Is Hiring A College Admissions Consultant Worth It?

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College admissions consulting is very much in the news these days. But not in the way that most potential college students and their parents are thinking about it. They are thinking more about how to manage the many steps required to be (legitimately) admitted to the schools of the student’s choice. They are thinking of project management. Or, like Linda Maggi, whose daughter is now a junior in high school, looking for potential help from a professional to help narrow down the choices.

“Working full-time makes it hard for me to spend the time that is required,” Maggi acknowledges. She’s actively considering hiring a counselor to help build a list of schools that not only fit her daughter’s interests but also schools in which she has some chance of getting accepted. More importantly, Maggi’s scanning schools that could potentially offer scholarship dough. And finally, Maggi says she wants to make sure she and her daughter aren’t overlooking a potentially great program. It’s a long list of criteria and can be overwhelming.

THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS CONSULTANT LANDSCAPE

Because business school, or being a business major, is just one of many options, the first question is whether to hire an admissions counselor at all.  With a public secondary school student-to-counselor ratio in the neighborhood of 268-to-1, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC)’s 2017–18 Counseling Trends Survey, it’s no surprise that students and parents can be confused about the college admissions process, and also what schools have the kinds of programs that a student would want in their college career.

And considering the recent the pay-to-play scandals that racked the admissions world in early March, potential clients are right to take a step back and assess the costs versus benefits of hiring a professional. Most consultants run legal above-board practices, and even from ones highly recommended by friends, family, and networks like NACAC, the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) or the Independent Education Consultants Association (IECA), students and parents have many questions, and admissions consultants can be an intermediary.

Still, above-board legal consultants can be expensive. In one notorious example, New York-based Ivy Coach charges $1.5 million for a multiple-year package of all-in college admissions consulting. However, according to the IECA state of the industry published in 2018, hourly fees range from $85 to $350, but the vast majority of providers offer some kind of package service, with an average price of around $5,000.

With thousands upon thousands of undergraduate admissions counselors of all stripes, it’s difficult to figure out who has the knowledge and the capacity to take on a new student. Sharon Schladow, for example, is one of the few undergraduate admissions consultants who specialize in business and STEM majors. Other boutique consultants, such as Mennette Larkin, work with both MBA candidates and undergraduates and can bring their experience in working with graduate business programs to the table. Others, such as Cynthia Torres, has an MBA for Harvard and has worked in the business and investing world for many years before switching over to undergraduate education. And a number of larger firms, have both MBA and undergraduate admissions consultants on the same platform, making it possible to easily share information.

And experience is key. Schladow suggests that parents look at where a consultant’s students have attended over the last three years. “Look for someone with at least 10 years’ consulting experience and who visits dozens of schools regularly,” she advises.

With time, money, and students’ futures on the line, it makes sense to start the research early – no need to commit – but try to understand the lay of the land in advance, so that when the time comes, the consultant you want, if you choose to go that route, is there for you too.

BEGINNING THE COLLEGE APPLICATION PROCESS — DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE MAJOR … YET

Of course, many prospective college students don’t know what they’ll major in when starting the process. This is especially the case knowing some families and parents start planning their child’s college trajectory as early as eighth grade. But one of the most important services — and starting points — a good admissions consultant can offer is to try to get a sense of who the student is and where she wants to focus.

“The goal is not necessarily to pinpoint a college major, but rather two areas of interest,” says Kristen Willmott, the director of Boston-based Top Tier Admissions. “As an admissions consultant — who also brings the lens of a parent — my goal with high school students is to help them pinpoint a main academic interest and often a secondary academic interest. That then becomes the theme to an application, meaning crafting scholarly summers, considering the main essay for the Common App, and more.”

As a consultant, Willmott takes the student’s focus into consideration. “When I’m working with a student who is targeting business, it depends what she brings to the table so far,” Willmott explains. “Is she targeting only business programs, or is it a situation where the student eventually wants to work in business? Most of the time in the U.S., students don’t even declare a major until sophomore year of college and over a third of all college students switch majors at least once.”

Cynthia Torres, of College Decisions LLC based in Los Angeles, says she often meets students with an early interest in a business degree, either as a high school entrepreneur or inspired by a parent in business or finance. “Some kids really know what they want to go after,” she points out.

It makes sense. Students are not only interested in business courses but are still choosing to major in business in large quantities despite growing popularity in engineering and health fields. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, it’s the most popular undergraduate major — making up about 20% of bachelor’s degrees conferred by postsecondary institutions in the U.S.

Some parents seek out consultants to help their child define their interests. One San Francisco-based couple hired a professional admissions counselor for their son because they wanted someone to “get from him who he is.” They wanted someone from the outside who didn’t have any preconceived notions about the student and was there to make sure his story was genuine. One mother of high-school-aged twins lamented, “With two prospective applicants, I almost don’t know where to begin – I need someone to help project manage. I want someone who knows the ins and outs of the process. I also think the consultant can help each of my kids talk about their interests in ways that I can’t get them to.”