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Finding a calling

Private counselors help college-bound chart career paths.

By Rebecca Samuels,

This is the season for college admissions pandemonium. And as any college-bound student knows, it typically isn't pretty.

There are tests to take and applications to complete. Students have about 2,000 four-year undergraduate programs from which to choose, and that's assuming they aren't considering schools abroad. It can all be a bit much for even the most prodigious youths. So what's an average 16-year-old to do?

Most students have some sort of college guidance program at school, yet many increasingly seek private college counselors for direction. This year, about 6 percent of entering college freshmen nationwide -- and as many as 20 percent of entering freshmen in the Northeast -- used independent counselors, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). That's up from about 1 percent in 1996.

These counselors offer everything from the standard essay advice and test-taking tips to specialized career counseling. Sound like too much too soon? Not so, says ICEA's executive director Mark. H. Sklarow.

"Research has shown that kids who are thinking long-term are more successful in their studies at school because they see a direct connection between the two," says Sklarow.

Expanding possibilities

Most counselors recognize that the point of any good undergraduate education is to explore a variety of interests. But they argue that career counseling at an early age can help students open their eyes to the abundance of possibilities.

Some schools offer more than 140 majors, and new areas of study are created all the time, said Washington-based career and college counselor Andrew Bryan. Many students don't even know that these options exist, so they wind up limiting themselves unintentionally.

To avoid this mistake, Bryan administers various personality tests to help students identify their interests and gain a better perspective of available options, then choose a school that best suits their academic and social needs.

Part of a private counselor's job is spending time researching majors and careers for their students. Steve Armanino, a California based college consultant, has his clients browse through a list of more than 400 college majors and identify which ones interest them.

Armanino then discusses with students what they can do with such majors and has them try internships or job-shadowing programs before settling on anything too specific. But he has found that when students have a better sense of what they are working toward, "it is easier [for them] to make the sacrifices necessary to keep their grades up."

All students -- even those who think they know exactly what they want to study -- may benefit from some career counseling. Counseling can help make students aware of newer job functions within their area of interest. See story on free advice.

Claire Law, an independent counselor in Rhode Island, points out that the job market is ever changing. Even the hippest parent might need help from a trained counselor in providing information on the emerging professions, such as electronic arts or CD-ROM development.

Supplementing school counselors

The recent push toward private career and college consultants isn't because school-based counselors aren't doing their jobs -- most are.

But many counselors have too many students and other responsibilities. Some also act as psychological counselors and school disciplinarians, and many are bogged down by paper work.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, California counselors have it the worst, each charged with about 955 students per year. The national average is 490 students per counselor, while the recommended ratio is 250 students per counselor.

By contrast, most private counselors work with about 50 students a year, allowing counselors to spend enough time with each student so they can tailor a program to best suit his or her needs.

But beware when choosing a counselor for your child. Some students seek independent college counselors who will write college essays, complete lengthy applications, and promise admission to the Ivy League school of their choice - and some counselors readily oblige.

But that is not good counseling, argues Sklarow. Rather, he says, the process should be used "to find the right campus for that student; somewhere he or she will thrive academically and socially."

And keep in mind that anyone can hang a shingle on his door and pronounce himself an independent career and college advisor. There is no overarching governing board.

According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), ideal counselors should have at least five years of experience in the field and a master's degree in counseling, or a related field, as well as some sort of certification.

Parents should also check references, and meet with the counselor for an hour or so before signing on to make sure it 's the right fit for everyone. Keep looking until you find someone with whom both you and your child are comfortable.

What to look for

You might also want to seek a counselor who is a member of one of the national guidance counselor organizations, which have stringent membership requirements.

IECA requires that all members have at least three years of college guidance experience, visit at least 100 college campuses, work with at least 75 clients, obtain a masters degree in a related field and sign a yearly ethics contract. In addition, IECA conducts reference checks on all members. It currently has 250 members and expects that number to double over the next few years.

NACAC counts about 205 independent counselors as members. Counselors must have 3 to 5 years of independent experience or 3 years experience as a high school or college admissions counselor. Members must also have a master's degree in counseling or a related discipline and recommendations from NACAC voting members.

Some other things to keep in mind when choosing a counselor:
Resources. Look for a counselor who will provide your child with many additional outlets to research and contemplate his or her future. Many counselors administer some form of personality or skill assessment to help isolate a student's main areas of interest and facilitate the career guidance portion of the counseling. Some counselors will give several such tests, including many old standards like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey, and some newer kid-specific ones including the "Do What You Are" assessment from Human eSources, and the CareerKey program from Princeton Review. Some of these tests may also be available from school counselors.
Time. A good counselor will be available to you and your child via phone and email in addition to scheduled sessions. A recent ICEA survey found member counselors spent about 24 contact hours with each student. But it really depends on the individual child. Some may need as little as one hour to go over some finer essay points, while others may need constant contact.
Fees. Prices will vary greatly depending on location, with the Northeast at the highest end of the spectrum, and South and rural regions at the lower end. Some counselors charge hourly fees ranging from about $45 to $225. But most counselors prefer to sell packages, usually a few thousand dollars for unlimited contact for a year.

2004 College Advisor of New England