The College Admissions Game, Part 5: The Admissions Consultant

When you hear news about “College Admissions Consultants,” it’s often sensationalized and over the top. Take this article about a consultant who will guarantee a kid’s college acceptance or your money back or this article about Michele Hernandez, who is said to charge as much as $40,000. We did hire a “college planning consultant,” but not for an insanely large amount like $40,000 and not for the reason you might expect that an Asian American parent in Silicon Valley would have.

As I mentioned in Part 1:  Picking Schools, I really didn’t care about getting the Daughter into Ivy League schools. I wanted her to get into a decent college where she would receive a good education, establish a career, move out, and stay moved out. Where I thought we needed the most help was in financial planning.  At a college night at The Daughter’s school, one consultant gave a talk on financing, and discussed how they helped negotiate better aid packages. I figured if I could work with this guy and get have him save The Wife and I more money than his fee, than it would be worth it. So we took a chance and hired the consulting firm.


The consulting firm offered a number of services. The service level we choose includes financial education and planning for college, college selection assistance, application and essay help, and advice on final decision. Other services they offer that we didn’t choose (for extra money of course) include guidance on the “right” extracurricular activities and test prep. We were too late for that as we engaged them when The Daughter was a senior, as those services are best started when the student is a freshman. I don’t think we would have used these services if even we could, but I could see the Tiger parents who might bite at that.

The big question you might have is was it worth it? Different services had different value with us. The college selection assistance wasn’t all that helpful, mainly because The Daughter’s school had pretty good counseling, and with Naviance, the students at her school could already see what colleges would be likely (or unlikely) to accept them based on their GPA, test scores, and other data. The help with essays, I felt, was really critical in helping The Daughter get into as many colleges as she did. They don’t write essays for you, but provide commentary and guidance on what works and doesn’t work. The Daughter wasn’t happy that they recommended a complete rewrite of one her essays, but she did realize that it needed work and was definitely happy with the end result.

The other service where they provided great value was with the financial education and planning. While we worked with them to negotiate more aid, that wasn’t successful. The education on planning, where to draw on resources, where we could get reasonable loans, and ways to use assets without drastically drawing them down was a real eye opener. There are a number of financial vehicles that I had no idea existed that have you essentially borrow from yourself and pay yourself back. Paying for college suddenly became a lot more doable.

Engaging Consultants

Some college consultants like Steven Ma of ThinkTank Learning guarantee admission to the college of choice or your money back. Ma’s practice flies in the face of the Independent Education Consultant Association (IECA) ethical standards which says to never guarantee admissions, but he says he doesn’t care. The IECA also publishes a list of questions that parents should ask when engaging an education consultant.

Some consultants definitely target Asians and Asian Americans. Hernandez College Consulting has buttons that will translate their web site into Chinese or Korean. ThinkTank Learning has offices in the Bay Area, some in heavily Asian areas like Cupertino, and also in Beijing and Shenzhen.

Some Final Thoughts

For us, hiring a college consultant firm was worth it. What I learned from them for the Daughter, I could use with Number One Son and Number Two Son, which added even more value to the experience. Although not all of the services were useful to us, the college essay advice and the financial education in particular made it worth our time and money.

Tune in for Part 6:  Admissions Tests Preparation.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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