Stressing Out About College Admissions? Consider Hiring a Coach

Student with laptop.
Photo by Antonio-Guillem / Shutterstock.com

Every high school senior vying to get into a dream school has a story to tell, but even straight-A students may need help crafting theirs.

Many parents spend hundreds, even thousands, getting their kids professional assistance not only with pesky college essays but also to guide families through the whole application process. Efforts often start well before the senior year.

“It’s not like it was when I went to college,” said Joseph Sison of Sacramento, California, who sought professional help for his daughter’s college application. “Everything’s more competitive.”

For a taste of the competition, check out: “The 35 Hardest Colleges to Get Into.”

The Sisons are part of a growing trend. About 1 in 4 U.S. students at private colleges use private admissions counselors, which is now a $12 billion industry and growing as acceptance rates at top colleges are falling, says Town and Country magazine.

The number of full-time counselors grew to nearly 8,000 in 2015 from 1,500 in 2005, says the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Nearly 3 in 10 clients are from wealthy families, just over 2 in 10 are working class, lower middle class or impoverished; the rest are upper middle class.

“I wanted to optimize the opportunity for my daughter to get into a school she’d be happy in,” Sison said. College advising is virtually nonexistent in public schools, where each counselor serves an average 450 students.

As his daughter wrapped up her sophomore year, Sison researched independent admissions counselors. Some offered multiyear packages including tutoring, counseling and test preparation, often online and via Skype sessions, and costing $15,000 to $20,000.

No one can guarantee admission to a college, though, he noted.

Sison, his wife, Sharon, and daughter Olivia chose Margaret Amott, a certified educational planner in Sacramento. Her in-person sessions totaled about $1,500 over two years, Sison said. Amott advised the Sisons on applying to Olivia’s dream college, other potential college choices, high school courses, extracurricular activities and the all-important essay.

“My daughter was driven and knew what she wanted,” Sison said. Her dream school was a long shot “even for bright kids like my daughter,” who had greater than a 4.0 GPA, he said.

But Olivia was accepted at that school — Harvard — and just started her freshman year there.

“The college admission process is all about the fit and match,” Amott said. “Many families assume that if a student has a 4.0 GPA and strong test scores, and not much else to distinguish themselves, that they will automatically be accepted into the super-selective colleges.

“Much of my job is to educate the family,” she said.

Wide-ranging need

Amott and other independent counselors work with all ranges of students.

“Sometimes students just need to hear the realities of the process from someone other than their parents,” Amott said. “Most students benefit from structure, advice and a sounding board.”

She also helps reduce angst.

“The college application process can be time-consuming and stressful,” said Alison Boudreaux, who was on her way home to Sacramento after dropping off her son, Marc, at Yale to start his freshman year.

She and her husband, Charles Boudreaux, enlisted Amott’s help twice, the first time for daughter Camille.

“Margie’s involvement helped to minimize the nagging and micromanaging at home,” Boudreaux said. “Teenagers can be challenging to parent, and our kids’ relationships with Margie allowed us to focus on a supporting role.”

She described the consultation process, which cost about $1,500 for each child.

“Over the course of several meetings during junior and senior years, we defined a target list of colleges, that were ‘reach,’ ‘realistic,’ and ‘safe,’ so we avoided wasting time (the kids’) and money (ours) applying to colleges that were not appropriate,” she said.

They also identified the schools that were likely to offer merit scholarships based on the kids’ GPAs and standardized testing scores.

While high school counselors provide basic guidance, Amott takes it to another level, Boudreaux said.

“Our kids met with Margie early, before their junior year, to talk about their courses, extracurricular activities, and set realistic academic goals. The summer before senior year, our kids already completed several drafts of their personal statement essays so once the admission process began, only fine tuning was required to complete them.”

Marc Boudreaux didn’t get into his dream school, Stanford. But besides Yale, he was accepted at Brown, Reed, University of California, Berkeley and Davis, and others, his mother said.

Camille Boudreaux was accepted at her top choices, but needed to take a year off after high school due to illness, her mother said. She attends California State University-Sacramento.

Amott said she expects her students to be to be well-prepared for each meeting.

“As a result, I am able to work very efficiently and productively. My students are responsible and accountable (I show them how to take control), and I provide the structure and feedback.”

The cost of ‘professional naggers’

Katherine Cohen of IvyWise.com, which boasts that 91 percent of its students were accepted into one or more of their top three schools, charges $500 to review an essay, $1,000 an hour for sessions with counselors who work for her and $3,000 an hour for sessions directly with her, Town and Country said. They advise on what courses to take, what summer programs to participate in, give feedback on college essays and coach on improving standardized test scores, according to CNBC.

The Princeton Review, for example, will do a quick essay evaluation for $59, work with high school seniors on crafting essays and applications for $1,450, or offer this year’s high school sophomores “comprehensive” start-to-finish guidance to research colleges, submit applications and increase chances of receiving merit scholarships for $2,050.

For Amott, each meeting with her lasts 75 to 90 minutes and costs $150. Students generally spend $600 to $3,200 for the entire process, she said.

“I prefer students to start during sophomore year, but most generally start during junior year,” she said.

Sison said his daughter was diligent under Amott’s guidance, writing essay drafts and completing other work.

“‘Margie will yell at me if I don’t have my essay done,'” her father said she’d tell him. Amott would tell students, “You’re just wasting parents’ money if you’re not doing this stuff.”

“They’re professional naggers,” he said of counselors.

What to look for

“Unfortunately, anyone can just hang out a sign and call themselves an educational consultant,” said Amott, a former CPA who founded her practice in 1996 after going back to school for certification in admissions counseling. “I am one of 240 Certified Educational Planners in the U.S.”

She attends conferences and visits colleges every year to keep up with what they’re looking for.

Many firms have counselors who formerly worked as college admissions staffers at top schools.

Here are the main points to consider when hiring an admissions counselor, according to a variety of sources:

  • Cost. How will you value the return on investment in a counselor?
  • Specialized credentials such as such as CEP, degrees, certificates, memberships in professional organizations such as IECA (Independent Educational Consultant Association), NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling, which includes school counselors as well as independent counselors and also has regional divisions) and HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association)
  • Reputation, word of mouth, testimonials
  • Large firm with multiple counselors and staff or individual practice
  • Online or in person
  • How the counselor says he or she will determine your “best fit” schools
  • Services, such as advising on sending ACT/SAT scores, high school courses, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendation letters, early decision and early action applications.

Admission tips

Start doing these things as early as the ninth grade, according to a variety of counselors:

  • Set courses they’re going to take.
  • Plan your financing.
  • Plan extracurricular activities based on your student’s core interests and which have an impact on the school or community.
  • Don’t just volunteer for a project because it will look good on an application. Colleges can see right through that. However, volunteering in a variety of projects or programs over time will expose your child to a variety of opportunities that can focus his or her interests.
  • Plan summer experiences and internships. It helps create their college lists and helps them through the application process.
  • Use college essays to show why you stand out from others vying for the same seat at your dream college. Show what you’re made of, what you value, your dreams, your aspirations and what you will bring to the school.
  • Go to the Common Application website now and see all the things you’ll have to fill out and essays to write.

While Sison said he and his family were very pleased with Amott, they might not use her or any independent admissions counselor for their son, Joseph. He goes to a private high school where the school counselors are spending time on college admissions advising.

But if his son decides he does want Amott’s help, Sison says he’s willing to pay for her services again.

Do you plan to hire an independent college counselor for your child? Or do you already have experience with one? Share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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