How to Become a College Planning Consultant

If you can tell a Harvard student from a UC Berkeley student and know all there is to know about college, it's time to throw your mortarboard into the entrepreneurial arena by becoming a college planning consultant.
How to Become a College Planning Consultant
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Busy lifestyles have spawned them. More than 4,100 institutions of higher learning have made them possible. Nearly 16 million students have created a demand for them. And now you can take advantage of today's ever-growing need for college admissions/financial aid consulting services by throwing your hat-or shall we say mortarboard?-into this interesting and rewarding arena.

Today's college planning consultants-or some call them educational consultants or college admissions/financial aid consulting professionals-offer a wide array of valuable services to students and their parents. For instance, they help steer students during their high school days to the academic, extracurricular and athletic pursuits that will increase their chances of being admitted to the college(s) of their choice. They help them wade through the mounds of paperwork necessary to apply for both admission and financial aid, and they make sure the forms are submitted on time. They also specialize in helping at-risk students, learning-disabled students and other nontraditional students achieve their highest potential.

Head of the Class
According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), some of the best and most capable educational consultants come from the ranks of the country's experienced academic advisors and counselors, who gain hands-on experience at both public and private universities, colleges, and secondary and elementary schools. (Or at any rate, they have the easiest time making the transition to educational consulting, given their background, says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the IECA. In addition, they often have titles like certified educational planner (CEP) or licensed educational psychologist, as well as an alphabet soup of other prestigious academic letters after their names, including Ph.D., MBA, M.A., Ed.D. (Doctor of Education), and Ed.M. (Master of Education). On the financial aid side, some consultants are even CPAs or credentialed financial planners.

Both this experience and educational background is important for someone who wishes to hang out a shingle as an educational consultant, because frankly, the college admissions field in general and the financial aid consulting industry in particular both have a rather unsavory reputation. The popular press frequently warns the public about shady consultants who gleefully scam unsuspecting families of limited means who are desperate to find the best college and/or aid package. They report that consultants charge ridiculous fees, up to and including an exorbitant percentage of the financial aid package. They've also written about how some unscrupulous consultants "guarantee" that they can get a child a full ride at a competitive university, then slink away, retainer fee in hand, leaving the student and his parents high and dry.

Then there are the dabblers, or the people whom Santa Fe, New Mexico, educational consultant Whitney Laughlin refers to as the "Mommy Corps." These are the aspiring consultants who come by their knowledge of the college application process from having shepherded an offspring or two through the experience, and may even have succeeded in getting said children admitted to a prominent university. They figure that having navigated the choppy waters of college admission successfully, they have the right stuff to turn their knowledge into a thriving career. In some cases, they have degrees themselves, although more often than not, those degrees are in fields other than education or counseling.

But what the dabblers usually don't have is insider knowledge of a wide variety of college campuses the way professional counselors do. They don't know the right people at the university level to contact for insight and information. They also don't have experience dealing with complex personalities and figuring out how to match kids to the institution where they'll thrive and grow. In short, they're trying to build a business without paying their dues-and that can be a real handicap when it comes to running a successful educational consultancy.

"The college admission process may seem intuitive, but it's based on a cumulative process of experience that includes visiting colleges; going to conferences, seminars and workshops; and knowing enough about various colleges to help students pick the right one," Sklarow says. "The person who says, 'I got my daughter into Bryn Mawr, and it was so much fun that I can't wait to help others get into college, too,' won't have enough knowledge to connect the right kid to the right college. You have to go out and visit 40 or 60 colleges, so when you meet a kid, you have an 'aha' moment and recognize that he seems like a Penn State kid, for example, rather than a Temple kid."

Getting an Education
Don't get us wrong. Our point here isn't to discourage you from pursuing a career in educational consulting if you don't have decades of academic counseling experience. It is possible to build a career in this field if you have the drive and determination, a willingness to invest time in professional development, and a commitment to excellence. But there's no question that people with previous admissions experience have an edge, and that it will take a lot of work to develop the knowledge and contacts you'll need to do the job right if you don't have that experience. And as Sklarow points out, you'll also have to travel extensively to visit college campuses and get to know what they offer, and it usually will be at your own expense. Universities generally pay expenses only for experienced consultants, since they're the ones who are most likely to make successful placements at their institutions.

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