Applying to colleges is a big job for any family, and finding the perfect school for your child can seem like looking for a needle in a haystack.

By the time those sophomore and junior years roll around, many families ask themselves, “Should we hire a private college counselor?”  But starting at around $2,000 — and sometimes topping $10,000 — educational consultants can be a big investment, and many families wonder if they are a necessity or a waste of money.

College counseling comes in many shapes and sizes. Here are some key factors to consider.

Consider a School Counselor

It may seem obvious, but some parents skip right over the free resource readily available to them: the college guidance office at their child’s school.

Certain schools are understaffed and struggle to offer personalized attention, but even so, skilled veterans may work there.

The first step of any parent should be to visit the office, meet the person assigned to your child, and ask direct questions: “What is your experience, qualifications and philosophy?” and “How well do you know my child?”

This second question is pivotal, for college guidance is anything but a one-size-fits-all enterprise, so making a great college choice begins with the conversations and personal connections that the best counselors initiate.

Hire a Counselor as You Would Pick a Realtor

College is a major investment, and having someone with expert knowledge of the marketplace is key. The best counselors, just like the best realtors, know it’s only a good deal if it’s a good fit.

The best realtors use their intuition to see beneath the surface, matching homebuyers with the houses their clients will love, not just settle for.

Good counselors possess a similar finely tuned radar about hidden interests and values. Perhaps they can also help shave thousands of dollars from what a family might otherwise pay.  

How? Lots of experience helps them anticipate how much a given college wants a particular child to enroll.

Forget the Old Rules of College Admissions

The days are long gone when a student with stellar grades and high test scores could be assured of admission to the college of their choice.

Schools like Stanford and Yale turn down the overwhelming majority of valedictorians who apply.

With so many applicants sporting identically exceptional credentials, it’s harder than ever to stand out from the crowd.

Colleges consider much more than their applicants’ qualifications. With an eye on enrollments, colleges closely scrutinize the applicant’s “demonstrated interest” — their apparent passion for a given school — which suggests how likely they might be to enroll if admitted.  

These factors are precisely why a family might want to hire a good counselor, to rely on their vast understanding of the intricacies of a seemingly arbitrary process.

Beware of Those Who Promise the Moon

Despite what many claim or wish to believe, there are no “silver bullets,” “tricks” or “secret pathways” in college admission.

Your child’s record will be reviewed carefully, and no reputable college will be fooled by plaudits or accomplishments that aren’t authentic.

As the legendary college counselor Loren Pope put it, “investigate [a counselor] thoroughly, or risk doing more harm than good.”  

He’s referring to the tendency of some counselors and some parents to overstep their bounds and alter or even mute the student’s own voice in the application. Colleges see right through this meddling, which often has the opposite result of what’s intended.  

The best counselors are coaches and advocates. They give students the confidence to find their own voices and to put their best foot forward, which means parents can breathe just a little bit easier.

— Matt Struckmeyer is the Director of College Counseling at Dunn School, a private day and boarding school in the Santa Ynez Valley. A former Teaching Fellow at Harvard, he’s worked with students in private and public schools for 25 years. He leads a college application camp every August on the Dunn School campus in Los Olivos.  

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