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October 26, 2007

Perspective: Measuring Quality of Admissions Consulting Services

by David Petersam, President, AdmissionsConsultants, Inc.

A recent article on a college admissions consultancy in Businessweek is sure to spark interest in parents and high school students alike on whether such businesses are ethical, much less, whether they are effective.

Before anyone judges the college admissions consulting industry based on the magazine's example, let's keep in mind that there are a wide range of practitioners. As the founder and owner of an admissions consulting firm, my job is very different than the consultant featured in Businessweek. While my companyís focus is, like the one featured, on helping clients best leverage their accomplishments to get into a school of their choice, our paths diverge from that point on.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that AdmissionsConsultants has a diverse, seasoned team. We have no single person here reinventing our clients into candidates appointed with all the latest "wow" factors. Our consultants specialize in particular areas of college, law school, graduate business school, or medical school admissions. They earned experience as admissions officers at highly competitive schools; many served at more than one top-tier school. Several have also held other administrative and faculty roles. With experience from both sides – as admissions officers and now as admissions consultants – they have interacted with a range of applicants. They understand and support highly motivated applicants who yearn to reach the top, yet they are less "Extreme Makeover" and more organic in their approach.

While the Businessweek-featured consultant advised a high school junior to drop track team to focus more on music, his intended major, we would not have done that, even though a reader could have inferred that the tactic was successful. Yes, it is important for college applicants to demonstrate passion and commitment, especially for those with intended majors, but such calculated advising limits the variety of challenging experiences that helps high school students discover themselves. Competitive running sounds like a great companion to myriad disciplines. Why put a lid on that?

Other obvious differences abound between conscientious admissions consultants and the cases that make the headlines. Last year, there was much media attention on a Harvard sophomore, who, back when she was a high school senior and Harvard applicant, successfully packaged herself with the aid of an admissions consultant who, as it was reported, crossed the line. The applicant's packaging included producing a novel, one good enough to be picked up by a publisher. All was well until the publisher began fielding complaints about the young authorís plagiarism. After its own investigation, the publisher pulled the book off the shelves. While the role of the college admissions consultant in the publication of the book is murky, the case is instructive in laying out the difference between packaging and putting your best foot forward. Yes, applicants do need to get their "wow" factors in order, but an ethical consultant sees a clear distinction between presenting an applicant's accomplishments in their best light and juicing them up beyond recognition.

So, how will you know you are working with a good company that has your best interests at heart? If you are wondering how to assess admissions consulting companies, here are some tips to help you find the right adviser:

  • Ask questions about the one-on-one advising you will receive from your consultant. You want someone who will be honest in assessing your academic and extracurricular record in terms of your target schools. An effective consultant's work is not solely focused on getting clients into their dream schools; it's also on making sure that clients are targeting schools that are – in full measure – the best place for them to commit years of their time at an enormous financial cost. An effective consultant will be knowledgeable of a range of schools that will help you achieve your educational and professional goals.

  • Ask how the consultant will help you deal with any grades or scores that don't reflect your abilities or potential. Many bright, accomplished applicants have a pock mark or two that could detract from their status as an applicant. Yet, a skilled consultant knows the nature of academic anomalies, and how and when they can be successfully mitigated.

  • An effective consultant will be skilled at managing the notoriously stressful application process. A good consultant is also a good organizer with a strong understanding of the human psyche under stress. The application process involves a lot of self-assessment and other exercises typically outside anyone's comfort zone. You will want a consultant who knows how much time to allot for various application tasks and will help you devise a timeframe to get all the work done, on time.

  • Does the consultant have the background experience you need? A consultant worth your time and money will have had considerable experience as an admissions officer at a school on par with the one you are applying to. Bonus points go to those who have worked at more than one school with similar admissions requirements. Graduate and professional school applicants will want to hire a consultant who specializes in that field and has matching admissions committee experience. Ask how many applications they read on a weekly basis during the admissions cycle. It can be helpful if the consultant attended a school similar to those on your target list, but the professional admissions experience earned on campus is much more important.

  • Successful consultants, by and large, respect the admissions process of most schools. They know that competitive, highly ranked schools work hard to create diverse, bright incoming classes who will be successful in carrying the academic load ahead and will contribute to the school's environment. Ethical consultants will not view admissions officers as adversaries, "Nor," as one of my college advisers says, "will they view admissions as a process to be gamed." 

  • Seasoned consultants are not inexpensive; hourly fees start at $100. Highly specialized consultants, like Ivy League MBA advisers, can charge quite a bit more. But the Hummer-sized fees referenced in news articles on the college admissions business – which tend to focus on the most extreme cases – is not at all typical of the industry as a whole. These are the fees of those who cast themselves more as magician, plastic surgeon and NFL coach combined. If you sign an agreement for bundled services, be sure you understand and are comfortable with terms governing refunds.

  • While a good adviser will work hard to understand your potential, he or she will also value who you really are at this time in your life, knowing that with enough focus on school selection and applications, you will earn a slot at a school where the acceptance letter will usher in productive and rewarding years of learning, creating, researching and launching the next phase of your life.

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