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Crain’s Chicago Business recently found that there is a lot more interest in college admissions assistance in the Chicago suburbs than even New York and Los Angeles. The respected business periodical Crain’s Chicago Business discussed the trends in the field with Chicago-area college educational consultant Pam Valle. We caught up with Pam and had a few questions about this burgeoning area that has been in the news a lot.

Q: What makes Valle Educational Consultants exceptional at what it offers parents AND their aspiring students?

A: There is no substitute for experience. We have helped hundreds of families think through the process. Ours is a personalized, disciplined program, where parents and students have access to well-seasoned professionals as their guides. Our thorough, tailored approach sets us apart. We take the time to craft the specific strategy for reaching your goals. This “quality over quantity” perspective gives students clarity, confidence and understanding.

Q: The learning curve for families to win the approval of a great university is daunting, especially for those parents going through the process for the first time. How does Valle Educational Consultants help?

A: Many families have angst over the entire process. We help by adding perspective and structure, based on specific needs. This tends to ease fears and direct energies toward valuable activities, beginning with ways to differentiate themselves from an immense pool of candidates, and highlighting the ways to define a good mutual fit between the university and student.

Q: What has changed for VEC since the Crain’s Chicago Business story examined the popularity of utilizing college consultants in Chicagoland over those in New York and Los Angeles?

A: Through our history, we have grown almost exclusively through referrals from our clients. Now, we are speaking with many new families that are unrelated to our current clients. They have been excited to know that a service like ours even exists.

Q: High school counselors are well trained and understand the college application process. Why do I need a consultant?

A: We are big fans of high school counselors, as we both get the same enjoyment from helping students. But high school counselors are stretched, averaging 450 students under their care. A college-bound student may benefit from a resource readily available in an increasingly specialized, complex and stressful college admissions arena. We work with a limited number of students each year because we find the attention to detail needed to be effective simply takes more time and strategic planning.

Q: Some large consultant operations often end up with a cookie-cutter approach that costs thousands more for unneeded services. How do you ensure clients get exactly what they should?

A: We build our service around the needs of our students and their families and do not have a “standard” offering. Our one-of-a-kind, customized approach allows us to trim unnecessary time and expense, focusing on the most important needs of each client. We also offer multiple engagement models, from long-term, multi-year, flat-fee engagements to hourly consulting on an as-needed basis.

Q: This is generally a time of flux for families with teen-agers; teens have been known to change their minds about their future overnight. Talk about your company’s responsiveness and quick turnaround as the Big Picture changes.

A: We have worked with hundreds of students and their families, and completely understand how things can change. We have had many students flip-flop their priorities during the process, as they learn more about themselves and their priorities. When this happens, we discuss and review their adjustments, helping them shift to realistic options that work for them. Sometimes the new direction sticks, and sometimes we revert to our original plan. We happily flex accordingly.

Q: What was the a-ha moment when you knew college consulting was a real need?

A: I was wading into the college waters with my oldest child years ago. While I found the detail work daunting, I was fascinated by gaining an understanding of how the process worked. My consulting and project management background helped me figure out and develop a unique and effective approach based on that understanding.

Q: How do you learn and become better for the next year’s crop of smart, ambitious teens searching for the best college?

A: Like any profession, it is all about repetition and keeping up-to-date. I gain information in four primary ways – I belong to professional associations, tour colleges, research requirements and desired profiles, and, of course, learn through experience with past applicants. As I do quite a bit of hand-holding through the process–guiding students and helping them weed through a long and varied list of schools I continually increase my value as a resource.

Q: Describe your biggest accomplishment on behalf of a high school client.

A: One student had a regrettable high school disciplinary history that included a criminal record. I worked with the family to help the student get the support they needed outside of school, connected the family to a residential rehab school, engaged academic tutors to help support the student after reinstatement, helped pick up the college-focused pieces and directed efforts toward getting the student applied to colleges. The student was admitted to several colleges and has since done very well.

Q: Teach me something I don’t know about winning college approval of my child.

A: Did you know that many colleges have a Strategic Enrollment Advisor whose job involves responsibility for increasing enrollment numbers while achieving institutional revenues. While colleges need to meet certain requirements, they still look for students with specific demographics and data points that match their enrollment goals. For example, the University of Alabama has devoted resources to attract bright students specifically from Illinois. Part of the current admissions maze includes understanding what a college is looking for and establishing the fit for the student.

Q: Some people argue that of all the items on the family college checklist, from grades and test to extracurriculars and recommendation letters, nothing makes a student stand out from the pack as much as their 650-word application essay? 1. What was the most unusual essay topic you have seen? And, 2. How is your assistance in this important category different?

A: Simple is often best. After a great deal of thought, a client wrote a funny, 650-word story about what it was like to take her first flight without family to Los Angeles. Beautifully detailed, she described her feelings from TSA shoe removal to seeing her town shrink below the soaring plane to stepping into the humid air of L.A. and her new-found wanderlust to visit exciting places around the world. She won approval of numerous college essay readers and is doing well at her school choice. Essay help is one of our standout functions. We are different because we get to know students and their unique voice, providing context as they put words on laptop files. It is surprising how many students scan the prompt but then fail to respond properly. An essay prompt can contain hidden meaning, and year after year teens can miss the cues. We offer guidance to students by making sure they convey the character qualities that best define them and support this effort with compelling examples. We tend to work through a number of drafts, helping students perfect their message in this most important test to stand out from thousands of other essayists.

Q: What separates an ethical college consultant from the illegal and despicable acts of Rick Singer and others trying to game the college application system?

A: There is no such thing as a free lunch. We are reminded of this when we hear of anyone involved in producing results through deceit–and getting caught. The slippery slope starts when “loopholes” in a process are uncovered. The line gets blurred between truth and fiction. Ethical college consultants deliver peace of mind and a practical approach, not additional stress over using questionable strategies to try to gain an advantage.

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