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8 Skills You Need for a Successful Business in College Counseling

The college counseling profession is full of nuances, due to both the constantly changing admissions landscape and the massive number of moving parts in the application process. In this blog, we’ll walk through 8 essential skills that you’ll need to successfully navigate the world of admissions counseling, and set up a successful business.

1. Adapt to new technologies easily

When it comes to assisting students with their applications, there’s a lot more to the process than deciding on a strategic school list, constructing activities lists, and writing strong essays. 

In the current admissions landscape, there’s a wide variety of softwares and online platforms that students will use in the process, all of which have different nuances, interfaces, and resources to assist students. 

Many schools provide students with access to platforms such as Naviance or Scoir, which provide services ranging from centralized school research tools, building a personalized college list, streamlining the application process, and providing high school-specific data on college admissions. 

Schools using these platforms also have school counselors submit materials such as letters of recommendation and transcripts through the platform, which is important to be aware of — students unfamiliar with these features of Naviance or Scoir sometimes mistakenly believe that their materials may not have been submitted by their school. Awareness of these different platforms can help quell student anxieties and ensure that no materials are missing once applications are submitted. 

Familiarity with other technologies such as scholarship and college research databases will help you provide effective recommendations to your students and make both your and your student’s researching process as streamlined as possible. 

2. Ability to keep up with new trends in the admissions space

As though the ever-increasing competitiveness didn’t complicate the college counseling process enough, the requirements for students are constantly evolving. In order to be a successful and well-informed counselor, it’s necessary to be up-to-date on all college application components. As they can change year-over-year and vary among different colleges, this requires careful research. 

For example, most schools became test-optional over Covid-19 quarantines, meaning students were not required to submit SAT or ACT scores. Over the past few years, many schools have extended this policy, continuing to permit students to apply without standardized testing.

However, this isn’t true across the board — colleges such as MIT and Georgetown continue to require all applicants to submit this information. Keeping up-to-date on these changes is essential — you’ll need to make sure that students don’t lose their chance to apply to their dream school because they’re missing this critical element!

3. Deep knowledge of a diverse range of colleges

Students and their families hire IECs because they’re searching for expertise — someone who can unlock the secrets of the admissions process across the board. As a college counselor, a massive part of your value is linked to providing personally specific recommendations, rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach. Beyond cultivating a nuanced academic and personal profile for your students, you’ll also need to give unique guidance on colleges themselves. When building school lists, you’ll need familiarity with colleges that meet a student’s preferences: size, location, programs offered, and so on. If you’re mixing up small Liberal Arts Colleges and large Research Universities, or suggesting a college that doesn’t offer your student’s intended major, this can be a blow to your reliability, and complicate your workflow by necessitating extra research before each recommendation you make. 

Beyond demonstrating expertise to your clients, having intimate knowledge of a variety of colleges is also mandatory for joining professional educational consulting organizations. For example, to be eligible for Higher Education Consultants Association membership, you must have completed at least official 20 college visits within the past two years, while joining the Independent Educational Consultants Association requires at least 50 official college visits in the five years preceding membership approval. 

4. Familiarity with school-specific application portals

Let’s talk about the process of submitting applications.

Anyone with exposure to the world of college admissions is familiar with the Common Application portal. Accepted by over 1,000 colleges and universities, nearly all college applicants will use the Common App to submit at least a portion of their applications. So fluency in the software is essentially mandatory for a college application. 

The Coalition Application  — an alternative application portal  — is still lesser-known than the Common App, but is growing in popularity. Emphasizing accessibility, the Coalition Application puts students’ applications in the context of their personal background, hoping to support applicants from under-representated groups. 

While the Coalition Application is only partnered with just over 170 colleges and universities, this list includes all 8 Ivy Leagues and many other top-ranked schools. The Coalition is selective about affiliated schools, as only those providing marked, substantial financial and structural support for lower-income and under-resourced students. With this being the case, familiarity with this Application is necessary to support your underrepresented students, and is relevant to your knowledge of top colleges across the board as well. 

