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Getting into elite private colleges was always tough. Now it’s getting tougher.

Admission rates for the most-competitive schools, such as Stanford and Harvard, dropped again in 2016. This fall Stanford admitted just 4.7 percent of applicants, under 5 percent for the first-time ever according to the Washington Post, and Harvard's rate wasn’t much better at 5.2 percent.

A dozen universities, including Yale, Princeton and Caltech, are welcoming freshman classes this year consisting of fewer than 10 percent of applicants.
It’s no wonder that so many parents hire private college counselors to help them and their children when they are applying to college. 

But what exactly should you expect from an independent college counselor?

1. A Head Start

Joie Jager-Hyman, of New York- and Connecticut-based CollegePrep 360, said she sees clients from the ninth-grade up. Getting to know them years before they apply to college is helpful. 

“I can suggest developmentally appropriate options for them to pursue, things that may not be obvious to them,” she said.

2. An Analytical Approach

Private college counselors as a rule do not choose schools for a client. But they will bring tools and metrics to the table to help winnow down the choices.

Megan Rubiner Zinn hired CANE – College Advisors of New England. It had her son fill out several questionnaires and a Meyers-Briggs personality test. It helped discover “a sense of his personality, what he’s into, what he’s good at and how he learns best,” she said. Based on areas of academic concentration and geographic interest, the advisors drew up a suggested list of schools for her and her son to consider and visit.

3. A Much-Needed Middle Man

Applying to colleges can be a fraught time for many parents and teenagers.  Parents have expectations, kids have countless pressures.  A good college counselor can act as an intermediary between parent and child.  

“We understand how important it is to keep tensions between parents and kids low during this stressful time, and we consider it part of our responsibility to do just that,” said Jennifer Kaifesh,  owner of Los Angeles-based Great Expectations College Prep. She may suggest different courses or extracurriculars than the ones parents are pushing or simply provide a fresh and objective ear when it comes to hearing what the student really wants out of the college experience.

Great Expectations client Patty Pappas, a resident of Pacific Palisades, was certain that her daughter Emily would go to a Southern California school like UC Santa Barbara, but she ended up at the University of Wisconsin. “We never would have come up with that school on our own,” said Pappas. “Jen immediately got that Emily wanted a bigger school and a different kind of experience.”


Help with the SAT/ACT? It varies. Some college counselors and services offer both admission guidance and test prep. Others focus solely on the admissions process.

5. Application Essays

Writing application essays? In a word, no. And if they do, you shouldn’t be using them.  As hands-on as some private college counselors can be, none should ever put pen to paper and write a student’s essay for him. They can edit and make suggestions, or as Jager-Hyman puts it, “help them clarify and organize their ideas.” While not actually composing the essay, a counselor should “help students figure out the big picture of what they are presenting an admissions office and to articulate what they have to offer a university,” she said.

6. Admissions Process

A peek behind the admission curtain? Again, it varies. Ask your counselor about his or her experience and background. Some counselors are more familiar with the admissions world than others. 

College counselors at many companies are drawn from amongst former college deans and directors of admissions at elite universities and college. That kind of experience allows firms like New York-based educational consultants IvyWise to “mimic the application review process that admissions officers utilize at colleges and universities,” said founder and CEO Dr. Kat Cohen. “We know what colleges are looking for in their applicants,” she said.