Parents may feel confused about what exactly a private counselor does, and how their services may differ from what a school counselor can provide. Despite the fact that we’re a company that offers these services, we’ll tell you here and now that working with a private counselor is not always necessary. We are committed to serving the best interests of students first and foremost, and our goal is to clearly lay out the best options for each student.
Counselors: An Overview
Generally speaking, today’s student will work with a team of people throughout the college process. One of those people is a guidance (or college) counselor, who is in charge of putting specific information into a student’s college application and guiding them through the college application process.
A guidance counselor’s job often extends far beyond helping juniors and seniors apply to college; they are often responsible for many aspects of student well-being at school, including working with students with special considerations—mental health concerns, learning disabilities, unique family situations, and more.
Because guidance counselors clearly have a lot on their plates, many schools now also have dedicated college counselors on staff, who focus on the college process. For convenience, in this article, we’ll use “school counselors” to refer to whoever helps students with the college process at their school, whether dedicated college counselors or guidance counselors.
Private counselors are individuals who come from a third-party company and aren’t affiliated with the student’s school. When families work with Signet, for example, they are employing a private counselor.
How does a parent know if their student needs a private counselor? If asked, most school counselors will tell families that they can do everything a private counselor can. On the other hand, private counselors see themselves as being able to devote significantly more time and resources to each individual student that they work with.
The truth is that a school counselor’s ability to help a student can vary significantly and is highly dependent on that counselor’s workload: how many students the counselor is working with and whether they are managing other areas besides college applications. What exactly students need from their counselors varies too; some students will find a school counselor’s guidance to be more than enough, while others will need a much greater degree of assistance and might do better with a private counselor.
To explore in more depth whether to engage a private counselor, let’s look at the specific differences between what school and private counselors offer.
School Counselors: What They Can & Can’t Do
Assuming a school has adequate resources and staff, here’s what a school counselor might be able to offer:
- Checking in with students on their college process, starting in the second half of junior year.
- Devoting significant time to helping students think through what they want in their college experience.
- Helping students identify schools that might be a good fit and creating a college list.
- Meeting with students in groups to discuss big-picture topics such as adjusting to college and what students want out of their college experience.
- Closely reviewing students’ applications and offering some guidance on essays.
- Regularly communicating with parents to appropriately involve them in the college process.
- Providing information for a student’s applications, such as counselor recommendations, transcripts, school profiles, etc.. (The school counselor will always be responsible for this step, even in schools with fewer resources.)
If a school’s budget isn’t great or staff is stretched too thin, counselors may not be able to provide this level of interaction with each student. When counselors have caseloads of 200+ students, it's not uncommon for students to have one or two group or individual meetings around the college process, and then be expected to figure out the rest on their own.
The range of assistance school counselors can offer varies widely. But there are several things students typically don’t receive in their interactions with a school counselor.
Here’s what a school counselor doesn’t usually do:
- Get involved with students before junior year. (Counselors usually work with seniors during the first semester and juniors during the second semester. Proactive kids may be able to get meetings in advance, and students at smaller private schools may also see counselors earlier and/or more frequently.)
- Interact closely with parents. (Many school counselors don’t have the time to meet with both parents and students on a regular basis.)
- Devote a lot of time to the reflection and drafting process that leads to a really solid college essay.
- Hold a student’s hand through the entire process.
Students who work exclusively with their school counselor should expect to be proactive about their college applications—not necessarily a bad thing, but important to know in terms of expectations! While we believe students should be responsible for driving the college process, sometimes students or families really need step-by-step guidance.
This information is based on our experiences working with a lot of different schools; each school is different and the above descriptions are not absolutes.
Other things families should keep in mind regarding school counselors:
- A school counselor is an employee of the school, and therefore has institutional priorities, including making sure seniors’ college acceptances reflect well on the school.
- Counselors who have strong relationships with college admissions officers may be able to use their influence to aid an application, but it is up to the counselor to decide which applications to throw their weight behind.
- School counselors who are tuned in and up to date have a phenomenal perspective because they are working within the school. On the other hand, overtaxed counselors who are out of the loop may fall into a pattern of recommending all students attend the same list of colleges year after year. These blanket recommendations may not be the best fit for an individual student.
Private Counselors: What They Can & Can’t Do
Let’s turn now to what private counselors can do and the ways in which they differ from school counselors. In general, the baseline for working with a good private counselor is often the highest level of what students can expect from school counselors.
Here’s what families can expect when working with a good private counselor:
- Helping families think through the pre-college years before 11th grade, and offering guidance for starting preparation in an early and responsible way.
- Helping students think through their college list.
- Meetings with students on a regular basis.
- Setting up timelines for the various pieces of the application process, and tailoring this process to a student’s abilities or learning style.
- Acting as (or working alongside) a dedicated writing coach for student essays.
- Offering a high degree of accountability to keep students on track.
- Including parents in the process in a productive way, and acting as a mediator within families when necessary.
- Managing anxiety.
- A relationship where the student is always top priority, since the private counselor is autonomous and not tied to an institution.
Here’s what private counselors don’t usually do:
- Act as liaison with teachers—private counselors may lack perspective on the student in the classroom environment.
- Correspond with admissions offices on the student’s behalf.
- Send transcripts, counselor recs, or school profiles to colleges.
Other things families should keep in mind regarding private counselors:
- Private counselors should not be used to allow students to avoid taking ownership of their college application process. Yes, private counselors can offer much more hand-holding, but that doesn’t mean outsourcing the entire college process. When that happens, students don’t learn, parents aren’t involved, and there is a missed opportunity for collective work and growth within families.
- The quality of private counselors varies. Private counseling is an unregulated industry, which means it’s possible for counselors to be unqualified. The stakes are too high to work with someone who doesn’t have the appropriate skills and knowledge, even if the counselor’s intentions are good. Parents should use accredited industry groups such as NACAC, IECA, and HECA to help them find a qualified private counselor.
In an ideal world, schools would be able to devote enough time and attention to helping each student with the college process. In reality, that’s not always possible.
A school counselor will always have a place in a student’s application process, and that role should be given the utmost respect. School counselors know a student’s context and liaise with universities in a way that private counselors cannot.
The decision to supplement school counseling with a private counselor is a highly personal one. A lot depends on what support is available at your child’s school, as well as whether a student is able to take advantage of the resources available to them. A less-than-ideal school counseling setup can be overcome by a motivated, proactive student, while the best counseling in the world may be lost on an unmotivated or overwhelmed student.
Though Signet offers private counseling, we’ll be the first to say that not all students need a private counselor. Self-motivated students and/or students at schools with ample resources dedicated to college counseling may find the assistance their school counselors provide more than adequate. Families should always explore school resources first. If they determine that working with an independent third party would be beneficial, they should seek out a well-qualified private college counselor.