Is this College coach fee reasonable?
October 26, 2010 10:44 AM   Subscribe

My sister-in-law just approached me to see if I would help pay for a "college coach" for my oldest nephew. I've helped with various things like camp, acting lessons, a computer, etc. and normally don't mind at all. However, she is telling me that this women wants $4,000! I know getting into college is way different these days, but that seems outrageous. My nephew is bright and the apple of my eye--but he's not a super-elite student. Is this the going rate for personalized help with choosing a school, essays, etc.?
posted by agatha_magatha to Education (76 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I've never heard of this being anything but a rip-off, assuming his high school facilities are decent. He should have school's worth of English teachers more than willing to go over his essay. He should have an advisement department to help him with paperwork if there is anything he or his parents can't figure out. Hopefully he has time to visit some schools, and if he doesn't, there are plenty of places on line he can talk to current students/alumni. Hell, the advisement office can get him in touch with alumni.
posted by griphus at 10:47 AM on October 26, 2010

A friend of mine works in this field. She charges anything between $1,000 and $20,000 depending on how much work the client needs.
posted by dfriedman at 10:48 AM on October 26, 2010

I got into college, I was not a super-elite student, and all I did was take a SAT prep course. How 'bout you pay me $2k, and I'll coach the little guy?

But for serious, I don't think this is something worth spending money on. Deciding on a school is pretty easy:

SAT Score + Grades + Class Rank + Clubs / Selectivity of School * Budget = school choices! I would hope that college-bound children could select their own school, write their own essays, etc.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:48 AM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

So the coach costs ~$8,000? $4,000 seems wildly exorbitant. Even if that is what they go for that's fucking crazy. It's not that hard.

Has he taken the SAT/ACT yet? Offer to help study for those kinds of things and help edit his entry essays. I can't imagine a multi-thousand dollar "college coach" would do much else.
posted by cmoj at 10:50 AM on October 26, 2010

That's outrageous. The going rate is for the college bound student to figure it out themselves. Fall or fly, baby birds!
posted by WeekendJen at 10:51 AM on October 26, 2010 [20 favorites]

Oh, and if he needs help with the SAT/SAT II/ACT exams, get specialized help for that and that specifically. His school should have ways to locate a reasonably priced exam-prep class if Kaplan is too expensive.
posted by griphus at 10:51 AM on October 26, 2010

This previous question may be helpful for you

Unless this woman's services come with a guarantee of admission into a college of his choice, this is a gigantic ripoff.
posted by Think_Long at 10:52 AM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

An ex used to work for the Princeton Review and then independently as a private tutor and I can tell you that he would charge what people would pay. $4000 to an UES Spencer student is pocket change.

Ask to speak with the coach directly. It's likely that your SIL didn't question the rate (because she figured you'd pay it) or adequately explain your nephew's needs.
posted by Siena at 10:55 AM on October 26, 2010

Hell no don't pay for that. If the kid isn't smart enough to figure out how to get into college and do well, there's no gain in pampering his or his mom's ego. There are thousands of colleges in the country and most of them aren't that selective, so he'll get in somewhere. If your sister in law can't afford $4000 of her own money to do it, then it's not for them. This is silly. Save the $4000 for if he needs a tutor during college or something. The getting into college is the easy part. It's not hard to get in.
posted by anniecat at 10:57 AM on October 26, 2010 [16 favorites]

Where does he--not his mom--want to go, that he has even any chance of getting into? If you've got the sort of kid who's borderline for Harvard and desperately wants to go to Harvard, okay, I could see spending this money if you've got it to spend.

But most of the time, $4k would go way further paying for test prep and, later, textbooks and supplies, than it will in paying a consultant. Most of the info on how to do great essays and stuff is available on the internet and in your local library. And getting into a "better school" when that's just going to involve more student loans? These days, not necessarily a good deal.
posted by gracedissolved at 10:57 AM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

The person of choice in NYC charges $7000. The big draw seems to be that she works with you on the personal essay.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:58 AM on October 26, 2010

What does the coach do exactly? Do they have a website or brochure?

I don't know how much my parents paid my private college counselor, but I'm sure it was pricey. (This was 10 yrs ago) She was really very helpful. She knows tons about every college, and what it takes to get in. She helped me pick schools I never would have thought of, including the one I went to. She sits with you and does a long brainstorming/discussion session (taped) to help you figure out what to write admissions essays about. Also when I was super stuck deciding between two schools, my parents and I went to her and I was really stressed and crying and she talked to us, and at the end she said "tomorrow you'll wake up and know which school to choose." She was right.

I don't mean to be overly praising the woman, I actually couldn't stand her personality, but she knows her shit. College admissions are extremely competitive now.

I went to a very good public high school, but the college counselors there were worthless. The only kids I know who had good college counselors were those who went to private school - and you're just paying for it with your tuition then.
posted by radioamy at 11:07 AM on October 26, 2010

Opportunity cost is paramount, here: is a college coach going to help improve his admissions chances more than an SAT class and some tutoring in his classes?

That said, I'm going to come to the defenses of college coaches, not because I ever had one, but precisely because I didn't: my college advising process in high school included meetings with a college counselor, and extensive questionnaire about what I was interested in and what I wanted to do which ultimately turned into fodder for my college essays, and guidance/clarification towards what I actually wanted. When I was waitlisted at one of the colleges I applied to, my college counselor called up the admissions office to talk to them about why I was waitlisted and if there was anything I could do to improve my chances. If your nephew's school and your sister-in-law are incapable of proving this sort of guidance, leaving your nephew flailing, then I can see how this might help.
posted by deanc at 11:12 AM on October 26, 2010

I don't think it's a waste of money. College isn't what it used to be. The college coaches I've talked to really spend time figuring out the essay (NOT writing it, but making sure it says what the student would like it to say). They often help figure out grants and funding, too. If she manages that part well, she's paid for herself, no question.

College is outrageously expensive these days. All you people telling the nephew to sink or swim- would you say that for any other $60,000+ investment? That's insane. Of course, a lot of people have to fly by the seat of their pants, but if they have the resources to negotiate it better, why wouldn't they?

Even in my day- the ancient mid '90s- when the stakes were lower, I really could have used some help with figuring out college. My parents didn't know enough to be much help to me, and I would argue that the experience has changed enough (even since the 90s!) that even most college educated parents don't know enough either, without devoting some serious hours of study into it. Don't make your 16 year old figure this stuff out on his own. You're not doing anyone any favors.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:13 AM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Don't pay for these scams. I doubt it would even be particularly helpful.
What would be helpful is paying $4k for his future schooling.
posted by handbanana at 11:13 AM on October 26, 2010

Are they local? I think a favorite aunt who's willing to read the Princeton Review books and take their nephew to dinner once a month with the specific agenda of working on college prep stuff would be way better and way cheaper than any paid consultant.
posted by ecurtz at 11:15 AM on October 26, 2010

About nine years ago, I didn't have any help getting into a top-tier research institution here in the U.S. I was an international student living in Canada, my father speaks no English - yet I aced the SAT, SATII and ended up getting a doctorate at a great school here as well.

