Ask Collegewise: How should we choose a private counselor?

Debbie asks:

My daughter is about to start her senior year, and we’re considering hiring a college counselor to help her with her applications, essays, etc. What would your advice be on finding a good counselor for her (credentials, experience, etc)?  Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

Anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a college counselor.  So it’s sometimes hard for families to know what questions to ask or how to even evaluate the counselors in your area.  Here are a few things to consider as you look for the right counselor.

1.  Before you hire someone, investigate the resources your school offers.

The vast majority of students applying to college do so without the assistance of a private counselor.  So before you go to the trouble of finding and hiring someone, you should investigate the college counseling options at your high school.  Students often aren’t aware of just how much help is available right there on campus.  And if you decide you need more help than your school can offer, you’ll have a better sense of exactly what services you want to pay for when you hire someone.

2.  Talk to friends and ask for referrals.

If you have friends whose kids have gone on to college, friends that you feel you have a lot in common with and whose opinions you can trust, ask them if they hired a counselor, and if so, how the experience was.  Of course, just like a referral to a hair stylist, lawyer, personal trainer or accountant, the fact that your friend had a great experience doesn’t guarantee that you will.  But it can be a great first step and will certainly make you feel more comfortable to have an enthusiastic recommendation in hand.

3.  Ask to schedule a free introductory meeting.

It’s important that the student gets a chance to meet the person he or she would be working with.  So most counselors will offer a free introductory meeting where you can all get to know each other.  Don’t necessarily expect to get free counseling at this meeting, but it’s the right time to ask all your questions, learn more about how they work, and assess the match for your student.

4.  During the meeting, ask questions that will reveal a counselor’s passion for the job.

Most great professionals exude a passion for their job, and college counseling is no different.  I think you want someone who’s got good energy and a real interest in the job.  Here are some questions that can reveal not just whether you’ve found the right person, but also just how much this counselor is enjoying what he or she is doing.

  • “What type of student do you really enjoy working with?”  A good counselor will have an answer that isn’t “I enjoy working with all students equally.”
  • “We want to make sure we have realistic expectations.  What would be some reasonable expectations for us if we were to work with you?” A good counselor will be confident and sure when he answers this question, and he’ll be able to describe some clear outcomes you can expect from your work together.
  • “How do you stay up-to-date with college information?”  All the great counselors we’ve met not only make the effort to keep learning as much as they can, but they also seem to love that part of the job.  You don’t want a counselor who’s checked out any more than you’d want a surgeon who doesn’t go to medical conferences anymore. You’re looking for someone who enthusiastically tells you about visiting colleges and reading blogs and attending conferences and subscribing to list serves and reading books, etc.
  • “Do you think we seem like a good fit for you and your program?” Good counselors wish families would ask us this question.  Anything less than a genuine, enthusiastic “Yes” means that either the counselor doesn’t believe you would work well together, or you have expectations that don’t match what the counselor can provide (or both).

5.  When in doubt, let your student pick.

The best college counselor for your student will probably be the one that he listens to and enjoys working with.  So if you’re trying to decide between a few reputable choices, ask your student her preference and let her participate in the choice.  Parents aren’t applying to college, and you’re not really the one working with the counselor, either.  Kids deserve to have their say in this decision about who will help them on their ride to college.

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