Elite Schools Dissing College Consultants

In June I gave a keynote talk at the annual conference of the Higher Education Consultants Association in New Jersey.

I decided to tag along on the group’s college tour that took the consultants to a half-dozen campuses. What I found predictable is that the most elite schools were the least hospitable to the consultants. Princeton and Columbia universities told the organizers that the group of more than 100 consultants could go on the regular tour and no one from the admission office would meet with them.

In contrast, other schools on the trip pulled out all the stops. Stevens Institute of Technology treated the group to a lovely dinner at the campus with a stunning view of the New York City skyline. Rider University and Fordham University also hosted lovely events for the consultants and they all provided presentations of their programs.

Protests From Elite Schools

So why am I bringing this up today?

The behavior of the elite schools reminded me of a chapter that I wrote in the newest edition of my book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price about independent college counselors. I begin the chapter by discussing the animosity that elite admission deans tend to exhibit against college consultants.  In the chapter, I take delight in calling out these admission deans for what I perceive to be the prime reason behind the dissing. I have excerpted part of the chapter, which is entitled What You Need to Know About Independent College Counselors, below.

I begin the chapter with this quote from Jeffrey Brenzel, the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, that illustrates the bad feelings:

I believe that most of the funds expended on independent counselors are simply wasted. We do not believe they have much, if any, effect on who we accept.

I find it amusing that the people who seem the most agitated about these consultants are the very people guarding the palace doors of the Ivies and the tiny fraction of other schools that reject nearly all their applicants. Certainly Brenzel would agree with what Thomas H. Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst College had to say when he protested the use of college consultants in a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Amherst College

What is important to understand about families who make use of independent college counselors is that they are both highly competitive and used to controlling their own destinies. In their eyes, the college-admissions process is reduced to little more than a contest. Furthermore, it is a contest that is to be won (perhaps at all costs) and a process that is to be tightly controlled.

Read that passage again and ask yourself if the Amherst dean couldn’t be describing the motivation and behavior of his own elite college peers.

Ivy League Hypocrites

I find it ironic that administrators at the most prestigious schools are protesting so vigorously since they are responsible for most of the nation’s admission hysteria. Children who are anointed each year by the admission staff at the Harvard’s of the world, do need to be nearly perfect — at least using the cramped definition of perfection that elite schools use. And the odds of being anointed by the admission offices keep declining as some of these elite schools insist on encouraging ever more students to apply so they can generate even greater rejection rates.

The only people who can really play this admission game at the highest level are the wealthy.  So, of course, they are going to hire people to help them with the college process just as they hire people to help them walk their Shih-Tzus, massage their backs and carry their golf clubs. It’s the use of these exorbitantly compensated hired guns that creates the strong impression that only the wealthy can win this race. And that’s probably what motivates the elite schools to protest. Nobody wants to be considered a playground for the rich even when it’s true.

It’s easy to wag a finger at the highest priced counselors, but frankly they are just charging what the market will bear. I also don’t find it disturbing that rich people are aiming for what they want (it’s the behavior of the elite schools that bother me), but I do think it’s unfortunate that the vast majority of independent college consultants get characterized as hired guns for the rich. This just isn’t true!

Most college consultants don’t charge exorbitant amounts of money and they are motivated to find the best academic fit for their clients regardless of whether their clients are academic superstars or barely maintain a 3.0 GPA.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.


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  1. I am just starting to consider moving into independent counseling, and it is disheartening to read about the opinions that some schools have about independent counselors. Some of us, perhaps, move into independent counseling so that we can maintain our ethics and integrity; so that we can actually counsel students and parents to best fit, versus packaging them as desired by our bosses. I am considering it because I want to really help students, with their interest in mind. Also, many of us don’t just ‘college counsel,’ we guide, advise and teach where necessary. Isn’t that the point of education? Why would deans of educational institutes be against that when it is being done ethically and responsibly. Also, many independent counselors I have spoken with also do pro bono work as well. So it is not just for those who can pay. How many kids cannot go to to boarding schools, independent privates schools, or colleges and universities, because they do not have enough financial aid? As long as you are ethical, professional and respectful of the others involved in the student’s life, what is the harm?

