Hiring a college consultant is not altogether different from finding a coach for a triathlon.
Consider this hypothetical: You’re planning to do a triathlon, which requires significant preparation. If you’re serious, you’ll need a coach with extensive experience who can expertly guide you in the running, swimming, and biking segments. This coach should also be well-versed in the latest research on training to help you get a leg up on competitors.
The College Admissions Triathlon
Preparing for college admissions takes just as long (if not longer) than preparing for a triathlon. Similarly, you want to find an expert who understands the entire college applications regimen and who can guide you through the myriad challenges to obtain your goals.
The best college consultants fit these criteria and more. Choosing an educational consultant is a pivotal decision. In this Guide to Hiring a College Consultant, we present the essential criteria for evaluating a consultant—both what to look for and avoid. Before we delve in, let’s answer one basic question…
What does a college consultant do?
Briefly put, a college admissions consultant is an educational consultant who understands the entire scope of the journey from high school to college. Using the triathlon metaphor, they can take you from the first days of training (such as selecting courses or extracurriculars) to the hurdles involved in completing the race (your Spike, essay writing, creating your college list).
College admissions consultants are not solely confined to working with students during the junior to senior year of high school. Some college consultants start advising students in their freshman or sophomore year. When this happens, the consultant’s guidance results in several interlocking outcomes. The student experiences personal growth while creating a strong dossier for college admissions that is authentic to who they are.
So when you’re hiring a college consultant, what should you look for?
The qualities of the best college consultants
They should be able to address strategic questions
Like triathlon coaches, your college admissions consultant must advise strategically. Your consultant should figure out the strongest parts of your application, which components to develop, and what context to provide to admissions officers.
Beyond that, the numerous questions should be handled carefully with insight to give you the best shot at acceptance to your top schools.
- Should you apply Early Decision, and if so, where?
- You’re applying to a test-optional school, and your SAT is slightly below the school’s median. Should you submit your score?
- Should you write the Additional Info or Covid statements, or skip them?
For complex decisions, admissions consultancies may have a head or secondary consultant to offer confirmation or an alternative perspective. Sometimes these consultants are former admissions officers, although this experience isn’t a necessity in helping students craft excellent college applications. (It’s like the difference between a chef and a food critic in a cooking competition.) Regardless, having an additional reviewer or strategic thought partner on your student’s college counseling team can help strengthen their applications.
They start early
When applying to college, it’s best to play the long game. You shouldn’t cram for your AP US History exam the night before, so don’t start preparing for your college applications solely during senior year. Working with a college admissions consultant early on in high school will help you make the right turns. This long-term coaching relationship will also help your consultant get to know you—your passions, challenges, why you started that volunteering project sophomore year—so that they can be a much more effective advocate. And by the time you apply for college, you’ll have developed the best rapport for collaboration.
The best college consultants attune to your needs
When you’re searching for your triathlon coach, you may have particular needs for your guide and training regimen. For instance, if you’re vegan, you’ll want a coach who can optimize your diet for the demands of the race.
This type of filter based on your needs applies to hiring a college consultant. Do the consultant’s curriculum and knowledge meet your long-term college goals? If you believe that creating an entrepreneurial Spike project is one of the surest ways to gain admission to a top school, then choose The Spike Lab, naturally. If you’re applying to art schools that require a portfolio, search for a consultant who specializes in this type of work. Coaches with different specialties exist to meet the needs of diverse students out there.
They demonstrate the value of a Spike
The college admissions selection process has changed significantly over the years. While highly selective colleges once sought out the “well-rounded student,” that does not always make the cut anymore. At top schools, admissions officers are looking for accomplishments that make a student stand out from a sea of similarly well-rounded applicants. The Spike fits the bill perfectly. Seek out a counselor who knows the importance of an entrepreneurial passion project and has the skills to help you create one.
They support your authenticity
When hiring a college consultant, it’s important to consider the authenticity of the work that a consultant does with their students. A consultant should support a student in developing pursuits and writing a personal statement that’s true to their character.
Certain college consultants may urge students to pick up activities that go against the grain of their cohort of applicants. For example, they may push STEM-focused students to focus on musical theater instead. It’s appropriate if the student is legitimately interested in musical theater, but pointless in the long-term if they aren’t. Besides, hindering students from reaching their full potential in high school, this strategy undermines their self-worth and identity. It signals “You should change yourself to be accepted” instead of “You should become the best version of yourself so that schools will want to accept you.”
The best college consultants tell it to you straight
A college admissions consultant’s role is upfront in their advice. If a student wants to apply to schools that are misaligned with their academic record, for example, then the consultant has an obligation to speak up and say so. They should also lay out the potential risks so that students can make an informed decision. By speaking frankly, consultants are looking out for your best interests. You may not always like what they say, but you can be confident that they’re telling you what you need to hear.
