Essential Advice for Hiring an Independent College Advisor

With high school counselors facing heavy caseloads, many families have turned to private college counselors. Here are some important considerations families should keep in mind before hiring one.

Public school counselors in the United States have an average caseload of about 450 students. In many high schools, students have the opportunity to see their college guidance counselor only once a year. One time. In the entire year. To make matters worse, budget cuts are forcing some counselors to spend even less time with students and more time on other unrelated responsibilities, like handling discipline issues, supervising the cafeteria at lunch, or proctoring exams. In contrast, counselors in private schools have a median caseload of approximately 100 students. For any student, parent, or, certainly, counselor working in a public high school, these figures are probably not surprising. While I’ve rarely met a high school counselor who has not done a high-quality, professional job, needless to say, the numbers make life difficult. Apart from petitioning your local politician and school headmaster, what is a student to do? Many families have turned to working with a private college counselor. It’s a trend that’s been on the rise, and I want to mention what to look out for if you and your family are considering hiring someone. Independent college advisors can be of great value, if used correctly.

Value of independent college advisors

Primarily, independent college advisors provide students with individualized attention to properly tackle the college admission process. It is about the student and finding the best fit for him or her. A good college advisor will help students with their college selection and the application process. Some parts of the admission process include help with high school planning, refinement of extracurricular and academic interests, essay advice and review of essays, interview preparation, exploration of financial aid and scholarships, and wait list and deferral strategies. Additionally, independent advisors help relieve stress and maximize results.  

Choosing an independent college advisor

Like any field, there are individuals who are good and others who are not. Many people moonlight as college advisors or consider themselves qualified because they just helped their daughter/son/friend get into their top-choice school. Others have questionable ethical standards. In choosing an independent college advisor, I recommend carefully examining these factors:

Professional memberships

All independent college advisors should belong to at least one professional organization such as the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) or Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). For both of these organizations, members must have at least three years of professional experience, have worked with multiple students, and have their application approved by a committee.


Review the college counselors’ credentials. Does the advisor have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution? Does the advisor have at least three years of experience as a college advisor? Has the advisor previously placed students in top-tier schools? If so, how many and where? If the advisor has only placed students in your local state schools, they may not be a good fit. Does the advisor use a Web-based college research tool like Naviance to track former students, such as their grades, scores, and other variables? This can be very beneficial in comparing students with similar academic profiles.  

Keep current

Advisors should be meeting with admission representatives, visiting colleges, going to workshops, reading up on trends, and fully immersing themselves in college admission. A good advisor should be able to keep students informed on what’s trending in essays and what admission representatives want to see.

Team approach

With over 4,500 colleges out there, not every college counselor can know everything about each school. Look for a company that shares resources on schools, admission strategies, and college contacts. The team approach is also beneficial when it comes time to reviewing essays. Does the company have someone who does a second review? Even the best editors miss mistakes, so it’s always better to have a few eyes reading over the essays.

Ethical standards

College advisors should observe the highest legal and moral standards. A college advisor should not write a student’s college essay, guarantee admission into a certain school, or help fudge info on a transcript. Additionally, similar to how colleges perform Internet searches on students, you should do a search on your advisor and/or the company. If the first thing that comes up is something about questionable behavior, you may want to look elsewhere.

Time and communication

Independent advisor should be available when it’s convenient for students, within reason. Are they available after school, on the weekends, and when school is off? Are they available via Skype, phone, and e-mail? Is this their full-time position or do they dabble in college advising? 

Questions to ask independent college advisors

Think about what’s most important to you and your student when hiring an independent advisor. This person is going to be helping your student with one of the biggest decisions of their life. Some questions you may want to consider asking your advisor:

  1. Do you belong to any professional associations? If so, which ones?
  2. How do you keep up with trends?
  3. How often do you visit colleges or meet with admission officers?
  4. Do you attend professional conferences or training?
  5. How long have you been in business as an independent college advisor?
  6. What is your experience in college advising?
  7. Is college advising your full-time profession? 
  8. Have you placed students in top-tier schools? If so, which ones?
  9. At which grade in school do you start working with a student?
  10. Do you work alone or do you have colleagues to work in a team approach?
  11. What type of on- and offline college research tools do you use?
  12. What type of services do you offer, and how much do you charge for your services?
  13. Do you offer hourly or comprehensive packages?
  14. Will you do an initial in-person or Skype meeting with me and my student for free?
  15. How do you communicate with students? Do you keep parents included in communication?
  16. How do you measure a student’s success?

You should ask these additional questions to check for scammers. If they say yes, look elsewhere!

  1. Do you guarantee admission into a school?
  2. Do you guarantee scholarship money?
  3. Will you write the college essay?
  4. Do you accept any form of compensations from a school in exchange for placement?
  5. Are there any additional fees other than what is on the contract?

Final tip

Similar to picking the right college, you want to click with the advisor and make sure he or she understands your student’s goals. Sign up with an advisor who will meet with your first before you sign the dotted line. Best of luck!

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