Demystifying the private college counselor frenzy

Saamya Mungamuru

In an academically competitive environment such as Redwood, the insurmountable pressure to delve into college planning as early as the beginning of junior year or even sooner is felt by many students. Whether self-imposed or influenced by parental expectations and comparisons to one’s peers, the anxiety surrounding college admissions is especially high among upperclassmen. With college fast approaching, the fear and stress surrounding the process is what leads them to an option that, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), more students and their families are turning to nationwide: private college counselors.

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Private college counselors claim to help reduce student and parent stress by assisting them in navigating through the college application process, which is often a daunting task for families who have never experienced it before. Because of the uncertainty and confusion surrounding college applications, private college consulting is becoming an increasingly prominent and profitable business. A recent report by the IECA found that $400 million was spent on independent college consultants in 2012.

These private consultants offer services ranging from providing a list of schools to consider visiting and applying to, brainstorming and revising college essays and assisting with different sections of the application including financial aid forms. For these reasons, the appeal of hiring an independent college counselor is understandable. Who wouldn’t want a trained professional to accompany them through such an important decision making process, guiding families through the ins and outs of an increasingly competitive and complicated system?

Private college counselor Barry Beach believes that the increasingly competitive environment surrounding college applications is due to the pressure of getting into a top-ranked college.

“Fear is a great motivator,” Beach said. “If [the media] is telling you these are the best schools, then of course the volume of applicants will go up.”

But hiring a private college counselor isn’t an option for everyone. Private college consulting involves money, which some members of our community do not have. According to the IECA, an average package that spans from the initial consultation during junior year until applications are mailed in during senior year costs around $4,035. Though not all packages are as expensive, some private college consultants in our community do charge such high prices.

At Redwood, private college counselors are extremely popular within the student body. In a recent Bark survey, 29 percent of students self-reported that they are currently working with a private college counselor and 18 percent are thinking about hiring one in the future. The popularity of private college counselors is also seen nationally. According to a USA Today article, 26 percent of all college applicants in 2013 hired a private college consultant, three times as many as in 2003.

Senior Manuela Rosenfeld hired a private college consultant to help with her college essays. However, she used this while simultaneously utilizing a resource that is available to all Redwood students: the College and Career Center, which offers the same services as a private college counselor would, except for free.
Working in the College and Career Center, College and Career Specialist Meg Heimbrodt offers the same help and resources that a private consultant provides.
Working in the College and Career Center, College and Career Specialist Meg Heimbrodt offers the same help and resources that a private consultant provides.

“I had the rest of my applications down, but I was kind of worried about my essays. I didn’t know what to write about, I didn’t know exactly how they were supposed to be written, so having a college counselor helped with that because she had all of the up-to-date information and tips,” Rosenfeld said.

Rosenfeld said that she used a private college counselor as a way to get started, but now also goes to the College and Career Center’s afterschool workshops and during SMART period for additional application help.

Although Rosenfeld found her private college counselor to be helpful when brainstorming essay ideas, she believes that having one isn’t necessary for success in the admissions process as there are other methods for getting help that are free.

“At school, there are a lot of resources. You can reach out to your teachers to get help from them too; my AP [Literature] teacher is reading our essays,” Rosenfeld said.

So why are so many students opting for private counselors when similar resources are available at Redwood for free?

Meg Heimbrodt, the college and career specialist at Redwood, believes that the biggest difference between the services offered at the College and Career Center versus with a private consultant is accessibility.

[Private counselors] are working outside of school hours and although I do reply to emails outside of school hours, in terms of meeting with students, it’s really the 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. [availability],” Heimbrodt said.

According to senior Isabella Liu, who has a private counselor, enlisting the help of one is a decision that depends on a student’s personal needs in terms of navigating the world of college admissions.

“If you’re only going to have a Redwood counselor, you definitely need to be a proactive student if you want to get as much out of the experience as possible. With a private college counselor, you definitely have your hand held more, simply because they have fewer students to look after,” Liu said. “But that benefit is perhaps more important to students depending on their level of advocacy.”

Liu went on to explain how the College and Career Center provides support for students who seek out its guidance.

“I have found Redwood’s counselors to be exceptional. If I were to apply to college again, I would most likely opt to use Redwood’s counselors to guide me through the testing process well into my junior year,” Liu stated.

In addition to the College and Career Center, all Redwood students have a school guidance counselor who can offer additional aid with college applications. Liu commented on her experience with her school counselor, Ms. Kennedy, praising her as an advocate for students and having their best interests at heart.

“If I have a question about testing and I email her at 11:30 p.m., I hear back from her the next morning at 8 a.m. If I drop by her office to ask a quick question, she will always accommodate me,” Liu stated.

However, Liu’s experience with her private college counselor reflects many of the reasons why other students hire their own. Oftentimes, the decision to acquire a private counselor is the result of anxiety from parents surrounding the mystery of applying to colleges.