I now tutor SAT for gifted students at a medical magnet high school here in SoCal, and have also worked as a GRE tutor. I'm not trying to toot my own horn; rather, the point I am trying to make is that if you would like to spend money on making your nephew's path to college more fruitful, perhaps spending it on specialized ventures with tangible results would be better for him in the long run. Since you say he is not a super-elite student, maybe hiring a one-on-one SAT/ SATII tutor might be an option. Or even having someone go over his essays with a fine-tooth comb may help. Most recently, a student of mine I "coached" through the admissions process got accepted to Berkeley - again, not bragging, but pointing out that I didn't need 4k to do it. The other tutors at the SAT tutoring company I work for also help many of their students with the actual process - and no, they don't charge extra for it. I won't judge someone who makes a career out of helping a student through the college admissions process, but will say that I've seen my share of gung-ho parents (Lord save us from the mothers who actually sit there the whole time I'm tutoring their kids, and "contribute" ideas) who wouldn't hire a college "coach" because they have confidence in their own ability, and the school's, to help their kid. Do these coaches have any extra credentials besides a higher education, maybe some test-prep teaching experience, and may have sat on the board of admissions for a particular college? Still no guarantee that your nephew will get into the school of his choice.

The admissions process to college these days is extremely competitive, yes, but unless this coach is using your 4k to bribe a college admissions officer, imho, it seems like a rip-off.
posted by Everydayville at 11:16 AM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

so the kid has gotten camp, acting lessons, a computer, etc. and is still not a good student, so his mom thinks spending 4-8k on someone who will help get him into school is a good idea? tell me, will this counselor also help him write his school reports? take his tests? make sure he gets to class on time? emotions aside, if your nephew isn't motivated enough to pick a school and do what's necessary to get in, why do you think he'll do well once he's there?
posted by nadawi at 11:16 AM on October 26, 2010 [8 favorites]

Joining in with the chorus of not at all worth it. $4000 could certainly be allocated in many, many ways to help the kid out but this is hardly one of them. You could probably put into effect 90% of what this consultant would be doing with a couple days of research online and advising the kid yourself.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:19 AM on October 26, 2010

Hi, I was admitted to a top-10 university a little less than 10 years ago. I doubt much has changed since then; I certainly haven't heard of major changes. All I needed was a good English teacher to advise me on my essays and the less-than-amazing guidance counselor at my podunk little high school. Your nephew will get into a school that fits him without a ridiculous college coach. Teachers generally love students who take an interest in their ongoing education. So your nephew can get all of these services, for free, by developing a relationship with one teacher and one guidance counselor. And he will be able to trust their advice because they'll care about him, not about the bottom line.

This is probably a legitimate business, not a scam. But she's charging rates your SIL can't afford for something your nephew can get for free from people who actually give a damn about him. To me it's unsavory, even if it's technically a real business. So unless your nephew's name is Thurston B. Howell, VI and he has to carry on the proud tradition of Howells going to Harvard, forget it.
posted by Tehhund at 11:19 AM on October 26, 2010

And while it is more competitive than ever to get into elite schools, unless you have some strategy for what happens post-BA, then there's no point to spending tons of money on college anyway. I'm saying this as someone who went to two prestigious schools.
posted by anniecat at 11:19 AM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having read radioamy's post, this occurred to me: perhaps you can suggest starting with his teachers and guidance counselor because they know your nephew and presumably care about his college career. So start with that for a few months, and only revisit this ridiculous money pit if the school isn't coming through for him.
posted by Tehhund at 11:22 AM on October 26, 2010

I'm currently applying to college, and for me and my classmates (decent/good public school, school 'college counselor' was cut, not a ton of resources) the norm was/is to go to someone from 1-5 times. They help us primarily with constructing a really good list of schools to apply to, and then also with editing essays and doing whatever else you need in the application process. They can provide referrals to things like SAT prep, though they usually don't do that themselves.

I went to a college specialist once to talk about schools, what I needed to improve on for applications, etc. I paid, I think, $250 for two hours. I also go to someone else (more of an all around tutor dude though he knows his stuff about college) who did a bit of SAT/ACT prep with me and helps with personal statements and such for $50 an hour.

My tutor dude also offered a service he does where he buys an hour of a guy who really knows colleges and charges you $200. Then, (tutor dude) talks to you, does his normal stuff, and passes that info on to (college dude) who spend ~15 minutes making a comprehensive list of colleges to look into. (tutor dude) tells student, student researches a bit, provides more info, and (tutor dude) talks to (college dude) again - basically, they correspond, breaking up that hour over multiple sessions so you can get the most bang for your buck (and tutor dude definitely has helpful insight to share as well, he just doesn't visit schools yearly or otherwise do things that would make him comfortable with calling himself a college counselor).

I'm probably more toward the 'top student' range - I'm not fixated on the ivies, but I'd have a definite shot at them. I'm not sure what kind of schools your nephew is applying to, but this counselor really really helped me and provided outside, knowledgeable insight into a really daunting process (and I'm the kind of person who's pretty on top of it myself. And my essay is much, much stronger than it would have been had I written it with some editing help from my parents or someone.

I live in a relatively expensive place (Seattle) and I think that $4k is a ripoff. Unless said nephew is also in Seattle, I can't provide specific recommendations, but I wonder if there is someone privately that could help by the hour?
posted by R a c h e l at 11:25 AM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

The person of choice in NYC charges $7000. The big draw seems to be that she works with you on the personal essay.

honestly, i think college coaches are a load of hooey. like others have said, that money would be better spend elsewheres, like when he actually is in college. i mean, $7000 to help you work on your personal essay? its not like that personal essay is a huge factor in college admissions officers determining whether you get in. by now (based on his academic record and test scores), your nephew, his parents, and his school counselor should know the type/level of schools he is likely to get into, and the chances of him getting into one of them are probably pretty good.

i grew up lower- and then upper-middle class with parents who were pretty uninvolved with my education beyond telling me to "get good grades." i graduated from a high school that was almost shut down (and merged with another school) and by the time of my senior year, i was only at school for half the day because i had taken all the courses i could. i honestly didn't even think about where i wanted to go to college until the summer before my senior year. i even missed the PSAT because i had no idea it happened. i was a smart kid, but by no means the smartest in my class. my SAT prepping came from a book i bought. i took the SAT twice. i researched on my own and ended up applying to eight schools: two ivies, two top womens colleges, two top small liberal arts colleges, and two top state schools as a back up. i honestly didn't even know where i would have a chance of getting in. i got into all of them.

