Should You Hire an Independent College Counselor?

Parents often ask me what can I do for their teen on the college journey that the high school counselor cannot. Having been in their shoes, I understand the need for parents to weigh cost versus benefit. Parents want to know that I have something valuable to offer that the high school counselor does not. The answer is yes. A recent article in the NACAC Journal of College Admission explores the advantages of having an independent educational consultant (IEC) and the school counselor collaborating in the best interests of the student.

There's been a three-fold increase in the number of independent counselors across the country in the past five years. This is partly due to the overload of students that school counselors must manage. As the article states: "with school budgets being cut right and left [school counselors] don't have time."  Furthermore, while the cost of going to college continues to go up every year, the cost of hiring an IEC has remained stable.

Available 24/7

Every family comes to the college admissions journey with expectations and concerns, and lots of questions.  The number one value that an IEC provides is the availability to answer questions anytime and to offer as much customized guidance as each individual student requires. I tell my families that I am available 24/7 and both students and parents have my cell phone number to reach me evenings, weekends, holidays. The school counselor obviously cannot provide this level of commitment and may have very limited office hours especially in a large school.

Get the Best of Both Worlds

Nevertheless, the school counselor is the student's best ally and I emphasize this to all of my students.  Only the school counselor knows the senior class: where are the student's classmates applying? given this school's track record, what are the student's chances of acceptance to the colleges on his/her list? The school counselor is privy to "inside information" that can be crucial.  If both counselors work together, the student gets the best of both worlds.

By keeping in touch and talking directly to one another, the IEC and the school counselor can not only avoid duplicating efforts, but they can share their expertise and knowledge base about colleges. IECs build relationships with college admissions personnel just as school counselors do. Hence the addition of the IEC's connections to the school counselor's network can only benefit the student. In addition, because the IEC gets to know the student on a more personal level, the consultant can share insights that help define the colleges that are truly a best fit for the student.

Achieve Results

Because IECs have experience working with schools, parents should ask a prospective consultant how he or she has handled this in the past and how the parent should broach the topic with the school counselor. You may be pleasantly surprised to learn that both counselors sincerely want what's best for your teen and will do whatever it takes to achieve the best results.



Back from College Vists, Now What?

The answer is really in two parts: part one addresses how to assess the individual visits, and part two entails the steps with which students should follow-up.

Assessment – Here’s where I advise parents to keep their comments/opinions to a minimum (ideally, to themselves).  Most students don’t want to hear how impressed Dad was with the Economics professor who suggested stopping by the Career Center or how touched Mom was to hear how warmly the tour guide spoke of her roommates. Alert! It is your son/daughter who is spending the next four years at college so it is crucial that your son/daughter process the information, campus vibe and student sentiments on his/her own.

Instead, ask the questions that will help your student form an opinion. For example:

·         what stood out to you at X University?

·         what did you hear at Y College that surprised you?

·         what turned you off at W College? Why?

·         can you see yourself at Z University?

Have your student jot down responses in a notebook as well as details that he/she may have noticed. Was there something on this campus that you didn’t see elsewhere? Did you hear stories/anecdotes from students that resonated with you? Did it sound like there was too much emphasis on sports or Greek Life? Did students on campus look happy or stressed?

Next Steps – First, and foremost, make sure your student sends an email thank you to both the college rep who presented the information session and the student tour guide. If you do not have this information, call the admissions office and ask who spoke on the day/time that you were there and the name of the tour guide who followed.

*Students: In the email to the college rep, ask for the name/contact info for a current student majoring in your intended major. Even if you are clueless what you want to study in college, ask to contact someone in a subject area that interests you. Simply asking for some student contacts shows that you are genuinely interested in this college and want to learn more about the nitty gritty of being a student there.

Request a meeting with your teen’s college counselor to review the trip. He or she can help guide the conversation to important points and provide some expertise about the colleges visited. Having an independent third party asking questions can be very helpful.

The college journey is evolutionary, not linear. Priorities change and different realities set in with each visit. What was once on the top of the school list can fall to the bottom of the list, and new options come onto the horizon. But at every step of the way, make sure to allow your teen to take the lead, it is his/her ride!



