When she was ready to leave Corporate America in search of a more meaningful career, Tina followed her passion with her next act as a College Admissions Consultant.
Tell me a little about you, your family, your life, education, and work experience before your next act?
My background actually played a large role in helping me uncover my true passion for the transformative power of education that would lead to my next act. I grew up in an apartment in a primarily Italian, working-class neighborhood in Boston, where the local high school had a 50% dropout rate and many people’s aspirations reached only as far as a good job at Logan Airport.
My parents had different dreams; both became the first in their respective families to graduate from college before becoming teachers. Instead of the local schools, they sent my brother and me to a 6-year selective program at Boston Latin School, the oldest public high school in the country. And thus began an intense education that led me to Harvard for college and then to the J.L. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern for my MBA.
After business school, I embarked on a 20+ year career in brand management, managing iconic brands such as Saran Wrap and Sara Lee Cheesecake, before focusing my efforts solely on new product development, which came as close to finding my passion as I had encountered up until that point. I had the thrill of conceiving and launching the Hefty® Zoo Pals® line of interactive tableware for children, among other products for which I have dozens of patents.
I found myself craving more meaning in my work and life.
It was fun, but I was burning out quickly from the long hours and travel. I also found myself craving more meaning in my work and life. Having spent 20 years in the Midwest, I took a job as a Vice President of Marketing in Boston with hopes of establishing the next phase of my career closer to family. My error in judgment in picking this particular job became obvious within the first few days, and after about 6 months of torture, I ran screaming from Corporate America and headed back to my adopted home in Chicago.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
On some level, I had always envisioned myself doing something entrepreneurial “someday.” The challenge was always figuring out what kind of business I wanted to start. One day, while serving as an alumna interviewer for the Harvard Admissions Committee, I had an epiphany. I was meeting some of the best and brightest high school students in the Chicago area, and yet they were completely unprepared for their interviews, a critical component of the Harvard admissions process. I wondered how much I could have impacted their interview outcome if I could have just coached them for an hour beforehand.
Little did I know that there was already a whole industry dedicated to coaching high school students through the entire college process, one that was still small but growing in the Midwest. I continued to work for several more years while I mulled over entering this business, and I started to lay some of the foundation for starting a practice. The leap from a high-paying corporate job to the uncertainty of a freelance college consulting business seemed too scary, especially not having the safety net of a spouse with another income.
When my ill-fated Boston adventure left me between jobs, the time was finally right to take the plunge. In fact, a friend who was training for her own next act as a life coach helped me think through my options, and I identified a college consulting business as one of many paths, one that coincided with my strong beliefs in the power of education to change the trajectory of one’s life.
What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing…
I am an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC). In 2007, at age 45, I launched College Knowledge Admissions Consulting. I help students and their families navigate all aspects of the complex, competitive, and ever-changing college admissions process. The easiest way to think about what I do is that I am like a private guidance counselor. I have a caseload that is a mere fraction of the 600 students school counselors must serve, which allows me to guide families with frequent, personalized advice. I am available on nights, weekends, and vacations when counselors are not, and I can help with things that counselors don’t have time for — such as helping students identify unique and powerful essay topics or generating college lists customized to their wants/needs.
Until you have been through the current college process, it is hard to fathom how many questions will come up, how hard it is to get into certain colleges today even for the best students, and how much stress this process imposes on families. I love that I can be singularly focused on helping students achieve their college goals.
I help students of all aspirations and abilities but, given my background, I have particular expertise helping students who are high-achieving and aspiring to some of the most selective colleges and universities. I have already helped about 250 students find their paths and, in the process, I have found the meaning in my work for which I had been searching.
Why did you choose this next act? What other options did you consider?
When I found myself between jobs, there were three paths I considered:
- Get another job in my current profession – I had no passion for this idea! I was feeling burnt out and, frankly, consumer products marketing was changing dramatically at that point, with the onset of digital marketing and social media. I was beginning to feel a bit old. My previous employer offered me a chance to go back, but this did not feel like movement in the right direction.
- Become a freelance marketing consultant – I actually did do a little of this while planning my business, and still do some small projects in the “off season.”
- Start a college admissions consulting business – this is what I felt the most passion for, had dreamed about longest, and believed would challenge me the most.
I love that I can be singularly focused on helping students achieve their college goals.