  2. Do you mind if I quote a several of your posts as long as I provide credit and sources
    back to your webpage: http://www.thecollegesolution.
    com/elite-schools-dissing-college-consultants/. I will aslo make certain to give you the
    proper anchor-text hyperlink using your website title: Elite Schools Dissing College Consultants | The College Solution.
    Please make sure to let me know if this is
    acceptable with you. Thanks!

    1. Please tell me what website you would be using quotes and a little bit more about their use.


      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. No the college admissions officers from elite schools are not the source of the difficulty and are not the reason for the frenzy. But interjecting Ivy League consultants charging $18,000 for an admissions package surely suggests that you guys have a vested interest in generating frenzy and you do so with quotes about how tough admissions is, etc. And those quotes show up on articles drawing attention to the famous Bob Morse worthless list. I was astounded when I looked into the conduct and billing of the so called consultants who are most visible on the internet and who claim to get kids into Ivy Schools. I applaud the Ivy’s and other schools that rejected the idea that you should have any sort of special treatment. The kids getting into the best schools should be the best students not the richest. Our society depends on that. Further, the very rich will probably make the least use of a top notch education. Incidentally, my own child had to turn down a few Ivy’s and a bunch of other fantastic schools. What, no consultant? Nope! Just great smarts, great effort and great levels of achievement and tons of offers. My advice to parents and students about to embark on another application season? Don’t buy the cool aid these folks are peddling.

  4. In response to: Bottom line: There are many good — and not so good — independent — and even high school — counselors. (See our Orange County excerpt for the lighter side — page 31 in the book. Sorry we can’t link to it.) Deans of admission can tell the difference and understand that many independent counselors serve their clients well.

    Well if the statement above is true, unfortunately I have never felt welcome when I visited some of these “elite” colleges. I am a proud independent and I am a member of HECA, NACAC, and WACAC. I help the underprivileged for free (pro-bono) in a neighboring low income school district, and I proudly support my family by running my own for-profit business in college counseling. My fees are reasonable and I mostly serve the middle-class in my local area. I have a Ph.D. in sciences, I have taught at a public and private college, as well as served on a private college’s admissions committee albeit briefly.

    For those who don’t seem to understand the debate here: read the first paragraph of Lynn’s article and read it well. This is exactly what I have noticed at many but obviously not all of the colleges that I have visited. If the few Deans who make these irrational statements are so ‘smart’ as Mamlet and Vandevelde claim, that they can tell the difference, they should be more responsible before making these not-too-smart statements. In fact NACAC, IECA and HECA based independent counselors should come together and file a law suit against handful of these Deans and Authors for their baseless defamation of a viable profession and for scaring the families who are in need and who help us earn our daily bread and butter. We don’t live in the golden palaces or get compensated in millions like some of these fancy Deans—so I don’t understand the reason for this baseless jealousy and I believe it’s directed against their own colleagues who have left college admissions in search of more wealth and in doing so helped several privileged families understand the real meaning of “holistic admission”. It’s sad that they chose that path, but that kind of power-tripping attitude or God-complex comes from working at these same elite places.
    I can give ample examples of unethical admission officials: from those who have lied about their degrees or qualifications and those who have falsified their college’s admission data to the ones who make their colleges seem more selective than they really are; but my colleagues don’t go around making gross generalization and saying that ‘all’ admission folks are unethical or not trustworthy. These admission officers at elite colleges hate “clichés” in the essays of their applicants but it’s weird that they have such an outdated mindset regarding their own understanding of independent counselors.

    I respect the Dean and Admission Officers with whom I have worked; they had no prejudices and helped me understand the process whenever they got a chance. In contrast, a handful of the elite college deans are not aware that their own colleges are NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) members and as such should follow the SPGP (Statement of Principles of Good Practice). By defaming fellow members (that includes independent counselors) they themselves are not abiding by the ethics prescribed by NACAC. One of the ethics of this profession is listed under: Fairness and Equity: We believe our members have a responsibility to treat one another and students in a fundamentally fair and equitable manner.

