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The Best Way to Give Your Kid an Advantage in College Admissions

The Best Way to Give Your Kid an Advantage in College Admissions

Brad here, Prompt’s Founder. I know you want to give your kid an advantage in college admissions. But how? I’m going to share one shocking stat that will completely change how you think about college admissions for your kid.

Over 1 in 4 high-achieving students use some form of paid private college counseling.

I’m not here to tell you that you need to pay $5,000 to $10,000 (or more!) for a private college counselor to have a chance. But getting your kid meaningful help – especially on their essays – does greatly improve admissions chances and can often save you $5,000 to $20,000 (or more!) per year on tuition.

Click here to complete a 2-minute questionnaire to determine your admissions chances at Ivy and equivalent colleges (Hint: It may be higher than you think!).

The good news is you have options. In this article, I’ll go into detail on how to think about your 3 options for supporting your kid on their college applications – from expensive to free!  

But in case you don’t want to spend 15 minutes reading everything, here’s a brief summary.

College Application and Essay Coaching is the best and most cost-effective way to get application support for most families. Here’s why:

  • Many families have a good idea of where their kids will apply and what major they’ll select. Or at least you may feel comfortable building the college list and selecting a major with your kid. If this is you, you probably don’t need a private college counselor.
  • College Application and Essay Coaching focuses only on helping your kid complete their applications and essays. Essays are often the tiebreaker between the tens of thousands of similar applicants a college receives. Only 1 in 5 Ivy and equivalent applicants have strong essays whereas 4 in 5 applicants are above the academic bar.
  • Relying on a teacher, school counselor, friend, family member, or yourself to support your kid isn’t enough. There are two reasons: expertise and time. To write compelling essays, you have to have a deep understanding of what your audience (admissions officers) are looking for. Additionally, the average student applying to Ivy and equivalent colleges needs 33 hours of writing coaching across their applications, but many need 50-70+ hours of coaching. Students applying outside of Ivy and equivalent colleges need 15 hours of coaching on average (but can vary from 5 to 40 hours). As great as your teacher, school counselor, or Aunt Gertrude may be, it’s highly unlikely for them to devote enough time to helping your kid with their applications and essays, and they likely don’t have expertise on what admissions officers are looking for in essays.

Prompt, the company I founded, has coached more than 35,000 students on their college applications and essays, and we have a lot of success:

  • 98% of Prompt students get into one or more of their top-choice colleges.
  • 3 in 4 Prompt students get into one or more of their reach colleges.
  • The typical Prompt student receives a $5,000-20,000 per year scholarship (or more!) from at least one of their top-choice colleges.

Learn more about Prompt’s Application and Essay Coaching

How to Decide How You’ll Support Your Kid on Their College Applications

Here, I’ll provide a short overview of your three options for supporting your kid on their college applications. Then, I’ll focus on two key questions that will help you decide on your path.

Here are your 3 options for supporting your kid on their college applications:

  1. Hire a Private College Counselor. Private counselors typically provide guidance on every aspect of applying to college: building your college list, selecting a major, deciding on classes to take and extracurricular activities to do in high school, writing applications and essays, and deciding between colleges. Private counselors typically cost $200 per hour and charge $5,000 to $10,000 (or more!) for a comprehensive package.
  1. Use an Application and Essay Coach. Application and essay coaches only support students on completing their applications and essays – the most important part of getting accepted. You’re on your own for building your school list, deciding on a major, and deciding where to attend – although your coach may provide some helpful pointers (it’s just not their expertise). Application and essay coaches have wide-ranging fees from $30 to $200 per hour (or more) and $500 to $10,000 (or more) for comprehensive packages. My company, Prompt, is $599 to $3,999 with the average family spending around $1,750.
  1. Rely on a teacher, school counselor, family member, friend, or yourself. This is a free option where you piece together support for your kid from various sources. You may try to do a lot of it yourself or have your kid take on the responsibility. You scrape together time from your kid’s teachers or school counselor to get help on their essays and perhaps some guidance on their school list. You may try and rope in a family member or friend who is a “good writer” to work with your kid on their essays.

You can ask yourself two questions to decide which option is right for you:

Question 1: Will your essays be important?

Support on essays is the single most time-intensive part of the application process. It’s also the part where support matters the most, as essays can make or break your kid’s college applications. Strong essays 10x your admissions chances at Ivy and equivalent colleges and can result in $5,000 to $20,000 per year in scholarships (or more!) at one of your top-choice colleges.

So, how do you know if essays are important for your kid? Here’s a simple guide we put together, but you can also fill out our 2-minute “What are my chances?” questionnaire or read this 7-minute article on the importance of essays in admissions for a more detailed and personalized understanding of whether your essays will be important.

