By Charlotte Glass and Sofia Olsson, Editor-in-Chief and Copy Editor
// The drastic changes in the college application process over the last 30 years are nothing short of revolutionary. What was once a paper pamphlet that featured an elementary checklist, a brief description of extracurriculars, and a single essay metamorphosed into a plethora of online application portals, an endless stream of supplemental essays, and a haze of standardized test scores.
“I just hammered it out, checked the boxes of the places I wanted to go, wrote whatever I needed to write, and put it in the mail. For me, it was pretty simple,” Geoff Heyman, Acalanes class of 1987, said. “And I definitely didn’t have anyone helping me — my parents never helped me, corrected it, or even looked over it, and I certainly didn’t have a counselor. Whatever I wrote, I must have just written myself and sent it.”
Heyman estimates that he spent anywhere between one sitting and one week completing his successful University of California (UC) application at the end of the second semester his senior year. He attributes this comparatively short time frame to the absence of both the preliminary researching phase and extensive supplemental essays of today. Although Acalanes provided students with a counselor that could help them sort through the logistics of applications, Heyman never found it necessary to meet with her let alone hire an independent advisor.
“I definitely never heard of anyone at the time having an outside counselor that they paid to assist in the process of applying to schools. I don’t think there was any need for it,” Heyman said. “Now it’s like a mystery puzzle — if you want to get to where you want to go, you need the college counselor that has the inside notes of all the things that you have to do in order to give yourself a chance of getting there.”
While Heyman navigated the college application process independently as a senior in the ‘80s, both of his children — Dons of the 21st century — have worked with a college counselor since freshman year.
“Independent college counselors have been around for over 40 plus years, but popularity has grown at a high pace over the last 10 years around 2010 with the increase of competition to get into high-level schools and rising anxiety among teens,” Lafayette parent Anna Eppinger, who recently launched her own college consulting service after helping her son throughout the process, said.
After completing her training and receiving her college counseling credentials, Eppinger joined an organization that connects her with educational resources and thousands of other independent counselors to further her expertise.
“They help us choose classes, and then I’ll be compiling a list of college matches, reaches, and safeties, and then when you actually get to the application process, they help you with all the writing because they know what schools like, what they look for, and what they value and what they like in the essays,” sophomore Kyra Ariker, who has worked with her college counselor since seventh grade, said.
Although hard work was once enough to guarantee acceptance letters from prestigious universities, today’s increasing number of applicants coupled with heightened expectations fuel acceptance competition and student stress.
“If you wanted to go to one of the UC schools and you got pretty good grades and a decent test score, then you were going to get in. If you really worked and got a 3.9 or 4.0 then you were going to get into any of the UCs you wanted,” Heyman said. “Now you have to work so hard to even give yourself a shot.”
Like many other parents in the Acalanes community, Acalanes College and Career Center counselor Wendy Reicher faced an incredibly different college application process than the students she guides today.
“When I applied to college no one helped me at all. I remember applying in my bedroom and then asking my parents for the application fee money,” Reicher said.
Current high school students, faced with a college application process that their parents are often entirely unfamiliar with, enlist the support of a college counselor–whether that is a counselor provided by their high school or one privately hired.
“Students are applying to more schools, more easily, than when I applied to college,” application reader for UC Berkely Ellen Bull said. “Having everything online makes a big difference. I also think there’s more pressure on kids to be thinking about, preparing for and cultivating resumes for college much earlier.”
In fact, the admissions process has become so complex that Reicher now finds herself needing to teach its various intricacies to students of all grades. During the fall, she made use of Academy periods to hold lessons regarding specific application elements.
“As kids came up with different questions in the process we could dedicate an Academy all to that one piece — like how to write an essay or how to find the best-fit college or how to research colleges that offer a lot of merit aid, all that kind of stuff,” Reicher said. “Academy becomes kind of like College 101 — it’s almost like a class.”
Beyond Academy sessions, the College and Career Center offers an extensive range of resources for students. Through SAT and ACT boot camps, college admission officer visits, volunteer opportunities, internships and work listings, and one-on-one guidance, the center seeks to help students gear up for their futures.
College admissions and applications, however, remain the primary focuses of the center.
“The process is complex. I think one of the hardest things is that there are so many steps,” former Acalanes College and Career Center counselor Kristin Kisner said. “Seniors have never done this before; it is all brand new. There are lots of boxes to check and it can get very overwhelming.”
