Private coaches: Are they right for you?

A file photo of a guidance counselor giving A file photo of a guidance counselor giving advice to a high school student. Photo Credit: Newsday / Viorel Florescu

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If the thought of navigating the world of college admission overwhelms you, there are many people eager to help -- for a fee. They’re called private college coaches (or counselors or educational consultants), and their numbers have been booming for the last decade or more.

As reports about colleges’ exclusivity blare across TVs and splash across newspapers, more families decide they don’t want to go through the college search alone. Those reports are true. Last year, applications to the nations’ most selective schools were up significantly. More applications mean a lower acceptance rate at each school, leaving students clamoring for an edge that could propel their apps to the top of the “admit” pile.

Of course, not everyone is trying to get into a highly competitive school; your focus should be getting into the school that best suits your interests, skills, budget and learning style. Still, if you want to consider a private coach, here’s what you need to know.

Look in the right places. As with every profession, there are great private college coaches and there are lousy ones. To find a good one, you could ask your guidance counselor (who might have really strong opinions about whether private coaches are worth the investment, so be ready if she disses the idea).

You can also find a coach through the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the professional organization of private educational coaches. Go to educationalconsulting.org and click “Find a Consultant.”

Tip: Membership in professional organizations doesn’t guarantee high-quality or ethical coaching, but it’s generally a good sign if the coach belongs to the IECA or the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Once you find a few possible consultants, ask them about the college campuses they’ve visited in the last year. (Hint: They should have a list of at least 20.) Check their references, and choose someone with whose company you’ll enjoy for a year or more.

Have clear expectations. What exactly will a private coach do for you?

At the extreme are hyper-involved coaches who select high school courses, review homework and advise families about when to hire tutors and where to spend their vacations, so students can add travel experiences to their college apps.

But most coaches are advisors—not tyrants—who guide students and their families through the maze of college admissions. The most qualified are experts on a vast number of colleges—the campuses’ personalities, student body demographics, available majors, financial aid packages and admissions requirements. And they use this knowledge to help their student-clients find schools that are good matches.

Your coach should not be filling out your apps or writing your essays. College admission counselors are sensitive to indicators that suggest too much interference from parents or private coaches, and you don’t want to be DQ-ed because your coach overstepped her bounds.

And on that note: Beware of anyone who guarantees he can get you into the school of your choice. No such magic exists.

Pay up. Fees for private coaches’ services vary widely—from as little as a few hundred dollars to provide feedback on your essay to as much as $40,000 for a full-throttle strategy over several years. Of course, most coaches fall in the middle, and you should get a detailed contract that includes total fees and an outline of services before your parents write a check.

Is it worth it? That’s a good question. Some critics say that private coaches take credit for outcomes that were inevitable: qualified students getting into schools that suit them. But proponents say that as the admissions process gets increasingly nutty—and overwhelming—a coach can help a student find the best possible college for her, which is (almost) priceless.

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Must-Ask Questions

Will you use professional influence at the schools I’m interested in attending to get me admitted? The answer should be no. Ethical counselors should help you get admitted on your own merits.

Do you ever accept compensation from colleges in exchange for sending students their way? Let’s hope not. Yikes.

What specializations do you offer? You might want a coach who is a pro at serving athletes, for example, or students with special needs.

Will you fill out our financial aid paperwork? Nope. That’s a family affair.

How many other clients do you serve? You want to find someone who isn’t just coaching on the side. You want someone who can spend the time you need to work with you.

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