The recent college admissions scandals, in which rich parents were caught bribing and cheating to get their kids accepted into prestigious colleges, rocked the world of higher education. Many people were shocked that top schools would harbor such unethical and unfair behavior, and equally appalled at the sheer amount of money parents were willing to spend on such tactics. Others couldn't believe parents acted with such lack of faith in their own children.

It's not surprising that there are unethical people lurking in the world of college admissions willing to cash in on desperate parents hoping to help their kids at any cost. The world of college admissions can be scary for parents and students alike. There is an enormous amount of pressure on young people to get into a good school — certainly doing so gives you an instant leg up in life, connecting you to job opportunities and peers you won't find elsewhere.

But admissions counseling is a completely unregulated field. "There is not a single state that licenses educational consultants," says Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

In other words, anyone can claim the title of college admissions counselor and set their own rate, praying on panicked parents with fat bank accounts. There's no law that says counselors have to give good advice. And, as the march of celebrity arrests in the recent admissions scandal demonstrates, the only person who will be held accountable if you follow bad advice is you.

Of course, certainly not all college admissions counselors are corrupt. And there can be very good reasons to hire a private counselor — a legit one, anyway. Choosing a school, creating an application, and writing an admissions essay can be daunting to the uninitiated. It makes good sense to get advice from someone who knows the ropes. Just shop carefully for that advice. Here's how to go about it in a smart way:

Slide one: Hire for the right reasons

Finding the right college is not a one-size-fits-all operation. Not everyone needs to go to an elite school like Stanford or Harvard — in fact, many more students thrive at excellent smaller schools. So, don't hire a consultant just because you want your kid to make his or her way into an Ivy League institution, because you're likely to be disappointed.

"Parents think choosing a college is about the school's rankings and that not getting in is a judgment of their student," Sklarow says. "There is more to it than that. Colleges are curating a freshman class. They want someone who will take over the literary journal or run the community service club. Maybe they need an obo player because the one they had graduated. There are so many things that go into shaping that class."

The other thing to remember is that elite schools have very low acceptance rates — hovering around 5 or 6 percent. They put a lot of effort into maintaining those low acceptance rates because they affect college rankings. And they achieve them, in part, by encouraging applications from people who have little to no chance of getting in. "You shouldn't hire a consultant because you're looking for tricks that will get you into a particular place," Sklarow says. "If you don't have the grades to get into an elite school, it won't happen."

Instead, hire a consultant for his or her expertise. They know the colleges intimately. They know the academic programs, the culture, the clubs, and the facilities. They can help you find the school that's perfect for your child but that you may be unaware of.

Slide two: Hire carefully

You can find a lot of information about various colleges just through online research, at college sites like Chegg, for example. But if you want more help and you can't get it from your high school counselor — they have a ridiculous case load — there are great counselors who won't charge an outrageous fee.

"Ask first: Is this person going to have the right kind of relationship with my child?" advises Sklarow. "Does the person raise your anxiety level? That's not the right person. A great consultant should assure you there is a college for everybody. This should be fun."

Look for someone with a degree in counseling and higher education, and who visits a lot of colleges. You don't learn enough to be a counselor just by browsing school websites. You have to go there to see what's on the bulletin board, who actually attends the clubs, what the facilities and teachers are really like.

Then seek out someone with a background working as a counselor, either at a college admissions office or high school. This is a specialized skill that requires a detailed understanding of colleges, campuses, and facilities. It takes years to acquire that knowledge.

While there is no license for admissions counselors, membership in a national organization like IECA or NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) is a good indicator of experience. The IECA has stiff requirements for membership, and it's easy to search the site to see if the counselor you are considering is a member.

Slide three: Hire someone you can afford

Those who got caught up in the recent admissions scandal paid millions to the scamsters they hired. Luckily, real, sound advice doesn't cost anywhere near that much.

At Chegg, you can talk to a college counselor online for $30 an hour, though a more common range for an in-person counselor is $150 to $200 per hour. If you are only looking for some guidance on college choice or how to write an admissions essay, you might only need a couple of hours' worth of counseling.

"But a lot of consultants prefer to work with a student over a couple of years," says Sklarow. "They will do career testing and Meyers Briggs to find out your learning style. They will help with course selection in high school and help build a portfolio." The national average for that sort of service is about $4,200. That's a lot, for sure. But a college degree can mean earning a million dollars more over the course of one's lifetime. Hiring someone to help you choose the right school might just be worth it — so long as they're honest about it.