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  • Writer's pictureJenny Deren

What is an Independent Educational Consultant?

You know your guidance or college counselor at school, and you've heard of college admission officers, who are sometimes called "admission counselors." But what is an Independent Educational Consultant? And what is a college consultant, in particular?


An Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) is a knowledgeable, skilled professional who works one-on-one with students and their families to identify high schools, colleges, and other educational programs that are good matches for the student academically, socially, and financially. Many IECs also help the student navigate the complex process of applying to and choosing between schools. IECs who focus on the college planning and admission process (like me!) are sometimes called college consultants.


Unlike high school guidance/college counselors and college admission officers, IECs work independently from schools -- both the schools our students attend and the ones they are applying to. We work for the families who hire us, in the best interests of our clients, and not for or in the interests of any one school. Drawing on extensive knowledge and training, IECs help connect families with appropriate educational options and guide students in preparing for their next steps.


Who are IECs?


IECs come from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds: some are former (or current) school counselors; some are former admission officers; some are former (or current) teachers; some are even parents of college students or recent graduates who felt an affinity for the process while helping their own children through it. (You can read more about my personal background here).


Regardless of how we came to educational consulting, IECs are passionate about the opportunities afforded by higher education and excited to share their knowledge with others. Many of us have completed a training or certificate program that qualifies us, beyond our previous experiences in counseling or education, to serve as independent educational consultants. Most of us belong to one or more professional organizations, such as the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA), the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and regional ACACs, such the Ohio Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Through our professional associations, IECs receive ongoing training and professional development in ever-evolving topics in higher education, college and university admissions, standardized testing, school and college counseling, diversity, inclusivity, and access, and more. We also have vast professional networks to assist in answering questions about specific academic programs, schools, geographic areas, and anything else that might fall outside of our immediate expertise. IECs are independent but not alone!


Outside of our networks (and sometimes with our networks!), IECs spend a significant amount of time visiting individual schools, which enables us to draw on personal experience when making recommendations to our clients. IECs usually specialize in high school, college, or graduate school planning. Some specialize even further, providing services in specific areas, including homeschool and parochial school applicants (or those seeking religious schools or other niche programs), student-athletes, performing arts applicants, and students with learning and other disabilities.


What will an IEC do for me?


In short, IECs do things with you, rather than for you. Contrary to admissions consulting mythology, an ethical IEC will not "get you in" to your top choice school, or any school for that matter. We don't "pull strings" for you with admissions officers we know. Instead, we ask questions and gather information on your behalf so you can make a more informed choice about where and how to apply. We will not write your college essays or fill out your applications for you, and we will not sit for your standardized tests. We will, however, offer you advice on what to write about and how to strengthen your essays, which tests to take, and what to include or not include in your application.


IECs who belong to professional associations like IECA are held to the highest ethical standards. We provide tools, information, and expert advice, empowering you to complete and submit your own applications to the best of your ability.


So, what will an IEC do with you? College consultants (like me) will gladly help you:

  • Evaluate your strengths, weaknesses, and interests in an objective, unbiased, and knowledge-based way (I use the AchieveWorks assessment suite with my clients).

  • Identify potential careers that are a good match for you, along with educational and extracurricular pathways for entering those careers.

  • Explore the characteristics of colleges and universities that are a good fit for you personally, socially, academically, religiously/spiritually, financially, and in every other way that matters to you and your family.

  • Draw on their extensive knowledge of individual schools to make recommendations for colleges and academic programs that will help you achieve your goals.

  • Draw on their extensive knowledge of college and university admissions to explain the application process, including how to apply but also how to interpret essay prompts, what to include (or not include) in your activity list or resume, whom to ask for letters of recommendation, how to prepare for campus visits and interviews, and what to expect in terms of financial aid and scholarships.

  • Lessen your stress and anxiety throughout the college search and application process by serving as your coach, mentor, guide, and personal cheerleader, in addition to your consultant.

  • Function as a neutral liaison between student and family (reducing arguments and making the dinner table more enjoyable during your remaining time eating together as a family!).

  • Provide personalized, one-on-one attention that you might not receive in your large (or even medium-sized or small) high school, public or private, or on the internet or in college admission guide books.

  • Provide deep, focused, professional knowledge of higher education options and admissions procedures that you might not receive in your high school, regardless of size or type.

  • Help you compare admission and financial aid offers and decide which school to select.

If you are new to higher education, or if it's been awhile since you applied to college -- or if your child doesn't know what they want to study or which schools have the best-fit programs (or the best-fit social experiences, or the most accessible dorm rooms, or even the dining halls with the most delicious food) -- then an IEC can make the college search and application process smoother, less painful, and more fun. This is also true if you or your child struggles with organization or time management, or if you have trouble communicating with one another effectively. Applying to college should be exciting and rewarding, and an IEC can help keep it that way.


But don't IECs charge exorbitant rates? (Can I afford it?)


While some IECs charge higher fees than others, hiring one may be more affordable than you think. Most of us charge rates similar to those of psychologists, physical therapists, lawyers, and other highly educated professionals with specialized knowledge.


Hiring an IEC may save you money down the road in the form of more affordable enrollment options, increased financial aid offers or more need- or merit-based scholarships, fewer years of college tuition payments (with students graduating in the standard four years), and higher salaries in more satisfying and suitable jobs after college (in other words, with college graduates supporting themselves and not living in their parents' basements).


Furthermore, many of us offer pro bono or scholarship-based services for families with fewer resources. If you feel that your family would benefit from IEC services but you're not sure if you can afford them, it never hurts to ask whether your consultant offers payment plans or reduced rates or another type of fee assistance. Most of us are IECs, first and foremost, because we are passionate about helping students access higher education.


If you are interested in working with an IEC, I'd love to chat with you about your questions and concerns and about the college readiness, planning, and application support services I provide at Hilltop College Consulting. You can reach me via my website, on Facebook, or by commenting below.


Whether you work with me or with another IEC, make sure you ask questions about the consultant's qualifications, background, and practices. Look for an IEC who will stay focused on your unique interest, strengths, and reasons for applying to college; encourage you throughout the school search and application process; and celebrate your achievements when decisions roll in.


Even if you decide not to work with an IEC, consider staying connected with one, for example by following an IEC on social media or following a blog or subscribing to newsletters. Many of us share free resources that we hope you'll find helpful, even if you prefer a truly independent approach. Stay tuned, and stay in touch!

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