Why College Fairs Are Important

Most juniors are now returning from campus trips and processing what they’re learned. Chances are that students and parents would like to keep the momentum going and continue visiting colleges closer to home on weekends. For those who cannot make any further trips, college fairs can be the next best option.  Many high schools have college fairs in April; here's how to make the most of them.

Let your son/daughter take the lead - College fairs are meant to be an opportunity for students to confer with admissions reps. Parents, no matter how well-meaning, interfere with that valuable time and may be viewed by the reps as “helicopter parents.” If you have a question or two that you want your student to ask, write it down, and ask him/her to jot down the response.

Head straight to your first choice(s) - Every college fair provides a map of the colleges represented. Because the lines grow quickly, begin with those where you may wait a few minutes to introduce yourself. The less popular schools tend to have shorter lines anyway so you can save those for later.

Be open-minded, explore options.  It’s only natural to stop at the colleges you’ve heard of, and those already on your list. Yet, college fairs are precisely the place to expand your thinking and to explore alternatives to the few colleges you might already be considering. Widen your net and take a chance on a college rep whose table is quiet. He or she may truly surprise you!

Don’t be shy.  While it can be difficult to simply walk up to someone and start asking questions, the reps do want to meet you. It helps to have some prepared questions, but do not ask questions whose answers you can easily find on the college website. In other words, don’t ask how many majors a school offers or if it has club lacrosse. Do ask questions that may be more nuanced – “can you explain how I can get involved in research as a freshman?” or “tell me the most unique feature about X College” or “how would you describe the quintessential X University student?”

Write it down. Keep a college notebook with the details that you’ve gleaned and the name of the person you met. Don’t be embarrassed to request a business card (sometimes they’re right on the table) and make sure to send an email thank you to the rep with whom you spoke. When application time comes in the fall, you may interject those details in the supplemental questions on your application. And if you plan to visit a particular college after the fair, email your contact person and let him/her know when you will be on campus.

Always fill out the ‘contact card’ - Most college reps give you a card to fill out. These are an expression of your “demonstrated interest” so always hand them back. Many schools monitor how many contacts you’ve made with their college so every connection counts.



Making the Most of the College Visit

In the previous blogpost, I explained the importance of the college campus visit and how it impacts “demonstrated interest.”  How can your son or daughter make the most of these trips?  The answer, simply put, is pay attention to everything you see and hear; ask smart questions; take notes; and maintain connections.  Here’s how.

Visit colleges on your preliminary list – this may seem obvious, but many families do not yet have a college list in place and make a trip to a college nearby just to begin the process.  If your son/daughter has not yet met with the high school’s college counselor, make an appointment to speak with a guidance counselor to get some idea of which colleges make sense based on your student’s grades, and PSAT scores (if available).  For students who do have a preliminary list, try to visit one “reach” school, and one “target” school to start.  Leave the “safety” schools for later in the process.  If you have time to visit several colleges, aim to see more “targets” than “reaches.”

Keep the number of trips reasonable – The campus visit is not a quick tour, especially these days when so much emphasis is placed on students finding the “best fit.”  Prospective students need time to soak up the atmosphere on a given campus, to really look at the college students and to sense if this campus “feels right.”  If your son/daughter feels enthusiastic being on this campus, and can easily envision sitting in classes and hanging out with these college students, then he/she is closer to making a solid match.

Three Colleges A Week

Ideally, students should spend several hours at any one college so planning out the trips in a manageable way is important.  If a college is in a city, or even a small town, spend time exploring these also.  For these reasons, I recommend touring no more than three colleges in a week.

Pay close attention – to everything you see and hear and take notes. (Key Pointer: parents, this will inevitably become your job so make sure to write down your son/daughter’s thoughts and reactions.) During the information session, an admissions representative will recite a script about everything the college offers academically, socially, etc. Listen for what appeals to your son/daughter (and you!), and what does not. Most importantly, listen for features you have not heard from admissions representatives at other colleges as these are the aspects that make this school different.

Ask the Tour Guide

On the campus tour, a student guide will recite a script also, but here is the opportunity to go beyond the script.  Try to get an honest answer to: what is the one thing about “X” College that has disappointed you?  What is the number of students in your largest class and how many of these sized classes have you taken?  How much time do students really spend studying? What are the most popular clubs and organizations?

Building the College List ~ Part Three

February is typically the first time students, and parents, meet with the college counselor at their high school. This is an important meeting for several reasons so students should come in prepared.

