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5 Tips for Working with a Private College Counselor

Student and counselor in discussion

By Matt Musico

Having the appropriate support system to help you put your best foot forward throughout the college admission process is invaluable. But how can students and parents best take advantage of their time with a college counselor?

The following tips will specifically reference the relationship between a student and their family and a private college counselor. Many high school students do not have access to a private college counselor, or the ability to pay for one. For those in need of assistance through the admissions process, there are alternatives to using a private counselor if that route isn’t an option or of any interest to you. This can include your designated high school counselor – especially during your sophomore and junior year – your parents, certain teachers and mentors who are willing to help, as well as resources within your own community at places like the local YMCA and Boys & Girls Club. You don’t have to walk through this process alone.

The tips outlined below are intended to be applicable in various counseling situations, regardless of who is helping you get your applications submitted.

1. Discuss More Than Just Your College List/Application

The main purpose of working with a college counselor is to get assistance with the undergraduate admissions process at various colleges. Some of this assistance includes the following: building a college list, making you aware of important testing and application deadlines, devising a campus visit strategy, interview prep, college essay and supplemental essay guidance, and an extra set of eyes on applications before submitting.

Discussing direct aspects of the college admission process isn’t where this starts and ends, though. Other common topics I discuss with families every year – that are either directly or indirectly related to admissions – include course selection for the upcoming year, what to do over the summer, how students can fill their activity list with experiences they enjoy, and doing research about college majors if they’re currently undecided on what to study.

Think of your college counselor as a Sherpa taking you up a mountain. It may be your first time having that experience, but the Sherpa has reached the summit many times. They’ve seen several situations play out and can give both students and parents some perspective from the benefit of hindsight.

2. Stick to Deadlines

A common reason families work with a college counselor is to have someone else be the project manager of this endeavor. This process can be stressful, and one of a counselor’s goals is to take as much stress out as possible by breaking each aspect of the experience down into manageable steps. Doing so also allows parents and students to enjoy the fun parts of the process – visiting campuses, reading a final essay, and submitting applications after working so hard, for example.

If you want to successfully meet all of your deadlines, it’s crucial to stay organized, regardless of the situation you find yourself in. There are application deadlines, but there are also deadlines given to you by your college counselor. While it feels like they’re asking you to complete tasks before a certain date for no reason, there’s usually a reason behind it.

Don’t forget – your counselor is your Sherpa, guiding you up the mountain. It may feel like they’re only piling more work on top of everything you’re already doing in school, but a college counselor’s goal is to make the application process as manageable as possible and help you avoid pitfalls, including falling behind schedule.

So, when your counselor wants to start discussing your activity list descriptions and prep you to ask for letters of recommendation during the spring of junior year or start brainstorming college essay ideas right after final exams, it’s not a punishment. It’s because they know how much more stressful it’ll be if those tasks are put off until the end of summer, the beginning of senior year, or even worse, right before application deadlines.

Sticking to deadlines from the beginning of your working relationship with a college counselor can set you up for success in completing the process thoughtfully. How great does it sound to be finished with submitting college applications by the time Thanksgiving rolls around?

Yea, it’d be awesome. If you stay on task and stick to the deadlines you and your counselor agree upon, that’s possible.

3. Don’t be Afraid to Ask Questions

Another common reason a family decides to work with a college counselor is because the process has changed drastically in recent years. There’s so much to take in, and “We don’t know what we don’t know” is constantly uttered during my introduction meetings.

Whether this is a family’s first child going through the process or they’ve done it multiple times, there are always going to be questions. My most-used joke in conversations with students and parents alike is that my office is like Planet Fitness because it’s a judgment-free zone. College counselors work hard to create a safe space for families to feel comfortable asking whatever questions they’re thinking about.

If it’s important to you, it may be important enough to ask and get an answer.

There have been times when a student or parent apologizes to me because they’re asking what they think is a simple question. Some of the questions I’m often asked include "What’s the timeline for the work my student must complete?",  "How does the admissions process work at various schools?" and ‘What’s the difference between early action, early decision and regular decision?"

College counselors are in this profession to help students and their families through this experience. That includes educating families and providing accurate information about the admissions process to ease any potential anxiety.

4. Keep An Open Line of Communication

From my experience, a huge source of anxiety in the college admission experience is simply not knowing what happens next. I’ve seen this take place with parents a lot, who want to stay involved as a cheerleader for their child, but that’s difficult when a student doesn’t share much information.

For parents who want to know what their teenager is up to, I ask the student if it’s okay for me to give their parents updates. .Every counselor has his or her own process, but to keep parents in the loop, I typically send a brief follow-up email after meetings to detail what we discussed, what their student will be working on for “homework,” and when our next scheduled meeting is. All of my students are aware of this, and many are happy they don’t need to provide a rundown of what we just discussed in meetings.

This takes a lot of that potential friction out of the equation. It also allows families to just talk about their days instead of playing 21 questions about the college process. Having an open line of communication with a counselor naturally helps them feel more comfortable to ask a question in response to my outreach, instead of having to contact me out of the blue.

The student is going through this process and eventually heading off to college, but it’s not a solo journey – the parents need to stay informed, too.

5. Be Honest

To get the best results in any venture, it’s crucial to be honest with yourself and whomever else you’re working with. The time you get to work with a college counselor is interesting because it’s an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what you want out of your immediate future.

The answers you give to your counselor's questions at the beginning of your college search will likely be different from what you say at the end of your college search. You’re allowed to change your mind while progressing through this experience. Don’t feel like you must stick to the answers you gave to your college counselor months ago – they know thoughts and feelings about college can change. In fact, it’s encouraged because it means you’re getting closer to knowing what you want out of the next chapter of your educational journey.

The best thing you can do with your college counselor – whether you’re working with a private counselor, your school counselor, a teacher, a parent, or someone else willing to be your Sherpa -- is give honest answers to questions at the time they’re asked. It’ll make the process of completing applications easier for everyone involved, and it’ll help you be happy with the decisions you make on where to enroll for the fall of freshman year.


Matt Musico is a full-time sportswriter, but he's also spent the better part of a decade working in higher education. Half of that time was spent working in an undergraduate admissions office, while the other half has involved working with high school families as a private college counselor.

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