my point is: sure, getting into some colleges is tough these days, but there are like a million colleges in this country. if your nephew (and his parents) want to get into one, he will.
posted by violetk at 11:27 AM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

For those of you who say that it's a ripoff, I am curious how long ago you went to college, and/or if you have kids who are high school/college age now. It's a vastly different landscape than it used to be. I think it's partly because everyone is expected to go to college now. 50 years ago, high school education was the norm, and a college degree was a plus. Now college is the norm, and you have a lot more people going to school. High school has become increasingly competitive, and as a result there are a lot of smart, qualified, motivated kids out there. Just my 2cents.
posted by radioamy at 11:32 AM on October 26, 2010

i was in college in the mid-90s.
posted by violetk at 11:34 AM on October 26, 2010

sorry, i should say early 90s, graduated mid.
posted by violetk at 11:35 AM on October 26, 2010

On preview, I do understand that many high schools don't have great - or even good - college counselors. However, as anniecat points out, the college your nephew ends up going to may have very little bearing on his career depending on what he wants to do. For example, I received my doctorate in biochemistry at a top-10 research university - my program had students ranging from Stanford to Cal State Fullerton. Similarly, my boyfriend is at law school, and while this tends to be more competitive than many hard science doctoral programs - there's definitely a variety of college levels represented by the student body.

Hiring a college coach will not better his academic abilities. You might be better serving him by hiring an experienced one-on-one tutor who will not only help with his academics, but can also guide him through the essay-writing, etc. Some reputable test-prep companies will have people who are familiar with current college admissions trends.
posted by Everydayville at 11:37 AM on October 26, 2010

Ask to speak directly to the college coach and tell them your concerns and see what response you get back. You might like what you hear.
posted by Green With You at 11:42 AM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sounds to me like your S-I-L views you as a cash cow, to shake down whenever the desire arises, under the guise of "help". This keeps her from having to spend her own money on her son. So she can spend it elsewhere.

Coach or no coach, you might want to decide what boundaries, financial and otherwise, you want to set in this arrangement.

posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 11:49 AM on October 26, 2010 [9 favorites]

First off, I just graduated from college and had a college prep couselor thing (parents paid I think around $700) and basically she was useless. Everything that she did FASFA, and gathering information about schools and review personal statements can be done on ones own. In fact, it should be. It introduces a highschooler to responsibility and the ability to get shit done they've never done before.
Its a rip off. I wish my parents would have saved that money for themselves or for my tuition.
Apparently I'm in the wrong field if a fool will part $4gs+ for a highschooler applying for college. And not to be snarky, it is FOOLISH to spend that kind of money on 'college prep'.
posted by handbanana at 11:52 AM on October 26, 2010

God yes the world has changed from the mid 1990s in US higher education. I graduated in the mid 1990s. I teach college kids like the one you described.

But spending $4000 for a college coach to help a so-so above average student make a list of mid-range private or state schools and heavily edit essays for him is complete insanity.

Do this: take his SAT scores and GPA. Look in a college handbook in Barnes and Noble. What colleges take guys like him? What are there acceptance rates? Apply to a bunch of those schools.

I've saved you $4000. He's not going to Harvard, no matter how much money you throw at the "coach."
posted by vincele at 11:52 AM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was an admissions counselor, assisting students who were applying for a private, selective (although not "Harvard elite") school for two years. I travelled to high schools to answer questions about my school to students. I have young cousins who are currently going through this process.

The admissions process can be confusing and overwhelming. However, when I was a counselor, there were many many college fairs that I attended where the students didn't do a single thing. No questions from students, no attempts to gain information, simply hanging around or grabbing my free pens and leaving.

Admissions counselors at colleges are *already* paid to provide this type of help. If a student were to ask me "Hey, I'm having troubles ... I don't get how to do this whole college thing", I would have gone out of my way to help them. Even if they were not applying to my school. If I was busy at a fair, and they asked me, I would have given them my card - to help them later.

(note - if the table is staffed with Alumni Representatives, you may not be able to get too much info right then and there - but they should have contact info for an actual counselor)

Take that $4,000 and use it thus:
1) Take nephew and research college fairs in the area (here's a starting point). It's prime time for that, right now.
2) Use the money for gas to get to the college fairs.
3) Talk to the counselors! If there is a huge line at School A that he is interested in, go around and look at school B.
4) Buy the kid dinner afterwards to talk about it.
5) Encourage nephew and mom to go visit schools and talk to admissions counselors. As a whole, they do not attempt to make the process confusing. They might not be able to say "Oh, sure, he will get in", but from my experience, counselors will be able to point the kid in the right direction.
6) Put leftover money (should be ... $3750, depending on how fancy you want to get with your dinners). The kid can use it for books for his first few semesters. YAY.

tl;dr - As a former admissions counselor, $4,000 for private college counseling is absurd. Help your nephew to use the resources already at his disposal (for free!).
posted by kellygrape at 11:52 AM on October 26, 2010 [12 favorites]

Yes, many of us on Metafilter got into top-25 schools on our own (and no doubt walked uphill both ways, in the snow, to do it)-- but college application culture has changed a LOT in the past 5-10 years. It's the natural product of a higher percentage of high schoolers planning to go to college. I got into most of the schools I applied to in 2004 with only my parents' help; three years later, my parents dropped something in the $4000 range on a college applications advisor for my little sister (who had a much higher GPA than me). I'm not sure that it actually helped her chances at all, but in that brief period of time, parental application hysteria made independent admissions counselors the (perceived, if not real) norm for middle-to-upper-middle class kids.

That's not to say that your sister should spend the money (especially if she can't afford it on her own!)-- but I'm sure she's feeling some serious pressure to keep up with your nephew's classmates' families. Especially if your nephew hasn't expressed a strong desire to go to some particular school or study some particular thing, your sister might be seeing this expensive lady as a magic bullet for your nephew's future. She's not, but when you turn down subsidizing this (which you should), you should keep in mind that this is a very common tactic parents take right now, and that not being able to afford this might make your sister feel like she's failing her son in some way.

