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Should You Hire a College Admissions Consultant?

Should You Hire a College Admissions Consultant?

Understatement alert: applying to college is a daunting process. 

Enter the college admission consultant — also known as an IEC (for Independent Educational Consultant). IECs are a booming business — over 160,000 families work with them every year. And they can help enormously:

  • reducing student (and parent) stress, 
  • improving applications and admission outcomes, and 
  • even reducing tuition bills. 

But IECs are also expensive, generally costing around $5,000, but sometimes going up to $10,000 or more. 

This article will walk you through:

  1. How to decide whether or not you would benefit from an IEC or essay coach.
  2. If you do decide to hire an IEC or essay coach, how to go about choosing one that will work well with you.

(Want to learn Prompt's approach to writing college essays that have helped thousands of students get admitted to every top-50 school? Explore our detailed College Essay Help guide here.

The 7 (or so) things college admission consultants can help you with;Deciding if you need outside help: think about where you need support & where you feel comfortable going alone;5 questions to ask an admissions consultant before hiring them
The 7 (or so) things college admission consultants can help you with;Deciding if you need outside help: think about where you need support & where you feel comfortable going alone;5 questions to ask an admissions consultant before hiring them

The 7 (or so) things college admission consultants can help you with

Think of IECs as admission guides — they take you through every step of the admissions process, and can even improve your high school career by advising on courses and extracurriculars.

Here are the services most commonly provided by IECs:

  • Building your college list. IECs will help you identify your best reach, target, and safety schools based on your profile (academics, extracurriculars, high school attended), personal preferences (such as location, social environment), and what your parents want (for example: desired tuition).
  • Choosing your major. IECs can help you think through your future plans, including which major(s) you may want to apply to based on your career ambitions.
  • Completing your application and helping with essays. IECs help you brainstorm content for and plan your written components (essays, activities list, additional info section). They give feedback on drafts. They’ll also help you choose your recommenders, and (if applicable) help you prepare for interviews. 
  • Outsourcing the nudge. IECs are partly there to get you to complete your applications well ahead of their deadlines. This should not only improve the quality of your application, but also reduce friction and conflict within your family. 
  • Final decision. IECs can guide families through selecting which college to attend after receiving admissions offers.
  • Navigating financial aid and scholarships (sometimes). IECs can guide families through the FAFSA or CSS profile, as well as possible scholarship opportunities.
  • High school guidance (sometimes). IECs can advise you on what classes to take and extracurriculars to pursue based on your target schools and ambitions. 

Deciding if you need outside help: think about where you need support & where you feel comfortable going alone

IECs are popular because they provide real value. Sometimes, however, families choose not to use them because they can seem expensive.

One way around the cost factor is figuring out where you really need the support. Though every family is different, in our experience families tend to most want: 

  1. “application completion and essay guidance” and 
  2. “outsourcing the nudge.”

 These services are top of the list for many reasons:

  • Essays are generally the most complex and time-intensive parts of the application process. 
  • They’re also usually the most valuable – strong essays can increase your chances of admissions up to 10 times that of students with similar academic profiles.
  • Students procrastinate writing essays and completing their applications. 
  • Parents and students argue about essay content and getting the essays and applications done. 
  • Students and parents alike don’t have a strong understanding of what college admissions officers are looking for in the personal side of the application (essays, activities list, recommendations, additional information). 
  • Students and parents therefore don’t understand how to develop and present a student’s “personal brand.” 

We often find families feel confident on doing some things on their own:

  • Researching colleges and deciding which to apply to.
  • Deciding what college to choose, once you’ve been admitted. 
  • Making high school class and extracurricular decisions.
  • Applying for financial aid. 

That being said, creating a college list is often easiest for students applying mostly to public universities (e.g., in their state) or who know they want to focus on highly-selective colleges only (e.g., Ivy League or similar). Sorting through many liberal arts colleges can be a difficult task, and one where a consultant’s guidance can really help. 

Nevertheless, many families end up working with IECs specifically for guidance on the application and essay. 

If you think you’re likely to fall into this camp, the smart way to handle this is either (1) work with a consultant that specializes in the application and essay process, or (2) work with an application and essay-focused service (such as us at Prompt) that can efficiently and expertly give you the guidance you most need. 

In the end, each family is unique, and what they need support with can vary tremendously. Make this decision based on as objective an assessment as you can make of your particular needs. 

5 questions to ask an admissions consultant before hiring them

[1] STRENGTHS: What parts of the application process are you most experienced with?

