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How To Start an College Admissions Counseling Business - 10 Awesome Tips to Keep in Mind

As both students and college authorities become more ambitious and more demanding in the education they want to receive or provide, the role of a navigator who can help anxious parents and their wards intelligently evaluate the pros and cons of different career choices and guide them to critical information becomes much more important. 

Creating a successful Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) business in college admissions counseling requires you to plan around these inherent concerns and expectations and bring a blend of expertise, strategic planning, and a deep understanding of the college admissions process. 

In today’s blog post, we’ve compiled a list of important tips to keep in mind if becoming an IEC is something that interests you. While these tips are as comprehensive as we could make them, setting up an independent practice of any kind is a consistent and long-term effort.

1. Understand the market and define your niche

While on the face of it this seems like basic advice, in this case it is actually critical. The field of independent educational consulting is rapidly growing and changing. As of 2024, there are an estimated 8,500–10,000 full-time IECs in the United States, with a significant number of part-timers as well. This growth is driven by factors such as the increasing complexity of the college admissions process, the high cost of education, and the desire for personalized guidance beyond what school counselors can provide. If you want to stand out among this crowd, you will need to identify a niche that aligns with your expertise—be it assisting students with learning differences, athletes, artists, or students targeting specific types of colleges. We recommend the following approach:

  1. Do your homework: Use tools like Google Trends and educational forums to understand what potential clients are looking for. The IECA highlights the rapid growth in demand for personalized college admissions guidance, and a good chunk of your business may come from offering these customized services. To be able to make a strong offering, you’ll need to be crystal clear about what people are actually looking for.

  2. Specialize intelligently: Define your niche based on your strengths and market needs—whether it's helping students with learning differences, athletes, or those interested in STEM fields.  Consider areas where you have personal interest or professional background. For example, if you have a history in performing arts, you could specialize in helping students apply to arts programs. A well-defined niche not only sets you apart but also allows you to tailor your marketing efforts and become an expert in that area.

  3. Service a gap: Assess the needs of your local community. If you're in an area with a high concentration of athletes, there might be a demand for consultants specializing in navigating college recruitment. Conversely, if your community has an abundance of IECs focusing on athletes, then fill a gap for say students with special needs.

2. Build a strong online presence

While a professional website and active social media profiles are essential for attracting clients in the present day and age for any business, it is especially crucial for IECs. Your website should clearly articulate the services you offer, your qualifications, and success stories. Use SEO strategies to improve your site's visibility. On social media, share valuable content related to college admissions, such as tips for writing essays or updates on admissions policies, to engage your audience. Each of these items boosts your engagement, the demonstration of your competence, and therefore your lead generation. The key couple things to keep in mind are:

  • Website content: Aside from making it easily navigable and SEO-friendly, make sure to include a blog section and post articles on important topics like college choices, competitive exams, career path analyses, etc. Your website will be your biggest advertisement, and it needs to be in the best shape it can possibly be.

  • Social media engagement: Create a content calendar for social media. Share a mix of original content, relevant news articles, and success stories of your students. The latter are particularly important for establishing credibility and bringing the human touch that is so important to independent, small businesses.

3. Consistently strengthen your credentials

Continuing education is crucial in this evolving field. Earning certifications from reputable organizations like IECA or HECA can significantly boost your credibility. Attend workshops, webinars, and conferences to stay updated on college admissions trends and policies. Networking with peers through these organizations can also provide valuable insights and referrals. Some options are:

  1. Certification programs: Look into programs offered by IECA, HECA, or local universities that provide training in educational consulting. IECA’s Summer Institute in particular is a strong option to consider. We’ve reviewed it in detail here!

  2. Continuing education: Subscribe to industry publications, attend annual conferences like NACAC, and participate in online forums.

  3. Networking: Join local business groups and educational consultant associations to build relationships with school counselors and other consultants.

4. Develop a coherent college evaluation and ranking system for your clients

One of the most valuable services IECs offer is helping students curate a balanced list of colleges that match their academic profile, interests, and financial situation. Not every student wants to be an Ivy Leaguer, just like not every student is a pro athlete in the making. To add value to their, and their parents’ decision-making, you will need to first identify sensible college evaluation criteria relevant to your client, and then provide them with a list of colleges so ranked. Just this step alone saves your client dozens of hours and takes a massive load off their shoulders. It of course requires effort on your part, as it requires staying updated on colleges' offerings, admissions policies, and financial aid practices. The way to approach this is by:

  1. Subscribing to databases: Subscribe to databases like College Navigator or the College Board's BigFuture to access up-to-date information on colleges. These tools can help you provide students with accurate data on programs, acceptance rates, and financial aid. They are also easier to navigate and summarize information from than painstakingly visiting individual college websites, however that should not be ruled out if your client is particularly interested in specific colleges.

  2. Campus visits: Whenever possible, visit colleges personally or virtually to gain firsthand experience of their campus culture, facilities, and programs. Sharing personal observations with students can provide them with insights they won't find in brochures.

  3. Networking with admissions officers: Build relationships with college admissions officers. Attending college fairs, participating in webinars hosted by colleges, and direct communication can provide insider knowledge on what specific colleges are looking for in applicants. Considering that 26% of students utilize IEC services as compared to only 3% a decade ago, colleges are becoming more open to the idea of IECs working with students.

