The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

The Student News Site of Harvard-Westlake School

The Harvard-Westlake Chronicle

Students and counselors discuss independent college counseling

Students and counselors discuss the benefits and disadvantages of private college counselors.
Illustration: Iris Chung
A playing card with an illustration of a college counselor on it.

Afternoon light floods the room as Ben Boateng ’25 logs on to a Zoom meeting. An iced coffee sits on a coaster next to the computer. The characteristic Zoom chime sounds as he joins the meeting room, and the smiling face of Boateng’s private college counselor fills the screen. Pleasantries are exchanged, and then the real business begins. Boateng, who has been meeting with his outside counselor since June of his sophomore year, said his counselor helps him prepare for the SAT and the waterpolo recruiting process, and checks in with him about his grades. Boateng said that he appreciates having a private college counselor because they can devote more time to him.

“I feel like private college counselors are more hands-on,” Boateng said. “Our deans are great, but they deal with a lot of stuff. It’s good to have an outside source who is impartial to everything. They literally just focus on helping. [My counselor] reinforces the stuff that the deans will normally tell you when it comes to meeting [with] teachers [and] making sure you’re at every office hour that they can offer you, which I think is very cool. Another thing he helps me with is getting in contact with coaches.”

Although the school deans act as college counselors for all upper schoolers, some students, like Boateng, turn to private college counselors and independent educational consultants for guidance through the college process.

One reason for this is the immense anxiety associated with the college process—76% of high school students reported feeling high levels of stress surrounding applying to college, according to the Princeton Review. The school’s College Counseling Handbook for the Class of 2024 provides a broad overview of the college process for parents and students, and the “Factors Beyond the Application” section said that complex circumstances influence admissions decisions.

“Many other factors, beyond the control of the individual candidate, can come into play in an institution’s final admission decisions,” the handbook said. “Perhaps over-enrollment in the previous freshman class means that `a school must accept a smaller class this year. A dramatic increase in the number of applications this year means that the school must become even more selective. Each institution has enrollment goals that it tries to meet, whether it’s replacing a timpani player in an orchestra, finding a goalie for the soccer team, or working toward building a racially, religiously, socio-economically, and geographically diverse community.”

Sam Joustra, a private college counselor based in Ann Arbor, said she aims to supplement the advice students receive from their school counselors.

“One thing that is really important to know is that I never want anyone to feel that my job is to come in and take the place of anyone, whether that’s a school counselor, a parent [or a] mentor. My job is really just to add additional support wherever needed and whatever [it] looks like,” Joustra said. “The job of a school counselor, no matter what setting they’re coming from, is so important. I want to make sure that students and families understand that, but I also understand when someone might want a little added support, so the benefit of my job is that this is all I do. I work with a very limited number of students every year, so in terms of caseload and when I’m working with my students, this is my focus. [I] can also lend another perspective outside of what students might be getting from their school setting, too.”

Upper School Dean Sharon Cuseo said the school does not have an official policy on private college counseling but prefers that students disclose their use of private counselors for the student’s sake.

“Our preference is always that people tell us [that they are using a counselor] just so that we can try to be on the same page so that students don’t get caught between information,” Cuseo said. “There are a lot of really reputable high-quality independent counselors out there. There are some [counselors] who aren’t and obviously, there have been scandals about it, but whenever I’ve worked with someone who is willing to work with me, it’s usually about just organization or trying to provide a little more regular monitoring.”

Cuseo said the upper school deans provide all the necessary resources and information students need throughout the college process.

“I understand the impulse, but also independent counselors do not need to serve the Harvard- Westlake community,” Cuseo said. “We have 30 to 35 students that we’re working with in a given year, and we’ve known them for three years, and we have great relationships with colleges. There’s ample opportunity to make good choices.”

Abby Siegel, a private college counselor based in New York City, said her services are very similar to those that a school counselor would provide.

“I help students with list development and identifying schools that are going to be good fits for them,” Siegel said. “Eventually, with my seniors, I help them with setting up applications, walking them through the applications, making sure that they are knowledgeable about the different requirements per school, and helping them build and develop the ideas for the essays, which they then write. Another part about what I offer is trying to take the stress out of it as much as possible.”