    The problem with elite colleges is: the more the students apply to these places, the more these places can “reject” or “deny” and make themselves look “more desirable” or “selective” in the process. I challenge them all: if you want to put me and my colleagues out of business, why don’t you become more transparent in your own needs and who you are looking for instead of inviting thousands of misguided students to apply when they should clearly not be doing so.

  5. Like many issues in the application process, the decision to hire an independent counselor is complex. Students and their families must carefully consider the costs and benefits and the decision should be driven by the student. In our book — coauthored by a former dean of Stanford, Swarthmore, and Sarah Lawrence — we take a very balanced approach, outlining the situations where an independent counselor can be a beneficial addition, with the main focus on how to find and properly evaluate a counselor for those who will go that route.

    Honestly, admission deans see the full gamut of what all counselors — independent and otherwise — do. Counselors see their own work and perhaps that of those with whom they are close. Admission deans see thousands and thousands of applicants a year. And when you see thousands and thousands of applicants every year, you see a broad swath of approaches, behaviors, and skills.

    As Jon Boeckenstedt, DePaul University Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management, noted in the Comments section of O’Shaughnessy’s blog, “When you read thousands of applications a year, you can spot the polished ones, the ones who pad the resume with soft accomplishments, and the ones who speak with a voice that sounds ten years older than it should.”

    It’s not our experience that, as O’Shaughnessy says, “the vast majority of independent college consultants get characterized as hired guns for the rich” by the elite colleges. The deans at elite colleges do in fact distinguish between the “hired guns” and the good guys. In our book, Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard, addressed the subject of independent counselors and the overpackaging of applicants:

    “I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer here. In many high schools there are no counselors left because of budget cuts, and in many high schools the ratio of counselees to counselors is 500 to 1 or more. So especially in those situations, it would seem, if parents can afford it — and a lot of independent counselors take on a considerable number of pro bono clients — using an independent counselor might be a rational thing to do. But it’s not an easy call. There are many highly effective independent counselors who do not go over the line and overpackage candidates. Many of them are just there to give advice about college and talk about visiting colleges and the application procedure. They’re not writing essays for people. They’re not essentially creating a different candidate from the real candidate as they help people think about how to put their applications together.

    There’s no right way to apply to college. The vast majority of people apply to Harvard without an independent counselor. But there’s a whole industry out there that has decided that packaging is the way to get into college. It’s very unfortunate.”

    Bottom line: There are many good — and not so good — independent — and even high school — counselors. (See our Orange County excerpt for the lighter side — page 31 in the book. Sorry we can’t link to it.) Deans of admission can tell the difference and understand that many independent counselors serve their clients well.

    Robin Mamlet
    Christine VanDeVelde

  6. This is a very interesting discussion. I have been an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) for 17 years and, no, I am not rich from doing this work. On the other hand, though, I am not cheap. My costs reflect my need to make a living from the work I do for and with students. Few question the right of realtors, for example, to charge a fee for their work but I am told that the work I do should be ministry. Nonsense! It costs me a great deal of both time and money to visit colleges, attend conferences, pay for membership in related organizations and to market my business. I don’t package kids; I help them develop self-awareness that makes them better able to make good decisions about their futures. I don’t bilk parents; I charge an honest fee for an honest day’s work. I am a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) which holds me to a strict code of conduct and I am happy to be accountable to my colleagues in the organization which has changed the way many colleges look at the IEC. Unfortunately, some colleges and universities believe that they don’t “need” us; they are correct. It is the students who need us to help wade through the quagmire and find colleges that are a good fit and match for them. It is the parents who need us to find among that list of colleges some who may be more forthcoming with merit aid and grants.

    I am a bit tired of the elite colleges’ attitude that we are doing something underhanded in working with kids. How many of them have denied an unqualified student who then miraculously gets in after Dad makes a call to the Development Office? How many of them look as carefully at the applications of public school kids as they do at the applications from their private “feeder” schools? How many of them are as welcoming to us on their campuses as they are to their cronies who work for those same private high schools.

    I don’t need their approval or welcome. I will simply continue working with students who want to work with me and show the student all his options rather than just a few.