There were also a few less realistic options, such as writing a book or embarking on a comedy tour! Ultimately, I just trusted my gut that I could establish a successful college admissions practice, and I began to turn my longstanding passion for education into a career. I was also lucky in that I could turn my marketing expertise into consulting assignments, which provided income while my college consulting business was in its infancy. This also provided a bit of a security blanket in terms of keeping my skills fresh in marketing, in the event I needed to return to corporate work.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
I had really been training for this career, unknowingly, for twenty years while I was volunteering with the Harvard Admissions Committee, and for about seven years with Kellogg, interviewing MBA candidates. I was on the front lines as the college admissions process was evolving, and so I had kept current and received great training. Higher education was also a topic that I had always read a lot about throughout the years, and I have always loved seeing college campuses while on vacations.
Even with all that training, I still needed to ensure that I was prepared to shepherd others through the college admissions process. My timing could not have been better, as many in my large circle of friends and associates had children in high school. In fact, over the years, many of them had called me for advice simply because they knew I had devoted a lot of volunteer time to higher education. For two years, I helped my friends’ children for no or low cost, as I honed my skills and devoured as much industry information as I could. Finally, in 2009, I knew I was ready to take on paying clients outside my circle of friends.
I didn’t really have a mentor to learn from. When I started, people weren’t too willing to speak with the potential competition. In the past few years, the consultants in my geography have gotten very well-acquainted and more collaborative. I think that has come along with an explosion in the client base, and a feeling that there is enough business for everyone.
What challenges did you encounter?
There have been many hurdles and I have faced many unknowns…and still do. It is impossible to know everything about every college, every major, or have an answer to every question. So I learned quickly how to find information and the resources that would help me keep learning.
It was hard to gather competitive information in order to know what to charge. I wondered if I could get clients, or if I could make enough money, or if potential clients would appreciate my credentials vs. the typical education background from which most consultants hailed. But I put my marketing expertise to work and used my extensive network to get information and referrals.
I have met the greatest kids, whose talent reassures me that our future is in good hands.
I worried that I might be lonely working for myself from home with no co-workers or peers, and quickly learned that I would be talking to and meeting with dozens of people each day, and I would soon develop a large network of all my fellow consultants in the area. I struggled with essentially being on-call 24/7, and I still have issues with drawing boundaries between my business and personal time. I feared there would be no way back into corporate life if I failed, so I kept a small marketing consulting practice alive on the side, a safety net I no longer need.
However, the biggest challenge was one that had been brewing in the background for many years. What I had mistaken for burnout and fatigue was actually the onset of a rare autoimmune disorder. I was about to embark on a journey of constant changes in my body as I established this business. In retrospect, the career change turned out to be amazingly fortunate, as it gave me the flexibility in my schedule that I needed to manage my disorder, and it also gave me something to focus on aside from my changing health. Now, seven years post-diagnosis, I have figured out how to manage both.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
Honestly, I have never once looked back since escaping from Corporate America, nor have I second-guessed whether I chose the right next act. That said, I have made some mistakes, and I have certainly left some money on the table at times. Figuring all that out is part of the challenge that I crave.
I love that I have found an exciting new career that I am passionate about, developed entirely new professional circles, and have met the greatest kids, whose talent reassures me that our future is in good hands.
Having 100% turnover in your client base every year is scary, but knowing that people are willing to entrust me with this important phase of their kids’ lives or refer their friends to me is incredibly rewarding. And when a 17-year old boy texts me to say he just got into his dream school and that he couldn’t have done it without me, that is the only confirmation I need that I am making an impact.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
I would guess many people would say they wished they had taken the proverbial leap sooner. I don’t wish that. I think we instinctively know when it is the right time for each of us, and you will know when it is right for you. I was finally ready to leave my old career behind after having achieved what I wanted. I was prepared with the training to start this new venture, was in the right financial position, had a backup plan, entered an industry poised for explosive growth, had a network that could help me build my client base, and had a life-altering health diagnosis that made the timing all the more perfect.
I would love to tell you that I was smart enough to plan it all that way, but a lot of it was dumb luck! However, I would encourage you to think beyond your interests to some of the other factors I mentioned; although, at some point, you still have to take a leap of faith.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
The two biggest barriers to entry in this field are acquiring the knowledge and having the right personality to work with teenagers and families. Perhaps a third that I would add is that, with so many people entering the field in the past few years, some geographic areas are saturated with enough consultants. For example, in the Chicago area, the northern suburbs are very saturated, particularly consultants serving Deerfield, Highland Park, and the New Trier area. However, there seem to be far fewer consultants in the western and southern suburbs, and even in Chicago proper; I imagine there are far fewer farther out and downstate.
Otherwise, there are not a lot of high start-up costs, and you can have as big or small a practice as you desire (for instance, if you are still raising your own family).
