consultants. I’ve seen what works for clients and here are my best tips. Check out the companion article “Would We Benefit From a College Consultant?” here.

How To Vet A College Consultant

Step 1: Don’t make these assumptions when you’re vetting a college consultant

The higher the degree level, the higher the level of customer service, knowledge, and skills.

One of my most successful and popular college consulting colleagues has a Bachelors degree and no graduate degree. No graduate degree teaches you to be a college consultant, having 4 PhDs doesn’t necessarily make someone a better consultant, advocate, or college admissions expert.

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The higher ranked their alma mater, the better they are at their job.

Another consulting colleague of mine graduated from a college that the U.S. News & Report ranked lower than 100, but he commands one of the highest rates in the market because of his warm personality and experience. Just because a consultant has a degree from Harvard does not mean that he or she necessarily knows more about college admissions than someone from a lower-ranked university.

Their experience working in admissions means they know how all admissions offices work.

Many former admissions officers eventually become college consultants. Dr. Steven Antonoff is one example of a former dean of admissions at University of Denver who founded a college consulting practice. He quickly realized that while he was an expert on admissions at U Denver, he didn’t know anything about the way other schools admit students. Every school selects students differently and experience reading apps for one school doesn’t equate to experience in all schools.

The longer they’ve been in the field, the better they are at their job.

I’ve encountered college consultants who’ve been working in the field for so long that they’re unfortunately a bit out of touch. What worked for a student eight years ago might be the same strategy he or she is using on your student. But that might not work. Truthfully, many consultants do not have much time to keep up with admissions news. As a college consultant, I had sometimes 8 back-to-back meetings in a day before I could even go to the bathroom, much less keep abreast on industry news. Sometimes, the longer a consultant has been in the industry, the more reliant they become on referral clients and the less they challenge themselves to keep up with admissions changes. This should concern clients in the pandemic-era, when admissions criteria seem to change by the minute.

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The only good consultants are the ones who’ve joined an industry association

I’ve read many articles that warn parents against hiring college consultants who aren’t a member of certain industry associations like NACAC, IECA, HECA, or the like. I get the feeling that the authors who write these articles are members themselves pushing the industry association agenda. You can use these organizations’ member directories as a way to find a local consultant, but just because a consultant is a member also does not mean they’re good at their job. When you hire a consultant who is a member of one of these orgs, you’re guaranteeing that you’re hiring someone who decided it’s worth their time to pay the membership dues to be a part of a network of colleagues. While college counseling associations require their members to uphold an ethical standard of work, the responsibility of evaluating ethical behavior still falls on the client. Like in any organization, there are good and bad apples. Some good apples might not even be in the organization to begin with. Believing that a consultant who isn’t a member of NACAC is shady is like believing that parents who aren’t members of the PTA are uninvolved, bad parents: a mental shortcut that’s false. Many consultants choose to allocate their budget elsewhere and are still excellent at their jobs.

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Your consultant will do all the work so that your kid gets into college.

Your consultant should not be doctoring activity lists, writing your child’s essays, leveraging personal connections, or promising any admissions results. In some ways, hiring a college consultant is like hiring a soccer coach for you child. It doesn’t matter how good the coach is. Your child will have to wake up early, get on the field, run those timed sprints, and sweat blood and tears during those games to see any improvement in performance.

Step 2: Ask yourself these important questions when vetting a college consultant:

How does the consultant stay up-to-date on college admissions trends?

Colleges change their admissions criteria often and the applicant pool morphs every year. You’d be surprised how many consultants continue to recycle strategies that were once effective but are now obsolete. Will they put your child into a box to make their job easier or will they reinvent fresh, personalized strategies for every new client?

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