    1. Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks so much for your excellent comments. I will never understand why some elite schools will embrace high school counselors, but spurn independent counselors. Both are getting paid to do their job and their aim is the same.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

    2. Dear Charlotte,
      Your description of independent counseling was so eloquent and accurate. We strive so hard to help our students through this awareness process and also teach them how to wade through a ton of paperwork. It’s really neat to see the growth in them as they take over their college admissions processes.


      Marilyn van Loben Sels

  7. Here’s the contradiction I’ve noticed: there is little to no outcry about elite private high schools who provide quality, in-depth counseling very similar to what independent consultants provide. Not only is there a lack of outcry, these are the exact high schools that elite colleges love to visit. So, what’s the message there? If you roll the cost into the price of tuition, then you are the kid who deserves college counseling. If, on the other hand, you go to a public high school that has a counselor to student ratio of 500 to 1, well that’s too bad for you.

    The reality is that no matter how hardworking and well intentioned they are, many high school counselors have received little or no training in college admissions counseling. I regularly run into examples of students who have received inaccurate or poor advice, such as: “I’ve never had a student who needed SAT subject tests so don’t worry about it,” “just bring in your IEP and you get the same accommodations in college,” and “only low income families need to fill out the FAFSA.” The lack of availability of good college counseling in schools, along with absolutely crazy college costs, is what has fueled the move to work with independent consultants.

    1. All excellent points Barbara. I had never thought about the private high school angle before.

      Thanks for sharing!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  8. Thanks, Lynn! I like to think that what I do is to help level the playing field for students who attend schools where the counselors don’t have the time or expertise to give them much individual help. Sometimes, a bit of strategy and positioning is all it takes to give a non-privileged student a fair chance at admission–equal to what the rich, private school kids have–and my services are very reasonably priced.

  9. With the proliferation of cost increases AND student applications, it only makes the independent college counselor more necessary, and unfortunately a target for the elites to take aim. Sure, students have more application options due to the Common App, and other universities which participate in using the web to allow students to do the data entry, and push a button or check a box. This was by choice that the top private universities have agreed to use this system.

    I think the elite universities are talking out of both sides of their mouths when they set the rules, and close the doors to any group of college counselors. A student is still a child, many of which don’t even know how they are going to get breakfast in the morning, or wash their clothes, let alone fill out an application worthy of review.

    Any current high school student would be intimidated by the old ‘manual’ process and would likely have chosen fewer schools. It’s one thing for elites to complain about an independent counselor, but another to take in millions of dollars from each student who thinks they just might get in by checking a box on a web page. The true college counselor does not have time for every student at his or her high school. The number of graduating high school students at large schools are too great for a school counselor to give decent time or service. Every application fee an independent counselor keeps a student from wasting is money, and emotional stress, saved.

    I live near a UC, and found it fascinating that college professors with children are just as lost in today’s admission process as we ‘mere mortals.’ At a fair price, an independent college counselor makes all the difference in 3 ways – guidance in the application process, guidance in the cost of college, and guidance of a child who many times are lost and cannot communicate with their parents their true college (or life) decisions.

    1. Hi David,

      Great observations David. The process has become so complicated and the costs so prohibitive that it’s mind-boggling that elite schools think people should be able to navigate this system on their own. It’s telling that more than one out of four students who start at a four-year institution end up transferring to someplace else. That’s a lot of wasted time and money.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. While I understand your point and agree that the wealthy in general have some huge advantages in the admissions process, I think Jon B. above makes some valid points. And I disagree from my own experience that perfection and/or wealth is required or desired by all elite schools admissions officers. It would make for a pretty dull student body.

    My son will be heading off to an Ivy in a few weeks, and he is not “nearly perfect” — not by a long shot. Very good SATs but not 2400; not straight A’s, not even all honors classes. Public school, from a populous state, Caucasian, not a star musician/athlete. We are middle class; applied for financial aid; did not have a college consultant and were not obsessed with Ivies. I think his application success was due to large part to the fact that he was clearly NOT packaged, but an interesting kid with a genuine passion for learning. As Jon says, I think the admissions officers can sniff the out the rich packaged kids and get sick of them. Sure, there are plenty of wealthy kids at these schools, but we met an awful lot at accepted students days that like our kid, were not rich and would be getting significant financial aid.

