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A Private School Counselor Offers His Take on Independent Counselors.

With the growth of college coaches and other ancillary services that purported to provide students an edge in the admissions process, can admissions officers distinguish between the student who has truly put forth the effort themselves versus the one who has been coached? Are college coaches truly needed in today’s environment?

—Kevin Johnson

Mr. Johnson asks two important and somewhat controversial questions. First, as to whether admissions officers can distinguish between the student who has truly put forth effort and one who may have been coached, the answer is usually, no, they can’t.

Sometimes it is possible to spot discrepancies between different pieces of writing submitted by an applicant. Some colleges require students to send in a graded paper from school in part to make those comparisons. Perhaps a warning bell may go off when a student with modest verbal or writing scores on standardized tests submits extremely sophisticated essays or writing samples. But none of those are conclusive.

Even if an admission officer suspects there may have been coaching, there is no real way to prove it. So for the most part, admission officers will take the writing submitted at face value. The exception to this, of course, is plagiarism. A student foolish enough to plagiarize an admission application, with or without coaching, is doomed.

Mr. Johnson’s second question is the real bombshell. Are college coaches truly needed? No, they aren’t. Can they be helpful? Absolutely, depending entirely on your individual circumstances.

It is perfectly reasonable for a student and his or her family to navigate the admission process entirely on their own. There are still many students who do just that every year. The resources available on the Internet can be extremely helpful as well. I would recommend looking at,,,, and to start, as well as the Web sites of individual colleges.

But here is where the trouble really begins:

I work for an independent school with a senior class of 157 students. I am one of three full-time college advisers, and our upper school principal is also a part-time college adviser. We have a full-time college guidance coordinator, as well. Students here at Albuquerque Academy have all the resources they need for assistance with the college search. There is absolutely no need for any student here to ever use an outside college coach. And for the most part, they don’t.

At one local public school, on the other hand, the senior class of 450 students is served by a single counselor, who also has other responsibilities. There is no way that counselor can spend the time on the college process that I have the luxury of providing. Clearly, students and families at that very strong school might be justified in seeking outside assistance.

Each student and family should take a hard look at the resources available for their college admission process and determine whether or not they need outside assistance. Maybe even ask your counselor directly about an outside consultant. Now be prepared for a strong negative reaction — there are many folks in the admission profession who think outside consultants are the worst thing imaginable. That is unfortunate, because like any profession, there are good college consultants and bad ones. And I have met and worked with far more good ones than bad.

I know the college admission process can seem overwhelming. But just remember that it is a totally manageable one that can be broken down into small, easy steps. If you feel you need to hire someone to help you manage the process, that is fine. Do that. But don’t lose sight of the fact that, in the end, the process is about you, the student, and not about the hired help.

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Laurie Favaro, M.S.
Phone:  415.459.7526
Gael Casner
Phone:  415.461.8589
Marin County Academic Advisors