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How to Get the Most out of Your College Advisor

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Let's face it: private college advisors are a luxury. Even for those of us who prioritize being accessible, in the Bay Area and other metropolitan regions you can expect to pay at least $150 per hour (or as much as —cough—$1000 for lucky residents of Manhattan). For a package that covers the "active applicant" phase (approximately six months starting at the end of junior year), you can expect to be quoted anywhere from about $4500.00 to about $7500.00. Bespoke four-year "platinum" type packages can hit your wallet to the tune of $20K or more (in Marin County, CA, that figure is apparently standard for the six-month active applicant scenario!).

Independent advisors can be a godsend for parents who want to preserve their relationships with their teens. They can open students' eyes to opportunities they didn't know were available, and working with us will definitely result in cleaner, better applications. But it's an investment.

If you've chosen to make that investment, you really want to get the most out of it, right?

So would I! So, from the trenches at the end of what has been quite an intense application season, I'd like to offer some do's and don'ts for maximizing your college advisor ROI and getting the best possible outcome.

Do shop around. Especially since the pandemic normalized Zoom-based relationships, you're not confined to a couple of local options for college advising any more. Interview a handful of them. If they don't offer a free consultation, maybe you take them off the list! If they seem like someone who will freak your student out, trust your gut. Or rather, trust your student—that's who should be doing the interviewing. You're welcome to hang around and ask questions; we know you're a stakeholder! But this is really your kid's relationship and they're the one who needs to not dread those meetings. Does the advisor seem like they "get" your student? Are they good listeners? Easy to talk to? Able to understand your goals.... or help you figure out what the heck your goals are? Good. If you or your student leaves an initial consultation feeling uncomfortable, it doesn't matter how great a reputation that advisor has; they might not be a fit. Often when this happens, it's frankly mutual; we won't take it personally. We will applaud you for your discernment and proactivity. (And if we don't, that is definitely confirmation that you dodged a bullet.)

Don't hesitate to tell us to take a hike. I spent 15 years in a dysfunctional relationship with a dry cleaner. She lost three pricey sweaters and refused to admit it; she managed to make at least two insulting comments about my appearance every time I visited; she argued with me about what that stain was; she traumatized my daughters with comments about their weight or their complexion. And I felt guilty at the thought of bailing for another dry cleaner. Don't be like me! It's not worth it. If a college advisor has a great reputation and rave reviews, that's nice, but it doesn't mean we're the right person for your kiddo. You don't need a reason; we understand. If your student finds we add more stress than we take away... it's on us if we're not gracious about cutting ties. Do what you need to do. Whether we are your student's ride-or-die bestie for all four years of high school or just for the application phase, it's more than worth ensuring that it's a good fit.

Do your homework! I'm the first to agree that the amount of information available about colleges is both unmanageably huge and weirdly difficult to pin down. If you are a parent who didn't go to college (or went to college in another country) this process can look especially mysterious, and yes, of course, a college advisor is partly here to help you make sense of it. That said, your student will benefit more from their time with an advisor if they have given the process some thought. Not long ago I had a student applying to Harvard who had clearly not even looked at their website and was unsurprisingly struggling to answer a "Why do you want to go to Harvard?" item. I finally said "Well, this is pretty simple: why do you want to go to Harvard?" He said, "I don't know... it's prestigious?" That was an hour I will never get back... and neither will he.

There are roughly 4000 colleges and universities in the US alone. Your student should be an active participant in their own process. If you have special considerations (disability, financial constraint, NCAA recruitable athlete, art conservatory track, a specialist academic niche, etc) it's wise to rule some stuff out. Even if it's "I have seasonal depression and don't want to spend four years in a place where the sun never comes out," it's good for us to know so we can steer you away from Seattle and Buffalo... and Anchorage.

By the same token, once you're in the process, please do not expect your college advisor to do your student's work for them. That isn't what you are paying us for. We aren't going to call admissions on their behalf to ask if that double major is available. We aren't going to ghostwrite their personal statement (although the best of us are great editors) and we are not going to fill out their Common Application for them. Anyone expecting that is arguably not ready for college.

Don't show up to a meeting with your history homework. We're not nannies. We're specialists. Personally, I do some academic tutoring in the spring, but during application season it's impossible. Your college advisor is allowed to have boundaries. There isn't a "we've paid for your time and expect to be able to use it for whatever we want including study hall" option unless the advisor explicitly says otherwise. That takes an hour away from a motivated applicant who really could have used your calendar slot to actually flesh out their personal statement. It's not cool.