Other people have given good DIY advice, and that sounds to me like the route your family should probably take. There are a lot of free or cheap resources-- English teachers, those big books describing the pros and cons of each of 250 American colleges, MetaFilter. Above all, your nephew should be researching and, if possible, visiting schools himself, so that he can start pulling together an idea of where he wants to be for the next four years.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:53 AM on October 26, 2010

I'm currently at one of the best schools in the nation and in the world, and I didn't use a "college coach." (My parents were more insecure about college admissions than I was and wanted me to have one but I rejected their offer.) I think this is comparable to having a teacher... If a student is self-motivated to study material, he doesn't need to be in a teacher-led class to learn. If your nephew is diligent and self-motivated, he doesn't need a college coach to help him through the college application process. It's easy enough to research schools, ask a few good writers to read your essay, and time-manage if he wants to. If he doesn't though, if he has trouble with any of this stuff, or if he isn't motivated, then paying the extra money might be worth it for him to take college admissions more seriously. I don't think a college coach provides any services a large amount of reading and polite requests won't provide, but it's up to him to actually seek out information and help in the first place.
posted by hotchocolate at 11:54 AM on October 26, 2010

Late 90s/ early 2000s grad here. No college coach. Attended an Ivy with a 9% acceptance rate.

I think it really depends on what your nephew needs, what grade he's in, what this coach will do, and where your nephew wants to apply.

If he's just starting high school, I suppose the coach could be really useful in helping him figure out those extracurricular interests -- and possibly an academic course (assuming his school is well-funded enough to offer a bunch of options) that will make him the strongest candidate possible for a wide variety of top-tier colleges.

On the other hand, if he's in 11th grade already, I can't imagine what she'll be able to do that is worth the amount of money she's asking. Off the top of my head, it seems like she could:

1) help him craft an excellent essay that showcases his unique strengths and ambitions;
2) help him prep for the SATs;
3) help him pick colleges that speak to his interests.

On the other hand, I can't imagine her being necessary for any of these three things. To wit:

1) Can't his English teacher, his advisor if he has one, and his parents collaborate with him on brainstorming and polishing his essay?
2) As a former SAT test-prep instructor, I have found that excellence in standardized testing comes down to one thing only: practice. He needs to practice taking as many tests as possible and paying particular attention to the questions he got wrong, then doing more of those questions. These tests ask "types" of questions and there's trick to each type, but there are also several excellent books out there devoted to explaining the trick, and if he's a good student, he can teach them to himself. If he's a lazy student, his parents can work with him. Seriously, (genius test-takers and learning disabilities aside,) the only difference between a great tester and a bad tester is the amount of thoughtful preparation they've invested before the day of the test itself.
3) There are so many resources now for a kid looking to learn about the kinds of colleges out there -- starting with the massive forums on the internet devoted specifically to this very issue -- that I'd find it a wee bit disturbing if he didn't care to research colleges on his own.

In short, I'm pretty skeptical of these coaches.

That said, if the student is unmotivated and/or the parents don't have the time to help and his school lacks the resources to help with the essay, he will probably fare better with someone to shepherd and goad him through the process.

Finally, to answer your question directly: I'd say $4000 is pretty standard (outside NYC, SF, LA). It's assumed to be a service for the privileged and the prices reflect that.
posted by artemisia at 12:02 PM on October 26, 2010

PS Starting my comment with my "creds" sounds completely snotty. Apologies for that, I was just replying to the mefite upthread who felt the competition has gotten a lot tougher since most of us graduated. It probably has done, but it was already pretty stiff when I was applying.
posted by artemisia at 12:03 PM on October 26, 2010

I say ripoff.

Furthermore, if the student in question can't get into the school he wants on his own merits (without the help of inordinate amounts of outside help) maybe he doesn't deserve to be there anyway.

It's one thing to help someone further/better themselves but quite another to spoonfeed them beyond the point where they should be taking care of themselves. Quite simply I feel like you'd be cheating your nephew of an important, and what may be his first, lesson in how the real world works: If you want something you have to work for it and if you don't you might not [read: won't] get it.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:06 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

college application culture has changed a LOT in the past 5-10 years

i realize that and absolutely believe it, but i doubt that the majority of kids in elite colleges got there by paying a college counselor thousands to help them do it.
posted by violetk at 12:07 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

if the student in question can't get into the school he wants on his own merits (without the help of inordinate amounts of outside help) maybe he doesn't deserve to be there anyway.

posted by gwenlister at 12:10 PM on October 26, 2010

This reminds me of something a friend once told me about his profession: "Consultation is the art of borrowing someone's watch in order to tell them the time, then invoicing them for yours."

In short, I cast my "nthing" with this is a ripoff.
posted by Biru at 12:14 PM on October 26, 2010

The question I have is what your sister-in-law thinks the college counselor can do for her son. There are various answers to the different things she might be thinking.

Does she think the counselor will magically grant him access/acceptance into top tier schools? She probably needs to adjust her expectations.

Does she think the counselor will help him write and perfect his personal statement? There are probably a handful of resources at his high school, or if his skills are particularly weak, she can hire a writing coach for less.

Does she think the counselor will hand-pick schools he might be interested in based on his interests and personality, to create the best fit? This is where your nephew comes in. If he wants to go to college, and really cares about his college experience, it's his job to do the legwork. He can do the research on schools he's interested in. I know I received a veritable fuck-ton of mail from prospective colleges, a lot of which I hadn't previously heard of or considered. I at least checked out their website, to try and get an idea of what the college was about, and then if I liked it, I made a note of it and did a little more in-depth research.

It looks like this money could be spent in more useful ways- on SAT prep, on a writing coach, and ultimately, trips to visit the campuses of the schools he's considering. Nearly all of the kids that enter college as freshmen didn't feel the need to use a 'college coach'. Your nephew should be just fine, provided he's willing to figure out where he wants to go.
posted by rachaelfaith at 12:18 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

i realize that and absolutely believe it, but i doubt that the majority of kids in elite colleges got there by paying a college counselor thousands to help them do it.


Kid needs to work hard, read some books on the college admissions process, and study, maybe with the aid of a tutor Honest tutors in New York City don't cost more than 60 dollars an hour (probably less elsewhere). There are also places like Sylvan Learning Center etc. that cost less and help your student as a whole.

a 4,000 dollar college counsellor is necessarily a charlatan, preying on the fears of parents that their children will be fucked for life if they don't get into a good school.

FWIW, I got into a good school without a fancy college counsellor in the last decade, and now that I have my fancy degree, I'm still fucked for life because there are no jobs in my field.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:25 PM on October 26, 2010

i realize that and absolutely believe it, but i doubt that the majority of kids in elite colleges got there by paying a college counselor thousands to help them do it.


what? did you even read what i wrote? because your subsequent comment supported my comment.
posted by violetk at 12:28 PM on October 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

I currently moonlight with Princeton Review, which has a full-fledged college admissions and financial aid curriculum. You can do the whole thing for $600.

