College Counseling as a Profession Q&A

College Counseling as a Profession

This is a Q&A inspired by the questions we received from our webinar, “My Professional Persona” with Steve Antonoff and GuidedPath Founder and President, Cyndy McDonald. 

Q:  How long has college counseling been around as a profession outside of a school or university setting? 

A:  Cyndy:   Private college counseling began emerging as a profession in the 1970’s.  Almost forty years ago, a group of people gathered together to found the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). Around 1990, I and other professionals founded Higher Educational Consultants Association (HECA) with a focus on private college counseling in particular.

Q:  How many people are in this profession?

A:  Cyndy:  According to a survey by UC Irvine Extension, in 2005 there were as estimated 13-1500 IEC’s in the United States, with another 4,000-5,000 people doing some private college counseling in the side.  Now, seven years later, the estimate has grown to 4,000-5,000 nationally, 1,000 internationally (with that number rapidly growing), and another 10,000-15,000 doing some private college counseling on the side.

Q: What divides a good college adviser from a mediocre one?

A:  Steve: Knowledge of colleges, understanding of basic counseling tenets, willingness to market yourself, ability to generate trust from students and parents, true devotion to teenagers, confidence, and gentleness.

A:  Cyndy:  Experience, passion for education, willingness to continue learning, and understanding of developmental stages/issues teenagers and parents face in planning for higher education.  It is so much more than just sending a child to college.  Recognizing and addressing that is key to differentiating between a mediocre and an outstanding advisor.

Building Your Professional Persona

Q: What association for independent counselors do you recommend? How does one join these associations?

A:  Cyndy:  There are two main professional associations:  HECA ( and IECA ( ).  Check out their websites for membership requirements.  There are requirements for new members, and for renewing membership.  Professional development is key in this profession.  I feel you can never have too many professional affiliations.

Q: Can you address the certification(s) that are available/recommended for IECs?

A:  Steve: There are certificate programs offered at UCLA; UC, Irvine; UC, San Diego; and UC, Riverside. The program at UC, Irvine is the one specifically tailored for the independent educational consultant. The Certified Educational Planner (CEP) is a certification offered to those in college advising requiring an application, examination, and ongoing college visits and professional development.

Q: What are the requirements for becoming a CEP?

A:  Steve: CEP is a mark of distinction and geared to those who have about 3-5 years of experience. A Master’s degree is preferred. There are many different ways to qualify to be certified. For information:

Q: What does the CEP exam consist of?

A: Steve: It consists of answering 5 questions on two of 25 colleges you visited and commenting on two independent educational consulting case studies. The questions asked in both areas are shared with candidates. The Examination is thorough but fair. The entire CEP process is individualized.

Q: What is the cost of the CEP certification?

A:  Steve: $400. One hundred dollars is due at the time an application is submitted, $200 is due when sitting for the Examination, and $100 is due when the certificate is issued.

Q.  Where can I learn more about being a Certified Educational Professional (CEP)?

A:  Cyndy:  Go to the website at

College Counseling Resources

Q:  What are your top three “go to” resources?

A:  Steve: Wintergreen-Orchard House College Admission Data Sourcebook, Big Future,

A:  Cyndy:  My top three are: 1) GuidedPath, to run my practice and give me professional tools for working with students and families, 2)  FISKE Guide, for college informaiton (included in GuidedPath), and 3)  Listserves (for HECA and IECA).

Q:  What books are authored by Dr. Steven Antonoff or Cyndy McDonald?

A:  Steve: College Finder and College Match.

A:  Cyndy:  I am currently working on a book on college affordability.  Another book I would love to write is on the “Just Right ” colleges.  Schools that are not too big, nor too small.

Q.  Can Dr. Antonoff speak more about his new version of College Match?

A:  Steve: While the book is filled with revisions and updates, the new edition is essentially as it’s been for its twenty plus years of existence. College Match, 12th Edition is larger physically and easier to use. It will be available in April via Amazon, my website (, etc.

Q:  Is there a plan for an online version of the test where the results are automatically tallied and detailed summary results can  be sent to the consultant?

A:  Cyndy:  Look for announcements about the new College Match survey being offered as an online survey in GuidedPath.

Starting Your Practice & Counseling Practices

Q: How do you, at the beginning of a counseling relationship, establish boundaries with parents/students about texting, calling, emails & later during the relationship, how do you remind and reinforce those boundaries that you established?

