By Heidi Mills October 2, 2023


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

A high school student, meeting for the first time with a college admissions counselor, felt he’d messed up his chances at ever being accepted at a top university because of missteps in his early high school years. “Nobody will take me,” he said.

Kathleen Griffin, president of Seattle’s American College Strategies, told him that colleges would see his resilience and his ability to bounce back from challenges. Griffin directed the student to go to the bathroom, look in the mirror, and say, “I am awesome. I’ve got this.”

Part therapist, part financial adviser, part cheerleader, and part sage, admissions counselors (or consultants) fill a variety of roles as they help stressed-out teens and parents navigate the college admissions process. With more students than ever applying to the same big-name schools, many students feel overwhelmed and anxious about the perceived need to get into highly competitive universities. College admissions counselors help teens write essays, prepare applications, and find colleges based on interests and qualifications.

They’re not cheap. A 2018 survey from the Independent Educational Consultants Association found that hourly fees averaged $200, and package fees averaged $4,000 in the western United States, with some upward of $10,000.

The infamous Varsity Blues bribery scandal — in which almost three dozen parents paid scheme organizer Rick Singer a total of $25 million over several years to change test scores and bribe college officials — revealed some dark secrets about the admissions process.

Seattle magazine asked several local college admissions counselors to weigh in on their profession.

Who are your typical clients?

Sue Epeneter, Eastside College Consultants: Because I’m located in Redmond, I am seeing an increase in minority clients who tell me that they are not familiar with the college admissions process in the U.S.

Kathleen Griffin: Not affluent at all! Most are middle class. It’s rare when a family can write a $72,000 check annually for college.

Laurie Gordon, Sandweiss Test Prep and Admissions Consulting: We see more public than private school kids. Counselors in the public high schools are so busy dealing with struggling students and have hundreds of students to work with. We see a lot of immigrant families because the schools and the process here tend to be so different.

Sean Hawes, Pathways to College Achievement: I start working with students as early as eighth grade and through senior year. Six of my clients I’ve worked with for 10 years. I help people prepare for their 20s.

Would anyone benefit from college admissions counseling? Why?

Lindsey Saarie, Creative College Solutions: I make it my business to stay current and know as much as possible. Having someone in your corner who is connected and interested is beneficial.

Sue Epeneter: A counselor can help them determine the colleges that not only meet their personal criteria but for which they are actually competitive.

Kathleen Griffin: Simply put, we’re experts in the field. We spend hours touring colleges and meeting faculty, admissions staff, and students. We know of unique programs most students haven’t heard of.

Heather Parry, Parry College Counseling: The college admission process can be incredibly complicated, especially for students who are interested in looking at colleges outside of Washington state, students targeting highly selective colleges, or families with complex financial situations.

Laurie Gordon: A lot of times people want to hire us because we are not mom or dad. I keep the stress level as low as possible.

Steve Sandweiss, Sandweiss Test Prep and Admissions Consulting: We can alleviate family stress. We provide a reality check, since a lot of people are divorced from reality. People can learn about opportunities that are not on their radar. We help kids figure out what they want to study and give them somebody to bounce ideas off. If you can afford a counselor, it is definitely worth it.

Does it matter if you go to a public or private high school?

Lindsey Saarie: Many colleges review applications in class sets, meaning they simultaneously look at all students from one school. This allows them to see how various students challenged themselves and performed (or didn’t), given the same opportunities.

Kathleen Griffin: In college admissions, students are looked at within the context of the high school they are enrolled in. A Lakeside student is not compared to a student at Rainier Beach High School.

Sue Epeneter: I’m not sure that the colleges would agree with me or admit it, but in my experience, I believe that there is a benefit in graduating from a private school, especially for private college admissions.

Heather Parry: Each college evaluates applications differently, and I’ve even worked at colleges where attending a private high school has been somewhat of a disadvantage in the admissions process, so I don’t think a student should choose a high school specifically to look “better” for colleges.

Laurie Gordon: It’s really the rigor of the curriculum. Both public and private high schools can do this well.

Does it matter what college you attend?

Sue Epeneter: For some majors, the very prestigious colleges can increase job offers from top companies and acceptances to top graduate programs. Contacts that the student makes with other students, their families, and professors can be a big advantage as well. But I’ve also seen it work where a student decides to attend a less prestigious school, essentially choosing to become a big fish in a small pond instead of the opposite. That can work very well for a student who is assertive and takes advantage of opportunities offered.

Lindsey Saarie: In some vocations, it matters. However, you can achieve incredible success with a degree from a lesser-known college. It matters more that your chosen college will serve you as a human being.