More and more school counselors have a questionnaire for both students and parents to complete.  Don’t rush through this. Really spend time on thoughtful responses and include as many details and anecdotes as possible. The questionnaire becomes a template for the counselor’s recommendation letter which will accompany college applications so the more information he or she has, the more interesting the letter.

In order to make the most of this first meeting, here are other items to bring to the meeting in addition to the completed questionnaire.

Bring a preliminary college list  – Hopefully you’ve used the previous two blogposts to help you comprise a preliminary list of colleges. If you don’t have a list, be ready to share your thoughts as to what you are looking for in terms of size, location, academic major, etc.  These criteria will help the counselor recommend additional schools for you to research and visit.

Bring a resume – this can be a simple draft of achievements both in, and outside, school as well as community service, summer experiences and employment.  The counselor may not know that you are captain of your basketball team, president of the photography club or treasurer on the student council. If you play on several athletic teams, mention the position you play and any awards you’ve gotten over the years. If you’ve competed in competitions, even if you never won, include the when and where for the contests.

If you are unsure if a given activity or interest merits a place on your resume, put it down and ask the counselor if it is indeed appropriate. You want the counselor to know as much about you as possible, but you also want his/her advice as to what your final resume will include.

Be forthcoming – Remember, the purpose of this meeting is for the counselor to get to know you and to understand what you’re looking for in your college experience. Try to give as much information as you can even if you’re not 100% sure of what type of college you think is perfect for you. Are you excited about going to the football games? Might you consider joining a fraternity? Do you want to be surrounded by creative people? Musicians? Artists?

If your counselor asks a question you weren’t expecting, respond with “I’m not sure, let me think about it and get back to you.”  Make sure he/she knows that you want to keep a dialogue going especially after you’ve visited a few campuses. And always give the counselor feedback on your college visits.

Be open-minded - The counselor may suggest colleges you've never heard of or didn't consider as serious contenders. Ask the counselor to explain why he/she believes this school would be a good fit for you. Then take the time to research the college online and if possible, plan a visit to really understand if the counselor is right.

Do not rule out any school just because of the name. If the location is not appropriate, that's one thing, but you may be pleasantly surprised when you investigate other people's ideas, particularly if the person is a college expert.




College Steps for Freshmen and Sophomores

High school juniors are now in full swing of their college search.  Yet, college is certainly on the radar of parents (and some students) in earlier grades. 

With the ever-increasing competition, as evidenced by the continually decreasing acceptance rates at colleges, more and more families are beginning the college journey in sophomore year. The extra time is a true bonus on every level, and it can – and should – be used to the student’s advantage.

Here are the steps that your freshman or sophomore can take right now to ease the pressure, and boost applications, later.


  • Visit your guidance counselor to discuss next year’s course selection. You want to take the most advanced classes available at your school, but only if you feel confident that you can handle the academic rigor. Discuss which AP or IB (HL) classes might be appropriate for you.

  • Stay focused on schoolwork. Freshman grades will  appear on your high school transcript so aim to finish the year on an upswing.

  • Participate in after-school activities and clubs. Find the one that interests you most and stick with it.

  • Volunteer for community service events in and out of school.

  • Talk to your teachers about possibly taking an SAT subject test this June.  It’s best to take these as soon as you complete a course so that the subject matter is fresh in your mind. [Most 9th graders are taking biology now and many do take the SAT Biology exam.]

  • If you do plan to take a subject test, make sure to enlist some test prep at least three months before the test. Also, register with the College Board in due time.


  • Focus on schoolwork. Colleges want to see an upward trend in grades throughout high school.

  • Concentrate your time on one or two extra-curricular activities that you are most passionate about.

  • Consider a summer program that enriches your extra-curricular interests and investigate internships and classes.

  • Speak with your school counselor or contact an outside tutor to assess your PSAT or ACT Aspire results.  Plan to start test prep this summer for the SAT or ACT in fall of junior year. 

  • Begin test prep now for the SAT subject test you plan to take this June. [Many sophomores take one of the History SAT subject tests or the Chemistry SAT.]

  • There is a huge advantage to getting a head start on college visits. Start a preliminary college list and visit campuses this spring.  [See blogposts from November 26 and January 8 for details on building a college list] 

  • If you do visit colleges this spring, take careful notes and make sure to send an email thank you to the college official who spoke at the information session and to the student tour guide (yes, get the student’s email address at the end of the tour!!)