Beyond the two multi-school applications, there are still other platforms that students will use when submitting their applications. A number of schools only accept submissions through their individual portals, most notably MIT, Georgetown, and all nine University of California campuses. All California State University and City University of New York campuses additionally have their own applications. Though all require similar materials from students, their structure can greatly vary — you’ll often need to rework elements of your application to meet different word count or formatting requirements. 

5. Strong creative and reflective writing skills

The guidance you’ll provide on the side of big-picture or statistics-based strategy is only one part of your role as a college admissions consultant. A student’s resume and statistics can only say so much about who they are as a student and individual. Top colleges compare many incredibly accomplished students with perfect statistics, many of whom cannot make the cut.

With Harvard rejecting over 1,100 students with perfect SAT scores and Princeton denying admission to thousands with 4.0 GPAs, it's clear that on-paper perfection isn’t good enough. Students need to stand out from the pack by showing their personality, character, and passion — this is where the essays come in. Since most students don’t have much creative writing experience, the personal statement and supplemental essays can present a challenge. Prompts are also often oblique, with unspoken rules of how to best address the topic. As a college counselor, you’ll need to be able to assist on both of these fronts. The ability to help students write compelling, insightful prose and to “read between the lines” of essay prompts is essential to college counseling success.

6. Awareness of high school-college relationships

College counselors must be skilled in calculating the odds of a student’s acceptance at a given institution, which requires a nuanced understanding of admissions standards. Most colleges provide the average GPA or SAT/ACT scores of accepted applicants — while this is a helpful benchmark, these standards and statistics can vary based on context. One significant variable that a college counselor can take into account is the high school a student attends. 

For example, some high schools are informal “feeder schools” for a given college, admitting a large number of students each year. For example, The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey sends nearly 8 students to Princeton each year, from an average graduating class of ~200 students. Other colleges rarely admit applicants from certain high schools, due to unpredictable factors such as a historically low yield rate from accepted students. 

One way to find this information is through the previously-mentioned technological resources. The Naviance and Scoir platforms provide high school-specific datasets about applicants, such as the average GPAs and SAT scores of students admitted, rejected, and waitlisted from a given college. So, if the average accepted student’s statistics from a student’s high school significantly varies from those reported by the college, this can play an important role in building your student’s application strategy. 

7. Flexibility around families’ needs 

A frustrating yet incredibly common experience among college counselors is dealing with pushback from families. Though it feels contradictory to your role as the admissions “expert”, oftentimes families have competing perspectives and disagree with or refuse to follow your recommendations. 

A commonly-encountered situation is when a family refuses to accept that their student is simply unable to earn admission to a school (think 1450 SAT, 3.2 GPA, and MIT dreams). Even if you politely inform them that applying will consume hours of time that could be dedicated to another school and recommend strong yet less-competitive alternatives, some families will insist on pushing forward. You may feel the urge to do everything in your power to change their minds. You can initially respond by gently pushing back and reaffirming your perspective — this works in some instances — but in some cases you’ll need to accept that you can’t change their mind. 

Beyond accepting this fact of the business, you’ll also need a game plan for how to proceed in these cases. Many college consultants market themselves based on their results — what if your student results drop because they reject your guidance? What if families are dissatisfied by rejections that you told them to expect? Before getting deep into the college counseling business, think carefully about how you’ll respond to conflicts and disagreements with clients. Accept this reality of the industry, be willing to compromise, and set standards and boundaries for clients to follow. This will help keep both yourself and your clients satisfied, while keeping your counseling work as streamlined as possible. 

8. Analytical mindset

At the end of the day, college counseling is a strategy-driven profession. When building a school list, you’ll be analyzing data and predicting outcomes in order to create a well-balanced and strategic array of colleges. On resumes, you’ll carefully select the most relevant details, finding the most precise and impressive ways to present student accomplishments. You’ll consider all factors in a student’s background — interests, extracurriculars, career goals, personality traits — to help students present themselves best, emphasizing the most compelling pieces of their profile. 

Ultimately, the culmination of your work is the combination of these processes — a strategy binding quantitative statistics with qualitative context on your student and the colleges they’ll apply to. Analytical skills will allow you to develop and execute this long-term strategy plan, so keep your mindset sharp!

If you’d like to recommend a rigorous research program open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here. You can also reach out to us at to know more, or to have a chat about possible collaborations!

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.



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