By Marina Lee, EdM, IECA (MA)

By now, the statistics have become common knowledge. Over the past decade, the number of international students enrolled in US secondary programs has grown by 300%. Of the 48,632 students pursuing a full diploma in 2014, the vast majority came from the Asian continent, with China and South Korea together accounting for over 60% of the total (Farrugia, 2015), as is clearly visible to anyone touring, for example, a Northeast boarding school.

As the numbers have grown, the backgrounds of the families have become more diverse as well, with fewer and fewer parents having personal experience studying in the United States. As a result, many international families have sought out professionals to provide advisory services. Those advisors can be roughly categorized as agents; independent educational consultants (IECs or professionals of similar skills); and what can be best described as the “aunties.” Agents primarily recruit international students on behalf of specific schools; whereas, IECs work with families and schools to find the best match.

The aunties are often a scattered group of former agents, recent immigrants, new graduates, and part-timers with some connection to the United States. Although many are well-intentioned, they are characterized by a superficial knowledge of admissions processes, often making exaggerated promises and spreading rumors among international families. Uncertain of how to properly communicate their position to schools, they will introduce themselves as aunties or uncles, adding to the confusion.

Not surprisingly, because all of these advisors fall outside of the traditional boxes of family or school, the perspective of admissions offices ranges from caution to suspicion. The extreme end is exemplified by a recent published statement from Lisa Lapin, a spokesperson for Stanford University (Lee 2014), “We discourage prospective applicants from engaging with education consultants. We consider much of their work unethical.” Her statement demonstrates that the terms education consultant and agent are often interchangeable, adding to the confusion.

Lapin’s viewpoint has some merit, particularly given the recent upsurge among the aunties. The low cost of entry and lack of regulation in South Korea, for example, have made it possible for unscrupulous businesspeople to open admissions centers, known as u-hagwons, across the country. Though many u-hagwons do have a high sense of professionalism and ethics, there are many more “consultants” in u-hagwons that charge high rates for basic levels of service and have little knowledge of the admissions process. Meanwhile, the tremendous demand in China has created an environment where anyone with a connection to the United States can find families willing to pay for their advice. Despite these truths, Lapin’s comment lacks both empathy for those families who require assistance to navigate the admissions process and appreciation for well-trained, experienced IECs who adhere to IECA’s Principles of Good Practice and ethical guidelines.

The reality is that some boarding school officials share this sentiment, to the point where certain schools refuse to work with anyone outside of the immediate family whether he or she is an established professional member of IECA or not. The motivation for that restriction is to increase transparency, focus only on the student, and level the playing field. All of those are worthwhile sentiments; however, they assume that all families have equal capacity to understand and take action on the various options to further their child’s education. The truth is that American admissions processes rely on contextual elements that simply do not exist around the world. Ultimately, international families seek out advisors for the following reasons:

• They don’t speak English

• They have little knowledge of the schools or application process

• They feel that available sources of information are insufficient or unreliable

• They wish to avoid making mistakes or missing a part of the process

• They desire to do everything possible to support their children to find better opportunities.

Secrecy and Fear

The true extent to which advisors are used is uncertain. During interviews with admissions counselors at several highly selective boarding schools, their estimates of the percentages of applicants receiving outside guidance included less than 20%, more than half, and “nearly everyone, I’m certain.” For college counselors, the range of estimates was much narrower, with all falling between 15%–25%.

This difficulty in knowing the truth comes, in part, from the feeling among international families that working with an outside consultant will anger the school and thus jeopardize their child’s future. Families become trapped into hiding the use of services that they desperately need and look to those aunties who are willing to skirt the boundaries of truthfulness in their interactions with schools. Therefore, schools’ restrictions on advisors have the unintended consequence of encouraging more aunties to enter the market because the heightened paranoia and secrecy provides the proper environment to sustain nonprofessional workers.

The Role of IECs

Fortunately, true professionals who know both schools and families well are making strides to alter this culture. As more and more admissions counselors experience working with these ethical consultants, a positive image is emerging.