Granted, they're online--interactive, just not in person--but if you wanted to go the private tutor route you could get one whole hell of a lot of tutoring and admissions coaching for $4000. Heck, the 30-hour SAT prep course only costs a couple of hundred bucks.

Shop around. I have no reason to think that the coach in question is a scammer--parents who don't blink at ponying up fifty grand for four years of college won't even miss four grand for a coach, so there's definitely a market here--but I also have no reason to think that they're offering any service which can't be obtained elsewhere for a fraction of the price.
posted by valkyryn at 12:31 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

If the student needs a lot of help getting in to college, make sure they choose a college with lots of academic support. In fact, be sure the student really wants to go to college. I'm all for it, but only for motivated students.

If you're funding this and other activities, no reason why you shouldn't ask for multiple bids.

You are a very nice auntie.
posted by theora55 at 12:44 PM on October 26, 2010

To play devil's advocate (and I really do think that these college counseling businesses are evil and a ripoff):

I graduated from HS in 2005, and under the advice of my public school guidance councilor, applied to 14 schools, got accepted at my 4 "safeties", somehow waitlisted at the two most selective on the list, waitlisted at one of the "middle of the road" schools, and denied from the rest. The guidance counselor refused to do anything to help me convince the waitlist schools that I was worth accepting off of their lists (and later sent the wrong transcript when I tried to transfer to one of them the next year, but I digress...)

I picked the cheapest of my safety schools (that turned out to be a pretty great public school), and guess that things turned out OK in the end, although I felt like one heck of a failure for having been denied from nearly every school that I thought I was going to be able to attend. Had I had more realistic expectations, I could have saved myself a lot of emotional anguish, and possibly ended up at a school that was a better match for me.

Read into that as you will. The admissions systems at US colleges are outright evil. It might make sense to bribe the devil...

Alternative advice: Have him apply to the big ol' public university in his home state, and figure out how to make the best of it while he's there. There's something for everybody at these schools, he'll probably get in, they have pretty good (and in some cases, great) name-recognition, and you won't be up to your neck in debt, which might be a good thing if your sister can't come up with $7,000, which is no small sum of money, but only covers about a month and a half worth of tuition at a private college .

On preview/re-read: He's your nephew, and your sister is asking you to pay for this??? That's crazycakes.
posted by schmod at 12:45 PM on October 26, 2010

kellygrape has great ideas on how to best assist your nephew.

Encourage nephew and mom to go visit schools and talk to admissions counselors.

Yes! Consider financing his and his mother's travel expenses to visit schools. There's nothing better than seeing the college/university first-hand, taking a tour, interviewing with an admissions rep, sitting-in on a class or two and chat up some students about why they chose the specific institution, what they think of it, etc.
posted by ericb at 12:48 PM on October 26, 2010

Business Week: College Coaches -- Pros and Cons (with reader comments).
posted by ericb at 1:08 PM on October 26, 2010

I went to college from 2001-2005. My little brother went to college from 2006-2010, and my little sister is in her freshman year of college. All of us were top students with good SAT scores, and all of us got into at least one highly-selective college. None of us had a college counselor. The guidance counselor at our public high school was completely useless, the sort of person who encouraged the students to "try to get into" the shittier of our state universities, and was not worth listening to.

What we did have, apart from natural ability, was awesome parents and relatives who made us do the entire college admissions process by ourselves. They made us research colleges, they put us on the Greyhound bus with a fistful of dollars to go visit colleges, they wrote us checks for our application packages -- but it was our responsibility to put together the application and write a kick-ass essay. Not all of us got into our first-choice schools, but we did all get into top-tier colleges and we're all doing well today.

I would say that the best way to help your nephew is to encourage him to be proactive and to call his own shots. I've taught some undergrads, and those helicopter moms are a) freakish, and b) produce really unmotivated, uncreative, boring little turds of kids. Evidence of independent thought and willpower will probably go a lot further with college admissions people than a $4000 essay just like all the other $4000 essays clogging the works of the college toilet pipes. If you want to pay for something, pay for his application fees. Pay for him to go visit the schools that he's interested it -- don't let Mom go -- instead, if the school has the option (and many do), have him stay overnight with a current student. Maybe he can even take in a lecture the next day.
posted by kataclysm at 1:10 PM on October 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

I was paid to be a 'college peer advisor' with a NON-PROFIT called CalSOAP when I was an undergrad. The idea was to help kids, especially minorities, navigate the college admissions process. I was paid near minimum wage in the state of CA, and I had a fairly large group of kids assigned to me. All I did was point kids to the right resources; "here is the website for the FAFSA, here is the list of courses you need to take to go to a UC, here is the list for a CSU, here is the list for community college..." and on and on. I tailored my pitch to each kid and if they had more specific questions I did the research WITH them, not FOR them, and I did not look at essays much. The problem is that there is a large amount of info on the web about college requirements, scholarships, the SAT, and so on, and not all of it is current or correct and it takes a while to wade through. I was there to help make that part less painful, and that's the ONLY thing that's worth paying for, and since I was paid not very much to do that, there is no way it's worth $4000 unless it comes with insider info and an admission guarantee to an elite school. I was not quite Ivy League myself but I was top 5%, and I spent hours doing my own legwork to get myself in, no coach and no SAT prep course, and I did okay for myself and now I'm in grad school. Frankly if he has no interest in doing the legwork himself than maybe he needs to think about community college and transferring when he's more motivated.

If your nephew can not write on his own with a little help from peers and parents on the editing, he is not ready for college and it's totally dishonest to have the essay completely reworked by someone that is paid to do so.
If his SAT scores and GPA are not in the top 10% of his graduating class, it's even more of a waste of money because there is nothing the private coach can do to change those numbers and then he should be looking at less selective schools anyway.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:11 PM on October 26, 2010

I graduated in 2003 with a B average (no weighted grades in my high school) and my best friend graduated with a 3.8something. Again, no weighted grades, and we were taking AP and honors classes all through HS.

Neither of us paid for a college counselor. Are you kidding? That's 4000 dollars that could be better spent for tractor repair here in Iowa (literally, her father was a farmer).

I had no problem getting into the schools that I appropriately selected as commensurate with my GPA and high test scores, and neither did she. FWIW, she ended up in CMU, with a few other comp sci heavy schools also competing to offer her loans and grants. CMU had the best package, so she went there.

Granted, we were far above average students, but I still think this is a ripoff. Our AP English teacher worked on us with college essays; our counselors at school, although generally useless, would (and did, for other students) provide good referrals if further assistance was needed.

