Should I pay for an independent counsellor/private organisation to help me get into a US university?
The Short Answer: No, absolutely not. They are expensive, currently unregulated and the services they offer can be found elsewhere for free.
The Long Answer: In case the short answer wasn't enough to convince you, here is a little more detail. There are an increasing number of profit-making organisations who will tell you they can help students get into the top US universities, and to illustrate their point they will reel off a list of the institutions that 'their' students are now attending. 'Their' is in quotes because it is useful to know that each of these students also had a school counselor who did the lion's share of the work, the cost of which was built into their school fees. It is easy for independent organisations to take the credit for a success and pass on the blame for a lack thereof to high school counsellors who are solely responsible for the parts of the application that independents cannot possibly impact - recommendations, transcripts, the school profile etc. Independent companies are often eye-wateringly expensive and are a waste of money even if they seem affordable. I have met many Deans of Admissions from US universities, Ivy Leagues and technical institutes. Each and every one of them has told me that they take a very dim view of these organisations, that they can tell when a student has used one and that this is more likely to hinder their application than help it. I'm not sure they can tell, but having attended training sessions with admissions representatives using real-life case studies, they can certainly suspect, and sometimes that is enough when you have to filter out 10,000 applicants. Far more important than any of the above issues, however, is the impact on you, the student. There is something to be said for trying to engage with and explore your preferences and future wants independently; spending time reflecting on who you are as an individual. There is no formula for writing essays, no perfect combination of extra-curricular activities and no way of making yourself the ideal candidate if you don't already have the necessary qualities lurking somewhere within you. Universities are looking for YOU - not a version of you that fits some expected paradigm - so think about who you are, what you want and why you want it. This is not easy but, honestly, nor should it be - the struggle for self knowledge and understanding is part of the eternal question of what it means to be alive for all of us, but only you can answer the question of what being alive means for you.
So, after that brief foray into philosophy, what services do independents offer and where can you find them for free?
How to find the right college for you? No-one has space in their brain to remember all the individual attributes of the 4140 higher education institutions in the USA. Thankfully the college board has an excellent free resource called Big Future that allows you to filter your college search by your personal preferences and attributes: https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/college-search. you can also find an alternative search here https://www.noodle.com/colleges
You can then visit individual university websites to explore in greater depth, and if you get the chance, go and visit these institutions in person - the cost of your flights and accommodation for the whole family will be significantly less than an independent counsellor will charge for their services.
Completing the Common Application The commonapp has developed over the last few years to include greater support for applicants, parents and counsellors than it did in the past. Handily, you can set up a dummy account to explore and practice. In conjunction with this, I recommend visiting the section of their site that holds your hand through the whole application, which can be found here:http://www.commonapp.org/ready. And if you're still stuck, I am here to help!
Essay support I am the first port of call for essay support and advice, but absolutely invaluable and totally free essay writing tips can be found here: http://www.collegeessayguy.com
Help with student finance The advice on this site should be sufficient to get you started. Your finances are your finances and anyone who says they can influence your chances of getting financial aid or scholarships from US universities, and charging you for it, is selling you the Eiffel Tower.
If the sales pitch of an independent counselor or organisation seems convincing, or they are offering any other 'unique' services not mentioned here, please drop me a line and I will happily address them on this page too.