Consultants have strengths in different areas:

  • Some have personally visited hundreds of colleges and are exceptional at helping students build school lists. 
  • Others are fantastic at helping students identify their passions, select their major(s), and determine potential career paths. 
  • Some excel at helping students to determine their “personal brand.” 
  • Some are great at essay coaching and feedback. 
  • Some are almost psychiatrist-like, acting as personal confidants. 
  • Some are great at the financial planning aspects of applying, and at finding strong financial fits for families.

IECs may also have strengths in multiple areas. Press the consultants you’re interviewing for specific examples of their strengths. Many may say they are strong at everything, but we know everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Align your consultant’s strengths with the areas in which you feel you need the most help.

[2] VALUE: What specific value do you believe I will get working with you versus doing it myself? Instead of working with another consultant? Instead of working with an essay-only coach?

Building on the strength question above, dive deeper into what makes the IEC special. Ask questions like: 

  • How do you approach things in ways that I wouldn’t? 
  • What sets you apart as a consultant? 
  • Why should I consider working with you instead of a specialist at one specific thing – such as an essay coach? 

Their answers may change your thinking on what services you need – be open to changing your mind!

[3] RESULTS: Where are your students admitted? Where do they ultimately attend? What percentage get into their top choice? What percentage get into one or more “reach” colleges? What percentage of your students transfer?

Now, get into the results. Ultimately, it’s the outcomes that matter – being happy with the school you ultimately attend (and not paying for something you can’t afford). Take it as a good sign if the IEC’s clients get into and attend colleges similar to the ones you’re targeting. 

But, you should push even further. IECs have a lot of control over where their students apply and what their students’ top choices are. We find the most important metric is what percentage of students get into one or more “reach” colleges. IECs define reach colleges differently, but the gist of a reach college is that it’s where a student doesn’t have a high chance of admission based on their academic profile. 

For example, all highly-selective colleges are reaches, regardless of your own academic profile (think Ivy and Ivy-equivalent with under 4,000 admits per year). Other colleges will be reaches for students who are in the bottom half of admitted students academically (e.g., test scores, GPA, strength of curriculum). Understanding the acceptance rate of the IEC’s students at “reach” schools will give you the best sense of their capabilities. For context, at Prompt, 3 in 4 of our students get into one or more of their reach colleges, a rate far above what would be predicted by their academic profiles alone.

The transfer question is also critical. Students who transfer to another school likely didn’t start at a college that was a good fit for them. It’s an IEC’s responsibility to guide students to the right colleges for them. If an IEC has students who transfer, ask why. It could be a simple aberration, or because the student or parent went against the IEC’s recommendation. But it might also be that the IEC should have done a better job working with the student to identify what truly mattered to them.

[4] ESSAYS: What does your essay process look like? When do your students complete their essays? How much time do you spend on the essays? Do you provide feedback or do you work with an essay coach?

Essays tend to be the most time-intensive and stressful parts of the application process. It’s essential to go into the process knowing how your IEC approaches essays and how much time they’ll be devoting to them. 

Prompt finds students applying to 10 or more highly-selective colleges may need 60 to 80 hours of one-on-one essay coaching — that encompasses brainstorming, planning, written feedback, and revising. 

Prompt has also found that more than 90% of applicants submit their applications within 48 hours of a college’s deadline. (That’s so bad!) Ideally, your IEC should be able to guide you so that you’re done far in advance of the deadline.

One of the best essay questions you can ask an IEC is nuts-and-bolts basic: “what do colleges look for when they evaluate essays?” You need to know that the consultant understands what goes through the mind of an admission officer and how they make decisions. At Prompt.com, we’ve (unsurprisingly) done extensive research on this question — the answer you’re looking for is that colleges are looking for proof an applicant will succeed in college and beyond. They’re mining your essays and other personal components for traits that indicate success such as drive, intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution, diversity of experiences.

Ask your IEC what research they’ve done about admissions officers, what they’re looking for in applications, and don’t hire if they haven’t done their research!

[5] PRICING: How do you charge? Do you work hourly? What are the fixed and hourly rates?

Many consultants work on a fixed cost for a set of services. Others charge an hourly rate. The hourly rate may be a better option if you want to get a few hours of a consultant’s time on any subject. For example, maybe you feel comfortable with building a college list but want to make sure you and your student aren’t missing anything. 

For more advice on college admissions, check out:

Interested in learning more about Prompt's college essay coaching? Contact us today!

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing team@myprompt.com.