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How to Become a College Planning Consultant

Education

Background Check
There's a prevailing notion that private school, high school and college counselors make the best educational consultants because they have spent so much time with kids, have read students' files, are familiar with standardized tests and so on. But according to Sklarow, a counseling background isn't mandatory to be successful in this field.

"In my experience, counselors have the easiest time making the transition [from education to educational consulting]," he says. "They definitely get the one-on-one stuff. But although they understand the administrative part of counseling, they usually lack small-business skills. Also, they usually only know their own school or college and the surrounding area but usually not much beyond that. In addition, they usually don't see the learning-disabled kids or the ones who don't know what they want out of life. So they have a steep learning curve just like someone who doesn't come from academic counseling."

Conversely, Sklarow says that some of the other people who come to IECA, including everyone from lawyers to real estate agents, understand the small-business picture but lack the hands-on academic piece of the consulting pie. So what's an aspiring educational consultant to do? To begin with, look for a mentor who will allow you to work with him or her to learn the ropes. Then join an organization like IECA, the Higher Education Consultants Association, or the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Course Offerings
The college-planning services typically offered by an educational consultant include: l College search/selection advice: Matching a student to the college where he or she will fit in best and thrive is probably the consultant's most important job. Your insider knowledge about the student body, faculty and atmosphere of various educational institutions, which you'll glean from campus visits, will help you steer students toward the institution where they'll be most successful.

  • Admissions process insight: Consultants share their behind-the-scenes knowledge of what it takes to be admitted to the most competitive colleges to give students the best chance of getting in.
  • Application assistance: Consultants often help students fill in the blanks, then follow up with their student charges to make sure the applications are filed in time and with the correct application fee.
  • Admission essay assistance: Consultants won't write an essay for a student, but they will look it over and offer advice on what information should go into it and how to make it more effective.
  • College visit assistance: Consultants in the know can keep parents informed about college open houses and give advice on how to make the most of their college visits.
  • Evaluation of high school activities: By reviewing a high school student's transcripts, test scores, extracurricular activities and other accomplishments, a consultant can advise a student on the right moves to make while still in high school, from taking rigorous college prep courses to participating in particular activities or being tutored to improve grades. Being able to show a history of excellence in various activities can make a college admissions officer take notice, thus improving a student's chances of being admitted.

High Finance
When it comes to financial aid services, many educational consultants prefer to leave the financial aid consulting to people like accountants and certified financial planners. But it's not uncommon for them to offer advice and instruction on the basics of financial aid as a professional courtesy. For instance, they might give parents insight into how to pay for college or may direct them to scholarship resources. (Some educational consultants work with a financial planner and direct all questions about financial aid to that person when the need arises.) They also may help them fill out scholarship applications, which is a valued service for data-challenged people who don't have much time to spare or the patience necessary to work with the often-confusing forms,

What consultants don't do, however, is guarantee that a certain amount of financial aid will be awarded, or offer advice on how to work the system to make a student more eligible (e.g., by hiding parents' income or advising them to move assets into the student's name). Both are unethical practices and should be avoided like the plague to avoid any hint of scandal.

  • The financial aid services most commonly offered by educational consultants are:
  • Identification of funding sources/scholarship research
  • Assistance with athletic and performing arts scholarship searches
  • Assistance with financial forms and aid eligibility

A Day in the Life
While no two days are alike for educational consultants (which certainly can make things interesting), there will be certain tasks you can expect to do regularly, if not every day, in the course of plying your new trade. They include:

  • Consulting with students and parents: It's common for consultants to offer services by the hour or as a package that includes several meetings. These consults can take place in your home office, the students' home or a neutral location.
  • Handling office administration: This includes answering the phone, opening mail, handling accounts payable/receivable and paying bills.
  • Purchasing: You'll have to buy supplies for the business (e.g., office supplies, refreshments to offer during consultations, etc.)
  • Visiting college campuses: You'll be doing this to observe, gather intelligence and meet with college admissions officers, etc. (Later in the chapter we'll talk about this in more detail.)
  • Making travel arrangements for college visits: Everything from airline and hotel reservations to mapping your driving route using MapQuest or the auto club falls into this category.
  • Doing research: Since you're not likely to have the time or the financial resources to visit all the country's nearly 4,100 universities and colleges personally, you'll need to do most research remotely when you're starting out. You can use the internet to find out a lot about America's colleges, or you can write or call admissions officers for information. Also, once you get to know other educational consultants through professional organizations and campus tours, you'll be able to use them as resources, too. Meeting with high school counselors: Cultivate these professional relationships as a way to generate future referrals. Just be sure to assure them you're there to complement their services, not supplant them.
  • Meetings with parent groups: Giving free workshops and seminars to parents of high school-age students on topics like "How to Fill out a College Application" or "The Five Things to Include in a College Essay" can reap a lot of future business from folks who realize they really don't want to do all the college admissions work themselves.
    Networking: Hobnob with other professionals through organizations like the chamber of commerce, Rotary club and other civic organizations to create another good source of referrals.
  • Pursuing professional development opportunities: Courses and seminars like the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA)'s Summer Training Institute for New Consultants can help you grow professionally and keep your skills updated.

Visiting Time
The first year of a new educational consulting practice can be mighty lean, financially speaking. The main reason for this is that your first 12 months need to be devoted heavily to making the rounds of college campuses to learn about their programs, their environments and even their physical layouts.

"It takes at least a couple years to get established and work through the learning curve," says Steven Antonoff, a consultant from Colorado who's been in the business since 1981. "You have to make visits and be out there on campus. After the first two years, good consultants are out four to six weeks a year making visits because that's the best way to keep up with what's going on."

College visits are so important that even established educational consultants continue to visit college campuses-and some of them more than once. Charlotte Klaar, a Maryland-based consultant who started up in 1995, estimates she has visited more than 500 campuses in her career, while Joan Bress, who founded her Massachusetts consultancy in 1999, makes a one-week site visit each month. She focuses on all aspects of the college experience, from the social to the academic environment, and along the way talks with admissions people and faculty to get a well-rounded sense of what the institution is like and what it offers.

While New Mexico consultant Laughlin says she has personally visited 95 percent of the schools her kids have applied to because "it's something you can't do on a computer," it isn't necessary to visit every school that every student you counsel wishes to attend. For one thing, as Bress says, it doesn't always fit into her schedule to jump on a plane and make a site visit. When it's not convenient, she calls on her colleagues at IECA who either live near the college in question or have visited it. But, she says, "When I see trends, I make sure I go there."

Anatomy of a Consulting Program
While your slate of consulting services and the timetable on which they are delivered will be a very personal thing keyed to your particular interests, a typical admissions consulting package might look something like this:

Comprehensive College Selection Program
Stage I

  • Initial consultation (1 session): Describes the philosophy of the program and determines student and family needs
  • Assessment of academic and extracurricular performance (2 to 3 sessions)
  • Drafting of personal resume for the college selection process (1 session)
  • Completion of the personal resume during a student/parent conference (1 session)

Stage II
After one session to present the initial research list, additional consultations (as many as needed) for:

  • Paring of research to arrive at an optimum list of six college applications
  • Arranging itineraries for visits to college and university campuses
  • Networking with admissions personnel on behalf of the student
  • Determining the needs of the student and parents for need- or merit-based financial aid and assisting with the search for scholarship opportunities based on parameters stated at the conclusion of Stage I
  • Strategizing the essay and other subjective application elements
  • Assisting the student to meet deadlines for final applications

Source: James C. Heryer, College Guidance & Placement

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