The other day a friend reached out with a question that surprised me. He was looking for recommendations for college admissions consultants. On the surface, this shouldn’t be surprising, but his oldest is an 8th grader. My initial reaction was “Huh?” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there probably are some situations when starting early with a college admissions consultant makes sense: student-athletes, for example. Not being an admissions consultant myself, I asked a couple of my favorites for their thoughts on the optimal time to engage with a consultant.

“The short answer is it depends on the student and their goals,” said Cozy Wittman of College Inside Track. Most students start during sophomore or junior year, but she pointed to three groups in particular that benefit from an early start:

  • Students targeting highly selective schools. “Having insight into how to use the high school years is so important when applying to that type of school,” Cozy explained. “Strategies around course and activity selection, strategizing on a project they’d like to do to increase acceptance viability, and other strategy areas” might require all four years of high school.
  • Students who feel a lot of stress around the college application process. If that seems like your student, Cozy thinks you would be doing them a big favor by starting early: “I’ve run across many 9th graders that are already sweating every grade and every decision they make. Starting earlier brings the stress down and focuses that energy in the right areas.”
  • Students who have a very fixed budget for college or who are trying to understand how to pay for it at all: “This gives us time to talk about how colleges price, what can bring down the price, which schools might not bring merit aid. When you start early and provide that insight it allows people to decide if they’d like to put more away for college to offset those higher priced schools.”

Another group needs to start early: student athletes who intend to pursue their sport in college. In fact, Kathy Connor of Connor College Consulting, who specializes in working with student athletes, told me, “I am constantly turning away families who contact me when their student is a sophomore or junior and have to tell them that I am already long full. These days I pretty much only take on freshmen students.” Why?

“If they are an athlete and hope to play their sport in college, we need to get on coaches’ radars and start to cultivate those relationships,” Kathy explained. Student athletes need to cast a wide net: “Quite a few will be able to play in college but many are not quite good enough in the end, or the coaches that are interested in them are not at schools they would want to attend.”

Then there’s understanding the recruiting process. “In subjective sports such as soccer or lacrosse, coaches need to see kids play multiple times before they get on their ‘short list’ and this can begin to be accomplished in sophomore year in particular. Coaches can start to actively recruit kids on June 15 after sophomore year ends so we are ahead if those coaches have already been watching the kid play prior to this.” Kathy wants her students and their families to understand how the process works before it starts, which usually means starting freshman year of high school.

And athlete or no, so much goes into the admissions process: what admissions offices are looking for, testing strategy, financial aid planning, forecasting four years of high school classes. Kathy noted, “For example, if a student thinks they want to go to Nursing School, planning their science courses ahead of time so they graduate with the right courses on their transcript (AP Bio, AP Chem, A&P) is important to maximize their chances to be admitted to Nursing School. It would be hard to get these courses in if I started working with them at the end of sophomore year or in junior year.”

Kathy pointed out another benefit of starting early: “My families have told me that they feel so relieved and relaxed about the college going process because they are educated, forewarned, and prepared for what is to come.”

If you’re the parent of a rising senior, you’re not too late– yet. Most admissions consulting engagements include a lot of time spent over the summer before senior year, and many consultants will continue to accept students through fall of senior year. However, the later you wait, the less choices you’ll have, both in terms of consultants and what the consultant can do for you: “There are so many things that are water under the bridge by senior year. The family has often limited their ability to build merit aid or maximize the process to increase acceptance levels,” Cozy explained. “I think about it as choice: if you start really late, you may limit the colleges you can consider. It also means that you may also have missed some key deadlines that might help boost a scholarship package and in many cases will not have the qualities needed to be a viable candidate for selective schools.”

If you’re reading this and it’s fall of senior year and you’re not finding an admissions consultant who will take you on, you might decide instead to identify key areas where your student needs help in the process and find people who focus on those areas: test prep, essay writing, application project management. Because those tasks are time-focused, you are more likely to find someone who can help with them.

Once you’ve decided to engage a consultant, how do you find one? College consultants are a bit like financial advisors, where you get everything from excellent resources like Cozy and Kathy to Rick Singer and a lot of insurance salespeople. It’s also a hyper-local, fragmented market, so word of mouth recommendations or referrals from your high school’s college and career center can be a great starting point. Beyond that, look for consultants who are members of one or more of the leading industry groups, IECA, HECA, or NCAG. (There are other associations and affiliations, too, but be sure to look them up to make sure they’re college-related.) Look for experience in working with students like yours. It’s great to find consultants who get students into the Ivies, but if that’s not your student’s path, that consultant might not be right for you. Make sure they don’t sell insurance products. Most important, they need to be someone your student wants to spend time with, with whom they’ll be open and candid because it doesn’t matter how good a consultant is if your kid won’t talk to them.