IF your nephew doesn't have anyone working with him on the essays (and I'm talking a teacher, ideally an English teacher, here) and IF he tends to procrastinate and IF his test scores were good otherwise, I'd say maybe. If it cost 1000 dollars and not 4k.
posted by saveyoursanity at 1:15 PM on October 26, 2010

My initial reaction is that it would be spending $4k of your money to help get your nephew in over his head, which I don't think is doing him much of a favor. My viewpoint is that students should attend colleges that they have the ability, and the motivation, to get themselves accepted to. And if there isn't one, then they're better served by getting a McJob until they're a little more ready to further their education. Better to have worked for a year or two after high school and then go to college than it is to rack up a few semesters of bad grades, drop out, and then try to go back.

I don't have any first-hand experience with college coaches and I'm sure some of them work hard, but it also bears mentioning that there's a fairly famous scam. One claims to be a college coach with all sorts of inside connections and makes a money-back guarantee that if you hire them, you'll be accepted to the college of your choice. They collect plenty of money, and students apply to colleges that they want to go to and have a reasonable chance of being accepted at. The "coach" does absolutely nothing, the majority of the students get into a college they like, and the others get their money refunded.
posted by LowellLarson at 1:45 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I did this - mid eighties - I was immediately accepted to every school where I'd applied. Harvard, MIT, Cal-tech, etc. It was simply because I did so fantastically well on my ACT and SATs. I didn't miss any questions on the former, and scored ridiculously high on the latter. This despite the fact that I couldn't be bothered to get a "4.0" in HS, took no AP courses, and wasn't involved with clubs except for debate.

I find it very difficult to believe that no matter how much "the landscape has changed" in the years since then, that exemplary scores will not work exactly the same way. Schools live and die by those average scores. Spend available money on prep courses, ace those tests, and the choices will be plenty wide.

My opinion is that if his scores & grades don't cut it, then maybe he shouldn't go to such a selective school. He's just asking for an unpleasant time, surrounded by people who are his academic betters, even if he does make it in under the wire.

FWIW, when I hire (and I've hired hundreds in my career, at diverse companies), I ignore the college. I don't even look, I don't care. Something to think about.
posted by Invoke at 1:46 PM on October 26, 2010

They often help figure out grants and funding, too. If she manages that part well, she's paid for herself, no question.

That's what financial aid counselors are for. How would a private "counselor" even have access to the grant programs and loan options that are available through the school of their choice? The best this person could do would be an overpriced scholarship search engine.

In my under-caffeinated opinion, these people are not much better than the websites that offer to do the FAFSA form for students for a "small" fee.
posted by Think_Long at 2:03 PM on October 26, 2010

Here's my question. College is crazy expensive. If your sister-in-law is passing the hat to pay for the college counselor, how does she expect to pay for college itself?
posted by zachlipton at 2:43 PM on October 26, 2010

I've gotten into two elite schools and three elite programs within those schools, all with no more help than I could find on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Instead of ponying up the $4K, offer to help your nephew with his paperwork. Review his essays. Find people you know, or people they know, who went to the schools he wants to go to. Buy those people dinner with your nephew and help him write a list of questions he wants to ask them about the school and how they got in. Offer to put him up if he wants to visit the schools around you (if they live elsewhere).

Money is an investment in getting him into college -- return achieved September 2012 (or whenever). Effort is an investment in making sure he goes where he wants to and succeeds once he gets there -- return achieved for the rest of his life.
posted by Etrigan at 2:53 PM on October 26, 2010

This is not a binary question and honestly I think every poster in this thread needs more data than we have to answer it.

Scores and grades are absolutely not enough to get into competitive schools these days. When you have 23,000 people applying to Harvard, the majority of cuts are made based on scores. You then have whatever, 4,000 applicants qualified on paper, with exemplary grades, AP courses and top ranking aspirations. 200 are such outstanding students they're shoo-ins on the first cut. That leaves 3,800 equally qualified people. You're going to take 1,600 of them. The supporting materials for the application really come into play here, from the recommendations to the essay, and each one of those is not just "the best the student can do" it's a strategic decision.

When you are applying from NYC, NJ or several areas in CA, the odds are actually stacked against you because the concentration of students from those regions is so high and schools value geographic diversity. If your nephew is in one of those areas, there is also the issue that money works and if a large percentage of kids from his school are getting professional help with their applications, he may be at a disadvantage competing against his peers if he isn't.

I'm not arguing that the system isn't insane. I am arguing that given that it is, getting a $4,000 coach is not by definition insane.

But all of the advice in this thread sits, again, in context we don't have. If he's one of 2,000 seniors applying from a HS in Ohio with a school psychologist doubling as the college guidance person, that's different than if he's one of 20 kids at an UES private school with a staff member who's only job it is to funnel kids into Ivy League schools.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:02 PM on October 26, 2010

Total rip-off!

His English teacher, his parents, and YOU could read over his essay. Other than that it's all up to him.
if your nephew isn't motivated enough to pick a school and do what's necessary to get in, why do you think he'll do well once he's there?

The vast majority of students get there because of their own efforts. No matter what this counselor does, he'll still be the one making the effort; the only difference will be that he'll have someone with him saying, "you can do it," and you and his parents can do that for free.
posted by Neekee at 3:08 PM on October 26, 2010

On preview/re-read: He's your nephew, and your sister is asking you to pay for this??? That's crazycakes.

I think others have addressed the college-planning aspects of this question well. But I do think that there hasn't been quite enough written about the familial aspect.

It's wonderful that you've helped your nephew with big purchases, including stuff like camp (which is . . . something I've never heard of an aunt helping with, frankly. Things like necessities if a sibling can't afford them, or really generous gifts on big occasions, sure. But camp?!). But this is, frankly, the sort of extraneous expense that's utterly and completely optional. It's not the sort of personal-enrichment gift that it sounds like you'd choose for your nephew on your own. I also wonder, if your sister is asking you to pay for this, how she's planning on paying for his tuition? Perhaps they are so impoverished that he'll be able to pay for college entirely through grants and stafford loans, but then, I'd venture to say (coming from a poorish family myself) that often it's not in the poorer areas of society that it's deemed necessary to invest in expensive college application counseling.

So, if my instincts are correct, and your sister is using you to live just beyond her means, I think there are many wants you could better and perhaps more appropriately use this money: a thousand dollars a year to help with tuition or living expenses, perhaps, or put it away in CDs or 5-year bonds that will be available to your nephew upon graduation, or something else along those lines. This is your money, and you've been very generous with it already, and if you don't feel comfortable investing it this way, that's entirely appropriate and you shouldn't feel guilty or like a bad aunt or anything like that at all.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:08 PM on October 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

Additionally, going to community college might be good because they have actual transfer agreements with certain state school and even private colleges. I know in Virginia, a 3.0 at the community college can guarantee you acceptance to UVa or William & Mary, and I've heard that Stanford accepts a number of students from Foothills Jr. College in Palo Alto. So does Berkeley and other schools in California. I would check for these options in your nephew's state.

