Best Practices for Growing IECS

Every counsellor has their own version of “best practices”, based off personal experience and location. Kristin Sullivan has had over a decade of experience in college counselling, and was kind enough to share her tips and tricks with us!

I was a high school counselor for thirteen years at a private college prep high school in the US and director of the department for three years.  I have also worked as an independent counselor.  Through my years at the high school level I was able to:

  • learn the college process
  • visit over a hundred college campuses
  • meet with many college admission reps
  • I went through the college admissions process with students with a wide variety of talents and range of abilities.  
  • I also was able to experience the process first hand as a parent as my two children went off to college.

My role as an independent counselor has many of the same functions that I filled at the school level, but on a smaller, yet more in-depth, scale.  

Switching over from the school side and working as an Independent Educational Consultant, I have found that in order to set up a successful IEC practice, it is important to excel in three areas:

  1. Up to date knowledge base
  2. Organization
  3. Communication

Stay Current

Staying current in admission trends is important to your credibility as a knowledgeable source of information to your families.  

The US admissions process is daunting. There are so many steps to the process and nuances within each application for different schools, and it’s important to have a good foundation in the basics.

Stay current in trends by getting on various email lists.  I get emails and updates from NACAC, but HECA and IECA are great places to connect with other IEC’s and share information and get updates.  I also have signed up for updates from the CA, College Board, ACT, and even the new Coalition application.  The Wall Street Journal has great articles that touch on current admission topics.  Use technology and stay connected.

However, you don’t need to know everything! What is most important is that you know how to find out the information.

Every college has a different website that is arranged differently from the last.  However, they all have the search box in common.  This will be your friend as you cull the information that you need for the random questions that your clients will come up with.  One of my most common searches is the “freshman profile”.

I start off all my clients with a general college survey. In the Asian market, many students and their families are focused on a school’s rankings. Rankings are a great starting point.  However, there are other factors in the selection process that will make your life easier if you set up a format to gather this information right from the start.

  1. I had one parent tell me that he wasn’t concerned with the rankings, he wanted his child to attend school in a place that he would like to visit.  That was helpful info before I put together a short list!  
  2. I am currently working with a very strong student who plays on 3 different cricket teams and hopes to attend a school where he can play on a club team.  Very helpful to learn this fact early-on in the process.  

If you’re a Cialfo user, discovering this information about your students is easy. Using the Questionnaire, create custom surveys and ask your students to fill it out before you begin shortlisting with them.

Use every search as an opportunity to learn.  Make a folder of lists so as you grow your practice so you can refer back to them.  This year, I had several students interested in nanotechnology who were at different levels of ability and was able to create a comprehensive list for a broad spectrum of students.


When I started working in College Counseling, there was no technology beyond the printer and photocopier.  We photocopied our transcripts, recommendations forms and letters and mailed them to the colleges.  

  • Technology has greatly facilitated the entire process!  
  • There are many search engines to help you research for a shortlist, but what to you do with all this information?  
  • How do you store the list and set up a task list to help your students stay on task?
  • Excel spread sheets, Google Docs are all limited in their function ability, but pick what works for you and develop a consistent system.
  • Or you can turn to software options. I am really excited to be working with Cialfo as we further develop our platform.  

In my current private practice, I have a structure to store files and label drafts.

In the past, I admit I was a little more freestyle in my organizational habits, but as my caseload increased, I quickly discovered the wisdom of sticking with one system.  I have had students resist my format, but I push them to be consistent and uniform. It takes an extra minute or two, but the end results are so worth it! Especially when there is a last-minute essay addition and you are searching for an old draft that you can plug in.

Task lists: Students have so many detailed steps in order to complete the application – asking for recommendations and then following up to make sure they are sent, test scores sent directly to each school, transcripts and school documents sent…  Colleges have become much better in sending out reminders and info requests, but staying on top of it is a chore.  Create a task list for your students so they can check items off and feel that sense of accomplishment. (Cialfo users – use the Task List to collaborate with your students in-app!) 

Passwords: I also request the password and log on to my student’s CA accounts so I can double check that they really did get everything sent.  

Note taking:  When you work with multiple students, it is easy to get their facts confused.  Note taking after every session and entering calendar follow ups is essential to making your clients ‘feel the love’.  It also is your way of insuring that you don’t let anything get missed.  I know it is common sense to read your last notes before you meet with a student, but when you are in season and have appointments stacked back to back, it is easy to cut the corner and not take the five minutes to write up your meeting.  Reading through your notes will help you to remember ask about your students last big test, or remember to ask about their recent family vacation.  These are important ways for you to connect to your students.


Parents generally hire me for my years of experience of working in college admissions.  With my international clients, many parents have not studied abroad or even traveled to the countries that their child is applying to.  Having strong communication will make the US and UK process less confusing and difficult.

Not only is going through the college process arduous, it comes at a time in adolescence when teenagers are going through development growth that is sometimes challenging.  

Students are stressed out by school, feel pressure to test well, stressed by their parents and they are competitive with each other.

Parents on the other hand, can be over-involved, anxious about the success of their child, competitive with other parents, only focused on academics and “shockingly” have unrealistic expectations.

  • Many parents haven’t experienced the US or UK system themselves, so it is foreign territory on more than one level.  They want to trust that their child is in capable hands.  
  • An open line of communication between parents and students is essential with clear deadlines and task lists.  
  • Copy parents on your emails to the student unless they request otherwise.  It is important for most that they know what is going on. However, I have had some who have requested to not be copied.  In that case, I will send an update every few weeks or so.
  • If they see that the student is moving forward, they are less likely to get involved.  But then, there are parents who don’t trust the process and cannot help themselves.
  • The IEP often takes over as a neutral and supportive voice in the conversation.  With students, we can be their friend who cares about their future and will help them get this piece of their life figured out.  

I have worked with several parents who have jumped in on their student’s essay writing.  How could I tell?  Between the several supplemental essays for one university, one sounded like a graduate research paper and the other was clearly written by a high schooler!  Without directly confronting the parent, I was able to point out the differences in the essays by mentioning that it sounded as if they were written by two different individuals!  Amazingly, the next draft was scaled back with language appropriate to a 17-year-old.

Another potential confrontational situation occurs when the parents and students expectations are not reasonable based on their academic record.

I have never told a student that they can’t apply to a certain school because they aren’t qualified.  Ultimately, I advise, but the family makes the final decision.  Helping the family to see how their student’s numbers look in relation to the admit rate helps many, but some kids will still insist that they try.  I just make sure that they have realistic safety and targets.  The reaches are described as reaches for a reason…

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