By Jane Parent
Applying to college can feel overwhelming. There are thousands of colleges to pick from, multiple admissions tests to sit through, numerous essays to write. Is it any surprise that some families opt to hire an independent admissions consultant? In fact, admissions consulting has become a booming industry in recent years, one that, for a fee ranging from a couple hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, can help students through the complex (and often bewildering) process of applying to college.
But with so many online resources available to provide admissions help for free, do you really need to pay for admissions advice?
Well, it depends on your situation. “What is your goal, and do you have the means to hire someone?” asks Cecilia Castellano, vice provost of strategic enrollment at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
According to Castellano, private admissions specialists are most common in situations where families want their students to gain admission to first-tier, Ivy League schools, where acceptance rates now hover around 6 percent. “An admissions specialist can absolutely help those families navigate a particular school’s unique admissions process,” explains Castellano. “While it certainly isn’t a necessity, it’s a luxury I would not discount if you can afford it.”
“Ideally, I’d love to say that a family should never have to pay for admissions advice,” adds Jill Medina, senior associate director of admissions at Oberlin College in Ohio. “Every high school student should have access to an admissions advisor who is going to help with the application process. But I understand that isn’t always the case if your student attends a high school with one college advisor who is responsible for 600 kids.”
Free Admissions Advice
If you are unable to afford a costly private consultant, where should your search for free admissions advice start?
Check a college’s website. “This is by far the most reliable source of information about any college,” states Castellano.
Call a college’s admissions office. Students and parents should also feel comfortable calling a college directly with questions or for admissions advice. “We want you to come to us for information, and we have admissions counselors or trained student specialists available 24/7 by phone, chat feature, or email,” says Castellano. “Usually we will speak in generalities, but I have had calls from parents with a second semester senior failing French 4 and they want to know how that is going to affect admissions, and I can give them a specific answer.”
And while colleges won’t give admissions decisions over the phone, most are willing to go into detail about what makes an application successful. “We do have admissions counselors who can give you a lot of very helpful information, such as: ‘Oberlin will expect these certain things from an applicant,’” Medina says.
Visit a college and/or attend college fairs in your area. If possible, plan a campus visit, go on a tour, ask questions, and talk to current students. If traveling to a distant campus is out of the question, you can attend college fairs or preview nights in your area, and speak with a college representative You can also visit schools you can drive to, even if you aren’t interested in attending them, says Medina. “You can still experience a college tour, learn what size campus appeals to you and get a feel for a particular size town.”
Go online. “There are so many tools available to students,” says Medina. For example, CollegeNET helps you browse different college profiles. Students can create a profile on sites such as Zinch or Cappex and connect with colleges. The colleges can also browse your profile and contact you. Of course, just because advice is free doesn’t mean it’s accurate. “Avoid any site where the information is anonymous,” cautions Medina.
Standardized tests. When you take the SAT or ACT, check the box to permit colleges to contact you. “You will have to demonstrate a little more initiative and motivation to gain admission to more selective colleges,” advises Medina, “but this can allow information to begin to flow to you at no cost and without much effort.”