Two weeks ago, the largest US college admission scandal ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice hit the news. It sent shockwaves throughout households and brought questions about hiring college admission consultants to the forefront of parents’ minds.

Although the scope of the investigation was surprising, the actual facts were not. Just like there are crooked doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergy, and people in every other profession, there are unethical college counselors too. The mastermind of Operation Varsity Blues committed criminal acts with the help of coaches, tutors, and parents. So far, 50 people have been indicted.

Many independent counselors take solace in the fact that this so-called “college counselor” was not associated with any of the professional organizations in the college admission counseling world such as IECA, HECA, or NACAC, which hold their members to a set of ethical standards.

The majority of our industry is filled with passionate people trying to help high school applicants better understand the college process in order to present a strong application. We aren’t bribing coaches or helping students cheat on their standardized tests; rather, we are teaching students how to put their best foot forward.

Parents continue to wonder if they should hire an independent counselor, and if so, how they can find one who will work well with their family. Let’s look at these two questions.


Private counselor, educational consultant, college coach, IEC, Certified Educational Planner… these terms are used to describe an expert who helps high school students prepare for and apply to college. 

Back in 2009, Lipman Hearne designed a survey for “high-achieving” high school seniors (defined by standardized test scores in the top 30%) who were all accepted to at least three colleges. They discovered that 26% of them admitted to hiring an independent educational consultant to assist in their college search process. Ten years later, we suspect the number is significantly higher.

So, why has the trend been growing and should you hire somebody to help your child? 

The issue has been examined quite a lot over the last several years, and as families have begun to understand how independent educational consultants (IECs) complement the work of the school counselor, the college counseling business has flourished.

High school counselors can be wonderful, but their time is limited. They don’t have the luxury of spending hours with students developing an individual “best fit” college list, prepping them for admission interviews, discussing their campus visits to discern what appeals to them, guiding them through their essays to make sure their unique voice comes across, or simply helping them stay on track with all of their applications. In fact, the latest National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) report (2018) reveals that the average U.S. counselor is responsible for 470 students. Public high school counselors devote only 21% of their time to college advising, and even in private high schools, counselors are able to spend less than half of their time (47%) on college advising. 

Speaking with families, we hear a variety of reasons explaining how they ended up in our office:

  • College is one of the most expensive purchases that parents will ever make. They believe it’s worth hiring a consultant to make sure that their student ends up in a place where they will thrive. 

  • They feel their child needs more one-on-one attention than the high school can provide in order to navigate the college process well.

  • The parents understand that college admission is different from when they applied decades ago, and they would like someone with experience to guide them.

  • They worry that their teen isn’t likely to value their opinion, so they would like an impartial person to advise their child through the entire process, with minimal stress.

  • Parents don’t feel they have the time to conduct all of the research themselves and would rather have a professional walk them through the various application steps.

  • Their friends hired a counselor and were happy with the results. Choosing to hire a counselor is a decision that students and their parents should make together. If the family decides to work with a college consultant, it’s best to begin as early as possible, preferably when the student enters ninth grade.

If you decide to hire a college counselor, what should you look for?

According to the 2018 IECA State of the Profession Report, since 2005 there has been a 400% increase in the number of IECs domestically, and a 1,000% increase in the number of IECs internationally.  

Since the industry is rapidly growing and college admission policies are ever-changing, it’s important to hire someone who is experienced, passionate about this career and truly tries to get to know the student in order to recommend colleges that would be a “best fit.”

It’s hard to believe, but there are parents, just completing the process with their own child, who now believe they’re competent enough to hang out a shingle and begin a college counseling practice. It’s a bit unnerving that only 20% of college counselors are currently associated with a professional organization. How do you know if the counselor you are thinking of hiring is qualified?

Here are some questions to ask when selecting an IEC:

  • Are you a Certified Educational Planner? The American Institute of Certified Educational Planners (AICEP) awards the CEP credential to those who have achieved the highest level of competence in educational planning. It’s the only certification offered in the field. If the counselor has obtained the CEP certification, you know they have been vetted by a committee.

  • Are you affiliated with any well-established professional organizations? IECA (founded in 1976), NACAC (founded in 1937) and HECA (founded in 1997) are among the most recognized, and these organizations require counselors to adhere to stringent ethical codes.  

  • Do you visit colleges? How often? IECA consultants typically devote 20% of their time to touring campuses and meeting with admission officers. This helps them advise their clients better.

  • Do you attend conferences and other training to stay abreast of trends and changes being made?

  • How do you help with the college essays? (Stay away from anyone who will write them for your student!)

  • How long have you been in this business and how many students have you advised?

  • Do you help students select schools that are affordable? Are you familiar with which colleges may award my student a scholarship? (Many of our families have been awarded merit scholarships over $100K!)

  • How will you help my child select the colleges they should apply to?

Make sure your teen meets the counselor and has a positive “gut” feeling about working with him/her. It’s important to form a solid relationship where your teen feels comfortable asking questions and sharing thoughts and ideas with the counselor. 

Final words of advice: start early!

This article is written and provided to us by our educational partner - Laurie Kopp Weingarten (CEP)

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