From the classroom to the playing field, standardized tests to college applications, getting outside help in high school – in the form of SAT prep classes, individual subject tutors, athletic trainers, and private college counselors, among others – has become as mainstream as studying the Declaration of Independence. But although such support may be widely accepted, that does not mean it should be undertaken without care and consideration, and not only because there’s usually a hefty bill attached to it.

At the core of every educational endeavor exists a fundamental question: where is the line between true learning and superficial knowledge acquisition? With the first, students become self-sufficient, able to produce new and different results based on a set of internalized skills. With the second, however, students become dependent upon the provider of basic information, which they regurgitate without critical thinking. “Ideally, we’d like to teach our children to fish,” says David Altshuler, an educational consultant and former teacher based in Miami, Florida.

Along these lines, Altshuler describes one of his first tutoring jobs, with a client who had missed 40% of his middle school math classes and had 8 days to prepare for an exam that would allow him to pass the course. Altshuler spent many hours with the student, explaining basic concepts and going over examples. The student didn’t complete a single homework assignment or do any work without Altshuler’s help, but at the end of the week, he passed the exam with the highest grade in the class. At the time, Altshuler recalls, “I felt wonderful. Looking back, however, it’s clear that, in the long run, I didn’t serve his needs. Good teachers seek to guide and empower; kids need to be motivated and interested, spending time with the tutor as well as working on their own.”

With the sharp distinction between a single, test-driven goal and a life-long learning strategy, Altshuler’s anecdote portrays a classic conundrum facing parents and helpers alike: momentary success versus long-term achievement. Now, Altshuler says, he won’t work with a client who has a “whatever it takes” attitude. “Be wary of agencies or individuals who say, ‘write us a check and we will endeavor to raise a score or a grade,” he warns. “If there is no mention of motivation or love of knowledge, there is cause to be concerned.”

While seeking out providers who truly educate and inspire, parents and students should also be careful to set realistic goals and expectations for improvement, be it academic, athletic, or otherwise. “Every child is different. Some students are not Ivy League or Division I athletic material and no amount of outside help is going to get them there,” says Karen Plescia, an educational consultant at Leslie S. Goldberg & Associates in Braintree, Massachusetts. Plescia, a former college athletics administrator, says “the number one question parents should consider is, ‘What are your child’s goals and will additional, individualized assistance help them to achieve these goals?’”

When it comes to identifying ethical and truly beneficial support, there are a number of concrete steps that can be taken. Search for professionals with nationally-recognized credentials and affiliations. “Word-of-mouth is often the most reliable,” Plescia notes. “Ask the parents of your child's classmates and teammates (or those who have gone on ahead to college) who they used and if the experience was positive.” But, even if a professional comes highly recommended, it is worth asking for, and then consulting, their references. “Ask [the reference] pointed questions about the things that are important to you,” Plescia suggests, mentioning methods of communication, results, style, credentials, and rapport with the student as possible values. To get an even better feel for these values, Plescia recommends interviewing the person in-person, not just over the phone.

Although all of these measures can help increase the probability of finding a good match, there is really no way to perfectly anticipate the fit. Thus, last, but certainly not least, Plescia advises, “Don’t be afraid to ask for someone new, particularly if you are employing a tutor through a large organization. Rapport with the student is very important when it comes to one-on-one tutoring; if the first tutor that comes through the door doesn’t hit it off with your child, call the company and ask for someone new!” At the end of the day, getting good outside help is truly about building an empowering learning relationship between helper and student – a priceless entity that will yield positive returns for years to come.