Building the College List ~ Part Two

Part One of this blogpost (November 26) outlined the essential factors students should consider as they embark on their college search.  Now that those broad strokes have been taken, let's look more closely at how to evaluate the academics at colleges.

Ask Yourself:  Do you have a favorite subject or long-time passion, or do you enjoy many subjects and don't feel ready to choose a major yet?

Some students know what course of study they wish to pursue in college, but most apply as "undecided" and rather begin their freshman year exploring options. If you already know what you will major in, your website research will be narrowed to that department and everything it offers. Some colleges have separate webpages for each of their individual schools (engineering, business, arts & sciences, etc.) and it is important to look for your intended major here so that you understand the requirements of each particular school. [Key tip: make sure you are looking at the undergraduate departments, not the graduate program!]

For students who are not yet certain, it is especially important to review all of the majors and minors a college offers to insure that there is more than one that appeals to you. Here too, it is advisable to explore the majors/minors within each school. You may find areas you never considered studying and decide to investigate these further.

In either case, take notes on what appeals to you as you surf the websites and jot down questions. Then open the conversation with that department by emailing your questions to the department chair or even a specific professor. In your email, ask if the person can put you in touch with a couple of students majoring in that field so that you can ask some first-hand questions of current students. Do not be afraid that you are bothering these "important" people; you will be pleasantly surprised how many of them reply directly. If they cannot respond, they will forward your query to someone who will.

Ask Yourself:  What type of learning environment is best suited for you? Do you prefer smaller classes with lots of discussion time or do you work better in a lecture setting taking lots of notes?

Most colleges list on their website the student to faculty ratio; the smaller the ratio, the greater number of small classes. Many schools will also include the percentage of classes under 20 which also gives a good sense of class sizes in general.

Aside from class size, you may wonder about your classmates themselves. One benefit of being in a "better" school is being surrounded by strong and motivated students who make discussions more interesting and collaborative projects more successful. Furthermore, since professors must often tailor the level of their classes to the students in them, chances are better that you'll enjoy a more challenging curriculum with brighter classmates.

Pay Attention To:  the "extras."  Some colleges have an Honors College within them for top students which is worth investigating. Other schools have a "first year experience" with a broad variety of courses that may be particularly helpful for students who need to figure out their prospective major. The variety and strength of the internship opportunities and even study abroad programs can also tell you a great deal of what a college has to offer.

 Stay Tuned ~ next week's blogpost, Part Three, will offer good ideas for making the most of your meeting with the college counselor at your high school. This can be particularly important if you are in a large high school where the college counselors are responsible for hundreds of students. You want the school counselor to get to know you!


Three Terrific Colleges to Put on Your Radar

On a recent counselor tour of central Pennsylvania colleges, I was very impressed with three schools in particular --  Lycoming College, Juniata College and Elizabethtown College.  At these small, liberal arts institutions, students thrive amongst a community dedicated to their success.  On all three campuses, I felt a strong sense of vibrant student life, a backdrop of athletic enthusiasm, and a value placed on students exploring their own interests and strengths in a flexible curriculum.  For the student who will benefit from a supportive academic setting and tight social bonds, these colleges are well worth the visit.  Here is the first in a three-part series.

Lycoming College-  Lycoming ends in “ing” for a reason, students are always “doing” here, said college president, Kent Trachte.  They’re learning, playing, studying, performing, the list goes on. Indeed, all of the students we met are engaged in a variety of activities and they noted the deep camaraderie amongst the 1300 undergraduates here.  Student athletes abound and the wrestling and soccer teams draw big crowds.  Greek life comprises roughly a quarter of students, but there is also cluster housing for specific majors. 

And Lycoming has some interesting majors!  It is one of the few liberal arts schools that offer Archaeology, Criminal Justice, and Astrophysics majors benefit from a state-of-the-art planetarium.  Neuroscience is one of the newest majors and a Center for Energy & the Future is on the horizon.

Students Gain Confidence Here

Perhaps most impressive is the emphasis on student success at Lycoming. “Students gain confidence here,” boasted a junior, who highlighted how comfortable he feels visiting professors for help or just to “chill with them.”  And the faculty here is required to complete mentorship training, so that each and every Lycoming professor becomes more than an instructor.