Students sort through the ins and outs of applications alongside one another, building a network of support to help guide them forward.
“Kids will come in here and learn something new then go on to help the next kid, so a lot of the kids that come in here end up helping other kids. It’s really cool to see how collaborative the process can be,” Reicher said.
Some simply utilize the space to work on components of their college applications.
“I went to the College and Career Center during Academy a lot during the fall. It was a nice place to really focus on doing college apps or brainstorm ideas for an essay,” senior Aly Sheehan said. “If I had any questions about a particular question when filling out one app, I could get help fairly easily.”
Reicher even believes that students could successfully use the time and resources on-campus to complete the college application process without ever having to work on them at home.
Senior Emma Phillips utilized the resources in the College and Career Center to work on her college applications almost every week during Academy.
“I used it as a quiet space to work on college stuff with other people, and also to meet with college representatives,” Phillips said. “I thought [the college representatives] were super helpful and made me interested and excited about the schools I was interested in.”
The College and Career Center not only connects students with representatives from over 150 prospective colleges, but it also creates a supportive community of students that are all experiencing similar struggles.
“The thing I noticed this year about my grade is we really did want to help each other succeed. I can’t even express how grateful I am to have these people in my life who would constantly give extremely helpful answers to my endless stream of questions,” Sheehan said.
Reicher strives to make the College and Career Center more popular among students, tying Dons together through their shared experience of the chaotic college application process.
“Everyone wants the same thing; everyone wants to go onto college or whatever their next level is,” Reicher said. “Everyone feels stressed and has to do applications — you’re all doing the same thing. There’s no hierarchy when you’re applying to college.”
Due to the prevalence of private counselors in the community, students and parents may feel that a private advisor is a necessity. However, the great range of resources funded by the Parent’s Club provides Acalanes students a College and Career Center that offers higher quality services than that of the average public high school.
“There are a lot of parents who feel bad because they cannot afford to provide that for their student and they feel like they haven’t given enough to their student,” Reicher said. “I think reminding people that you really could get it all done here is important. We are really lucky that we have the resources that we have here–this is not average.”
Despite the abundant support provided by the College and Career Center, not as many students as one might expect utilize this on-campus resource. In an informal survey conducted by Blueprint, a mere 18 percent of students responded that they either frequently or sometimes use the College and Career Center.
Junior Anthony Mirabito attests to such results, noting that many students instead turn to a private college counselor.
“I don’t personally know anybody who goes to the College and Career Center for help,” Mirabito said. “I think kids use private counselors over the College and Career Center for the same reason kids have private tutors: it’s a more personal experience and I think you can get advice that better suits your needs privately.”
The sheer magnitude of students the center is available for ultimately limits the personalization of the service.
“The College and Career Center just has too many kids to have a specific focus on students. If they have to focus on 400 kids at once, you’re not getting as much help as you would with a counselor who maybe has 20 students to help,” junior Keily Sarica said.
In stark contrast, independent college counselors develop more personal relationships with their clients and help guide each student along their unique application path.
“I help map out a timeline as early as freshman year in some cases where the student’s class choices are on path with their goals and they prepare as much as possible before the college applications are actually even filled out,” Eppinger said. “The early preparation includes resume building, building a balanced college list, brainstorming and outlining effective and meaningful essays and following the timeline so students stay on track with progress.”
In order to foster more personal relationships with their clients, college counselors often utilize various forms of personality tests as a kind of college advising ice breaker. Senior AJ Hesby started off his college counseling meetings with an activity in which he sorted cards labeled with different college attributes, helping him identify his preferences.
“I never had a problem with narrowing down my college list, but actually the opposite. The tests helped me find more safety schools I would still be excited to attend,” Hesby said. “This helped subdue some of my stress over the college admissions process because I was able to apply only to schools I would be happy attending.”
For many students, the appeal of private college advisors stems from the highly personalized, case by case service they can provide students.
“My private counselor was more useful and catered directly to my needs. We met many times, so she knew my interests and what I was looking for,” senior Joel Braunstein said.
Braunstein believes that the individual meetings ultimately helped him write better essays because his counselor could help him communicate his ideas in his own voice. The one-on-one approach also allows college advisors to assist students in picking majors and career paths that will best suit their strengths.
“I took an aptitude test online to test my strengths in areas such as numerical reasoning and creativity. At the end of the test the website provided a list of recommended areas of profession,” Hesby said. “Although I already had some ideas about what I want to do after college, the suggested fields were interesting to consider.”
