Choosing an independent college counselor

By Jessica Gross

Applying to college—not to mention figuring out which schools best suit you—is a daunting task. Instead of helming your own college-decision ship, you may decide to work with an independent college counselor. This (often expensive) Sherpa will guide you through choosing where to apply, composing your applications, and picking the school where you’ll invest your thousands. But now that you’ve decided not to shoulder the burden alone, you have another choice to make: whom should you hire?

Your two tasks: (1) find counselors in your area and (2) determine who is the most qualified and the best suited to you. As a disclaimer, my mother is an independent college counselor, so I asked her for some insider tips.

The first place to look for college counselors near you is the Independent Educational Consultants Association, or IECA. To be listed on the IECA website, professionals must have visited at least 50 colleges, worked with at least 50 clients, earned a masters degree in a related discipline, worked in counseling or admissions for three years, and submitted three professional recommendations. All IECA counselors have applied to the board and paid membership dues. Searching the website is an important screening factor because anyone can call himself a college counselor—unlike for physical therapists or accountants, there’s no official certification for independent college counselors. To search for local counselors, use the IECA’s Find a Consultant page.

Second, ask people for recommendations. Do you know older students who have been through the application process already? Ask if they worked with a college counselor, and if they’d recommend his services. Also ask professionals in college-related services, like SAT tutors. It’s much like finding a good medical specialist: you ask people you know, and people who have expertise in the area. 

Once you have a list of college counselors you’re considering, ask each one some basic questions; schedule an in-person meeting with your top three or four finalists. There are a number of questions you should ask:

  1. What is your process like? Ask counselors how they work with students to develop a college list and brainstorm essay topics. Make sure they’re well-versed in the material, have a detailed system in place, and are confident and comfortable. Most importantly, make sure their approach is compatible with your working style.
  2. How often do you meet with your students? Choose someone who meets with relative frequency—say, once or twice per week—to make sure you stay on track throughout the application process.
  3. Do you edit the essays yourself? Some counselors send essays to other companies or professionals for editing. It’s important to hire someone who edits herself: college essays are all about tone and voice, and it’s impossible to properly guide a student without knowing his personality and background.
  4. What are your priorities when editing essays? Wrong answer: grammar. A counselor who doesn’t focus primarily on the substance, structure, and tone of essays is missing the point.
  5. How accessible will you be? Ask counselors when they are available, and what their turnaround time is. If you’re a varsity athlete and can’t meet on evenings or weekends, make sure you choose a professional who can work around your schedule. Look for short turnaround times for essays, college lists, and other work you submit: one thing a counselor shouldn’t do is slow down your application process.
  6. How long have you been doing this? Choose someone with at least a year of experience. This isn’t the time to volunteer yourself as a guinea pig.
  7. Are you a member of NACAC? The National Association for College Admission Counseling is an organization of independent college counselors, guidance counselors from public and private high schools, and college admissions officers. This network shares tips and news about higher education and college admissions. NACAC members are more likely than non-members to be up-to-date and plugged into their professional world.
  8. What do you feel contributes to your expertise? What you want to hear: (a) routine college visits and (b) experience in psychology or counseling.
  9. What are your outcomes? Ask for the percent of clients who applied early and were accepted, and for the percent who applied regular decision and were accepted to one of their top three schools. The higher the percentage, the better.
  10. Which colleges have students you’ve worked with been accepted to? Look for schools that are within your range. If you’re a C student, someone whose clients attend Stanford, Harvard and MIT is not likely to know much about the schools you’re considering. Similarly, if you’re an A student, counselors who send most of their clients to less competitive schools probably aren’t the best choice.
  11. Can you give me contact information for a few of your clients? Counselors can give you a good spiel about their stats and techniques, but it’s smart to get the scoop from other students. Ask clients to describe their counselor’s process, working style, and personality. Does this sound like a person who would motivate you, and whom you’d get along with?
  12. How much do you charge? Make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.


Red Flags: Once you’ve queried your top choices and a few people they’re worked with, do a last run-through to make sure they don’t raise any red flags. NONE of the following should apply to the person you choose:

  • You can’t confirm her credentials via IECA or NACAC.
  • She doesn’t have a website. (This means that either she hasn’t been in business for long enough or isn’t tech-savvy—a bad sign for someone who will be helping you through a largely online application process.)
  • She has someone else edit her client’s essays or edits primarily for grammar.
  • She wants you to commit before meeting with her.
  • She isn’t responsive when you call.