Is a free seminar/webinar worth attending?

One of the many factors that can exacerbate college admissions anxiety is for-profit companies that feed the confusion and fear rather than relieve it. You see this frequently with free seminars or webinars. You show up to learn about financial aid or admissions or test preparation, but what you learn is (1) there’s a complex, secretive, high-stakes process awaiting you, and (2) this company is ready to solve all your problems for a fee.

I don’t have a problem with companies offering free workshops that share their available products or services as part of the presentation. We’ve done the same thing since I founded Collegewise in 1999. But there’s a way to do so responsibly that leaves every attendee, not just those who decide to hire you, a little better off than they were before they showed up. It’s not helpful to bait audiences with the promise of good information and then switch to a pure sales presentation once you arrive.

There’s no foolproof formula for deciding if a free college-related workshop will be worth attending. But assuming the subject matter has relevance for your family, here are a few considerations.

1. Does the promotional material leave you intrigued, or just anxious?
In college admissions, you can tell a lot about a company’s values by how they choose to promote themselves. Does the event’s promotional material intrigue you, like an opportunity to access the right information at the right time to help you make good college-planning decisions? Or does it leave you worried that your family will be at a disadvantage if you don’t attend? Reputable companies don’t try to scare people into doing (or buying) something. And if they’re scaring you before you even show up, don’t expect it will get much better once you’re in the audience.

2. Is there history between the company and the high school?
Many high schools bring outside speakers to campus to share information with students and parents. And a company that has a history with your school has likely earned it. High school counselors and administrators are justifiably protective of their audiences. If they put you in front of their families and you don’t deliver, or you pressure the audience into buying, or you do anything that makes the school regret inviting you, you’ll never get invited back. But make those families rave about what they learned and you’ll earn repeat engagements. A frequent guest is likely a reputable guest.

3. Does the purported expertise pass the sniff test?
Expertise can take many forms—credentials, relevant experience, contributions to the college-going community, etc. Make sure your presenter has demonstrated one or more of them. There is no required certification to give free advice on admissions, testing, or financial aid, and you probably don’t want to take guidance from someone who’s doing this as a hobby. Take a few minutes to vet the speaker or the organization. Do they seem committed to the profession and engaged with the subject matter? Are their investments of time and energy in those areas apparent? Or does the expertise seem to begin and end with calling themselves an expert? There’s plenty of good information out there, and there are plenty of knowledgeable, good-hearted experts ready to share it. Those are the people worth giving up an hour or so to show up and listen to.

Here’s an example of a group that checks all those boxes.

Compass Education Group is offering a series of free webinars on standardized testing. Neither Collegewise nor I have any formal affiliation or financial arrangement with Compass. But we’ve known their leadership for over a decade, we’ve attended their presentations, and it’s clear to us why they are such frequent guests and even keynote speakers at high schools across the country. All the information is available here. You can also download their excellent guide to college admissions testing here.