A:  Steve: You need a contract. In it, you state what parents can expect from you. You explain your contact preferences and your professional limits. These things are also discussed thoroughly before you elect to engage with the client. Always underpromise and over-deliver. And remember that you are a professional with a life.

A:  Cyndy:  I have a document labeled, “Team Responsibilities” that I review with each new student/family.  It states our ethics, and our responsibilities as a team member.  My expectations for the student/family are listed, as well as what they can expect from me.  This is a good place to list the boundaries we will operate under.

Q: How much of your first few sessions with a student do you spend listening and how much talking?

A:  Steve: In get-acquainted meetings with students and parents, I try to speak no more than a third of the time. Listening is underrated

A:  Cyndy: My first four sessions are with students and parents. I want to learn more about the student and their family.  We use the surveys in GuidedPath (Find My Spark, College Affordability, and soon College Match) to build that understanding.  It also creates dialogue.  After the fourth session, we are ready to work on college lists, essays and other tasks with the student individually.

Q: How is it best to address a “tiger mother” or father in terms of meddling too much being a helicopter?

A:  Steve: You want to be confident and professional. If the meddling is affecting the student, I ask the parents to come in to discuss the situation. I’m hired to help Buffy. If I can’t do that, the consulting relationship can fail.

A:  Cyndy: The time in the beginning of the counseling relationship used to build a rapport will go a long way toward calming a tiger mom or dad.  This is also the value of having an online tool.  Rather than answering a myriad of emails or phone calls about where their child is in the process, I refer them to their student’s online GuidedPath account, and have them check there for status.  It saves me time and assures the parent of progress or thoroughness.

Q: I was wondering what the source is that I can quote/reference for Dr. Antonoff’s statement that students who worked with an IEC are more likely to graduate in 4 years.  I would like to reference that in my materials and so want to verify the source.

A:  Steve:  On the webinar, Cyndy correctly attributed much of this information to the research done by IECA. Anecdotal responses from consultants I surveyed show the same results. Likely a small part of the reason has to do with the higher percentage of student working with IEC’s who go to smaller, private universities where graduation rates are higher. There is also general literature that suggests that more involvement in decision making (as students make in their college exploration with an IEC) results in more satisfaction with the choice. We can then extrapolate that more satisfaction in picking a college will result in more motivation to do well and graduate on time.

Q: Can you say again how many students nationwide who use an IEC

A: Cyndy:  In a 2011 survey done by Inside Higher Education, of students at a four year university, 22.4% used an independent college counselor to choose their college.

Q: What is the best way to achieve a good working relationship with high school counselors?

A:  Steve: As possible, initiate contact to explain your professional goals and stay involved in the regional ACAC world. Most school counselors these days understand that the role of the school counselor and the IEC are different and understand that as some students hire a tutor, some will hire a private counselor. Interestingly, our profession has grown, not necessarily through referrals from school counselors, but because of the good work we’ve done with students.

A:  Cyndy:  Become very visible. Volunteer in your community to assist with college scholarship or career events.  Participate on your regional ACAC (association for college admission counseling) and you will find your colleagues respect you, and sometimes might envy you too!

Q:  Most of my families still don’t tell their school counselors that they are working with me.  Knowing that many school counselors feel threatened by the existence of/families’ use of an IEC, do you encourage your families to tell their school counselors about the fact that they are using you?

A:  Steve: No. It’s up to each family to make that decision. I need to focus on doing the best possible job for my student.

A:  Cyndy:  I leave it up to the families. I recommend students review their four year plans we create with their counselors to ensure they have the right classes each year.  This best done starting in the ninth grade (or even in eighth grade as they are registering for high school classes.)  This is an easy way to introduce the concept of an outside academic coach.

Q: I have a full time job.  What is the best way to increase my clients so that I can focus on my business exclusively?

A: Steve: It’s hard to generalize, as there are so many factors. Generally, use evenings and weekends (at least as many as possible) to market yourself. See as many students per week as your schedule allows as word of mouth is the best way to build your practice. Be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be an IEC. It’s hard work, but doable. Stay confident!

A:  Cyndy :  Set a goal for yourself, then strive to achieve it.  Create a business plan to follow, including lots of marketing.   Network through local business or other professional groups.  Offer free workshops and watch people line up to enlist your services.  Include college affordability in your practice, to broaden the service you offer and the appeal to a broader audience.

Make sure to check out the recording of the My Professional Persona presentation, or download our slides!




1 Comment

  1. Dexter

    Thank you for this valuable resource! We are in the beginning stages of consulting and are constantly looking for effective tips and tricks to help us breakthrough in this field.

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