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Who is a legitimate private college counselor?

The revelation that private college counselor William “Rick” Singer used bribery and fraud to secure places in highly selective colleges is sickening. What he and others like him do is immoral. No ethical counselor would ever promise acceptance at any college. No ethical counselor would cheat the standardized test process or write essays for students.

The gorilla in the room is the irrational fixation on a small group of elite colleges. These colleges are elite because they are perceived to offer “more” than other colleges. They have names that everyone knows: UCLA, Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, Vanderbilt, Duke, Georgetown, MIT, U. of Chicago, Columbia etc. This name recognition leads to a fallacy that they are the only great colleges.

Every college and university has its own personality, atmosphere and opportunities. There are around 2,500 four-year colleges in the US, while only 50 of them are so incredibly popular that they accept under 25% of applicants, and in many cases under 10% of applicants. Admission to these “very highly selective” colleges is often a matter of chance for anyone who does not have a legacy or huge family donations. College admission is not based solely on merit and test scores. All colleges reject applications from “perfect students,” in favor of accepting students who they think will bring something of interest or need to the campus. One year it might mean a piccolo player for the marching band, the next it will mean a tuba player. It might mean English studies majors one year and biochemists the next. It might mean taking a kid from an urban, diverse, high school who didn’t have time for lots of extracurriculars because they had to work or watch younger children. Any counselor that tells you with certainty that they “know exactly” what a college wants is lying.

Over 111,000 students applied to UCLA, all competing for around 6,000 spots. Their acceptance rate is around 17%. (Stanford 5%, Yale 6.7%) That’s a lot of students applying for relatively few spaces. The majority of other colleges in this country accept between 50-70% of applicants. The more established colleges in this group offer excellent merit and financial aid. The elite colleges often do not offer merit aid making them out of reach for middle class students.

Students and parents should understand that it is not about the name or “prestige” of a college that matters, it is whether the college offers what the student wants academically, socially, and philosophically. It is about the “fit,” the place where the student is likely to thrive if they take advantage of what the college offers, and very importantly, which the family can afford.

With so many choices and the complexity of the college admissions process, independent educational consultants, or independent college counselors can help guide families through the process and help them understand what is available, how to apply, and how to make the best choices for the students. A good counselor will relieve anxiety and help guide students to make good choices.

In order to do this, independent counselors join professional organizations, constantly research changes in colleges admissions, attend conferences, and visit as many colleges as possible. This is costly. We work long hours putting together college lists that are in tune with the students, we brainstorm about college essay prompts, and encourage students to write genuinely about who they are, what they think about, or what makes them excited or happy. We encourage parents to file for financial aid, suggest test schedules, answer anxious questions, and try to make everything less stressful.

Some of us put on seminars, write articles and blog posts explaining and sharing information and resources. Some of us use our income from paying clients so we can afford to help pro-bono and low pay clients navigate the morass of college admissions. For the best counselors, this is a “calling” not a cut-and-dried business.

Prosecute those who cheat and take unfair advantage, criticize those charging exorbitant fees, but if you need the help, look for ethical counselors. First stop for all students, your high school counselors and college and career centers. Let’s work on funding more public high school counselors and stop drooling over elite schools to the exclusion of others.

The kids are stressed enough already.

How to hire a counselor:

  • What is their training? Did they work in a college admissions office, did they work as a counselor at a high school? Alternatively, did the person earn a certificate in college counseling from reputable programs such as UCLA, UC Irvine, or UC Berkeley Extension?

  • Is the person a member of professional counselling organizations such as:

  • NACAC National Association of College Admissions Counselors

  • WACAC Western Association of College Admissions Counselors

  • IECA Independent Educational Consultants Association

  • HECA Higher Education Consultants Association

  • Note, these associations have strong ethical codes of conduct and require paid admission

  • Does the person have a website or can they provide testimonials from former clients. Are the testimonials believable?

  • When speaking to the counselor do you come away feeling less-stressed and more grounded?

Seek help when you need it, but be thoughtful. No one can legitimately promise to get your kid into a school. Anyone who does, walk away.

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