Essays matter for …

  • Highly selective colleges (under 15% admit rate)
  • Selective colleges (15-50% admit rate) where your academics are sufficient but not strong compared to other applicants
  • Large colleges where you’re applying to highly desirable programs (e.g., Computer Science) or desirable out-of-state destinations

Essays matter less for …

  • Selective colleges (15-50% admit rate) where your academics are strong compared with other applicants
  • Large colleges where you’re applying in-state or applying to less competitive programs

If your essays matter, I’d strongly recommend getting paid support from an expert – an Application and Essay Coach or Private College Counselor (more on how to do this later!). Here’s why:

  • Expertise matters. Being a “good writer” isn’t enough. Writing exceptional college applications and essays requires a deep understanding of what your audience (admissions officers) is looking for. Unfortunately, admissions officers are often vague on what they want – saying they just “want to get to know you” or “hear your story.” But in reality, admissions officers want your kid to prove they’ll be successful in college and beyond. Admissions officers are looking for very specific things that prove your kid will be successful (e.g., relating to the 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Essays). You want your kid to work with an expert to ensure your kid proves no one is like them.
  • You’ll need a lot of one-on-one coaching time. The typical student applying to Ivy and equivalent colleges needs 33 hours of application and essay coaching across their applications. However, you may need 50-70 hours or more if your kid is applying to many Ivy and equivalent colleges. Even if your top-choice colleges aren’t Ivy and equivalent, your kid may still need 15-40 hours of coaching. Teachers and school counselors have many responsibilities and many students to support (the average school counselor has more than 400 students). They just don’t have enough time to support your kid in a meaningful way.
  • The results speak for themselves. Nearly every Private College Counselor and Application and Essay Coach boasts about their students having acceptance rates that are far higher than the average student. They’re not lying.

Question 2: What beyond completing the applications and essays do you actually need help with? What can you do on your own?

Let’s first cover the tasks you need to do with college admissions. Then, we’ll help you think through which of these you need support with and which you may feel comfortable doing on your own.

The most important things:

  • Building your college list. Deciding which colleges to apply to (reach, target, safety).
  • Choosing your major. Deciding which major(s) to apply to based on your ambitions.
  • Completing your applications and essays. Getting your applications done well in advance of the deadlines and making your applications impossible to ignore.
  • Deciding on your college. Evaluating your acceptances and deciding where to attend.

Other things:

  • Navigating finances. Determining where to apply and attend based on aid and scholarship opportunities. Filling out the FAFSA or CSS profile.
  • Course and extracurricular guidance. Determining which courses to take in high school and which activities to focus on with college admissions in mind.

A private college counselor is the best option if you need guidance on most or all of these things and are okay with the extra cost. A private college counselor may also be a good option if you’re a freshman or sophomore and can greatly benefit from guidance on courses and extracurriculars to prepare for college admissions. I’ll discuss how to select a private college counselor two sections from here along with recommending ones we know are great.

However, many families feel good about doing some things on their own or with the help of their school counselor or only a few hours of a private college counselor’s time. If your family is one of the examples below, we recommend using a College Application and Essay Coach.

  • Your kid is a high-achiever applying to many Ivy and equivalent colleges. Your college list more or less builds itself, and many high achievers are capable of navigating selecting a major(s). Having strong applications is critical and working with an application and essay expert is where you’ll get the most value.
  • You know where you’re applying (e.g., state flagship college). You primarily need to make sure you have strong applications to maximize your chances of acceptance and scholarships at your top choices.
  • Your kid “fits” in easily at most colleges. Your kid has many “best fit” colleges, and you already have colleges in mind for the college list.
  • You have the time to research colleges. There are a wealth of tools to aid in college search (e.g., Appily.com, US News, Niche.com). These tools do a fairly good job if you feel good about being able to parse through the information. The most important thing is to make sure you look at the likely tuition you’ll pay and if merit-based scholarships are frequently available. There are also many tools to help you decide between colleges once you’re accepted, and there are many tools that help you navigate the financial aspects (e.g., CollegeAidPro.com, TuitionFit.org).

Note for families with kids receiving free and reduced lunch programs: There are many college access organizations that provide students with college counseling and essay coaching free of cost. While you’re unlikely to get as much support as a paid private counselor or essay coach, even some help is immensely valuable. Non-profits like College Possible are great resources. Your school counselor likely has a list of resources available in your community. Prompt also provides free access to our college essay bootcamps.

Selecting a College Application and Essay Coach

There are thousands of people claiming to be college application and essay coaches. Some charge $30 per hour. Others charge $200+ per hour. But price does not necessarily equal quality. Your kid has one shot at admission, so don’t take a risk.