5. Offer a comprehensive suite of services

Within your specific niche, try to diversify your offerings to cater to a wide range of needs. You could provide comprehensive packages that cover everything from college selection to application submission, or offer specific services like essay review or interview preparation. Consider offering group workshops or webinars on topics like "Navigating Financial Aid" or "College Application Bootcamp" as a more affordable option for clients and an opportunity to upsell your more dedicated services to them once your competence has been demonstrated.

6. Develop a solid pricing strategy

While this is a complex topic that we have covered in much greater detail here, it still bears mentioning in brief. The key is to price your services according to the market you’re serving, the niche you’re filling, your own costs of operation, and the value of your offering including your own skill set and credibility. A good pricing strategy is usually tiered to different levels of service, offers clear value and expertise per dollar charged, and is built around a transparent structure so that your client never walks away feeling unsatisfied.

7. Focus on the client and not just the outcome

Your clients' success is your success, but their satisfaction is also your credibility. As an IEC, you are not just trying to get students admitted to top colleges - you are providing them a comprehensive service that empowers them to make the best possible decision for their future, academically, socially, and financially. A lot of your work will require extremely sensitive and personal information from your clients, like their financial details or medical history. This requires you to work with empathy and tact, and go beyond just their stated needs. Some ideas on how to make this an easier process are:

  1. Developing customized plans: Go beyond their interests, strengths, and college goals. Factor in their financial, medical and social histories, their personalities and hobbies. Success, both theirs at college and yours as an IEC, is as much about the intangibles as the tangibles.

  2. Celebrate success: With permission, feature client success stories on your website and social media to highlight the impact of your services. External validation and celebration will help your client’s morale and hence their eventual success, not just your own business.

  3. Follow-up and stay in touch: Keep in touch with clients even after they've been accepted to college to offer support and gather feedback. It’s a great way to identify what more you could have done to help them succeed, while also enriching your network and building another source of quality leads and referrals.

8. Market yourself effectively

Effective marketing is key to attracting clients. Especially as an individual proprietor, you have to be your own social media manager and promoter. Develop a marketing strategy that includes both online and offline efforts. For online mediums, standard tools like social media, email marketing, LinkedIn, and Google Ads work well in bringing eyeballs from a wider audience. While offline marketing is more work, the quality of leads can also be correspondingly better. Some methods to consider are:

  1. Community engagement events: Partner with local schools and community centers to offer informational sessions on college planning. This is an excellent way to build credibility and brand awareness in your local community while at the same time getting input on what the market is like and what services are in demand.

  2. Newsletter: Build an email list to share college admissions tips, updates, and success stories. Use this platform to keep your services top of mind for potential clients, while already providing them with valuable information.

  3. Referral program: Create a referral program that rewards past clients for referring new clients to your business. This can be a source of the most qualified leads possible for your business, compared to any other marketing effort, and the cost for it is minimal in comparison.

9. Leverage technology for efficiency and engagement

For IECs, managing multiple students' applications, essays, and deadlines can be overwhelming. Beyond that, you’ll also be scheduling calls with students, parents, college admissions officers, and other service providers, all the while managing your own marketing campaigns. Utilizing specific tools can streamline these processes, allowing you to focus on delivering personalized advice and guidance. A few tools we can recommend are:

  1. Student management systems: Adopt a student management system like CollegePlannerPro or GuidedPath. These platforms are designed for IECs to track students' progress, manage deadlines, and keep notes organized in one place.

  2. Digital marketing tools: Use digital marketing tools like Mailchimp for email campaigns or Canva for designing professional-looking marketing materials.

  3. Virtual meeting platforms: Become proficient in virtual meeting platforms like Zoom or Google Meet. Offering virtual consultations can expand your reach beyond your local area, allowing you to assist students nationally or even internationally. Calendly is another powerful tool to keep your schedule in order and also allow prospective clients to reach out to you directly and schedule meetings at their convenience.

10. Don’t neglect ethics in your services

While this seems at first glance a tip that shouldn’t need to be said, it actually bears heavily on how the industry is changing. IECs play a crucial role in guiding students through the essay writing and application process. With the advent of ChatGPT and other AI tools, and how these tools are affecting and being affected by anti-cheat checks and academic scrutiny, your role as an IEC is even more crucial. It is becoming essential that you incorporate ethical essay writing lessons that empower your students to submit strong applications without completely relying on AI to do the heavy lifting for them, inadvertently damaging their admittance chances in the process. You can do this by:

  1. Conducting essay workshops: Conduct workshops on how to brainstorm, draft, and revise college essays. Teach students strategies for reflecting their voice and experiences rather than parroting what they think admissions officers want to hear.

  2. Holding application review sessions: Offer sessions to review applications before submission. Focus on ensuring all information is accurately reported and that students have presented themselves in the best light, without altering the essence of their achievements and experiences.

  3. Identifying and adhering strictly to guidelines: Familiarize yourself as well as your clients with the application guidelines of common platforms like the Common Application or Coalition Application. Ensure you're advising students in a way that respects these guidelines, particularly regarding essay authenticity and application honesty

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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