Why You Should Hire a Private Career and College Counselor

SAGE Scholars, Inc.

Want More Than 38 Minutes of College Advice?

Hire an Independent Admissions Counselor

Advice from a Former Director of Admissions:

An Independent Counselor Delivers Better College Choices

By Robert Savett, VP, Marketing, SAGE Scholars, Inc.

38 minutes.

That’s the average – the average amount of time that a

guidance counselor spends giving college admissions advice

to a student at a U.S. public high school.

38 minutes total – spread over four years.


It’s not the counselor’s fault. Counselors would love

to be more helpful. But, according to U.S. Department of

Education statistics, the typical school counselor is overburdened

with responsibility for an average of 476

students. The ratio is especially high in California (1016:1),

Arizona (860:1), Minnesota (782:1), Utah (726:1), Michigan

(706:1), Illinois (655:1) and Indiana (620:1).

The American School Counselor Association

recommends a student-counselor ratio of 250:1. Only

Wyoming (200:1), New Hampshire (235:1) and Vermont

(236:1) get a passing grade.

It’s politics. To be elected or to stay in office, many state

legislators are hectored to sign “The Pledge” — no new

taxes. With many costs (prisons, healthcare, pensions,

energy) well above what they were a decade ago, a

shrinking slice of the state budget pie is devoted to


Most counselors attended a state school and tend to

be familiar only with a small number of public

universities. At religiously-affiliated high schools, there

may be even less resources devoted to admissions

counseling – and a desire to steer students to colleges of

a certain denomination.

Although private schools tend to be resource-rich,

many are “feeders” for a limited number of selective

academic colleges. If your student has unusual interests –

art & design, for example – the counselor may have very

narrow experience outside the usual destinations.

The alternative: Hire an independent admissions

counselor. Your student will get more than 38 minutes –

and lots more expertise.

Familiar with Just a Few Colleges?

Lawrence University – Appleton, WI

It’s not only rare for a public high school counselor to

be given sufficient time to prepare students for admissions

success. There’s another disadvantage:


A ‘Director of Admissions’ Perspective

“Very few public high schools have counselors totally

dedicated to working with students on the admissions

process,” observed Jim Nolan, an renown independent

advisor (Jim Nolan & Associates). “You now have

multi-purpose counselors doing many things that may

have more priority – scheduling, academic problems,

social problems, discipline problems. Counselors have

very high caseloads – in the 400s. Counselors have

become a ‘support service’ for kids applying to college

– sending in transcripts, recommendations, midterm

reports, final reports. It’s the ‘paper chase’…

“There was a time when a school district would fund

counselors visiting campuses and going to [state and

national] meetings. It just doesn’t happen any more.

Even highly-competitive high schools direct students to

the Naviance website to select alternatives [prospective

colleges]. Once, counselors provided students with a list

of alternatives. Now, it’s up to the student to present a

list to the counselor. So, college selection becomes up

to the family. Unfortunately, families have a very limited

knowledge of the universe of schools.”

Early in his career, Jim Nolan served as Director of

Admissions at The University of Pennsylvania. Penn is an

Ivy League school, so when Jim “hung out his shingle” as

an independent counselor in 1975, he naturally attracted

families looking for an “edge” in admission to highlyselective

colleges. He also found it rewarding to work

with under-achieving middle and high school students

who needed a change of scenery. The students would

return for his help when it came time to select a college;

Nolan became familiar with an extremely broad range of

U.S. colleges.

A Big Benefit: More Merit Aid

Our family first used Jim Nolan’s services at the

suggestion of Jim Johnston, the founder of SAGE

Scholars. It was mid-November of our daughter’s senior

year. Her early-decision application had been rejected.

We had no contingency plan. Our daughter wanted to

major in art & design; her art portfolio apparently had

been perceived as underwhelming, perhaps due to sports

commitments (12 varsity letters). We weren’t aware that

a common practice among prospective art majors is to

hire a “portfolio coach” in the summer before the senior


Jim Nolan and our daughter decided to focus on liberal

arts colleges with strong fine arts departments; if an art

major didn’t work out, she wouldn’t need to transfer to

another college. As she wanted to walk onto the

basketball team, a small college was better than larger.

After 10 applications and several spring campus visits,

the choice was Alfred University, a SAGE member that

attracts the top art student in many an upstate New York

high school. Alfred wasn’t remotely on our “radar”. And,

the merit aid offered was 10 times more than the cost of

Jim’s services.

Jim then worked with our son, who initially expressed

interest in Vassar — mostly because of two attractive

young ladies he’d met. The school is probably much too

artsy for you to be happy, Jim advised our son, a natural

for fraternity life. Our son was procrastinating with

college process – especially during soccer season. Jim

put him back on schedule; then, the essay became a

struggle, requiring three topics and multiple versions.

Six weeks elapsed. The essay and the first three (of nine)

applications weren’t complete until the afternoon of

the earliest due date, Dec. 31. The final essay was

spectacular; we were not surprised when the merit aid

offered far exceeded the cost of Jim’s services.

Now in his 70s, Jim Nolan is the dean of independent

college counselors. He helped establish the


Educational Consultants Association

(IECA) in 1976. He’s

still energized and delighted by working with students.

When SAGE decided that families would benefit by

learning more about independent admissions counselors

– and how to select the right one – it was only natural to

interview Jim Nolan.