    Have you heard about that new book TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL: Parenting for Authentic Success by Madeline Levine? It apparently rails against ‘winner-take-all’ parenting styles. Sounds like an interesting read. NYTimes review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/books/review/teach-your-children-well-by-madeline-levine.html?src=me&ref=books

  11. Lynn,

    Thank you for this article. As an independent college counselor, I’m constantly baffled by the misperception of what most of us do. I do not polish and package kids; I don’t know an independent college counselor who does. Frankly, the concept of polishing and packaging offends me. I help students find their best fit colleges with a keen eye on the financial implications of their choices. I give them the tools to stay organized in this overwhelming process. Hopefully I reduce the stress of the process by keeping them focused on reality and not on the hype that is so often disseminated by the schools themselves. I wish I were highly paid! But alas, I am not! I am affordable and available for students from all different financial backgrounds. I have yet to meet the parents described by Thomas H. Parker. The parents of my students, without fail, continue to express how they just want what is best for their children.

    “Highly controlling and used to controlling their own destinies?” Who is this Thomas H. Parker to make assumptions about people he doesn’t even know? Perhaps he should realize that some some of us just want to get our kids into the right schools for them without ending up with inescapable debt.

  12. I read this with some puzzlement, and after a minute I figured out why. You only get to it at the end, but you need to be clearer.

    I think you’re conflating two very different things: First, the independent college consultant who helps students find the right list of schools, offers reasonable advice about the application process, and works with the student to understand financial aid offers. These are not the ones hired by the parents Tom Parker referred to, but often provide extraordinarily helpful and good and well-meaing advice to students, many of whom come from schools where there is a dearth of such advice.

    The second kind, however, is a very different animal, and the ones almost everyone in admissions has contempt for: The ones who prey on anxiety-ridden, high profile and high income parents who believe that you must go to an Ivy; or, if not an Ivy, than a school two rungs above where the student should be. They do the week long boot camps, have professional writers on staff to polish resumes and applications and essays, and imply that they increase a student’s chance for their substantial fee.

    I agree with Brenzel: They probably don’t.

    When you read thousands of applications a year, you can spot the polished ones, the ones who pad the resume with soft accomplishments, and the ones who speak with a voice that sounds ten years older than it should.

    But the real rub is this: Those consultants only take on clients who already stand an excellent chance of admission in the first place. If, by selecting only the best from the pool of their own applicants, they raise they get an admission rate of 14% or 20% vs. 7% or 10%, the average person thinks it’s the treatment effect. In fact, it’s selection effect.

    Suppose for instance, you got to select the tallest kids with the greatest leaping abilty, and then sent them to dunking camp. Guess what? More of your graduates can dunk. but it’s because they were born to be good dunkers.

    I don’t know a single admissions officer who’s opposed to students getting good advice from anyone, paid or otherwise. It’s a part of our profession. But we also disdain sharks who prey on unsuspecting parents, even if they’re ones who have more money than brains.

    You need to make it clear, I think, which type you’re talking about, or you run the risk of defaming a lot of very good, professional people.

    1. HI Jon,

      I guess I’m not sure who you are concerned that I am defaming. As I mentioned in the post and my book, I believe the vast majority of college consultants are good people who are dedicated to finding the right schools for their clients.

      I have not encountered admission officers at the most elite schools who make a distinction between the expensive higher guns and the good college consultants.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  13. Thanks Bob and Lisa.

    I think the Ivies and other elite schools need to be called out when they behave hypocritically. It just doesn’t happen often enough.

    Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  14. LOVE this piece, Lynn. I believe you are speaking truth about the Ivies as well as the vast majority of those of us who are affordable, independent college counselors serving kids across the spectrum of academic talent.

  15. LOVE this piece, Lynn. I believe you are speaking truth about the Ivies as well as the vast majority of those of us who are affordable, independent college counselors serving kids across the spectrum of academic talent.