Kathleen Griffin: I love Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. It is a “must-read” for all families and students. Another great book is Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope. While only 44 are written about in the book, there are hundreds of small, private schools that give students hands-on experiences, in small settings, while nurturing/guiding them to be their best selves. There’s nothing like having dinner with the college president while discussing world events or having a Saturday barbecue with your psychology professor and family; that’s common at smaller liberal arts/science schools.

Heather Parry: This is a tricky question. For many students, I don’t think it really matters where they go to college, but rather the effort they put into their four years. That said, for students from less-advantaged backgrounds, the upward mobility of attending certain colleges and tapping into new networks can be really valuable.

Laurie Gordon: It might help with getting a first job, but after that the brand name of the college diminishes a bit. It’s really what you do when you are in college that is going to be the driving factor. The internships you get and the relationships you build with professors.

Steve Sandweiss: It’s a curious business because 100 colleges are chased by so many applicants. A lot of students come to us and say, “Help me get into these schools.” But there are tons of gems that are excellent and that take the majority of applicants.

What do you think of free two-year community colleges?

Lindsey Saarie: For many, yes! First off, it is a huge savings. It gives students more time to explore career paths and grow up (learn how to study, plan, budget, live independently) before investing in something more expensive and intensive.

Sue Epeneter: Community colleges can provide a great advantage for any student, but especially those for whom money for school is an issue. It is cheaper, and I think it is easier to work while attending.

Kathleen Griffin: Two-year colleges are great, but I always look at the data. Statistics show that a student is more likely to earn a degree from a four-year college than from a two- to four-year transfer route. For my students considering two-year colleges, I have guidelines that include targeting the top three colleges they ultimately want to attend; contacting the transfer staff at the two-year and four-year college; having a written plan of courses that will get them out in two years and into the college of their choice.

Heather Parry: Definitely! I often talk with students and families about this excellent pathway, especially for those who are finding their stride a bit later in high school or for budget-conscious families.

What is typically the hardest part of the college application process?

Lindsey Saarie: The college essay is the hardest part. Students have yet to practice this type of reflective writing. Sometimes I’ll work with a student who had a journaling practice in a creative writing class. It is rare. Writing about yourself is vulnerable.

Sue Epeneter: I think just getting started. It’s a daunting task for many students. In my experience, students have the most issues with actually writing the essays and the time management of performing all the necessary tasks.

Kathleen Griffin: Asking parents what money is available for college. Parents don’t want to give a dollar figure, and that inhibits the student from creating a realistic list of schools. Writing a résumé that reflects their experiences, growth, and talents. Students don’t understand that caring for family members or working where they learn patience, attention to detail, and empathy, is an activity. We usually have to really probe to uncover hidden activities.

Heather Parry: With thousands of college options out there, it is really hard to narrow things down and understand the culture of different schools. One of the most fun parts of my job is that I regularly visit colleges, meet with admission representatives and current students, and spend time learning more about the culture of different colleges so I can play matchmaker.

What are some in-state top-value colleges and universities?

Lindsey Saarie: University of Washington and Western Washington University.

Sue Epeneter: Obviously, the UW. And any in-state public colleges. Otherwise, I think it depends on the student and his or her major. I encourage students to actually look at the major they are interested in.

Kathleen Griffin: Pacific Lutheran University, The University of Puget Sound, The Evergreen State College, any California state university, WSU, UW, and Western Washington. But Washington kids should also look at other states. Colleges want a varied student population. Often those schools will give a $20,000 to $30,000 merit scholarship to entice the student to enroll.

Heather Parry: Aside from our excellent Washington public universities, there are some gems that are part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange program. Some examples that I think are particularly awesome (and on the more affordable end of the spectrum) include University of Utah, Oregon State University, Northern Arizona University, Southern Oregon University, and Colorado State University. I think families might be surprised to know that Canadian universities are often less expensive, even as an international student. I really like the University of Victoria in particular because it is a slightly more manageable size and city, and the cost is equivalent to UW.

Laurie Gordon: Really, any of our state schools. There are also a number of small liberal arts schools in Oregon and Washington that can offer support and opportunity.

What characteristics benefit a family in the college admissions process?

Lindsey Saarie: Diversity. Honesty. Integrity. Proactivity.

Sue Epeneter: Being an underrepresented minority group, being the first one in your family to attend college, relation to alumnus, and religious affiliation for certain colleges are all characteristics that can benefit in the college admissions process. Probably donating money, but I don’t know of any instances where people have done this. But the Rick Singer situation would certainly indicate that this works.