Selecting a college application and essay coach can be difficult. It’s not like an SAT tutor whose students score 150 points higher by working with them. You’ll never see your essays’ scores. You won’t know you didn’t get into your dream colleges because your essays read flat or didn’t relate to what colleges are looking for in essays.

When selecting a college application and essay coach, ask the following questions:

  • What do colleges look for in essays? Your goal with this question is to understand how the coach thinks about essays. If the coach says “to get to know you” or “your story,” you should dig deeper (these are surface-level, poor responses). Admissions officers are looking for applicants who prove they’ll be successful in college and beyond. Students prove this through the traits they exhibit in the experiences they write about. Specifically, colleges are looking for 5 Traits: Drive, Intellectual Curiosity, Initiative, Contribution, and Diversity of Experiences/Interests. Do not work with a coach who can’t clearly articulate what admissions officers are actually looking for in essays – you’ll end up with essays that admissions officers ignore.
  • When do your students typically complete their essays? If the coach has students frequently completing their essays for their top-choice schools in October for early deadlines, then they aren’t the right coach for you. Your coach needs to hold your kid accountable for getting their applications done early (e.g., applications to their top-3 choice schools by the end of August).
  • How will we work together? You’re looking for a coach who can clearly articulate a process and timeline. The best process is to do writing planning live either in-person or on video calls. Then, written feedback should be provided on every draft. Typically 500+ word essays should have 4 drafts and shorter essays should have 3 drafts. The feedback on first drafts should focus on content and structure. Later drafts should move to sentence-level feedback. Ask to see an example of the feedback they provide (hint: a Common App Essay first draft should have 500+ words of commentary). Coaches also should set a timeline with your kid and hold them accountable to it. Here’s a link to Prompt’s process to get a better sense of what an excellent process looks like.
  • How much time will you spend coaching me? The correct answer depends on your school list, but we often find coaches don’t spend enough time with students to get them to their best essays. The average student applying to Ivy and equivalent colleges requires 33 hours of coaching between live sessions and providing written feedback. Students applying to many Ivy and equivalent colleges may use 50-70 hours (or more!) on coaching. Make sure you aren’t limited in the number of hours the coach will spend coaching you.
  • How much does it cost? Great coaching from a reputable company or individual should cost $80-120 per hour or $2,000-5,000 for a comprehensive plan for a set number of applications (e.g., 3 schools for $2,000, all schools for $4,000). If you’re paying $150-200+ per hour or $5,000-10,000+ for a comprehensive plan, you’re probably paying too much (or at least not getting more value for the extra money you spend). You may be able to find a local coach for $30-50 per hour, but you probably aren’t getting the expertise required to write your strongest essays. 

Working with a Prompt Application and Essay Coach is the best and most cost-effective way to ensure you have strong essays.

  1. Your Prompt Coach helps you plan your writing, identifying your most compelling content, mapping it to each part of each application, and creating outlines for each essay. Your coach ensures your content relates to the 5 Traits Colleges Look for in Applicants: Drive, Intellectual Curiosity, Initiative, Contribution, and Diversity of Experiences and Interests.
  2. Your Prompt Coach helps you make your writing concise. You have only 1,000 to 3,000 words to make your case. It’s not like the history paper to which you added two pages of nonsense to get to the 5-page minimum. Instead, every word counts. And if you’re a high-achiever, chances are you’ll struggle to fit everything in. Your Prompt Coach is an expert at concise writing, often helping you reduce your word count by 40-60% without losing any meaning – allowing you to fit in all of your most compelling content.
  3. Your Prompt Coach helps you make your writing clear. You have 8 minutes to make your case. That’s the average time an admissions officer spends reading and evaluating an application to an Ivy and equivalent college. It includes reviewing and making notes on everything – not just your essays. Your writing must be easy to understand. Otherwise, the admissions officers will just move on to the next application.
  4. Prompt is half the price or less of equivalent services. Prompt delivers unlimited coaching on all written parts of your applications for 1, 3, 6, or all of your schools. Our students often write 10, 20, 50, or even 100 essays across their applications, and our most ambitious students, applying to 10+ Ivy and equivalent colleges, often receive 50-70 hours of coaching. But most importantly, Prompt delivers results. 98% of Prompt students get into one or more of their top-choice colleges, and the typical student receives a 5,000 to 20,000 (or more) per year scholarship to at least one of their top choices.

Call Prompt at 844-577-6678 (available 8 am to 10 pm ET)

Or click here schedule a time for Prompt to call you.

Selecting a Private College Counselor

There are thousands of private college counselors to choose from. Often, people select the local counselor their friends used. But how do you know that counselor is exceptional?

