Hiring a college consultant to demystify the admissions process
“I wouldn’t get into my college alma mater if I applied today,” say many parents. As high-school seniors, they browsed college catalogs, and with minimal input from parents and school guidance counselors, filled out applications, dropped them at the post office, and waited for fat envelopes to return. But that was the dark ages, as kids going off to college now refer to their parents’ high-school years. Today, getting into college has become so competitive that what could be an exciting journey has turned into a marathon stress test. Most high-school students, and their parents, approach the college-admission process overwhelmed and anxious. With thousands of colleges to choose from and record numbers of students vying for a finite number of slots, deciding where to apply and how to apply looms as a daunting challenge.
While public schools have guidance counselors available to help with the process, they often oversee 200 or more students. The ratio of counselors to students may be better in private schools, but even then, counselors don’t usually start talking about college until junior year. “Ideally the college process should begin in freshman year, when students can benefit from advice about course selection, when to take standardized tests, and have someone monitor their accomplishments and weaknesses. The advice from college-admissions experts is to start early, says Mary Lou Kelly, owner of College Consulting LLC, in Fairfield.
The complexity and competitive nature of the admissions process has spawned a growing industry of professionals to support students and their parents—the independent college consultant. Most consultants offer a comprehensive package of services that includes everything from advice on high-school courses and activities; what standardized tests to take and when; developing a list of safeties, targets, and reaches; and interview and application preparation—for one all-inclusive fee. Others offer a la carte services for students who want help on one or two steps, such as filling out applications or researching financial aid. Parents may decide to hire a consultant because they don’t have confidence in their ability to navigate the process, don’t have time, or want someone to serve as an intermediary to avoid conflicts with their child. Selecting a consultant is much like choosing a therapist; students and parents need to find an experienced specialist they can trust and develop a relationship with—someone whose personality and approach fits the student. Maria Markus, director of the Ridgefield Tutoring Club, explains many of the college applicants her staff works with are students with whom they have built a strong report through tutoring them on specific subjects during high school.
Howard Greene & Associates, with offices in Westport and New York City, has been in the business for over 40 years. “We provide an added level of support for whole the family, to help them manage the process and make it as stress free as possible,” explains educational director Matthew Greene, son of founder Howard Greene. He often starts with clients in ninth grade, weighing in on course selection and encouraging outside interests and activities to best position them for college. Deena Maerowitz, an educational consultant based in Ridgefield, typically works with students beginning in their junior year. “I see my role as helping mitigate stress by supporting students at each juncture, from whether they should take the SATs or ACTs, whether they should apply early decision or early action, to what they should look for and ask about during campus visits, to preparing the application, and making sure they write effective essays,” she says.
The consultants interviewed for this article stressed the importance of the application. “Admissions staffs are trying to put together a well-rounded, diverse class,” explains Betsy Bell, owner of Acorn Educational Consulting in Wilton. “They may spend an average of only 12 to 15 minutes on each application,” says Elise Epner, a Fairfield-based college-admissions consultant, “so it needs to tell a compelling story, and distinguish a student from his peers.” Cautions Debbie Davis, president, Davis Education and career consultant in Ridgefield: “Often these kids have worked so hard in school and on their college search, but they get tired and impatient toward the end of the application process, and don’t spend enough time on it. Everything on their application must work together. They have one shot; they need to make it their best shot.”
These experts also debunked several myths about their profession—that they “package” students or can guarantee admissions. “What we do is not about packaging. It’s about responding to students’ needs, helping them achieve their potential, and connecting them with schools that fit with their abilities and interests,” says Greene. Adds Maerowitz, “Once a student has submitted an application, the process is out of our control. It would be unethical for a consultant to suggest he or she has connections at any school.”
Consultants’ services don’t come cheap. Greene, for example, charges a flat fee of $10,000. Bell charges considerably less; others fall somewhere in between. Wilton resident Ellen Essman felt that what she paid to a college consultant for her son was money well spent. “His SAT scores were in the top 85th percentile, but I felt his academic record wasn’t reflective of his capabilities. I wanted him to find a school that would challenge him, but accept him based on his GPA and test scores. Hiring a consultant took the onus off me to make sure he got his applications done,” she says. “After he started working with one, his school performance improved as well.”
A Wilton mother whose daughter started working with a consultant her sophomore year, has a different perspective. “He felt she was a shoo-in for her first choice, an Ivy League school, and recommended she apply early decision. After she didn’t get in, we did some research and discovered that the majority of their ED offers go to athletes. We felt he should have been aware of this,” she says. “I don’t think he had his pulse on the college market. He also only made four edits on my daughter’s essay, and he didn’t call to remind her of key deadlines.” The parents of a Fairfield-Ludlowe senior hired a professional to work with their daughter. “She talked to the consultant more than she did to us. The consultant gave my wife and me reassurance that our daughter was taking the right steps,” says the father.
Those interviewed agreed that a successful college process matches a student with a school that meets his or her interests and strengths. “Ultimately, the student has to own the process; when they get into a school, it has to be because of their effort and who they are, not because somebody else got them in,” says Maerowitz. “It doesn’t matter if a student gets into the most prestigious college, he won’t benefit emotionally or academically unless that school is a good fit.”
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