Wise toil helps clear path into the college of choice

Staying Ahead

July 12, 1999|By Jane Bryant Quinn | Jane Bryant Quinn,Washington Post Writers Group

SHOULD YOU engage an independent counselor to help your child get into college? If you don't, will you lose a coveted place to someone who had professional help? Maybe the counselors carry some mojo that no one should be without.

Truth is, the vast majority of families find a college the old-fashioned way. They round up information, visit a few campuses, fill in applications and deal with the school's financial aid office. This is especially true for those heading for public colleges and universities, which educate 78 percent of America's students.

The parents who choose counselors generally aim for smaller, private colleges, especially those with big brand names. Around 5 percent of families will probably seek professional advice this year, up from 1 percent in 1990, says Mark Sklarow, head of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) in Fairfax, Va.

These are families that can pay the price. Independent counseling typically costs $800 to $2,000, Sklarow says. You'll pay more if you also want SAT prep classes or private tutoring.

Private counselors organize your search, says counselor Pearl Glassman of Pound Ridge, N.Y. They help you focus on the type of school you want, introduce you to schools you might not have heard of, explain the intricacies of admissions and financial aid, help you put your best foot forward on application forms and keep you on track until the job is done.

But they cannot guarantee you a place in a prestige school. (Be suspicious, if they suggest it.) "High school grades, courses taken, test scores and perhaps special skills still are the most important factors in college acceptance," says Diane Epstein of the College Planning Service in Bethesda.

IECA will send you free lists of its members who do private counseling (800-808-4322; www.educationalconsulting.org). So will the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in Alexandria, Va. (800-822-6285; www.nacac.com).

Previous generations of students expected to get free advice from guidance counselors at their public high schools. But the number of guidance counselors has declined, and those who remain have heavy caseloads. They can provide lists of colleges and general advice. But they may not have time to work closely with families that are confused about the admissions process.

The colleges themselves are partly to blame for the confusion, says NACAC Executive Director Joyce Smith. One thing driving families nuts: Nearly 500 schools are trying to put a lock on desirable students by encouraging "early decision" or "early action."

With early decision, you get your answer in December or January of your senior high school year. As soon as a school accepts you, you're supposed to withdraw your application to all the rest.

With early action, the school may give you a yes in January or February. But you can still apply elsewhere, in the hope of getting a better offer. Some schools give less financial aid to students they know are in the bag. A few offer incentives. Parents need to ask.

Different schools have different deadlines. "Many students have not even begun a thorough college search by the time some of these deadlines pass," says one counselor.

Some top colleges have taken a large percentage of their recent freshman classes from the early-decision pool. That pushes next year's group of applicants to go early-decision, too.

Most public colleges and universities use "rolling admissions." After applying, you're given a yes or no within about three weeks. But even a few of the publics are trying early-application plans to compete for the better students, Smith says.

Students are responding to this new form of pressure by asking several schools for early decision, to see how much aid the competitors offer. "The whole process has become something of a poker game," says Jack Joyce of the College Board in New York.

With a counselor or without, the most difficult part of choosing a college is setting a realistic goal, says Anna Griebel, senior assistant director of undergraduate admission at Northeastern University in Boston. "Students and their families need to make clear choices based on academics, lifestyle, finances and their chance of admission."

Start no later than the summer of your child's junior year, says Steve Richards, dean of admissions and financial aid for Franklin College in Franklin, Ind. Ask for suggestions from people you respect. Collect materials from your high school guidance office. Browse the college Web sites. You'll find a way.

Pub Date: 7/12/99

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