College counselors say they can help your kids get into college—but what do you need to know about college counselors? Ask these questions and find out.
1. What can you do that I can’t?
Good counselors know about schools you don’t. “All the folks in my office have worked in college admissions offices,” says Carol Wasden, director of college counseling at Dallas’ Hockaday School for girls. “Your child is a high school senior. There are more options out there than she knows.”
2. How important are the SATs?
The influence of rankings that factor in SAT scores have given the test staying power. “Colleges know their mean score” and would prefer that their admitted students don’t lower it, notes Bev Taylor, a New York consultant. But there is a limit to the SAT’s importance. “SAT scores can keep you out,” says Beth Slattery, upper school dean at the Harvard-Westlake School in L.A., but “they will never be the thing that gets you into a highly selective school.”
3. Should I contribute to the college to which my child is applying?
“For a gift to make a difference, the family must have a relationship with that institution—a parent who’s an alum, for instance,” Slattery says. And don’t wait till your kid’s senior year to write a check. “Start when they’re in middle or even elementary school,” says Taylor. If it’s already the 11th hour, the gift needs to be big—say, $10 million—and even that isn’t a guarantee. But will your child thrive at a college he couldn’t otherwise get into?
4. My child was suspended from high school—will that affect his chances of getting into college?
“A single blip on an otherwise great school career shouldn’t keep a kid out,” says Slattery, “but a pattern of disciplinary issues will.” The more selective the college, the greater the impact. “When a school is admitting 20 percent or less of its applicants,” says Rick Hazelton, director of college advising for the Lakeville, Ct. Hotchkiss School, “they are looking for reasons to reject.”
5. What question should applicants ask their college of choice, but rarely do?
What is its retention rate? If fewer than 90 percent of accepted students graduate, ask why. “Retention rate is a barometer of the strength of the school,” Hazelton says.
6. How should my child spend his summers?
Dazzling admissions directors is harder than ever, and working abroad or in a research lab is practically commonplace among students with means. “There are lots of kids from schools like Harvard-Westlake who do that,” Slattery says. How to stand apart? “Get a job.”
7. What are easy application mistakes to avoid?
While writing his essay, your child should never over-explain poor grades on his transcript. “They already know that you got a C in algebra—all you’re doing is turning their attention back to it,” says Hazelton.
8. Can I hurt my child’s chances of getting in?
Yes, if you come off as more interested in a school than the student is.
9. I have influential friends. Should I have them write letters of recommendation?
For a recommendation to carry weight, your child should have a personal relationship with its writer. And don’t inundate the school—it looks desperate. “Fewer letters, but of great quality, is much better than overwhelming an admissions office with paper,” says Hazelton.
10. Should I hire an independent college counselor?
High school college counselors are a good resource, but they may have responsibility for hundreds of applicants. “An independent coach will be able to work with a student on all aspects of their application, from revising essays to exam preparation,” says Bev Taylor.