How To Apply Yourself To win a good college aid package, you may need to look beyond a high school adviser.
By Penelope Wang

(MONEY Magazine) – When Miles Rodriguez entered his senior year of high school, he naturally turned to his school counselor for advice on college. He soon found out that he was on his own. "The counselor didn't even know who I was," says Miles, a former honors student at a magnet public school in Houston. When Miles applied for a prestigious Coca-Cola scholarship, he says that his counselor initially filed paperwork naming another student. And when he was sent a certificate for winning the first round in the selection process, the counselor didn't deliver it until he was well into the final round.

But Miles refused to let poor counseling keep him out of college. He talked another high school adviser into handling his recommendations. And his mother Renee helped him research possible colleges. His top choice: Rice University in Houston. He got in with a $12,000 renewable aid package and, despite the paperwork snafu, won a $1,000-per-year Coca-Cola scholarship, plus $7,000 in additional awards. "I never would have been able to do it if I had relied on the assigned counselor," Miles says. "We had to do most of the work ourselves."

Unfortunately, counseling experiences like Miles' are becoming more and more common. And what's at stake isn't just an acceptance letter to a top-choice school--it's whether or not you'll be able to afford to send your child to that top-choice school. In today's competitive financial aid process, you need a comprehensive plan that links the admissions process with your aid strategy. To get that, many families are now looking beyond overburdened high school counselors and hiring independent college advisers--or, like the Rodriguez family, taking charge of the process themselves. Which strategy is best for you? Before you decide, you'll need to consider the new landscape of financial aid. We'll help you understand when--and how--to look for extra help.

Counseling meltdown

The much debated funding crisis in public education, which has led to overcrowded schools and poorly trained teachers, has had a less publicized but equally devastating impact on college counseling staffs. These days, topnotch college guidance is difficult, if not impossible, to find in many high schools. "There's a crisis in college counseling," declares Bill Fitzsimmons, director of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University. "The lack of access to information in many schools has made what is already an unlevel playing field even more unlevel."

A survey last year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that the average public school guidance counselor is straining under a caseload of 330 students, vs. just 161 in private schools. Worse, at many public schools, particularly in urban areas, caseloads can soar to between 1,000 and 2,000 students. Moreover, advisers have been saddled with administrative duties that leave little time for actual college guidance.

Meanwhile, the financial aid process has grown more complicated. This year, average total costs for one year at a four-year public college rose 4.1% to $8,086--nearly twice the inflation rate--while expenses at private colleges jumped 4.3% to $21,339, according to the College Board. But increasingly aid is coming in the form of loans rather than grants or scholarships: In 1998, a full 58% of the average financial aid package consisted of loans, vs. just 40% in 1980. What's more, the traditional division between need-based aid (based on your ability to pay) and merit aid (based on academic excellence) has collapsed, as colleges engage in a free-for-all for the best students.

Clearly, private school students with expert college counselors have a big advantage. Jordan Balagot, for instance, a student at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, was able to turn to his school's adviser, Susan Weingartner, a former college admissions officer. Weingartner holds one-on-one meetings with Parker students to identify colleges best suited to their interests and finances. She also leads essay-writing workshops and does role playing for admissions interviews. "She helped us figure out which were 'reach' schools and which were 'safety' schools," says Jordan's mother Maija, a divorced, self-employed communications consultant.

Jordan also needed Weingartner's expertise to get the aid he needed. An aspiring singer, composer and keyboard player, he was admitted to his top choice, Oberlin College's conservatory, but received only $8,675 in financial aid, leaving a family contribution of roughly $23,000--more than the family could afford. But Weingartner encouraged Jordan and his mother to craft a letter appealing the aid package by detailing the family budget and the costs of having Jordan's sister in college as well. The result: Oberlin boosted its financial assistance by $6,032.

Getting help

What about parents whose kids lack access to advisers like Weingartner? For them, it often makes sense to turn to an independent college counselor, usually a former admissions officer or high school adviser who now works as a consultant. Driven by a surging college-bound population, the ranks of these advisers are growing. All told, an estimated 1,000 college counselors, many of them part time, have set up shop around the country.

