As children start High School, parents start to think of university and questions arise about hiring a private college counsellor. But before you sign on the dotted line and spend your hard-earned dollars, you should evaluate carefully the potential benefits and risks – yes, risks – involved. UWCSEA explains:
Why (not) hire a private counsellor?
For families in an international school setting, applying to university and the decisions it involves can be especially stressful. Not only do they usually have high aspirations, but they need to understand and navigate the complexities of university systems that are, in many cases, different to those they are familiar with back home. Some families come from a country where it is the norm to employ a private counsellor to help your child manage their applications.
But this eagerness to ensure the best possible outcome can sometimes lead to thinking that ‘you get what you pay for’. This, in turn, can lead to some families considering employing a private counsellor to try to make sense of it all and ensure the outcome they want.
Unfortunately, bad advice or support that crosses an ethical boundary can jeopardise an applicant’s success. Most reputable international schools have invested in developing a team of professional in-house guidance counsellors. So, we’d like to suggest that before deciding to engage a private counsellor, you investigate what is likely to be available in your child’s international school – and included in the school fees you already pay!
What does a typical international school guidance counsellor offer?
Many international schools (in Singapore and beyond) have highly trained professionals on staff who are genuinely invested in your child’s success. In fact, in a truly international school, the advisors will have years of experience supporting third culture kids with university applications around the world. This is very difficult expertise for an independent advisor to match.
Being immersed in the school means the school counsellors work in direct relationship with students, teachers, support staff, parents – and, most importantly, the universities themselves. High school guidance counsellors bridge the gap between all the players. Independent counsellors cannot do that – operating in isolation, they lack the inside perspective, and are not allowed to contact universities on behalf of their clients.
Managing the liaison between the school and universities is a key part of the counsellor’s role. Often, guidance teams at an international school will include former university admissions officers (with unique insight into the university side of the process), and those from a teaching background (with a firsthand understanding of the academic environment at the school). Most guidance counsellors also spend countless hours (often during school holidays) building their networks and working to establish relationships of mutual trust, respect and collaboration with university admissions professionals worldwide.
This immersion into the culture of the school and multidimensional perspective on the students is something no outside counsellor can offer. Why is it so important? Because universities always review applicants in the context of the high school they come from. This means that while school-based counsellors can view admission trends and patterns specific to the students from their school, private counsellors are restricted to data published in generic guides.
Private counsellors are never in a position to know where a student stands academically in relation to their cohort, or to gain insights from educators working directly with the student. They don’t see the students in the normal course of the school day and may have very little knowledge of the culture of the school. Therefore, private counsellors inevitably operate in a vacuum, removed from the high school context that is so important to the universities when undertaking a holistic admission review.
Other typical in-house International School offerings:
- Detailed information sessions on worldwide destinations and choices
- An understanding of the needs of a third culture kid community
- Connections with alumni who are studying in a range of different institutions, courses and countries for questions and first-hand advice
- Opportunities to meet representatives from many universities as they visit the campus (a far more personal and useful experience than having to go to a crowded ‘fair’ with students from many other schools)
- University sample lectures hosted by visiting academics
- Support based on national service obligations or gap year timing
- Parent and student university transition support programme
- Individualised application coordination including confidential school references, teacher recommendations, transcripts, reports and other support documentation
What are the potential risks?
While some private counsellors are well-informed and trustworthy, and are careful not to overstep the bounds of professional advice, sadly, there are others who are more skilled at marketing their companies than providing a competent service. A recent example saw, despite the expense involved, one of these companies give a student exactly the opposite advice on their personal statement than what was needed.
If the independent counsellor takes over the application work entirely for their clients, even writing the essays for the students, this can also backfire. If a student plays a passive role and lets someone else do all the work, this not only prevents them from developing the independence they will need at university, but it can (and has) led to rejections if the universities see evidence that a private counsellor has written the essay.
How do I assess the private counsellor I am considering?
If you believe, after checking out the options at your child’s school, that your child would still be best served by engaging an independent counsellor, our first piece of advice is to ask about their qualifications and check if their experience meets industry standards.
We recommend looking for an independent counsellor who is accredited and an active member of one or more of these organisations: Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA); the National Association for College Admissions Counselling (NACAC); Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) or the International Association for College Admissions Counselling (IACAC), formerly known as OACAC.
Two particular ‘buyer beware’ notes:
- The fact that someone has attended a particular university, or supported their own child’s applications, does not make them an expert or give them particular insight. Nor does it provide them with ‘insider’ connections.
- The incorporation of the names of famous universities into their company names does not mean that they are in any way official representatives of those institutions.
What’s the worst that can happen?
The experiences of our students with private counsellors are not always bad. However, over the years we have been contacted by families who have engaged the services of an independent agent only for the outcome to be far different to what they had hoped.
University admissions officers have a fine radar for inappropriate interference and are suspicious if essays appear not to match the student’s personality. This is when admissions people will check to compare the essay writing style and sophistication with the essay on the writing sections of American standardised tests, which are seldom taken into consideration otherwise. Some years ago, a university even contacted us to let us know that they were not going to consider an application from one of our students because they had detected signs that he was working with a private counsellor from his home country. The university informed us that students living in that particular country needed private counsellors because of a lack of support in their own high schools. But they found it suspicious that a student from UWCSEA was using a private counsellor when they knew that he had ‘excellent, ethical and highly professional support in place at UWCSEA.’
Reputable international schools have real university representatives coming to the school – at their own expense – seeking to recruit their students. So why pay private agents with sometimes dubious qualifications and one dimensional support when you can get expert advice directly from the source, free of charge?
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