5 Tips For Aspiring Independent College Counselors
Updated: Aug 14
Are you interested in becoming an independent educational consultant (IEC)? Are you thinking about hiring an IEC or independent college counselor for you or your family? Are you a student working with an IEC and you're curious about how they became the "expert?" This is a post for you to better understand the beginning steps of an IEC journey.
What is an IEC?
If I were to be as literal as possible, the answer would be an independent educational consultant (IEC). The truth is that there are as many definitions of an IEC as there are actually IECs in the world. To make matters even more complicated, the specializations of IECs can vary widely from professional to professional. I am an IEC who works with students, parents, and other professionals to provide knowledge and resources regarding the college search and application process. That being said, I don't help with test prep or ACT/SAT tutoring, nor do I help families with advanced financial planning or advising. Some IECs only work on one part of the college admissions process, some IECs work specifically with organizations or colleges, and some IECs don't work with the college admissions process at all. For the sake of simplicity, let's focus on the definition provided by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).
"Independent Educational Consultants can provide a student and family with individual attention, firsthand knowledge of hundreds of educational opportunities, and the time to explore all of the options... With their extensive knowledge of schools and colleges, independent educational consultants can broaden the potential choices, and provide vital help in weighing factors such as cost, location and curriculum. With an IEC, your student has the opportunity to explore a wider variety of options and discuss possibilities in a meaningful way. Because they are not tied to any specific school or college, IECA member consultants are not burdened with unrelated duties, and are available at the family’s convenience-not just during school hours during the school year."
5 Tips For Aspiring Independent College Counselors
Acquiring a job in higher education, secondary education, academic advising, admissions, or college counseling is arguably the most common, but by no means the only, path to working as an IEC. It should come as no surprise that working in an educational setting offers a plethora of benefits that transfer to IEC work. In fact, this is the path I walked to become an IEC. Time spent in these kinds of positions can provide firsthand experience working with college-seeking or college-attending students, familiarize professionals with the various tools of the college application process (Common Application, CSS Profile, FAFSA, Coalition Application, etc.), and act as an introduction to the governing bodies (NACAC, IECA, HECA, etc.) and ethical guidelines of the profession.
Unfortunately, getting a foot in the education field can often be difficult, especially for those seeking positions as a high school college counselor. Assuming you have very little or no experience in education, the path of least resistance is most likely going to be an entry-level position at a college or university. Colleges and universities tend to have a larger number of openings, and higher turnover rates. Admissions, financial aid, communications, marketing, and student life/services are common starting points for many careers in higher education. It is also common for IECs to begin in entry level positions at larger college consulting, test preparation, or essay consulting companies. Here are some resources to help find opportunities for getting involved in the education profession:
International Association for College Admissions Counseling (Membership Required)
As I mentioned previously, getting involved in the education profession is not always easy. That being said, you don't need to have a job at a high school or college to get experience working with students through their college search process. Many IECs volunteer their time helping students give back to local communities, hone their skills, and contribute to a vision of equity and diversity in the higher education world. Volunteering is an excellent way to learn more about high schools, colleges, and the journey that many students undertake during this turbulent and stressful time in their lives. While most local communities have volunteering opportunities, there are also several reputable organizations looking for capable and caring volunteers.
Find Your Niche
At this point you're probably seriously considering moving forward with some type of part-time or full-time work as an IEC. Regardless of your level of commitment, you'll need to start thinking about who you are as an IEC, what you believe in, how you operate, and why you do what you do. In other words, you need to start formulating your identity and brand as a professional. While a basic branding practice is important (e.g. consistent colors and fonts), you should also begin to think about what your niche will be in the IEC world.
Questions To Help Determine Niche
What kind of students do you want to work with?
Why do you want to be an IEC?
What are your long-term goals?
When will you work with clients and how often?
Do you have an educational philosophy or coaching statement?
Do you have any values that you want to express through your work?
Specialties or Focus Areas
Geographic Specialization: Cities, States, Regions, International
School Specialization: Specific School Systems, Service Academies, Highly Selective
Learning Differences & Disabilities
Student Groups: Athletes, First-Generation, Gap Year Students, Artists/Performers, Underrepresented Groups, DACA Students, International Students
Financial Aid & Scholarships
Test Preparation & Study Skills
Undergraduate, Graduate, or Professional (Law, Med, etc.) Admissions
Lifelong learning is a critical component to being an IEC. On a philosophical level, IECs exist within the world of education and should emphasize the importance of learning. On a practical level, IECs are counseling, advising, and advocating for students, families, and professionals. In order for you to do your job as an IEC, you need to stay informed and up-to-date with the ever-changing world of education. Here are some recommendations for books and news resources to help learn about and stay relevant in the higher education world:
The Truth About College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together - Barnard, Brennen
The Price You Pay For College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make - Lieber, Ron
Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges - Pope, Lauren
Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions - Selingo, Jeffrey
A Student of Colleges: Fundamentals of Independent Educational Consulting - Antonoff, Steven
Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania - Bruni, Frank
Network, Professionalism, and Credentials
If you choose the path of an IEC, it's important to remember that you don't have to go it alone. The IEC community is generally welcoming and ready to share their wisdom and insights with new and aspiring IECs. Along with individual guidance, aspiring IECs will find an active community in many professional organizations and associations. As your practice grows and formalizes, seek out membership in these communities for access to resources, webinars, and mentorship programs that can help you grow as a professional. Sooner or later, you're going to need to work towards some kind of credential. At first, a college degree and some experience might be enough to open the door. If you're lucky enough to have several years of experience, that bachelors degree might even take you a little further. Eventually families, organizations, and other professionals are going to push you to get specific credentials and qualifications for the world of IECs.
Receiving an Advanced Degree (MA, PhD, EdD) in Education (or related fields)
Reaching Professional Membership in a Professional Organization
Beginning the journey to become an independent college counselor can be a daunting one (even for experienced professionals), but remember that you aren't alone. The college counseling profession is growing and there are many students out there without support, guidance, or anyone to advocate for them. Learn, grow, support others, and challenge yourself to be a force for positive change in the world. IECs are not going away and the profession needs to continue fostering a new generation of ethical, knowledgeable, and kind professionals. We believe so passionately in this idea that we have begun offering official mentoring programs for other IECs. We hope to have more information soon, but please don't hesitate to reach out in the meantime if you're interested.
With all my support,
Independent College Counselor
Co-Founder of Virtual College Counselors