How can you tell if you should hire a personal college trainer to work with your child? Many public school advisers do a fine job with college planning and are respected by top colleges, so be sure to give your high school counselor a chance. A good public school adviser will start the college process during your child's junior year, offering advice and information on test preparation, college admissions and financial aid deadlines; a good counselor should also be willing to talk about the admissions records of previous graduates. If you don't see this kind of activity, or if your child's counselor is notably unhelpful or too busy for one-on-one college meetings, then it's time to consider striking out on your own.

First, bear in mind that hiring a professional is not the only option. Roger and Diane Morris of Columbus, Ohio, for instance, were able to help their daughter Jennifer get into the school of her choice without hiring a private counselor. The Morrises spent weeks studying colleges in guidebooks and on the Internet, looking for schools that offered a major in Jennifer's main area of interest, music theater, and were also affordable. "Most guidance counselors don't have that much information on specialized programs," says Roger. "But with the Internet tools, you can easily narrow down possibilities yourself." Nearly all colleges have their own websites, and detailed information on financial aid and scholarships is available on such sites as, and In the end, Jennifer landed at American University in Washington, D.C. She also snagged a merit scholarship worth $8,000 a year, as well as $5,600 in need-based assistance.

Of course, you may not have the time to spend researching colleges the way the Morrises did. Or perhaps you have to deal with divorce or another issue that can complicate your financial aid calculations. Or maybe you just want the comfort of expert guidance when faced with the prospect of spending $100,000 or more on college. In any of these cases, you may want to hire an independent adviser. Expect to pay a flat fee of $750 to $2,500, depending on where you live and the counselor's level of expertise; some will charge by the hour, typically $70 to $200.

How to choose

To pick the best adviser, start looking early, since most college counselors prefer to begin planning during your child's sophomore or junior year of high school. Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Counsultants Association (ieca), a Fairfax, Va. trade group, says that good advisers "should know which schools have generous financial aid policies and where [each] student might qualify for a package." Most counselors permit a free initial interview. Here's a quick checklist of what to look for.

Credentials. Anyone can hang out a shingle as an educational consultant, including parents who got their kids into college and now consider themselves experts. Obviously, you want someone with years of experience. The ieca accepts only applicants who have worked several years as school-based counselors or college admissions officers; members must also regularly tour colleges and meet with admissions officers. Princeton Review and Kaplan, which are launching counseling services, may offer less experienced advisers supervised by veterans. (To get a list of IECA members in your area, call 800-808-4322.)

Keep in mind that advisers differ in background and training. Though most are knowledgeable on financial aid, some may also have expertise in assisting gifted students or those with learning disabilities. If you need specialized help, don't settle for a generalist.

References. Any good counselor should be able to provide the names of several previous clients; be sure to call them to ask about their experiences. Also inquire about the prospective counselor's relationship with your public school adviser. Remember that your school adviser will be the one sending out references and transcripts. A testy relationship could be a problem.

No guarantees. No reputable independent counselor will promise admission to a specific college or a guarantee of scholarship money; if they do, walk away. And steer clear of advisers who seem to push a particular school or boast of a close relationship with college admissions officers. As it happens, most counselors rarely contact college admissions or aid officers about individual students--and then only when a problem arises.

Also avoid any adviser who recommends a wholesale financial makeover to maximize your chances of financial aid. Pouring money into annuities or dumping your stock portfolio could improve your aid prospects, but you'll be no better off if your finances are tied into knots.

Clear costs. All charges should be stated up front and in writing. Unless the help you need takes only two or three hours--say, you want to review five or six schools that are interested in recruiting your star soccer-player daughter--you're better off arranging a flat fee. A package deal may include guidance over several years, including regularly scheduled meetings and phone access. Some independent counselors may even help your son or daughter choose high school courses and summer work opportunities that can burnish a college application.

But the counselor should not offer to write a student's essay or prepare the applications. "The students have to take responsibility for themselves," says Steven Antonoff, a Denver educational consultant. After all, he says, "that's the point of going to college."