Can a College Coach Guarantee Admission to an Ivy League School?

Barry Lenson

There’s a very simple answer to the question that is posed in the title of today’s post.

The answer is no. No college coach anywhere can guarantee admission to an Ivy League school. Some of the best independent college counselors canimprove your chances of getting into an elite school. But guarantee it? It just doesn’t work that way.

There are some unscrupulous con artists, however, who will charge big fees and guarantee, or nearly guarantee, that they can get you (or your son or daughter) into an Ivy or ultra-elite college or university.  Last year, in fact, I was shocked when I got an email from one of these shysters, who wanted to contribute a post to this blog. She claimed to have attended a top Ivy institution (perhaps she had) and professed to have some secret knowledge that could get students admitted to such schools. When I went to her website to investigate, I found that the writing on it was riddled with grammatical mistakes and typographical errors. And she claimed to be a coach for college admissions essays too!

As I said, no coach holds the magic keys to the Ivies, because it doesn’t work that way. How do I know? For one thing, I am currently enrolled in UCLA’s online certification program for college counselors. For another thing, I got a Master’s degree from an Ivy, and served as an alumni interviewer for that school several years ago. And I am also the father of a student who graduated from an Ivy last year.

Based on those experiences and studies, here are some reasons why no coach can guarantee an Ivy admission . . .

No college admits students based on numbers.  The scattergrams that you have probably seen in high school guidance offices imply that in order to get into an Ivy, you need to have nearly perfect scores on your standardized tests and a perfect GPA too.  But those scattergrams only reflect average data about students who have been admitted to those schools in the past; they are not entrance requirements.  And if you get caught up thinking only about numbers, the result can be an admissions disaster. Several years ago, for example, I met a young man who had perfect SAT scores and a nearly perfect GPA from a top private school. Nonetheless, he got rejected from four top American universities.  Sadly, he had not applied to any “fallback” schools too, so he had to take a gap year and then reapply to other colleges later on. I also met a young woman who had only a middling GPA and less-than-perfect SAT scores, and she got an admissions offer from one of the most competitive universities in America. Why, because of the following reality . . .

Top universities often admit a student simply because there is something about him or her that the school finds “unusual” or “interesting.” Often, one member of the admissions team will discover that “something,” and become that student’s secret champion in admissions committee meetings.  There is no predictable way to get that to happen and no magic formula for it either. The best strategy for students is to write an honest admissions essay and hope that something about it will click with a member of the admissions team. (Another way is to do something really extraordinary, like play a piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic, invent a new kind of computer, or start a billion-dollar company. But how many of us have that kind of credential working for us?)

Colleges and universities are striving to build communities, not admit classes full of identically perfect students.  In other words, they are trying to create a mosaic that is made up of lots of small and imperfect people who create a balanced whole.  Because there is no way to know how you will fit into that picture, all you can do is apply and hope for the best.

What Should You Expect from a College Admissions Coach?

That said, there really are excellent independent college admissions counselors who can help.  Here are some things to expect and require from a college coach before you start using his or her services . . .

  • A clear statement of fees. Some coaches charge a flat fee for a package of services. Others charge an hourly rate, then give you an estimate of how many hours they feel you should work with them.  In either case, get a cost estimate in writing.
  • An honest set of expectations. If a coach guarantees admission to an Ivy school – or to any school, for that matter – walk away. As I have observed already in this post, getting into college just doesn’t work that way. There are no guarantees.
  • A clear and complete explanation of the services you will get. Some coaches, for example, do not include counseling or editing for college application essays. Some coaches have SAT or ACT tutors in their practices, whom they expect you to use in test prep. (Fees for those services are generally extra and billed hourly.)
  • A credible professional background. Many top coaches have spent time working in college admissions offices. Some have not. But in general, most capable coaches have spent time either as high school guidance officers or as college admissions officers. If a counselor’s only credential is that he or she is the parent of a student who got into a good college, be skeptical.
  • A list of colleges and universities that he or she has visited within the last year, two years, and five years.  Counselors need to visit campuses and know what is happening on them, not have general ideas. Also ask whether the coach has active contacts within the admissions offices of schools that interest you. Few coaches will call up their contacts to try to get their clients admitted. If a coach has fresh and viable contacts within institutions, however, that indicates that he or she is active in the field, and networked to people who are “in the know” within the academic community.
  • A credible educational background.  A college counselor need not have attended an Ivy or elite school.  But if he or she did, that is a good sign.
  • Memberships in professional organizations. They include the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the New England Association for College Admission Counseling (NEACAC).  Also ask whether your prospective coach has attended those organizations’ conferences or workshops in the last year. If so, he or she is likely to have current knowledge of admissions trends and a strong professional network too.

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