In fact, several college counselors expressed the wish that families would introduce them to IECs in order to facilitate a smoother relationship. As one secondary school placement counselor put it, “I highly respect the work of those involved in this business of admissions. When I see families go in a wrong way, I know that some of the [IECs] will talk with me to help them come back.”

Another said, “I will give credit to [the good] consultants…They know the schools. They know the families. I know that they care about the fit for the child in a way that non-English speaking parents may not know much about.”

Consultants vs. Agents

Several boarding school officers placed great emphasis on the differentiation between agents and IECs. As one officer noted, “I can always tell when an agent is involved, because the rhetoric of child-centered and fit-centered never matches the actions.” The ultimate goal of agents is to fill a quota at a school, regardless of fit. IECs, meanwhile, serve as cultural liaisons between schools and families, facilitating the building of a relationship and helping both sides understand the context behind various behaviors.

In a series of e-mail exchanges, an admissions counselor from a highly selective boarding school said:

[IECs] are key in helping support families who are not educated in the many different schools that may be possible matches for a child. A lot of this lack of education from the families has to do mostly with the lack of English ability. International [IECs] tend to be their lifeline to the child’s world. Another role is advocating for the family. The international family should be kept in touch with just as much as a domestic family [by the school]. If a family isn’t getting the contact they feel they need, then the [IEC]…should be able to advocate for the family.

The Bigger Picture

The United States will continue to draw students of all grade levels, and each school will continue to serve as a nexus for public diplomacy, holding the potential to develop global citizenship within students of all backgrounds.

The decision to send a child abroad is one that no family takes lightly. In this context, the role of the IEC is to empower international families to understand their options and ensure that they continue to be a part of their child’s life. At their best, IECs allow schools to interact with their global community while upholding the empathy, understanding, and respect inherent in their mission statements. It is the responsibility of IECs who work with international families to realize this larger vision and take the steps necessary to fulfill it. It is also our responsibility as professional members of IECA to continue to professionalize our community by encouraging both agents and aunties to undertake the necessary training to better serve their clients and ensuring that schools are aware of the value that we provide.

Boarding Schools Speak: Best (and Worst) Practices by IECs for International Families

• International IECs can add immense value in translation and interpretation services for parents. This comes both when they receive regular materials from the school—including handbooks, grade reports, and advisor comments—as well as in emergency situations.

• I can always tell when a family is working with a bad consultant because the student’s college list changes drastically when she returns from the summer break. IECs need to be able to have those difficult conversations with the family when matching students and schools. The brand-name school is not as important as making sure that students are in a positive social environment that has the right academic challenges.

• I appreciate IECs who can let the child really take ownership over the application process. If I feel that a student is aware of and managing his or her own schedule, then I feel more comfortable with the child’s status and in working with the consultant.

• How much an IEC knows about a family tells us a lot about the quality of that consultant. I am shocked at the calls I get from consultants who don’t know the age or address of the students. Don’t contact schools unless you have done your homework, know the family, and know how to present them honestly.

• Agents come to the school saying that we can pick the students we want from their portfolio. A good IEC, meanwhile, has already worked with the family to make sure that the student meets the basic criteria before they apply.

• It is crucially important that IECs know and uphold IECA’s Principles of Good Practice. If families and schools know that their private materials and conversations are respected, we can all feel like we are working towards a common goal.

• The very best IECs are those who understand how important family relationships are for our schools. I’ve had IECs advise our Headmaster about managing potential crises and turn what could have been a disaster into a growth experience.

• IECs need to know the American school landscape and system extremely well. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to deal with a consultant who is giving bad information to families and students.


Farrugia, Christine A. 2014. Charting New Pathways to Higher Education: International Secondary Students in the United States. New York: Institute of International Education, 2014.

Lee, Jun-Youb. “South Korean Students Turn to Tutors for U.S. Admissions Help,” Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2014.

Mariana Lee can be reached at [email protected].