Kathleen Griffin: Donating money isn’t going to help (unless you’re donating enough for a building). Being first-generation college-bound could help but only if the student is competitive academically.

Heather Parry: Each college has different institutional priorities, some that are known (public universities focusing on serving in-state students) and some that are unknown or change from year-to-year (balancing their budget, filling an oboe spot in the orchestra, enrolling more students in a new program that just received a big donation, etc.).

Laurie Gordon: Having money and being a donor can help. Sports can help if they are being recruited in any way. Sometimes coaches get choices to admit students.

Sean Hawes: There’s a lot of documentation that naming a building doesn’t hurt, but that’s such a small percentage of people. Money talks, but doesn’t help most people. Students need to show how they are going to contribute, and think about how they’ve made meaning of their lives.

Do private and public colleges look for different things?

Sue Epeneter: Most private colleges ask for teacher recommendations; most public colleges do not. Extracurricular activities, employment, volunteer work seem to be valued more by private schools. And most every private college application asks if the student has family who attended the school. Thus, I would guess they are interested in legacies, while public colleges, not so much.

Heather Parry: I’d say some of the differences I see are more based on the size and culture of the college. Smaller colleges (that are often private colleges) may be collecting more information on the student’s character and personality through extensive essays, interviews, recommendation letters, etc.

How has the college admissions process changed?

Lindsey Saarie: College admissions are much more competitive. Common App (an admission application) has made applying to 10-plus schools more accessible than ever. This was not the case even five years ago and is devastatingly impacting the well-being of admissions offices. It is not sustainable. The other significant change has been the shift to test optional or test blind due to Covid and the inability to offer testing opportunities to students during that time.

Sue Epeneter: It has gotten way, way more competitive, especially for the highly ranked schools.

Kathleen Griffin: The process hasn’t changed, but the pressures have increased, with kids and families more and more anxious. Students apply to more schools, yet can only attend one. That just makes the acceptance rates go down and increases anxiety.

Heather Parry: The most obvious way is that most colleges moved to an ACT/SAT optional policy during the pandemic, and a large number have stuck with those policies.

How can students stand out?

Lindsey Saarie: Be your authentic, true self. Talk about what you are good at and what you love. Don’t try to be who you think colleges want you to be.

Sue Epeneter: Invent an app for the iPhone or something similar. Do something where you get a lot of publicity. I don’t really know.

Kathleen Griffin: You don’t need to join five to 10 clubs. Join the clubs and activities that reflect your interests and show depth and dedication.

Heather Parry: Be themselves! My philosophy as a counselor is to help students present their authentic interests and bring out their personality in the application process.

Laurie Gordon: The earlier they can start planning, the better. If students are aiming for a super-selective college, they should start making sure they are taking the right courses.

How stressful and expensive is the admissions process for students and families?

Lindsey Saarie: Extraordinarily stressful and expensive. Students and families pay up to $80 per application, sometimes more. Multiply that by 10-plus colleges on your college app list. They pay to take the SAT or ACT and travel wherever they offer that test. They may be paying for test prep services. Many families travel to visit college campuses, some even internationally. Some parents hire financial advisers to help them navigate that whole aspect of the process because it’s a beast in and of itself.

Sue Epeneter: It’s stressful for most all students and parents, but the stress increases greatly if the students are applying to the top colleges.

Kathleen Griffin: The cost of test preparation, testing (whether ACT/SAT, AP), sending test scores, applications, and college visits all add up. You’ve spent well over $1,000 before you even enroll.

Heather Parry: The unfortunate reality is that I have a job because the college admission process is incredibly complicated and varies greatly from school to school.

Sean Hawes: The process is completely overwhelming. I have parents say that it’s so different from when they went to college. The unknown drives people to find help.

Tell us a surprising fact about your business?

Lindsey Saarie: I talk with my students about a lot more than college admissions. Sometimes we talk about mental health practices to help deal with stress. Sometimes we explore tools to help students improve executive functioning skills. Sometimes we cry together.

Kathleen Griffin: Every college counselor I’ve met does pro bono work. We travel, a lot. Most of us work weekends, evenings, and holidays. We love our students and families.

Heather Parry: Unfortunately, a few bad apples always make the headlines, such as Rick Singer of the Varsity Blues scandal or articles on people charging half a million dollars for college advising starting in kindergarten. The vast majority of independent college counselors are really fantastic, ethical professionals.

Sean Hawes: Varsity Blues was the outlier. We are good people with good intentions just trying to make a difference.

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