For many students faced with the daunting prospect of college applications, hiring a private college counselor seems like the natural course of action. Sharing the widespread desire to make the college admissions process easier, senior Chambit Miller began working with a private college counselor at the beginning of her senior year.
“I got a college counselor because everyone around me had one. I went to the College and Career Center a few times, but since I had a private advisor, I found myself using that more,” Miller said.
Senior Jamie Bishop found the College and Career Center helpful for the more technical side of the application process, such as submitting documents and learning how to use Naviance, the college and career platform used by the Acalanes Union High School District. However, Bishop still sought a more individualized experience and met with three different independent college counselors before finding her current one.
“It’s hard to go into this without any sort of guide, but once you understand all the required elements and the quirks of the Common Application, meetings become redundant,” Bishop said.
“However, I was very dependent on my college counselor to edit my essays. After I finished an essay, I would just text her and she’d start to tear my writing apart. I really appreciated that.”
Not all students have the resources to receive help from private counselors, making their college application process look much different.
“I had a lot of trouble trying to brainstorm ideas for essays and I ended up struggling a lot for a long time to actually write them. I also feel like college counselors really help point out which activities or experiences to emphasize in your apps that colleges value most, so I really don’t even know if my essays are good enough compared to others who received help,” Sheehan, who does not use a private advisor, said.
In addition to the general allure of personalized advice and strategic guidance, stress is among the various factors driving families to enlist the help of private college counselors. A 2019 study of American children by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found a jump in stress levels significant enough to add youths in “high achieving schools” to their list of “at-risk” groups, which includes kids living in poverty and foster care, recent immigrants, and those with incarcerated parents.
Bull has observed the study’s findings at play in application supplements.
“What kids write about seems to shift over the years. Unfortunately, now more write about stress, anxiety, and depression than I remember seeing five or 10 years ago,” Bull said.
Many students now seek to channel the heightened academic pressure into preparation, seeking to minimize stress at the outset.
“I think a lot of kids have private college counselors because college is a very stressful thing in this area, there are a lot of high education standards, and standards on what we are going to do later in life, so it is a way to ease that pressure,” junior Lauren Davis said.
Anxiety surrounding the admissions process pushed sophomore Gabby Sandberg to seek out a private college counselor her freshman year.
“I was very stressed and my mindset was that I had to get into the top schools,” Sanberg said. “But my counselor helped me realize that there are many schools that are great. Getting a counselor freshmen year lowered my stress because I learned that you don’t need to get into the top colleges to succeed.”
Amid heightened competition in the college arena, more and more families appear to be flocking towards private advisors at younger ages. Gael Casner, a college counselor of 18 years who frequently sees clients from the Lamorinda area, has noticed this trend.
“More students are applying to more colleges, which drives up the competition. This, in turn, impacts the stress level that students and parents feel,” Casner said. “Everyone is in a bit of a panic. To counter this, parents are bringing their students to me earlier and earlier. It is not unusual to completely fill a class during the sophomore year.”
According to the previously mentioned Blueprint survey, just over 47 percent of students with a private college counselor hired their counselor between sixth and ninth grade. Most students, 30 percent, hired their counselor in 10th grade, while 18 percent got theirs in 11th grade and only 5 percent in 12th grade.
“I think in our community the use of private advisors has increased. Parents sometimes worry that they don’t know enough and think they need to hire an expert,” Kisner said.
Similarly, Bishop found that meeting with her private advisor helped quell her own internal anxieties about the college process.
“I left our meetings energized, organized, motivated, and simply excited to start writing. There were some days that I showed up crying because I stress myself out to extreme levels, but she was always so supportive and comforting,” Bishop said.
For some Acalanes students, though, a college counselor’s deadlines created a new source of stress.
“She was very helpful with the essays and helping me write what the colleges wanted to hear, but she definitely stressed me out and made me write things on a timed basis that wasn’t completely necessary,” senior Daphne Ganter said.
In addition to the added pressure caused by seemingly arbitrary deadlines, some students are trapped in what can feel like a never-ending cycle of editing and re-editing their essays.
“With essay drafts, they said that their counselor made them re-edit their paper over 20 times, and that they were really stressed out and that they kept making edits for them but it wasn’t perfect enough,” senior Marielle Riesner-Hansson said, commenting on the experience of her peers with private college counselors. “I definitely looked at her paper and thought she was perfectly fine, but apparently it wasn’t good enough for the counselor.”