Whether the money is good depends on what you used to do before entering this field. I probably make less than half of my former executive pay, with no healthcare or bonuses, yet I would not trade it for the world. I also have no commute during rush hour, work in jeans, constantly receive positive feedback, and feel amazingly rewarded for my work.
A general guideline I have heard is that someone can make between $40-$80K annually, but it can certainly be more depending on how much you want to work and how much you charge. There are regional differences in how much the market will bear, and I personally have a philosophy of being more accessible to families, so I offer “à la carte” services instead of a flat fee per client. Some people may come to me for 5 hours of help, and some may need 20. The number of clients I can take on varies between 25 and 50 depending on how many hours I anticipate each client will need (it is a bit of a guessing game). Experience has taught me that you can’t manage more than 25 students writing essays at the same time.
I probably make less than half of my former executive pay, with no healthcare or bonuses, yet I would not trade it for the world.
There are certification and training courses for would-be consultants, as well as tons of advice books for families going through the college admissions process (see my favorites below). These can help you learn about the current admissions environment and application timing (August through the holiday season). Be sure to think through your own family situation to confirm whether working “realtor’s hours” (lots of nights and weekends) works for you.
Some people are incorporated, but many (maybe most) operate as sole proprietors. It was important to me to be able to accept payment in the name of my company, not only so that people understand that I am a legitimate, successful business, but also to let them know I am not doing this “under the table.”
Many people who enter college admissions consulting do not have a business background and, as a result, wind up giving back a lot of their earnings in expenses that do not generate new business. Be sure you have a basic understanding of business principles and Profit and Loss statements before embarking on your next act.
So how do you find your clients?
This is primarily a word-of-mouth, referral business, much like academic/ACT tutoring. The best consultants are fully booked a year or two in advance, so advertising can actually backfire by announcing you are not among those. There also is a fine line between being perceived as professional and appearing to be a “factory” like Huntington or Kaplan types of organizations. Clients are looking for highly personalized services from a respected consultant, and often turn to their friends who have been through the process before for advice on whom to hire and how much to pay. By the time someone has been referred to me, they are 95% sure they are going to use my services
I do participate in Facebook and Linked In, and those have worked well primarily to help my network of friends, former classmates, and former coworkers know about my new profession. That has resulted in a few clients. Still, I primarily get new clients through referrals from clients who have used me. In fact, siblings account for about 40% of my students in any given year (usually 2-3 years after the first child). I have owned a URL for College Knowledge Admissions Consulting for 5 years, but have never had time to build out my website! It is on my list of things to do, but I am literally at capacity without it and am reticent to generate more demand right now.
Overall, the most important thing to concentrate on as a private college counselor is exceeding client expectations with high-touch service.
Tell us more about how you manage your time, research schools, and work with your clients.
There used to be a definitive peak-season and off-season, but that gap has closed. Before the seniors are finished, the juniors are starting. And nowadays, I have to push off introductory sessions with sophomore families anxious to get on my roster until at least most of the senior applications are done.
Having free time around the holidays can be a struggle in this profession.
Between late July and November 1, it is seven long days a week. After the early applications are in and the Common Applications are done, the workload stays high but manageable through January. So having free time around the holidays can be a struggle in this profession, but that partly depends on how many students you take and whether you can successfully convince them to keep working on applications steadily (you also have to work around their sports and extracurricular commitments). The real break hits in May and June, because the seniors are done and the younger kids just want to finish school for the year before thinking about college.
I spend at least 35% of my time on uncompensated tasks. I go to my clients locally, so there is a lot of unpaid driving time or downtime between appointments. However, I also work with clients nationally via Skype, so there is no commuting time with them. I offer a complimentary “get acquainted” meeting to give both me and the client the opportunity to decide if we are the right fit for each other before making a financial commitment.
Everything has a seasonality to it, and most of the administrative tasks and continuing education (conferences, college visits, invoicing, developing new handouts, revising contracts, marketing, networking, setting up new software and hardware, accounting/taxes, etc.) happen in the small off-season in the first half of the year. During the high season, there is a lot of administrative time devoted to fielding prospective client calls and making appointments, updating student information, maintaining tracking spreadsheets, etc. There is (for me) a limit to how many essays I can edit in a row without a break, so I use that break time for administrative tasks.
I work from a home office but I meet with my clients in their own homes (or sometimes at Panera or Starbucks). Most consultants see clients in their home offices versus traveling to them. I like getting out and seeing the students’ environment. I believe it is a value-added service because students have very limited free time, and it also makes it easier to involve the parents. I have a small house and a cat that are not as conducive to having meetings at my house. I cover a wide geography and feel that meeting at my home might also limit my client base. It is all part of a larger theme of offering more added value than anyone else.
