How To Select a College Counselor

How do you select an independent college counselor?

A parent posted that question on my college blog a couple of weeks ago and I promised that I’d provide the answer.

I had the good fortune to interview three prominent independent college counselors on this subject when I was at a national college conference last week in St. Louis. I interviewed Cyndy McDonald, the founder of Higher Education Consultants Association, Dodge Johnson, the president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association and William Dingledine, president of Southern Association for College Admission Counseling.

Here are the trio’s suggestions for selecting college consultants:

1. Ask for a preliminary meeting.

You and your teenager need to feel comfortable with whomever you choose and the best way is to meet face-to-face. Many counselors will not charge you for a get-acquainted session.

2. Consult professional membership directories.

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) posts information about their members on their websites.  Members of both these organizations have to meet tough requirements. IECA, for instance, requires consultants to have visited at least 50 college campuses. Consultants in both of these groups have to follow a strict code of ethics. Another excellent place to find consultants is the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners.

3. Match your needs with counselors.

If your child has one or more learning disabilities, for example,  it would make sense to hire a consultant who has expertise in this area. A teen who wants to major in music would want to find a consultant who understands the different types of options, including conservatories, which colleges and universities offer.

4. Find a consultant who can also address the financial aid question.

Cyndy McDonald suggested this tip and I wholeheartedly agree with her. Neither of us believe that counselors should be recommending colleges in a vacuum. Most parents have limited resources and it’s crucial for a counselor to be able to assess not only if a school would be a good academic fit for a teenager, but also whether the school, after calculating potential grants and need-based aid, would be affordable.

I think at the very least, a counselor should explain how a family can obtain its Expected Family Contribution and then develop a list of schools that would realistically provide the child with either merit or need-based aid.

Unfortunately some counselors will blow off any thing that smacks of “financial aid.” They seem to believe that financial aid means suggesting how families can move their assets around, but that is not what Cyndy or I are suggesting.

5. Finally, here’s a post that I wrote for my college blog for CBSMoneyWatch that shares more ideas for selecting a consultant:

6 Ways to Pick a Independent College Consultant

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also write a college blog for and US News.

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