“The reason my family and I chose to [hire a counselor] is because my mother is a college graduate, but she was on an accelerated track to get into college. She went to college when she was sixteen, and my stepfather went to an Australian university, which is very different from the American university system,” Liu said. “So we weren’t entirely sure how to navigate the process, as I’m the oldest child. My parents wanted to make sure I had every opportunity to succeed in high school.”

According to the same Bark survey, 47 percent of students who do have a private college counselor said it was their parents’ idea or influence versus only 28 percent of students who reported that nobody influenced their decision to hire one.

Heimbrodt addressed the topic of parental anxiety, and how that plays into the decision to pay for a counselor outside of school.

“A lot of parents have anxiety around college, and that can spill into their student’s anxiety, so they feel like they have to go to a private person,” Heimbrodt said.

Beach also acknowledged the large role that parents play in securing a counselor for their students.

“I appreciate the concerned parents, but sometimes they get a little too ‘ahhh’ because the media always tells us that the only place you could ever consider going to [college] are these top twenty schools. So the pressure going into college today is crazy!” Beach said.

In Heimbrodt’s opinion, Redwood’s College and Career Center can offer the same guidance to students if they take advantage of its services.

“I do think you can get the same benefits [as a private counselor] if you utilize this room in the best possible way,” Heimbrodt said.

However, many students are unaware of the services that they can get from the College and Career Center. They do not know of the free guidance and information that they can receive if only they entered the room that they often walk past in the hallway every single day.

For a number of students, seeking help outside of school is not an option due to financial reasons.

According to Heimbrodt, in addition to the issue of accessibility, equity is also a major deciding factor in who chooses a private college counselor over using her help.

“The students who are going to see private counselors are those who can afford it. But there are a lot of students that can’t afford to go to private counselors,” Heimbrodt said. “So it’s an equity issue more than anything else.”

Senior Shayna Cohen, who says she cannot afford the services of a private college counselor, feels that the ability to hire provides more affluent students an unfair advantage.

“If you have money, it’s just easier to get into a school because you have so much extra help,” Cohen said. “It’s really unfair, I mean, it shouldn’t be a matter whether you have money or not for you to get a bunch of extra help.”

Cohen said that she feels a pressure to perform as well as her peers who can afford these resources without sharing their privilege.

“Everyone has so many resources to help them do well and I don’t have that,” Cohen said. “It’s annoying because it’s not my fault that I can’t afford to have a tutor, it’s not my dad’s fault either. It’s just the situation I’m in.”

That being said, the business of college counselors isn’t entirely based around raking in large sums of money. According to Beach, he and his colleagues find ways to give back to the community through their profession.

One thing I like to put out there is that we do work pro-bono,” Beach said. “The last couple weeks a group of Bay Area advisors have been going up to help with the students who are seniors that are in the Santa Rosa high schools [who have been affected by the fires].”

Beach explained the role that private college counselors can play in supporting the community.

“Everybody helps differently. Some people help out with the fire removal stuff, others help by donating,” Beach said. “This is completely free, we just want to help.”

Cohen believes that the appeal of private college counselors is due to the fact that the school does very little to educate students about the college applications process early on in high school.

“I had no idea what I was doing until I went to my counselor at school this year to find out about the whole college application process,” Cohen said. “It would’ve helped me create my own timeline without having a [college counselor] help me do that.”

Cohen suggests that the school should include sessions debriefing college admission requirements in classes such as Social Issues (a mandatory course taken by freshmen) or Advisory to benefit students who cannot afford the services of a private college counselor.

Though Cohen feels she would greatly benefit from resources that her friends can afford, Redwood graduate Jeremy Goldwasser, who is currently a freshman at Yale University, feels that much of the money Marin parents spend on counselors and tutors is unnecessary.

Although he received help from his English teachers and a friend’s mom who works as a college counselor, Goldwasser said that he realized early in his junior year that one can get through the applications process relying mainly on themselves.

“The amount of research that one can do on their own on the internet with regards to picking a college to apply to and hopefully attend vastly outweighs any need for private help,” Goldwasser said in a phone interview.

Redwood alum Jeremy Goldwasser, a freshman at Yale University believes that private college counselors are unnecessary in the college admissions process.
Redwood alum Jeremy Goldwasser, a current freshman at Yale University, believes that private college counselors are unnecessary in the college admissions process.

However, he acknowledges that the personalized attention that a private college counselor can provide might be very helpful for certain students.

“I think for someone who wouldn’t necessarily take [the whole process on by themselves, college counselors counselors can help them] with knowing where to apply, what they are interested in, knowing what makes sense to be written about or getting individual attention on the essays,” Goldwasser said.

But he says that the pressure and anxiety surrounding where to go to college and getting into a top school, which is what drives the decision to hire a private college consultant, is not worth experiencing.

“I attend Yale, but if I had ended up at UC San Diego, something tells me that I’d be just as happy there,” Goldwasser said. “For a lot of people, it doesn’t make sense if they make themselves so crazy for so long and at the end of the day they go to a school where, had they not done all of those things, they would have been somewhere almost just as fine.”