Below, I cover five questions you should ask a private counselor before hiring the, and I provide a non-exhaustive list of private college counselors we know are exceptional.

The 5 Questions to Ask a Private College Counselor Before Hiring Them

Here are 5 questions you can ask a private college counselor to determine if they are the right fit for you and your kid. You should try to have free consultations with at least three or four private counselors before deciding on one.

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

Private counselors 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.

When you interview a private counselor, ask for specific examples of their strengths. Some may say they’re strong at everything, but press them to name the areas they believe they are the strongest. Then you can make your decision by aligning your private counselors strengths with the areas you feel you need the most help.

  1. 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 private counselor special. Ask questions like: 

  • How would you approach my kid’s college applications based on the limited information you know to date? Their school list? Their choice of major? Their essays?
  • What is something you believe about college admissions that goes against the common advice I can find on the internet? Why are you right?
  • Why should I consider working with you instead of a specialist at one specific thing – such as an essay coach?

Your goal is to get an understanding of what unique perspectives and insights the private counselor has that will give your kid an advantage.

  1. 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? What is the average scholarship your students get to one of their top-choice colleges?

Ultimately, it’s the outcomes that matter. Getting into that dream reach school. Getting into a “best fit” that’s a top choice. Being happy with the college your kid ultimately decides to attend (and not paying for something you can’t afford). 

It’s a good sign when the private counselor has a track record of their students getting into the same or similar colleges to the ones you’re targeting. But keep in mind that private counselors have a lot of control over where their students apply and what their students’ top choices are. You should explicitly ask what percentage of their students get into one or more reach colleges. While counselors may define reach colleges differently, it’ll give you a better sense of how well their students outperform similar students. At Prompt, 3 in 4 students we coach get into one or more of their reach colleges.

 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 a counselor’s responsibility to guide students to the right colleges for them. If a counselor has students who transfer, ask why.

Finally, ask about scholarships. Private counselors whose students get scholarships to their top choice colleges do a good job of helping identify high return on investment colleges to include in your college list.

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 part of the application process. It’s essential to go into the process knowing how your counselor approaches essays and how much time they’ll be devoting to them.

We find students applying to Ivy and equivalent colleges need an average of 33 hours of one-on-one essay coaching, encompassing brainstorming, planning, written feedback, and revising. Students applying to many Ivy and equivalent colleges need 50-70+ hours of coaching. This is a lot of work, and many private counselors limit how much essay coaching you can receive. 

Be clear up front on what you’re getting essay coaching-wise, including who is doing the coaching. Many private counselors use editors. This isn’t a bad thing – it can be great to have essay experts on your team. Ask the counselor for the backgrounds of their editors and how much experience the editors have. You can even ask for a sample review. If essays matter for you, make sure you feel confident in the essay coaching the counselor will provide.

See the Selecting a College Application and Essay Coach section above for a more details on questions to ask private counselors about essays.

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

Many private counselors work on a fixed cost for a set of services (typically $5,000-10,000+ for a comprehensive package). Others charge an hourly rate (the average is $200 per hour). The hourly rate may be a better option if you want to get a few hours of a counselors 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. The fixed-fee is a better option if you believe your kid needs a lot of support across everything counselors offer.

Exceptional College Conselors

At Prompt, we know private college counselors really well. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ones we know very well and believe do an exceptional job. There’s a lot to choose from!

  • List of our Premium Users that we would recommend. Include a link to their websites. I don’t think we should provide too much details (e.g., a short blurb) but perhaps we’d want to categorize them in some way? We should probably include 30-50?

Well. That ended up being a lot longer than I initially set out to write. And while I covered a lot, I could have easily written twice as much on the subject of how to best get your kid support on their college applications. Here are the key points:

  • If essays matter for you, make sure you get paid support from a Private College Counselor or Application and Essay Coach. Relying on a teachers, school counselor, friend, family member, or yourself is not enough. You need someone with expertise on what colleges are looking for in essays and enough time (30-70+ hours) to adequately support your kid on their applications and essays.
  • Using a College Application and Essay Coach is the best and most cost effective way to get college application support for most families. If you’re confident in helping your kid build their college list, then using an expert college application and essay coach is likely a better option for you than hiring a private college counselor (and half the price or less). However, if you’d like comprehensive support on every part of applying to college, a private college counselor may be a better option.
  • Ask good questions when selecting your College Application and Essay Coach or Private College Counselor. There are thousands of people who say they will help you with your college applications, but there is no quality control on who can call themselves an expert. Use the questions above to help you find someone you can trust.

Ready to get started with your Application and Essay Coach?

Call Prompt at 844-577-6678 (available 8 am to 10 pm ET)

Or click here schedule a time for Prompt to call you

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.