I constantly refresh my knowledge through campus tours, professional associations, and conferences. I travel to colleges regularly, including in the course of vacations. In 2013, I drove from Chicago to Boston to see family and to visit college campuses along the way. I saw 17 colleges in 3 weeks. I try to visit the ones that my highly aspirational students would be most interested in, and I keep a log of schools visited and schools I still want to see. There are college tours offered in conjunction with conferences as well, but I do most of mine on my own.
You have to be able to get kids to open up to you, so you must be able to establish trust with them.
When college admissions representatives visit local high schools to present to students, usually in the fall and spring, they often set up meetings for college consultants and high school counselors. Some colleges invite us to their campuses for special events. There has been a lot of secrecy around IECs (Independent College Consultants) in the past; colleges knew we existed but didn’t want to acknowledge us, and high school counselors still consider us redundant (though many become IECs themselves!). In the past year or two, colleges have started to recognize that IECs influence students’ college lists and they have started actively reaching out to us. I have a huge library of brochures from meetings, presentations, and mailings. Meetings with college admissions representatives provide a great chance to ask questions about what is new with their college or how they read applications, as well as which factors weigh most heavily for them in their admissions decisions.
I love presenting and I do a lot of it, perhaps at the risk of giving away too much information for free! It is a great marketing tool and also a great way to help people start to understand the realities of the college process today versus when they went through it (if they went through it, or perhaps went through it in a foreign country). One of the best ways to sell myself without doing any selling at all is to let people meet me and decide if they like my personality (as a fit for their student/family) and my expertise, so presentations play to my strengths. I probably do 5 major presentations a year, including several coming up in Feb/March.
What kind of personality does one need to work as an IEC with teens and their families?
You need to have good people skills and a high level of emotional intelligence. You have to be authoritative but friendly…perhaps similar to how students view their teachers. You have to be able to get kids to open up to you, so you must be able to establish trust with them. Some kids are naturally outgoing and collaborative, some are shy, and some are wondering why their mother is torturing them by making this lady work with them. They have to view you as a credible source of information, but that seems to be the easiest part.
Tina presenting to teens and their parents
I have found that students want someone to deal with them straight. They know the college process is hard and they don’t want to waste their time applying to the “wrong” schools, so I am very frank with them about their chances of admission and whether a school is a good fit or a real stretch. Kids appreciate open and honest feedback, even if it is hard news to take. I once had a student tell me he thought I was holding back, couching my response. I actually was not, but I am glad we had a strong enough relationship that he felt comfortable saying that.
I have found that students want someone to deal with them straight.
I work with high-achieving kids, so getting them to meet deadlines is not as challenging for me as it might be for some consultants. Of course, I do get procrastinators, those who are over-scheduled, and those who break down with anxiety over the process. I try to get to the bottom of why they are missing deadlines. I tell them that they need to own the process more than anyone else owns it for them. If they can’t get through the application process, then they might struggle getting through college. My contract sets forth expectations for their ownership of the process, and also includes a clause that allows me to drop them for repeated failure to meet deadlines, because it throws off my work with other students.
By the end of the process, many moms want to meet me for lunch, or perhaps drinks!
I find that dealing with parents can present other challenges. Some have a harder time adjusting their expectations to the realities of college admissions today; others just feel bad that the process is so hard and confusing. In my role with them, I am part consultant and part therapist. Many kids start out thinking they will wind up at community college, while many parents think their child is Ivy-bound…and the truth is always somewhere in between! The kids have a lot of peers to help calibrate their college expectations, whereas the parents have less of an opportunity to see the whole landscape. Pinning all your hopes on one dream college is a bad idea. There is a range of colleges that can meet the student’s needs and their future success is in no way dependent on getting into one particular college.
I generally have very close, warm relationships with both kids and parents. I feel their wins and losses as my own. I am rooting for each one of them to reach his/her goal and am doing everything I can to make it happen. By the end of the process, many moms want to meet me for lunch, or perhaps drinks! It feels like we are old friends after surviving the process together. Some ask me about getting into the business too, now that they see how involved the admissions process really is.
In my role with the parents, I am part consultant and part therapist.
I find that most kids and parents work on the college process together, even though there is a lot of eye-rolling going on at times. Most of our communication is shared with the exception of the essays. I do not share essays with parents unless I have the student’s permission to do so. Some kids feel it is too personal (think about getting naked in front of your parents vs. a doctor), or they only want to share it when it is finished.
What are different ways to enter the private college counseling industry?