So if the mom can't afford the $4K for the college counselor and actually asks you for it, community college would actually be a viable option for this kid. Several friends of mine that graduated from my prestigious college attended some no name community college in the Midwest and graduated from my school. The community college thing wasn't a blemish -- they got investment banking jobs, consulting jobs (even though 1 required an H1-B visa), and one even went to Harvard Business School. If anything, their attending community college was a plus on their applications. They were obviously academically capable enough to start at a 4 year school (not capable enough to be straight A students, but very good students who had A/A-s and took hard courses where they sometimes got B+s), but they came from Poland and Ukraine and didn't have that much money.

A lot of people just don't understand that there are many paths to success. It's not all prep school to fancy college to fancy life. More often than not, it's just not like that, especially for people who don't have $4K on hand and are easily coerced into handing it over. It's a scam and people want to believe what they want to believe, and I know it's attractive to believe that an elite college is a golden ticket, but it's not.
posted by anniecat at 3:13 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for your thoughtful and informative answers. I was leaning away from contributing to this for many of the reasons listed above.

My family does live nearby and I've asked for a family meeting this weekend. I'm going to do my homework based on your suggestions and see if we can't work together to come up with a plan that will, at its core, get my nephew to be a much more active participant in the process.

My sister-in-law is great, her parents were awful and she and her sister basically raised themselves. She has done a tremendous job of educating herself on parenting (reading, classes, therapy) and has raised two really terrific boys. I think this request is coming more from her lack of confidence in her skills and her desire to do the right thing without having any kind of good example from her own experience.

I didn't want to dismiss this idea out of hand because I am watching my coworkers with college-bound kids freak out about the process and do all kinds of extreme things. I knew you folks would give me a great sense of perspective and lots to think about!
posted by agatha_magatha at 3:13 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

College is outrageously expensive these days. All you people telling the nephew to sink or swim- would you say that for any other $60,000+ investment?

I think the point here is that, if the kid needs thousands of dollars worth of help to get into college, he's not ready. So the $60K investment would be a poor one anyway.
posted by coolguymichael at 3:22 PM on October 26, 2010

How would a private "counselor" even have access to the grant programs and loan options that are available through the school of their choice?

Mostly they know where to look for them, have contacts in a heck of a lot of schools, and since hopefully you're hiring them before the kid's junior year of high school, they've helped you figure out how to best juggle your 529s and Coverdells, if you have them.

oinopaponton's "uphill both ways in the snow" comment is spot on. There's a lot of indignant "well, I didn't have/need this resource so no one else should either" in this thread that I'm not understanding. Only people comfortable with being very proactive (hopefully with informed and supportive parents) "deserve" to go to college? This isn't a PhD- it's a basic bacherlor's, which you need even to get a lot of certifications these days, (for no reason other than snobbism, imo), even ones completely unrelated to your university field of study.

It many be that the OP's nephew doesn't have the resources to hire a counselor, if it's not within the OP's or her sister's budget, but they aren't necessarily complete wastes of time. If the parents are willing to dump hours and energy into the project, maybe they can dispense with the counselor's services or maybe find a way to just use the counselor on an hourly basis to check in with, to make sure they're not missing anything obvious. I'm not sure it has to be a black & white $8000 or $0.

I also got a decent education on my own without a counselor but god almighty I could have used a counselor. They say you need to have 70% of the answer to even ask the question. I hadn't the first idea where to start and neither did my parents. In everyone's allotted 20 minute meeting with the high school counselor, she advised everyone who wasn't a rancher's son to go into a career in prosthetics. (She must have foreseen Iraqs I & II, etc.) The colleges' overworked financial counselors, whose services were utilized while 30 people waited behind me for their turn, told me I didn't qualify for anything so don't waste their time. I wasn't supported by my parents and no one told me I could explain that, even though I told the counselors that. I had no idea how to research or apply for grants.

My point is, it would have been a godsend to have someone who was familiar with the systems to be on my side. If your nephew's parents (or you) can be that advocate, that's great, but for various reasons not all of us are capable of that at 16.

I think the point here is that, if the kid needs thousands of dollars worth of help to get into college, he's not ready.

For the record, I did great in college. My inability to figure out college applications did not reflect poor study habits or a lack of intellectual curiosity, though I did change majors twice and take 6 years to wend my way through to a BA. We could get away with it back then, when the prices weren't so awful.

My degree is in no field I ended up utilizing and yet has been invaluable in opening doors. You really have to have at least a bachelors for any kind of white collar job. My first job was as a personal assistant at a financial firm and I wouldn't have gotten the interview if I hadn't had my BA in Unrelated Field. Anyone saying otherwise is an exceptional case.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:25 PM on October 26, 2010

50 years ago, high school education was the norm, and a college degree was a plus. Now college is the norm, and you have a lot more people going to school. High school has become increasingly competitive, and as a result there are a lot of smart, qualified, motivated kids out there. Just my 2cents.

Oh, and, I graduated college (a state school where I was a peer advisor in my college's advisement office, so I know something about admissions) in 2006 and graduate school in 2009, and I still feel like this sort of thing is utterly not worth it. It's the kind of throwing money at a problem that often leads to throwing more money at a problem--in the form of tuition from a grossly overpriced private liberal arts college, usually. When it comes down to it, I wish I'd done--and would advise most high school students to do--is what anniecat is suggesting. This sort of living beyond your means to achieve some sort of mythical academic success is something that's really both endemic in our society and really problematic. If OP's sister doesn't have this money, I genuinely worry that they're sending this nephew down a long and ugly path of debt. Yes, college is necessary. Expensive colleges are not, whether you're talking in terms of career or graduate school. Take it from someone who graduated from a no-name state school and has managed to do pretty well in terms of both of those things.

What you want to help your nephew do is avoid debt. Seriously. That will be the best gift you can give him.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:33 PM on October 26, 2010

Here's the primary, if not only, reason why the costs of a college education and ancillary services like admissions "coaching" are so high: people are willing and able to pay cold hard cash for them. And the primary, if not sole, reason why people -- including people of modest means -- are able to pay (or have been up until about five minutes ago) is that they are able to borrow the money to do so when they don't have the cash on hand outright. And the reason they are able to borrow is that businesses that lend money for a living (e.g., banks, specialty lenders) have so lowered their "ethics" and credit standards that they'll lend money to people even when it's clear that they clearly can't afford the debt. This is THE reason why designer label, competitive schools charge -- what is it now? -- upwards of $45-50-thousand per year: people are willing to pay for the status and advantages that they believe will be theirs or their children's with a diploma from High Class U.

