By GRACE DEAN
In the complicated college admissions process some senior students have turned to private counseling services in the absence of multiple college counselors at CHS. Though these counselors come at a high price, the mixed services they offer and varying prices they charge expose the lack of true authority and regulation in the ever-competitive world of college admissions counseling.
With so-called elite colleges becoming increasingly difficult for students to gain admission to, the rising rates of private college counselor usage in the U.S. show that some students and parents have turned to sources outside their high schools to meet their counseling needs. According to Darren Johnston, CHS’ college counselor, these rising rates exist in Carmel too.
Part of these increased rates may be due to CHS’ current limited college counseling resources.
“I am so grateful that I was able to work with [my private college counselor] because I feel that even though the counselor services at CHS are great, it is hard to get a lot of one-on-one time with the counselor because you are fighting with your entire senior class,” says former CHS student Natalie Lobo, studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “[My college counselor] was always there to talk over the phone and quickly respond to emails or texts if I had any questions.”
Though it could seem that CHS students have been using private counselors purely out of necessity, that’s not necessarily the sole reason. Even students in Silicon Valley, where high schools commonly have huge counseling departments with multiple counselors, have been turning to private counselors. Take Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, for example. The school has eight counselors, but college admissions counseling in Silicon Valley has still exploded in recent years, according to a The Atlantic article by Georgia Perry titled, “Silicon Valley’s College-Consultant Industry.”
In Monterey or Silicon Valley, what remains unclear is exactly what services these counselors provide. With college applications consisting of multiple moving parts, what exactly are the counselors doing?
Although some private counselors offer different services than others, a common denominator of many college counselors is the organizational services they provide.
CHS senior Madison DiGirolamo started using college counseling services in Monterey during the summer before her senior year, going to a total of 10 sessions of one to two hours each. She found in her experience that the organizational services, as opposed to help on college essays, were particularly helpful in that she learned more about out-of-state universities and schools offering merit scholarships.
Similarly, Stevenson junior Lance Bauer has used services from college counselors from as far away as Cupertino. He adds that individual college counselors can help refine extracurricular activities for college applications, especially now that it is no longer considered more beneficial to be perfectly well-rounded in terms of interests.
“My counselor has helped me with shaping my extracurricular activities and what I choose to do to support what I am passionate about so that colleges don’t see my chosen activities as ambiguous or surprising,” says Bauer, adding that this perspective can make students who are still open to several fields of study feel constrained.
Though these sorts of organizational services are offered by most college counselors, many also offer help on college essays, test preparation, admissions interviews and making final college decisions. These services are what some consider to cross a line.
One CHS junior says she was skeptical when her mom first proposed she use an editor for her college applications.
“I was definitely worried that he would take over [in writing the essays], but I talked to him over the phone and he told me he wouldn’t change my personal voice,” she says. “It made me feel uneasy, though, because it made me wonder, ‘If I do get into good colleges, how much of it is me and how much of it is him?’”
To students sharing such doubts, Lobo assures that the college counselor she used was especially helpful in the essay process after she had helped organize and narrow down to what schools she would apply.
“She had me start by talking with her about what I wanted to write in each essay, which I felt made me dig deep,” Lobo says. “She also had serval handouts that really helped me write essays that weren’t just about my life story or a bibliography but told a story about who I was as person, student and what I valued. It took several rewrites and drafts till I finally got the essay that both [my college counselor] and I felt made me stand out.”
Though, according to CHS students, most college essay editors do not change a student’s personal voice and instead just help students pick topics of which to write, that’s not always the case.
“Even those who understand admissions and understand how to identify the strongest topics can still lack a subtle touch, often leaving their own fingerprints all over the student’s essay and application,” Johnston says. “This is not only obvious to an admissions counselor, but detrimental: The worst essay to submit is the one suspected of outside influence.”
In some extreme cases, college essay editing services, like those of Robert Schwartz who created Your Best College Essay, college essay editors have been accused of significantly altering a student’s essay for a high price. Schwartz’s business charges $1,500 for a Common Application essay and $700 for a 500-word supplement, according to Scott Jaschik in his Inside Higher Ed article, “When Application Essay ‘Help’ Crosses a Line.”
Bauer says this high price is typical of his experience as well. According to his estimate, from first sessions with a counselor until college acceptances start rolling in, it can cost up to $10,000 for a hefty package including multiple college admissions services, such as extracurricular help, college information help and essay editing.
But what about these counselors warrants such a high price? How are these counselors qualified to handle such tasks? The truth is maybe they aren’t as qualified as students and parents would hope.
In examining three counselors in the Monterey area, all had Bachelor degrees and all had completed “programs” concerning college advising, but only one had a Master of Arts in Educational Counseling. In contrast, Carmel High’s sole college counselor Johnston has both a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Davis and a Master of Arts in Education from Cal Poly.
These college advising programs, which award a recipient with a certificate upon completion, consist of just five courses that can be completed in one year.
One way many of these counselors promote their businesses is citing their student acceptances into various competitive schools, in comparison to the extremely low rates consistent with these competitive colleges. However, these statistics may be skewed: The students using private college counselors are typically already ahead of the curve.
One study from the marketing firm Lipman Hearne found that 26 percent of students in the 70th or higher percentile on the SAT were found to use private college counselors, as included later in Perry’s article.
But this isn’t the only trend in private counselor usage. At such a high cost, many also complain that private college counselors usage is restricted to the economically advantaged. This is one reason the rising rates of private college counselor usage, by any socioeconomic group, has been so controversial.
With mixed reviews from both counselors and students and lack of standardized practice in the field of college counseling, there’s no way to definitively conclude what individual private college counselors have to offer.