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Getting Guidance: School Counselor or Independent Counselor?

When it comes to planning for college, most students and their parents are comfortable working with a school guidance counselor. There are occasions, however, when obtaining the services of an independent professional may be necessary.

What’s the difference? The independent counselor may have a different background than a school counselor. For instance, Indiana-based professional college planning counselor Sherry Nowak has a College Planning Counselors Certification from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), which is a specialized degree in college planning. She has been a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the professional organization for independent educational consultants working in private practice. One of the criteria for membership is to have visited at least 100 colleges, so each consultant really is well-versed in higher education planning.

While school counselors are certainly professionals, they may not have the luxury of time in their favor. According to Nowak, “To put a big blanket on it, schools don’t have the funds. School counselors wear so many different hats – they can’t focus exclusively on college planning and many see over 400 students.” Nowak adds that many schools purchase software for students to choose their high school classes instead of the counselors working with them directly to determine which classes need to be taken as prerequisites to other essential courses.

That’s when Nowak and others like her step in. The first meeting with the student lasts two hours, and then they meet for regular follow-ups, especially when choosing class schedules. She prefers to begin counseling students as early as eighth grade and will work with them for four years for a single, flat fee of $400.

Nowak’s fee is reasonable compared to the going rate, which could run into the thousands. She says most charge an initial consultation fee of approximately $1000.

Don’t want to break the bank before college even starts? Diane Clair, Guidance Counselor at Centennial High School in Frisco recommends working with the high school guidance department. She admits that “time is definitely a challenge and our student load is closer to 450 to 1 versus the recommended 250 to 1.” But, Clair points out, “I think that students who are on the ball and have some ownership should get what they need”.

Whether hiring an independent or relying on the high school counselor, Clair adds that choosing a school is really about academic, social, and cultural fit. She says the only ones who know if a school is a fit is the student and his or her parents, and the best way to find out is to go and visit. “Walk on campus and talk to people,” Clair urges. “You’d never buy a car without test driving it. You’re going to spend a lot more money on your college education.”


GLF asked local parents to weigh in on the private vs. school counselor dilemma. Here is their advice. 

If you wish to offer your thoughts, please email: Kendel@goodlifefamilymag.com


“We absolutely suggest a private college counselor for kids going to public school.  The counselors don’t know your children and have no time to give them advice.  The private counselor helps the child stay on track.  They gave them deadlines and helped them write their essays.  Of course, we edited the essays and had input on the colleges, but it was extremely helpful to have a non-partisan third party in the process.

If the child is planning to go to a big state school, it is not as imperative to have the private counselor, but how do you know that unless you take the time to explore the options.  The private counselor had knowledge on many schools that we had never heard of.

I believe the private schools have a guidance counselor that can take more time with the child, but I think it would depend on the school whether the school counselor is sufficient.”

– Terri Train Greenspan, mom of 3 (2 in college)


“Working with a public school guidance counselor is like relying on an emergency room medic who has a dozen more threatening cases than yours. Sure, they are likely well-trained and smart people but they just can’t have the focus and detailed attention that you’ll get from a private counselor.”

– Andy Harmon, pictured here (Left to right: Zach, Lindsay, Andy, Suzy, Bradley)

Andy Harmon family

Bradley is a senior at American University and Zach is a freshman at University of Texas .



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