How to Know When to Work With an Independent College Counselor

(The following is a sample selection from our upcoming book “The Admissions Mentoring Step-By-Step Guide to Applying to College: Part 1 - Planning.” Coming Soon!)

How to Know When to Work With an Independent College Counselor

An independent college counselor (also called a college or admissions mentor) is someone who works outside of the school system to assist students with completing college applications. In theory, a student’s high school counselor should be able to provide all of the tools and information necessary to guide a student’s journey toward college acceptance, but we recognize that this isn’t always the case.

Some families will find it necessary and useful to work one-on-one with an independent college counselor (an admissions expert who does not work for their student’s school) who can help guide the journey. At Admissions Mentoring, we work to serve students at a variety of schools, from understaffed public schools to boutique private learning communities.  Here are some things to pay attention to when deciding whether or not to work with an outside college counselor, and when choosing to work with your in-school counselor.

Working with the In-School Counselor

One of the most important gatekeepers at any particular high school is the college counselor. The college counselor manages academic plans for students and also acts as a liaison when communicating with college admissions committees. 

Ideally, the in-school counselor will help students cultivate a list of potential schools to apply to, provide a letter of recommendation, and ultimately act as a supportive resource during a stressful time. Students will often start to work with their counselor’s more closely during their junior year, however we always recommend connecting much sooner than that if possible. In the end, a counselor who has had the opportunity to watch a student grow over the course of several years will be able to speak more highly of them than a student that they have only known for a few months. We discuss this step more in later chapters. 

At some schools, the college counselor can be your student’s best resource for navigating the admissions process. However, that isn’t always the case.

Start By Assessing the Current High School Counselor

Generally, your student’s high school will already have a college counselor (or several) for students to work with, and in a perfect world, these individuals would be perfectly equipped to guide each and every student toward their ideal futures. Unfortunately, we’ve seen many times where this isn’t the case. Some schools unfortunately don’t have counselors on site, or the counselors are ill-equipped to handle much more than simple course selection.

While high school counselors can often the unsung heroes of a high school’s faculty (they help students design their workload, provide emotional and academic support, and make sure that every student is on track to graduate), the truth is that many of them are simply overworked. On Some counselors are even required to help with extracurriculars and/or write recommendations for students. It’s a busy job! 

Therefore it’s easy to see how some students slip through the cracks. At a large high school, it may be difficult for your counselor to remember your name, much less your GPA and college dreams. They may not be up to date with college admissions procedures beyond local community colleges or large nearby schools. It may be difficult for students to connect with counselors one-on-one and make a lasting impression. Or, at a school that does not prioritize college admissions, a counselor may not be equipped to provide resources on the best strategies for how to apply to competitive schools. If this is the case at your school, it is definitely worth hiring an independent counselor to help fill in the gaps. 

It’s not uncommon for high school counselors to be overburdened as it is, and then tasked with guiding the futures of dozens of graduating seniors. Although we have some insight on how best to navigate this challenge, the simplest solution is to work with someone who will be dedicated to your student’s success no matter what.

How to Choose the Right Admissions Mentor - Experience Matters

Experience is the number one quality that we recommend considering when choosing an independent college counselor. You want someone who has been in the trenches year after year, and has a record of success that aligns with your own goals. While it may be tempting to work with a local neighbor whose own children got into top 20 schools, anecdotal experience is not as useful as someone who has helped students year in and year out. The admissions process changes every cycle and the job of a college admissions mentor is to keep track of those changes. When it comes to experience, the number one benefit is peace of mind. You want to know that you’ll be in good hands.

Mutual Understanding of Success

What will success look like for your student? Acceptance to an elite and competitive school? Or acceptance at a specialized institution? There is no wrong answer, but it’s important that everyone is on the same page right from the beginning. Most of the families we work with choose to hire an admissions mentor in order to have someone whose views and goals on the college admissions process align with their own. Some students have specialized interests such as sports or particular vocational aspirations that require some unique strategizing with regard to applications. Other students simply need assistance finding a learning community that will foster their own individual talents and cater to their needs. Take a moment to assess the needs of your own individual student and come up with a list of 5-7 topics that will define college admissions success. 

Important Questions to Ask When Interviewing an Independent Counselor

After selecting someone with the necessary experience and understanding of success, here are some useful questions to ask when deciding whether or not to work with them: 

  • How do you work with students? 

    • As a professional, the independent counselor should have an established method of working with students. Will they connect by having weekly meetings? Monthly phone calls? Online chat sessions? Definite the parameters and boundaries early. How much contact can you expect from this individual? Be sure to get a firm answer before deciding whether or not their methods will work for you.

  • How do you manage a timeline?

    • Beyond the parameters of how the counselor works with students, it’s necessary to know the scope and timeline of their involvement. Many counselors have a recommended timeline of checkpoints

  • What types of students have you worked with in the past?

    • You’ll want to make sure that your counselor isn’t too overspecialized in working with only one particular type of student. Much of the application process involves helping students express themselves in their own unique way. Therefore, it’s important to work with someone who is familiar with the ways in which you may be unique. Ask if the counselor has worked with various types of students. Some of the options may include: athletes, students with learning differences, and students with disabilities or other challenges. Ultimately, you will want the comfort of knowing that your counselor will know how to help your student speak out their experience in a way that is insightful and illuminating. 

How to Use an Independent Counselor While Working Your In-School Counselor

A potential sticky spot for some families is the question of how to communicate to the in-school counselor that they have chosen to work with an out-of-school counselor. In our experience, being honest and upfront is the best option. For students at a large school with a vast number of students, more often than not, the in-school counselor will be relieved to know that your particular student has additional support. However, even for students at smaller schools with a dedicated counseling staff, the in-school counselor will typically appreciate that you are doing all that you can to work toward success. 

Making the Decision

With the increasing competition of college admissions, more and more families are choosing to work with outside admissions counselors. At Admissions Mentoring, we choose to work with a select number of families each year. Typically, we work with families who:

a) are less familiar with updated admissions processes

b) have students with unique learning circumstances (such as learning differences or specialized backgrounds), or

c) are applying to elite and competitive schools. If this sounds like your family, then it might be worth connecting with an outside expert to help guide you through the process. 

Create Your Future

Who do you want to become? No, we’re not talking about your career, we mean who do you want to be when you grow up? How do you want to contribute to the world? What matters the most to you? 

There is no wrong answer at this point. The answers can be as unique and varied as there are people in the world. Some people value growth above all things, some prefer creativity. Some people value exploration while others prefer security. Now is the time to figure out what matters to you and design a future that holds these ideals as your goal. 

Admissions Mentoring provides personalized one-on-one application mentoring services for students applying to colleges and other elite institutions. We work with students and families around the world to craft competitive applications. Click here to schedule a free consultation.