So, is this coach worth $4,000? Hell no, but anxious, overwrought parents are willing to pay, and -- viola! -- we have a clearing price for a coaching transaction.

A better use of time and money would be as, I think, kellygrape, outlined so efficiently above.

Another thought however: any and all the help provided to your nephew in finding a college will be handicapped without his having first a plan: a plan with both intellectual and vocational / career-oriented goals that flow from explicit consideration of, at a minimum, his intellect, other talents, ambition, work ethic, personality, psychological stability, socio-economic status and financial resources. Without some idea of where he wants to go in life and how he might get there (and this is where money, class and background considerations matter mightily even though we as a society are loathe to consider it), college at current prices will probably not be worth it -- as so many young people are beginning to suspect. And this may be the one very critical area wherein a kind, caring auntie might be able to provide the most useful assistance.
posted by SuzB at 3:36 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

If what you want is to DIY this process informed about contemporary college admissions and help your nephew to take an active role, you might get a few copies of this book to share between you. It includes a lot of the strategy and information a coach should be giving you, with actually useful timelines and checklists for your nephew. It's good.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:58 PM on October 26, 2010

The only way I could see this kind of thing maybe making sense would be if there's some specific school that the kid really wants to go to, for a very specific, well-thought out, good reason (not prestige, but maybe if there's some sort of amazing specialty program there and nothing comparable elsewhere, or whatever), and the kid has a reasonable shot of getting in but it's a bit of a reach. If it's just generic college application help, it's just buying into the idea that the kid has to go to "the best" college possible and so he needs special help to get every advantage in that "race." There are lots of schools out there and any number of them would probably be a good fit and a good experience for any given kid-- get him some good books/point him to some good websites/take him on some tours of schools, help him pick out a bunch that he likes including some "safety" choices, he'll get into some fraction of those and whichever he picks will probably be fine. So what if he could've gotten into a "better" school with a $4000 coach helping him get his essays just right?
posted by EmilyClimbs at 4:02 PM on October 26, 2010

$4000 is about the right amount for both of you to learn a very important financial lesson.
posted by blue_beetle at 4:32 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had one 8 years ago, she helped a lot.

But: my high school academic advisor was fired senior year for assaulting another advisor. Every one of my teachers was too busy to write recommendations so they asked me to write my own which they would sign.

The coach my parents hired actually worked half-time doing exactly the same thing for free at my sister's school.

So it all depends on what resources are available for him otherwise. But $4,000 sounds like a lot. Ask if you can get a low-income scholarship and do it for $2,000?
posted by miyabo at 4:57 PM on October 26, 2010

So, in this instance, this may or may not be crazy.

But there's many ways you can help yourself without paying a consultant. As a human being on this planet, you know people who know people who work with colleges. (Or at least those people know someone.) It's time to go looking for counsel and find them. These people can tell you the prevailing wisdom on essays, and early admission, and school choices and what have you. You need to be broadening this kid's circle of mentors and advisors in general--and it doesn't need to be someone who's paid. Not everyone in the field as a consultant actually knows what a college essay should be for each college the kid might be interested in, for instance.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:56 PM on October 26, 2010

in that brief period of time, parental application hysteria made independent admissions counselors the (perceived, if not real) norm for middle-to-upper-middle class kids.

As someone who was in college in the early 2000's, this is the difference for me.

Not the level of competitiveness of universities, not the chances of a particular student getting into any particular school. It's the level of hysteria, and the number of people who realized "Step 1: Hysteria. Step 2 = ??? Step 3 = PROFIT."

People hire college counselors for their kids because it's The Thing To Do. It's basically a class signifier. People who have a lot of money throwing it at a perceived problem in hopes that it will somehow help their kid.

The other thing that has changed, in my eyes, since I started college, is the way that society sees people in that 17-22 age range. When I was a junior and senior in high school, it was assumed that I would take the reins in the college admissions process. And it was assumed, when I arrived at school in the fall of 1999, that I was an adult, on my own in a new place, figuring things out for myself.

Now it seems to me that parents continue to treat their late-teens offspring like children, including taking the primary role in college admissions. Which of course translates to incoming freshmen who still think like children, and still expect to be coddled like children. I don't know if it's a good or bad thing, but if anything has changed, it's that.

I'm not sure if that's an answer on whether you should spend $4000 on a college counselor for your nephew, but hopefully it gives some insight?
posted by Sara C. at 6:01 PM on October 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's the kind of throwing money at a problem that often leads to throwing more money at a problem--in the form of tuition from a grossly overpriced private liberal arts college, usually.

Just to throw in a counterpoint, my parents asked my counselor to specifically recommend schools that had merit-based scholarships. I ended up with a 50% scholarship at a school I really enjoyed, that I probably wouldn't have even thought of applying to (nobody in California had heard of Tulane before Katrina). So in our case the $4K or whatever actually saved us approximately $80K (FWIW I wasn't really interested in any of the public schools, and besides UC's cost about $25K/year now)

posted by radioamy at 7:24 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Jacques Steinberg's 1999 series in the New York Times on admissions at Wesleyan University is eye-opening reading for anyone trying to get into a selective college. Already a decade ago, elite liberal arts colleges were crafting a balanced class, as well as judging individual students on their merits--simply because they had far too many qualified applicants to judge them all individually.

One thing he concluded is that the process is so quirky, and depends so much on the other applicants' interests and strengths, that it is impossible for anyone to game the system. In other words, if you're applying to schools like Wesleyan, Amherst, Pomona, or Harvard, Stanford, or Northwestern, there's not much a college coach can really do that you couldn't get for much less in other ways.

Here's a 2003 article by Steinberg that summarizes his findings; you can find the original series, I think, on the Times website. It begins with an anecdote about an applicant who had a recommendation from the president of Wesleyan who was rejected by Wesleyan's admissions committee.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:33 PM on October 26, 2010

I think that blue_beetle found a good exception, but unless you are planning to completely finance his college tuition already, 4000 dollars is just way too much.
posted by fermezporte at 5:23 AM on October 27, 2010

I find it very difficult to believe that no matter how much "the landscape has changed" in the years since then, that exemplary scores will not work exactly the same way. Schools live and die by those average scores. Spend available money on prep courses, ace those tests, and the choices will be plenty wide.

It no longer works that way. Good grades and test scores are no longer merely enough for The Ivies, or any of the top-tier engineering/liberal-arts schools. I'll amend my comment above to include that I nearly aced my SATs, and had a full cachet of AP courses and an IB diploma. None of that mattered -- even though I had great numbers on paper, my story wasn't compelling enough for them to accept me over somebody else with great numbers. A coach might have helped in my case.
posted by schmod at 6:39 AM on October 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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