An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Independent college consultants: What you need to know
Independent college consultants: What you need to know

by Ari Worthman, director of college counseling

Families often ask whether to hire an independent college consultant, a college counselor unaffiliated with Lakeside, who guides clients through the college process for a fee often reaching many thousands of dollars. 

I always respond "no." 

Over the last 15 years, the number of independent consultants has grown. While fewer than 10 percent of Lakeside families report hiring one, it understandably crosses some families' minds. As admission to college has become more selective, parental anxiety has risen. The result is the "industrialization of the college admission process," a phrase coined by Frank Bruni in "Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania." For-profit college consultants, test prep companies, college essay coaches, and athletic recruiting specialists sell their services by speaking directly to parental fears. Independent consultants can lock families into a multiyear financial commitment that, from my experience, rarely assuages their fears and can even create a more chaotic college process in which the student is torn between the advice of their Lakeside counselor and a consultant.

Admittedly, it's hard to answer this question without sounding defensive. Obviously, I'm biased: I firmly believe the Lakeside college counseling team offers some of the best college counseling in the country. But I'm less concerned with families questioning our credentials than I am worried about the unnecessary financial commitment into which some families are cajoled, and the unpleasant experience the student often has as a result.

Whether to hire a college consultant is a personal choice. There are many great independent consultants who offer an outstanding service to students in under-resourced schools where counselors work with hundreds of students. Here at Lakeside, it's simply not necessary. Regardless of what families decide, we work closely and enthusiastically with every student. But if a family is going to hire a consultant, the family must vet them carefully. Here are some important questions to ask.

What is their background or credentials in admissions and college counseling that qualify them to be a college consultant? 
At Lakeside, our counselors are career professionals with deep experience in the field. Sam Freccia, Tiffany Fujioka, and I were admissions officers at, respectively, Colby College, the University of Pennsylvania, and Haverford College, where we evaluated thousands of applicants. Tiffany and I also served as part-time application readers at different points in our careers, including at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Florida. Each year, the Lakeside counselors collectivity visit between 40-60 college campuses, and attend a dozen networking conferences. We also have the occasional opportunity, extended by colleges with whom we have excellent relationships, to sit in and observe their admissions committees. This helps us remain up-to-date on the many factors and nuances that inform admissions decisions.

A qualified independent consultant should have a similar background. An Ivy League degree is a meaningless credential unless they were an admissions officer in an Ivy League admissions office. Some consultants cite the experience of their own children applying to college; that is equivalent to me saying because I went to the doctor when I was sick, I'm now qualified to be a doctor. Like many professions, college counseling demands familiarity with a wide body of knowledge that spans thousands of college campuses. Make sure any consultant you're considering possesses the necessary knowledge.

What experience do they have working with and supporting teenagers?
My colleague, Catharine Jacobsen, has worked in independent schools for more than three decades. My other colleague, Mark Kranwinkle, is close behind. I'm convinced no one understands working with teenagers more than Catharine and Mark! At Lakeside, we hire college counselors that have experience working with students during this pivotal moment in their lives. Helping them craft strong college applications is only one facet of what we do. Equally important is supporting them through the emotional ups and downs of self-assessment, writing college essays, getting in, being rejected, and preparing to leave home. While not every counselor can have Catharine's and Mark's depth of experience, any quality consultant has experience as an educator and has worked with students in an educational setting before starting an independent business. 

Are they a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC)? 
NACAC is an organization of nearly 16,000 professionals from around the world dedicated to serving students as they make choices about pursuing postsecondary education. Almost all U.S. high schools and nonprofit colleges are members. Many independent consultants are also members. Membership requires a nominal annual fee and compliance with a national code of ethics. If a consultant is not a member of NACAC... run away! Over the years, I have seen consultants write students' essays, complete their applications, and even submit applications for them. Not only is this unethical, but it strips a student of the potential growth that comes through reflecting on their priorities, imagining their future, and owning a multistep process similar to job searches and many other important milestones.

How does the consultant select clients? What information do they require in advance before offering a rate and written agreement?
Sometimes families tell me they hired a consultant because most of their clients go to highly selective colleges. In almost all these cases, the consultant first carefully vetted prospective clients to make sure they were top students with characteristics that would appeal to those schools. If a consultant is marketing a matriculation list dominated by the most selective colleges, it may be because they chose to work with students that would stand out to the most competitive colleges while turning away those who wouldn't.

What does the consultant provide that Lakeside does not?
Even after 15 years, I'm still surprised by the marketing pitches of some consultants. Prior Lakeside families have been told that our counseling loads are too big (a full-time counselor works with 35-40 seniors), even though they are among the smallest in the country. Others claim that Lakeside lacks support for younger students and families, despite the fact that our college counselors host monthly coffees for 9th- and 10th-grade parents and guardians and work with freshman and sophomore athletes being recruited by college coaches. Some pitch that there isn't enough support for students in writing their essays, even though we encourage students to submit all their essays to us for feedback (and starting this fall, Catharine Jacobsen, a veteran college counselor and former English teacher, will transition into a new role as our very own college essay specialist). Our six-person counseling team supports extensive programming: college essay writing and interview workshops; self-designed video tutorials on the Common and Coalition Applications; an annual admissions deans and directors panel on the intricacies of the selection process; an annual case studies program where colleges lead juniors and families through mock admissions committees; and variety of seminars for students, parents, and guardians. 

Perhaps most importantly, Lakeside counselors provide students with projections on their chances of admissions based on years of internal historical data to which only we have access. We strive to sustain a comprehensive program where students and families feel they receive the utmost support and where the college counseling process is an integral part of their experience at Lakeside.

Ari Worthman is Lakeside's director of college counseling. You can reach him at 206-440-2958 and at CollegeCounseling@lakesideschool.org.