Do understand that you get what you pay for. Usually, anyway: as in any profession, there are snake-oil peddlers. I like to think they are the exception, but anyone who gives off a whiff of snake oil (it smells like a combination of sulfur and burning money) should be dismissed! Assuming you have not hooked up with a charlatan, please be aware that the less your college advisor charges, the more students they have to take on to keep a roof over their heads. The more students they have, the less bandwidth they will have to handle high-maintenance situations. Simple as that. If the advisor isn't clear about their services and pricing even after you've asked direct questions, that's a red flag. If they can articulate exactly what they do and don't include in the scope of their offering, that's a great sign.

Don't even think about nickel and diming (or power-tripping) your college advisor. I say this not for the advisor's sake but for yours. Did you sign a contract? It's like any other contract. Abide by its terms. Does your advisor operate on a good faith, handshake basis? Then you're free to end the relationship if you feel it isn't working out—and you absolutely should.

But maybe you don't exactly want to end the relationship... you just can't suppress the urge to haggle, nag, guilt-trip or repeatedly suggest you're not getting your money's worth. Let me sketch out what happens in the mind of your college advisor if they hear things like:

"Little Susie only got 56 minutes with you today and the session is supposed to be an hour; what do you intend to do about it?"

"I'm very upset because I hacked into John Thomas Junior's portal and his unfinished draft essay doesn't sound very original. We're all over here weeping."

"We paid for a package based on ten sessions and we only needed nine and a half; may I assume there will be a refund?"

"Hi, it's 11:00PM and Babycakes has a deadline tomorrow. You 'need to' edit this 1800 word essay she just pulled out of her patootie at the last second so it fits in the 350 word text box. I'd like it back in an hour."

"We didn't open any of the nine emails you sent with instructions on whether to take the SAT or the ACT and Sunshine missed the deadline; we'd like our money back."

Those are ALL basically examples of actual conversations with parents. Please understand that there's a super predictable outcome when parents are high-conflict: it makes us care less about the student's outcome. When we stop caring about your student's outcome, that outcome doesn't tend to improve. Aside from plain competence at the job, good faith relationships are the biggest factor in how things pan out with your college advisor. Don't mess with it. Don't ignore invoices. Don't haggle after you've already agreed to a package. Don't threaten. It will hinder your student. It's not worth it. Seriously.

On a related note: Don't "blame the help." If your student skips half of their scheduled meetings, doesn't do assigned work, and only decides to engage honestly with the process a week before the deadline, don't get mad when we can't simply clear our calendar for them at the last minute. Also? Sometimes your student doesn't get the outcome they want. It might be because they "got bad advice," but it probably isn't! It's probably dumb luck, or a focus on longshot schools despite warnings about the odds. If you assumed your kiddo would get into Berkeley with a B- grade average and no extracurriculars, even after your advisor told you not to get your hopes up? Do not come at your advisor with angry recriminations. It won't change the outcome, and it will leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth. And not for nothing, so will scapegoating us because you didn't bag bragging rights about your kid heading to Yale. That stuff gets back to us! And we might be tempted to note that your kid's "perfect" GPA was acccccct-tually a weighted 3.2. Again... not worth it.

Do ask for financial help if you truly need it. The worst we can do is say no, and plenty of us will help if we can. If you're financially under resourced, you have even more reason to want your children on a college-bound track, and it's frankly kind of gross that the kids who get our attention are often the ones who need it the least. I take one to three discounted or pro bono clients per year and I'm happy to do it (and wish I could do more). I've been able to work with families who have lost a parent, recent immigrant families who are scraping by on food stamps, strapped college professors with twins. As far as I'm concerned that is part of my mandate. There is an important corollary here though:

For heaven's sake, don't lie about your financial circumstances to "get a deal." Because here's the thing—and I'm going to be really real with you here. Most of us have a very, very thin margin on that front, and we take a significant hit when we work pro bono—one we're happy to take in service to the public good, but it's not nothing. In this process, we will see your family income on your application paperwork. And when we discover that you've claimed hardship when you actually earn five to ten times as much as we do (and this happens with shocking regularity, guys), there is no bigger killer of good faith. Not only have you taken your advisor to the cleaners under false pretenses—you've effectively taken help away from someone who genuinely needed it. Please believe me when I say this will not improve your child's outcome. And if your applicant has younger siblings... well, you'll have poisoned the well for them too. Not worth it!

Do consider referring other people to your college advisor if you're happy with the relationship. We are so grateful for word of mouth referrals. It's validating and heartwarming and leaves us with less outbound "marketing" to do, which means we're freer to give your student the attention you want for them.

Getting a great outcome out of your college advisor should be easy—if it isn't, you're probably working with the wrong person. Most of us do this because we love working with teens at this incredibly exciting inflection point. We care what happens to them, we're inspired by their passion and we work hard to give them options they're excited about. Your college advisor is a huge resource—for finding the right colleges for your student, for strategizing how to stand out from the crowd and get "yes" letters from those colleges—and to get families through the stresses of the process with their relationships intact. Honesty, goodwill and basic courtesy are all most of us need in order to function optimally.

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