We met for lunch one recent summer day. Excitedly,

Jim told of two morning Skype conversations with

students in China – one a Chinese national (who

attends a U.S. private school), one an American overseas

for the summer. A third conference call was with a new

client – a 19-year-old suddenly looking to transfer after

an unhappy freshman year at a well-regarded Southern


Counselors Should Know a

College’s Personality

Prescott College – Prescott, AZ


“Good academic fit — but a terrible fit on a personal

level,” Nolan said. “He just wasn’t happy with the lack of

curiosity among his fellow students. Discussions weren’t

stimulating, in & out of class. Party school. A college has

to be a good social and emotional fit.”

A good college advisor not only combines talent,

experience, creativity and empathy. Enthusiasm and

effort matter. Jim annually visits 50 campuses – colleges

and boarding schools – on his own “dime”. He has a gift

for “match-making” – the ability to know and match the

personality of a college and its students with a client’s



Strategy discussion: Which schools to visit? Where

to apply? Early decision options. If not admitted to

the top choice, what’s number two?


The application(s): “I tell students that when

scores, grades and activities are pretty much identical,

it’s important how you present yourself – to highlight

which aspects of your personality are important to

the college. We talk about the process at the

admissions office.”


The essay: “The essay has supplanted the interview

as a conduit of information from the student. We talk

about how to structure the essay so that it will elicit

the maximum attention on the part of the reader.

The work has to be theirs. I’ll give input and support.”

Students have a tendency to procrastinate. Parents

react by nagging. Often. Household tension can escalate

to overwhelming levels. The senior year of high school

can provoke explosions, especially with a hovering

“helicopter parent.” Hiring an independent counselor

defuses family fireworks and stress.

“I keep a student on schedule, removing parents from

what can be an emotionally-charged encounter,” said

Nolan, smiling. “Students are willing to do things that I

ask. If the parent were to ask, it might become a test of

wills. I make sure kids stay on target and meet


Counselors Should Know a

Student’s Learning Style

To educate you in how a premier college advisor

works, here’s the Nolan process:


Get to know the student: “I spend as much time as

necessary getting to know the student. I’ll talk to the

student and the parents. I’ll ask about learning style.

I’ll examine testing and school records, look over any

psychological evaluations, talk to tutors and

psychologists and other professionals with a base of

knowledge about the child. It often takes five hours.”


Find the ‘fit’ & develop options: “I educate a student

to the kinds of decisions to determine where to

apply – geography, region, size, academic offerings,

student life, social life. We develop and massage a list

of alternatives with a spread of selectivity. It’s fine

to aspire to a school that you’re not likely to get into.

It’s OK to try. But it’s important to have schools on

the list where the student will definitely be

admitted – schools where you can say, ‘If it’s the only

one where I’m admitted, I’ll be happy.’”

Austin College – Sherman, TX

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – Troy, NY


Nolan’s focus is on selecting – as well as gaining

admission to – the right college. He’s not a certified

financial planner.

When your family plans for college,

you may want to

consider hiring two experts

– a college funding specialist

while your students are in middle school and a college

admissions specialist during the junior and senior years.

The cost of four years of tuition, room, board and fees

can exceed $150,000. Half of new college freshmen fail

to graduate in four years; a fifth or sixth year of college

is expensive – often necessitating extra loans that will

become burdensome. Worse, many students incur loan

debt but don’t graduate.

Hiring an independent college counselor is a solid

investment, Jim Nolan maintains: “It’s not inexpensive.

But, when you think of the cost of a college education

and the importance of this in a student’s future, the cost

becomes kind of miniscule. It’s like taking out an

insurance policy.”

You’ll be ensuring that a professional will spend

hours – not 38 minutes — guiding your exceptional

student to an appropriate college.

5 Tips on Selecting an

Admissions Counselor

How do you hire a qualified independent admissions

counselor? Jim Nolan’s tips:


Personality fit: “It’s really important to choose a

good listener, someone who’s open and nonjudgmental.

You want someone who will put the

emphasis on a child’s needs – over the desires of the

parents. I want the parents to be happy, but it’s the

child who’s going to college.”


Credentials & experience: The barriers to entry into

college counseling are low; it’s often a second career

for parents who start by helping their own children

gain admission. Or, it’s a second job for a “moonlighting”

counselor or teacher. Jim Nolan: “I’d want

to know, ‘Is the counselor a member of either of the

professional associations,

IECA or HECA?’ Ask about

the nature of the students they work with. Ask for

referrals from previous clients.”


Workload. “You want someone with a good-sized

caseload, but you don’t want someone who’s running

a factory. What’s their availability? If the kid is an

athlete, it’s tough to meet during a weekday. If the

counselor’s last appointment for the day is at 4 pm,

there’s not much value.” Because of application

deadlines, an independent counselor may need to be

available from 8 AM until midnight during the

students’ Christmas vacations. Ask about this.


Work ethic: “A good college counselor will stay

current and build a knowledge of colleges throughout

the country and, increasingly, in other countries. I’d

ask, ‘How many colleges do you visit a year?’”


Financial specifics: “What’s the fee structure? How

much time will you devote to my child? If it’s a

package, are there any limitations on student access to


Hire 2 College Counselors –

Admissions & Funding

© Copyright 2014 SAGE Scholars Tuition Rewards®. All rights reserved. All trademarks, service marks, and photos are the properties of their respective owners.

Coe College – Cedar Rapids, IA

“I keep a student on

schedule, removing

parents from what can

be an emotionallycharged


Students are willing to

do things that I ask. If

the parent were to ask,

it might become a test

of wills. I make sure kids

stay on target and meet


-Jim Nolan

21 South 12th Street, 9th Floor

Philadelphia, PA 19107