However, Siegel, who worked as a high school college counselor prior to starting her own business, said that not being associated with a school means she is able to devote more time and focus to her students.

“I have a lot more time [and] flexibility,” Siegel said. “I’m working one-on-one with the student with no distractions from anybody else. There’s no teacher running in to come and talk to me. I don’t have to answer the phone. I don’t have a meeting I have to go to. I was the class advisor, which I really loved, but that took time. I now have students who, because I have nothing to do with the school or I’m not their parent, feel comfortable talking to me because I’m not going to tell anybody about it.”

While college counselors spend a lot of time consulting on topics directly related to college admissions, like essays and test scores, counselors also advise students on course selections and list development, according to The Princeton Review. Joustra said she aims to give her students suggestions to help them dive deeper into their interests in new and different ways.

“I really want students to think creatively about what they already like doing and how they can take that to the next level,” Joustra said. “If I have a student who’s an avid reader and they set a goal for themselves that they want to read every single book in [a] series, or every single book by [an] author, or start a local book club in their community, that’s a way that students can have meaningful experiences, but grow the scale or the reach or the impact of something that they already love. I have students who will go into a senior citizen home and help folks learn how to use technology or play music for them or start a local tutoring circle in their neighborhood or things like that. It doesn’t have to have a flashy name or brand tied to it because the why of what you’re doing is always going to be more important.”

Because a large part of the college application is composed of essays, some students hire essay counselors who promise to help students improve their personal narratives. Risa Green, a college essay coach based in Los Angeles, said her role in the college process is to help students reflect on their experiences and translate them into meaningful pieces of writing to present to colleges.

“I try to help people figure out what makes the most sense for them to write about in their essays [and] how to think about what it is that they’re trying to convey about themselves to colleges,” Green said. “I think of myself a little bit as a therapist, too. I try to help people think about themselves in a different way. What are their values? And what are their different communities and identities and how [have] those helped them become who they are?”

Green said that regardless of a student’s writing level or strength of ideas, she makes sure her advice always feels authentic to the individual student.

“It’s really specific to the student,” Green said. “I have had some students who are really sophisticated thinkers, [and] I’ve been more of a sounding board to them. They frankly didn’t really need me to help them with any writing, more [with] helping them cut down the word count or that kind of thing. And with them, I would say nobody would ever know that they had outside help because they really didn’t have that much help. Some kids who maybe aren’t as sophisticated in their writing or their thinking, I try to push to think a little deeper. But I never try to take anybody to a level that wouldn’t be natural for them, or feed them things. Sometimes it’s probably noticeable that somebody’s helped them with their ideas. But in my editing, I’m very careful. I never want to lose the student’s voice. I never want to make suggestions for feelings or thoughts that they’ve had, because I’m not them.”

Eric Lee ’25 said he met with several college counselors as a sophomore, but he ultimately decided against using a private counselor after doing his own research on the college process.

“There’s a lot of college counselors out there, and at some point, I realized that a lot of them tend to say a lot of the same things,” Lee said. “In a lot of the research that I did about colleges, I found various guides, and I read those. Then after I went to talk to different college counselors, what they were saying just didn’t seem particularly innovative because once you actually search it up by yourself, you realize that it’s repetitive across every counselor.”

Lee said, while he does not feel the services a college counselor could provide are worth it for him, he understands that there are benefits for some students.

“I think there is certainly merit, in terms of summer camps or something like that,” Lee said. “[Private counselors] definitely know their stuff. At the same time, though, at the end of the day, [they are] all things that you can research by yourself because a lot of the bigger college counseling firms have published a lot of guides. There’s like a lot of useful stuff you can get on the internet these days. I’m not going to say that [they are] useless, but I will also say that any questions you have, you could also ask your dean or search it up.

Aryadini Diggavi ’25 said she has a private college counselor, but that she has only met with them a few times. She said she views her outside counselor as secondary to her school counselor.

“We, in general, trust the Harvard Westlake counselors a lot, and this is more a backup, second opinion type of thing rather than the main source,” Diggavi said. “My parents are not used to the American college system, so they wanted some because they both went to college outside the U.S. So, they wanted to feel more secure because they’re not familiar with the whole system.”

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    AidanMar 20, 2024 at 10:42 am

    The best advice I’ve ever heard for getting into a good college is to live a more interesting life.