People enter the industry with many different backgrounds, the most common of which is high school guidance counselors and college counselors becoming independent consultants, many of whom have a Master’s of Education or Master’s in School Counseling. Many admissions directors from colleges also become private consultants. However, there are also many who were formerly lawyers, business executives, therapists… People from all sorts of careers can transition to this path.
When you’re starting out, it may be hard to find an “apprenticeship,” as most established college counselors may be reluctant to take you on. The challenge is that we each have proprietary processes and we would wind up giving away our secrets to train our eventual competition. It is primarily a solo practitioner business, so you’ll most likely have to hang up your own shingle.
You may wish to differentiate yourself by choosing one of many sub-specialties within college consulting. While some people are generalists, others focus on helping students who aspire to enter more selective colleges (like I do), wish to play a sport in college, need to cope with learning differences or a patchy track record, want to get into specialized programs in the performing arts…and more. Often, that specialty stems from the consultant’s personal background.
There are people who only edit essays and do not advise on the other parts of the admissions process. Some mistakenly believe that being a good writer is all it takes to edit college essays. However, to do so effectively, one must understand what the colleges are looking for in an essay, how they are using it in their decision-making, and whether it is an appropriate, unique topic and the right level for a given student and college. The editor should have full background information on the student and know what else is in his/her application.
College essays are not simply writing exercises; in fact, they are about the content more than anything else. Essays should reflect a 17-year old’s authentic voice and not be heavily influenced by adult editing. Being able to bring that out of the student is where the art comes in. I use a proprietary process to draw out topics and authenticity from students.
Do you have any recommendations for books, websites, training programs, and other resources to prepare or get informed about your particular field?
There are two organizations dedicated specifically to Independent College Consultants (as opposed to high school counselors):
IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association)
HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association)
You can start to learn about the field by joining some of the many LinkedIn groups focused on college admissions or financial aid. Check whether your community or your alumni organizations offer networking groups, especially women-only ones, which may help you meet fellow educational consultants (there are now four of us from my Kellogg graduating class and at least two from my college class), fellow entrepreneurs, or those who offer services to entrepreneurs. There is a women’s group for Kellogg called KEWN (Kellogg Executive Women’s Network)
There is no official certification required to become a college consultant, though there is an official certification one can obtain later in his/her career called a Certified College Planner.
Several University of California schools run online programs for becoming a college counselor, which involve 6 courses and a practicum. The UC Irvine certificate is geared specifically for independent education consultants (IECs). UCLA’s program is perhaps more widely known, but has a mix of those who work in high school guidance counseling and are seeking move into college counseling within their school, and those aspiring to be IEC’s. I have recently become aware of one through UC San Diego as well.
The IECA also offers a Summer Training Institute, an intensive program for those hoping to enter the industry. Finally, if you are in the Chicago Area, you could attend the Counselor Academy at Elmhurst College, which is a series of 3 weekend courses during the summer.
Here is an article from Entrepreneur that will give you a great introduction to becoming a college consultant, as well as some resources.
If you look up college admissions books on Amazon, you will be overwhelmed by the choices. Some of my favorites are:
Acceptance by David Marcus
The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg
Admission Matters by Sally Springer and Jon Reider
A is for Admission by Michele Hernandez
When it comes to college listing books, I prefer the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which is easy to browse. Some of the others read like a phone book! I also like the Insider’s Guide to the Colleges.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Lately, my biggest challenge has been figuring out how to grow beyond my single capacity. This is primarily an industry of sole proprietors, and there are a lot of reasons why that makes sense as a business model. However, I think my business background will lead me to some creative solutions in the near future!
I am fairly certain I do not have another next act in me, only because I think this one will keep me challenged right up until retirement, and possibly even as a part-time gig during retirement. I recently wrote an entry in our class notes for my 30th college reunion, and I recounted how, not necessarily by design, I have really lived my life in twenty-year increments, with each twenty years bringing a big change. If I end up staying in this field for twenty years, I will be 65. We’ll see if I have the energy for another act, aside from retirement, after that.
Contact Tina Tranfaglia at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-331-6874
Tina will be giving her well-received presentation, Myths and Half-Truths in the College Admissions Process, several times in the coming months:
- February 18, 2015 at 6 pm, hosted by Whitehall in Deerfield, IL with co-presenter and investment advisor Julie Shechtman
- March 8, 2015 at 3 pm, hosted by Whitehall in Deerfield, IL with co-presenter and investment advisor Julie Shechtman
- Late March TBD at offices of TransAmerica in Schaumburg, IL hosted by TransAmerica financial planner (and co-presenter) Cecilia Chou
- September 2015 TBD in Geneva, IL, hosted by GenevaGEARS
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