Paid Agents. To Use or Not To Use. That is the Question.
Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare.
Students occasionally ask whether or not they should work with some kind of agent. Recently I received such a query with the suggestion that I blog an answer as it would probably be of use to other potential applicants. I'm happy to do so.
The American college search process is a complicated thing and many (most?) students can use some help navigating it. In the US, most high schools have one or more guidance counselors whose job it is to help students with this important process. Most non-US high schools don't have staff members to do this. So, are agents a good idea or not?
I'm going to lay out the basic arguments for using an agent or counselor before giving my personal (not Oberlin's official) opinion; Oberlin doesn't have an official position on this.
There are at least four ways that counselors or agents can be helpful:
1.They can help you identify colleges or universities that are a good match for you. A good counselor/agent should be generally knowledgeable about American higher education, knowledgeable about specifics on a fairly large number of individual schools, and knowledgeable about how to become informed about schools that they aren't familiar with. If a counselor/agent is serious about looking for the right match for you, then they will obviously need to know a lot about what it is you are looking for. Are you career oriented? Thinking about graduate school or work after graduation? Do you know what you want to study? How strong a student are you? How good is your English? Do you have geographic preferences of some kind? Are you looking for a smaller college or a large university, etc. etc. You should be very wary of anyone who promises you anything without having first asked you these questions. Similarly, stay away from anyone who guarantees you admission to a specific college or set of colleges. The best colleges and universities are highly selective. All of us turn away hundreds and even thousands of students with very strong academic and extra-curricular records. Consequently, any promise is either an outright lie to you or indicates some small print that needs to be read very carefully.
2.They can help you navigate the details of the American application process once you've selected a group of colleges that you are interested in. The American process is quite different from the college selection process virtually everywhere else in the world. You may well benefit from some help. If a counselor/agent can help you understand the process, that can be very valuable. But with a little time and a good Internet connection, you can probably get most of that information yourself. They may also be able to help you with some of the technical difficulties like paying for an SAT test or an application fee when you don't have a US credit card or American bank account.
3.They can help you prepare your actual application. An experienced counselor/agent should be able to explore with you successful strategies that other students have used, can help you determine which of your personal assets to highlight, and perhaps can proofread your essays. These are potentially valuable contributions, but can also be dangerous. In making our admission decisions we want to know the real you and judge whether you are actually a good fit with our institution. Having someone else dominate your application or, worse yet, write things on your behalf is not only dishonest, but also likely to lead to your acceptance at a school that is a better match with the agent than it is with you. As a wise person (I have no idea who) once said, it is better to be rejected for who you are than to be liked for who you are not.
4.Finally, if you are accepted a counselor/agent can help you prepare for your visa interview.
All of these things have value. They are not learned without some real commitments of time and energy. So the idea of using an agent has some merit. But what are the values of those things? That depends in large part on what other sources of information are available and how much they cost.
1. In my opinion the most valuable service an agent can offer is help in selecting the right set of schools to apply to. Unfortunately, many agents work with a particular set of schools that pay them for students delivered. If this is the case with an agent you're considering, you should probably ask yourself how concerned they are with finding the best schools for you. If an agent isn't being paid by colleges and universities, there is a good chance that he or she will be charging a lot. There are some websites available that do a pretty good job of this for free! The College Board (the SAT people) has a fairly good matching program. Even US News and World Report has a webpage associated with their annual ranking that allows you to select the variables that are important to you and it will generate a list. Remember that their official rankings measure what is important to them rather than what may be important to you. You can check out one of my previous blogs for my views on college rankings generally (http://blogs.oberlin.edu/applying/applying/choosing_colleg.shtml).
There are some other free programs like Zinch.com that can help as well - although much of their content is paid for by colleges so isn't completely unbiased either. All of these are free, free, free!! EducationUSA offices (http://educationusa.state.gov/ ) are also great sources of help and their services are usually free or of very modest cost. So if you are paying more than a very modest amount for these services you are probably being overcharged. (note: in the interest of full disclosure Oberlin is a zinch.com client.)
2. While the US application process is different from most everywhere else in the world, it is actually pretty similar from one institution to the next - especially with schools that accept the Common Application. Go to the website of two or three schools in which you are interested and read their website. If that doesn't clear up the general procedures involved, e-mail an admission counselor or two with questions. We seldom bite.
3. Your friends and your teachers are likely to be as good editors as a paid agent. If you want to know what kinds of essays have been successful in the past, a source such as College Confidential is likely to have as good information as an agent. Most of the advice available out there is just good common sense. Tell as about what you're passionate about. Don't try to tell us what you think we want to hear. As long as the essay is well written and revealing about who you are, we don't have a favorite topic. And we want essays that make you stand out from the other students in our applicant pool. If a agency is essentially writing essays for you, not only is it unethical, it is likely that you won't even stand out relative to other students working with the same agent. If you really are convinced that you need help with your application essays and submissions, most EducationUSA offices can help you at a very nominal fee.
4. The school that admits you should be able to help explain the process. It isn't that complicated but it can be intimidating. An agent can be useful in this regard, as good agents will have had experience with local US consulate offices. They may know some techniques that have been more (or less) successful at their local offices. An EducationUSA office can help you here, but I suspect that they may be fairly limited in what they say, as they are sponsored by the US government. There are essentially four things that determine whether or not you are granted a visa: 1. Do you pose a threat to US security? 2. Do you possess adequate English language skills to pursue whatever program you will be attending? 3. Do you have adequate financial resources to cover whatever portion of your cost of education that isn't provided by the college or university? 4. Can you demonstrate sufficient ties to your home country to make it sufficiently probable that you will return home when your degree is completed?
We'll assume that the first one isn't an issue, although the checks that the US government does have been known to delay a visa. If you are applying to selective programs such as those at liberal arts colleges, the language requirement is unlikely to be an issue. If you've been honest about your financial ability with your college or university and it is one, like Oberlin, that meets full demonstrated financial need, this requirement shouldn't be too difficult. Do be aware, though, that the Consulate may require more documentation of your financial ability than the college or university did. It really is usually the repatriation test that stops those few visas that are denied. The rule is that you won't get a visa, if the consular officer believes that you intend to stay in the US after your college career.
Boy, am I tired of typing. To summarize... agents can play a valuable role. Their expertise can be useful to you. However, most of what you need can be found free or at a nominal charge online or from the admissions officers of the institutions that you are interested in. If an agent doesn't seem truly interested in getting to know you or is asking for more than about one average month's salary in your country, then my personal opinion is that they probably aren't worth the cost.