To further complicate the process, essay writing, a major component of college applications, is not an exact science. Although counselors may have experience with what traditionally successful essays look like, individual students may want to take their essays in a different direction.
“I did get in many situations where I did not trust the advice my college counselor gave me,” Bishop said. “For example, she wanted me to write my main essay on my Moroccan heritage … this was obviously to make me look more culturally diverse, but it was not representative of me.”
Bishop eventually decided to write something completely different from the advice her counselor gave her. Although she took a risk, she is much happier with the essay she devised than what her counselor originally advised her to do.
Despite potentially heightened stress, the fears of parents—not necessarily of students—often leads families to enlist the help of a private college counselor.
“I think private counselors are very common not necessarily because the kids want it but more because the parents feel that the kids need it. Also, there is a feeling that everyone seems to have a private counselor, which definitely encourages others to find a counselor,” senior Yicheng Yao said.
Additionally, the guiding hand of an outside party can steer families away from the conflict that such a weighty subject tends to precipitate.
“Part of it for us was that it’s a little like outsource parenting. We didn’t want to have to argue or remind or push,” Heyman said, speaking on his and his wife’s decision to hire an independent college counselor for both of their children.
Strategic collaboration can provide students with a net of support throughout the stressful period, easing parents and students alike to create a more productive work environment.
“Many parents want strategic advice and another perspective to decrease the tension between the parent and child,” Eppinger said. “My philosophy is to build a ‘tri-team’: student, parent, and college counselor working together all with different tasks to complete the admissions process.”
Wanting to provide their child with all possible resources and support, parents may become overly engaged in the application process. Casner shares her experience with parents who overstepped their editing roles, explaining that a college counselor helps direct and balance out responsibilities.
“Most parents want at least some involvement. I believe the best outcome happens when we are all on the same team. Of course, there are examples of parents who go overboard, even writing their student’s essays,” Casner said.
While intentions may be to advance a student’s position in the applicant pool, heavy editing from a parent or college counselor can most definitely backfire.
“Most kids are advised to have an adult review their essay and that’s a good idea. That said, colleges expect the work to be the student’s,” Bull said. “Readers will notice if the main essay or the supplements seem unbalanced–like if one is much better or much worse than the other. Other things that stand out are if the level of writing seems out of line with the GPA, the voice or vocabulary used just doesn’t sound like a teen, or it’s inconsistent in the essays.”
Oftentimes a polished personal statement or supplemental essay that features sophisticated vocabulary and syntax can seem more desirable than a student’s independent work. At all levels of editing, though, a counselor can still help students generate ideas and format writing.
However, the extra support comes with a hefty price tag.
“I have heard that some people offer packages ranging from $3,500 to $10,000,” Kisner said. “I think the hourly rate also varies from $150 plus an hour.”
High costs seemingly create a disadvantage for those who do not have the means for such an expense, contributing to a disparity in the college admission resources available to students from different financial backgrounds.
“A student may have above a 4.0 and tons of extracurriculars, but ultimately if they are lost in the application process, they may lose their spot to someone who can afford to get professional help from a counselor that is instructing them on exactly what to do to maximize their resume,” Sheehan said.
Some students, financially unable to take advantage of local private advisors, believe that they would have benefited from the additional help in navigating the college process.
“I would definitely appreciate it if someone could handle all the financial aid and all the details for me… also there are a few specific Common App or UC app questions that I find difficult to answer. It would definitely have helped to have someone guide me through that,” Yao said.
To some students, it can oftentimes feel as though the current admissions system, private college counselors and standardized test tutors included, favors money over merit.
“I definitely think that the college game is rigged to support students from financially successful backgrounds because having a private counselor — and a good one — can be extremely influential in where you get in,” Braunstein said. “Students at Acalanes probably have a higher rate of college counselors because this area is more affluent than most.”
While certainly advantageous in the eyes of many students, the usefulness of a private counselor ultimately depends on an individual’s circumstances.
“I don’t think that everybody needs extra help. It’s really dependent on the individual. Not everybody is applying to a ton of colleges or even colleges that are difficult to get into,” Mirabito said. “Some people can’t afford a private counselor and I don’t think that anybody actually needs a private counselor.”
At the end of the day, a private college counselor is able to help manage the process but not guarantee acceptance.
“College admissions work in mysterious ways. I cannot reasonably say that there is a statistically significant difference in college admissions results between those who had private college advisors and those who didn’t,” Yao said.