They make essay writing meaningful
The personal statement is central to your college application. It’s an opportunity to share insight into your character in a way that no other section does. Your essay should be an exemplary piece of writing, and to accomplish that, you’ll need an expert writing mentor. Look for advisers who love to teach writing. They will mentor you through revisions until the essay fully captures your voice and your story. (At The Spike Lab, we’ve shepherded some of our students through 7-8 drafts). In this 1:1 collaboration, you’ll get illuminating feedback on your writing, sometimes more than you’ve received in your high school English classes.
They help you decide on the right number of applications
In the last several years, higher education consultants have debated a key quandary of college admissions. What is the appropriate number of schools that each student should apply to? Before, students average anywhere between 4 to 7 schools, but over the years, this number has increased. At Spike Lab, we believe families should look for consultants who support more applications, without sacrificing quality.
Why? Look at recent history. The 2021 college admissions cycle had radically unexpected outcomes, due to a surge in applications to highly selective schools, test-optional policies, and other emerging dynamics. Even for top-notch students, results have become less predictable.
The best college consultants support their students’ growth
As you consider hiring a college consultant, consider the student-to-counselor ratio and how often consultants meet with students. Some boutique admissions consultants only meet with early high school students once a month. However, students need more support if they want to carve out niche interests that help them stand out from their peers.
If you want to develop an innovative mindset by completing a Spike, look for college consultants who can truly foster entrepreneurship, rather than just teach it like a lecture class. At Spike Lab, our specialized coaches have the background necessary to be effective in this role. They have entrepreneurship experience, training in a professional curriculum, and knowledge about innovation processes like design thinking and Lean. (Full disclosure: we recognize that this point is self-promotional, but hey—we’re doing our best not to be over the top.)
The best college consultants stick to their ethics
The recent Varsity Blues scandal rocked the college admissions world with shady dealings between admissions consultants, parents, and college sports recruiters. Some consultants will write the entire application for the student. This unethical practice is a huge disservice to the student. If a student is accepted based on an application that’s beyond their true capability, they may struggle to keep up at that school and learn effectively. Admissions officers can also sniff out such trickery, particularly when the essay is a marvelous, nuanced piece of writing, but the student can’t articulate at this level during an interview.
In hiring a college consultant, you want someone with ethical practices to make sure your student gets into a school that is the best fit for them. The IECA is a professional organization that requires members to abide by a strict code of ethics. They offer an online directory of consultants, categorized by location and specialty.
They care about your wellbeing
While college admissions consultants are hired to help students get into college, they may also help young adults deal with other challenges. In an era when young adults are suffering from higher rates of anxiety and depression, consultants need to be attuned to the pressures that high schoolers face, as well as the areas where they seek to grow. In short, they should care about more than just your student’s college results. The best consultants focus on helping your child cultivate skills, mental wellness, and identity development.
Consultants who heavily value results will also prioritize students who are already strong applicants. They counsel with a one-size-fits-all mindset, rather than with a growth mindset that guides students to improve themselves, regardless of where they are in their development.
Now that you know what to look for when hiring a college consultant, what are several red flags?
Beware: They require you immediately sign-on
As in any endeavor, good chemistry is key to the success in the relationship between families, students, and college admissions consultants. Most consultants offer complimentary introductory sessions in which you can determine if they’re a good fit for you. These conversations provide an excellent forum to ask consultants about their admissions strategy and the process more generally. As a corollary, you shouldn’t hire consultants who insist that you pay or sign a contract before an initial meeting. The college admissions enterprise is highly personal and emotional, so trust is critical to a successful collaboration.
Beware: They dictate decisions without conversation or context
When hiring a college consultant, avoid those who tell you what to do without explaining their reasoning. The ideal consultant will educate you about the holistic admissions system. Explanations are particularly informative for families who are not familiar with the US educational system. Many decisions are subjective and therefore values-based. Different consultants will have different takes on key decisions. Even admissions officers have varying opinions on admissions strategies. The consultant offers you the benefit of their experience, but they can’t predict admissions outcomes. Your interaction with a college admissions consultant should be a conversation, not a one-way monologue. You want them to share their strategic guidance but ultimately, you need to have the flexibility to make informed decisions yourself.
Beware: They guarantee results
In the college admissions realm, there are no guarantees that a student will be admitted to a university, no matter how stellar their application is. Even “safety” schools hold a small risk.
Spike Lab: Our Innovative Admissions Approach
Our team is full of college admissions consultants who help students realize their potential and build invaluable lifelong skills. We believe a Spike is one of the best foundations for a compelling college application. In our Class of 2021 applicants, 93% gained admission to at least one “reach” school. You can learn more about why our approach is so successful here.
We specialize in both Spike and college admissions coaching. In addition to our direct clients, we are the go-to partner consultancy for a premier group of college admissions consultants, and we mentor their students through our distinctive Spike coaching curriculum. Schedule a time with us to discuss how our experts can support you in the college admissions journey.