Monday morning Q&A: Choosing a private counselor

Ai asks:

What are the most important qualifications that a family should consider when hiring a college admissions counselor?

I started writing a reply and experienced déjà vu. Sure enough, here’s my answer to this very question written seven years ago.  All of that advice still stands, and I encourage you and any other readers to start there. But here are a few more thoughts gleaned from seven more years of experience (and over 2500 blog posts) since then.

Credentials like admissions or counseling experience, an advanced degree, or a good reputation in town are worth noting because they are, at the very least, the marks of a professional who treats this craft as more than just a hobby. But none of those qualifications alone guarantees that a private counselor will be willing or able to deliver the change you’re hoping they can make for your family. So a good place to start is by answering this question, which might be an uncomfortable exercise for some parents. If you had to be brutally honest, why exactly are you considering hiring a private counselor?

Your brutally honest answer might be purely mechanical, like:

We know there are lots of good colleges, but we need help finding them.

The process seems really complex, and I think it would help to have an expert who could guide us through it.

But for many other parents, the brutal honesty sweeps away the half-truth factual answers and reveals the more emotional reasons that might be uncomfortable admitting to yourself or others, like:

Every parent in my circle has hired a private counselor, and I feel like I’m letting my student down by not doing the same.

I’m scared to death that my kid is going to make a mistake and I’ll feel terrible I didn’t catch it.

I don’t want to fight with my son about this anymore. I’m tired. I want someone else to nag him and explain why this is all so important.

I want my daughter to go to a prestigious college, and I’m willing to pay for an advantage if the right person can give it to me.

I’m not endorsing or rejecting any of these reasons—you get to have them as this is your student’s college process, after all. But whatever your answer is, mechanical, emotional, or somewhere in between, you won’t feel good spending money for help unless that person creates the change you’re looking for. And credentials alone won’t tell you whether or not a potential counselor is willing or able to deliver that outcome for you. You’ll need to have a very real, open conversation about your expectations and what a successful outcome looks like to you. The right counselor for you will understand and appreciate how forthright you are, and they’ll be both honest and specific about whether they can deliver what you’re looking for.

Some parents may resist what feels like a psychological exercise, but you’re not buying a car, a computer, or a new roof for your house—this is guidance for your student’s journey to college. There are stakes and emotions in play here that need to be acknowledged by all parties. The more willing you are to do just that, the more likely you’ll be to make the right choice for you and your student, especially if you follow the advice in that past post referenced above.

Thanks for your question, Ai!

If you’ve got a question, feel free to submit it here. I’ll answer another next week.