Founded in 1812, Lycoming is actually one of the oldest colleges in the country.  Located in Williamsport, PA, the home of the Little League Museum, this school is a 3½ hour drive from NYC (4 ½ hours by bus).  


Building the College List ~ Part One

The college list is like a piece of art, a work in progress, constantly modified throughout the college search and beyond. While some high school counselors draft a preliminary list for juniors, most students will be on their own to begin, and then continuously develop, their own list of schools.

'reach'  'target'  'safety'

It is important to maintain a realistic attitude when researching colleges. All students should aim to have a handful of each type of school: "reach, target, safety." Because the final list will have this variety is terms of selectivity, the preliminary list should also include colleges across a spectrum. 

This is the first in a three-part series detailing how to explore colleges in order to generate a strategic and sensible college list that best fits the student.

ESSENTIAL FACTORS:  Some of the essential factors for selecting colleges are location, size, academic majors, campus life, and of course, the student's current academic record. 

Location – how far from home do you really want to go? If you’ve had enough of northern winters, do you want to spend the next four years in sunnier climes?  

Size - do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?  If you're in a small high school and want the feel of a lot more people around you, consider visiting some of the larger universities (at least 25,000 undergrads), but also visit colleges with 10 to 12,000 undergrads in order to compare. If you're in a large public high school and prefer smaller classes and greater access to professors, consider visiting smaller colleges (4,000 undergrads or fewer).

Academics - If you have some idea of what you'd like to study, checking the list of majors and minors is important. Many universities will have schools specific to areas of study (business, education, communications, engineering, etc.). If you have no idea whatsoever what to major in, review the majors at the liberal arts colleges.

[Part Two of this series will cover the specific criteria with which to gauge academic majors and minors as well as the quality of academic programs]

Campus Life - how do you envision your social life at college? Do you want to be part of the cheering crowds at the football game, or do you prefer hanging out with smaller groups of friends?  As you research college websites, spend time on the student clubs/organizations pages and read about the level of engagement.

College Search Resources –  Below are a few websites to help with the initial search.



Alumni Interviews, It’s Not Too Late to Request

Few schools offer on-campus interviews, but almost all colleges encourage prospective students to meet with an alum. And while alumni interviews rarely make or break an application, simply requesting the interview shows interest on the applicant's part. This is why they are important.  

It doesn't matter if the student has already submitted an early application or is about to submit a regular decision app, requesting a meeting with an alum is a feather in the applicant's cap. If the student presents himself well and the alumnus writes up a favorable report, all the better!

Preparing for the interview:  Typically, the student will receive an introductory email from the alum with a location and a variety of dates/times for the meeting. It's important to reply asap even if the dates don't work, and to suggest a number of other options.  Once a date is arranged, the student should confirm the meeting the day before as a courtesy (brownie points can matter).  Email your resume in advance to the interviewer so that he/she has some background information about you.

Be prepared to answer questions about academics (favorite/least favorite subjects; a project you're most proud of; a challenge you faced and how you overcame it) and about extra-curriculars (why you play a certain sports position; compose the type of music you do; what motivates your interests).

Also be prepared to ask good questions of the interviewer. After all, here's someone who spent four years at the school you may attend so pick his or her brain!  

·         What is unique about this college?

·         What were the best experiences you had there and how did those experiences shape who you are today?

·         Who were the people who made it this school special for you?

·         Serving as an alumni interviewer is a labor of love, what is it that makes you love this school?”

Take notes - it is perfectly okay to come to the interview with notebook in hand, and to jot down tidbits here and there. Not every word the interviewer says, but the key points he/she makes that stand out to you.  It will reflect well to include some of these points in your thank you email which should be sent within 24 hours of the interview.

Dress appropriately - a three-piece suit is not necessary, but business casual, meaning dress pants and a collared shirt are. No jeans, no sneakers, no sandals. Girls: no super short skirts, revealing blouses, or 5" heels. Treat this as if it were a job interview at an old-fashioned company not a hip start-up.

Mock Interviews - of course the best way to prep for an interview is the go through a mock interview with a college counselor. This not only allows the student to polish responses, but provides the student with the confidence he/she needs for the real thing. To schedule a mock interview, contact