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Student Counsel

Facing steep competition for admission to top colleges, high school students are looking for guidance on essays, interviews, hot schools and more. Here come the consultants.

Barbara Ries

MATCHMAKER: Consultant Britt (bottom left) helped the Millman family find the right college for Sierra, now a Stanford sophomore.

By Jeff Brazil

Senior class president. Class valedictorian. National Merit semifinalist. Varsity football letterman. With such impressive high school credentials, Brett Garrett hardly seemed like someone who'd need help getting into a top-drawer college.

But toward the end of his junior year at suburban Chicago's Lake Forest High School, Garrett and his parents decided to get an extra boost. They hired a personal college consultant, Nancy Gore Marcus of Winnetka, Ill. She helped Garrett compile a list of a dozen target schools. Some, despite his considerable record, were "stretches." Others were "safe." She coached him on his all-important essay. Told him which entrance exams he was best suited to take. Gave him a handout on proper attire for interviews. And answered countless questions via e-mail, fax and phone.

The pricetag: $1,800.

Was it worth it? Every nickel, say Garrett and his parents. They acknowledge that there's no telling how much of a role, if any, Gore Marcus, MA '68, played in Garrett's eventual acceptance to Stanford. "We were paying so much [for college] we thought it was a small drop in the bucket," says Garrett, now a sophomore. "I didn't even know if the things I was looking for in a college were the right things to look for. She really helped focus me."

The Garretts have plenty of company. Tens of thousands of families each year are tapping into the fast-growing and unregulated college consulting industry. Roughly 80,000 U.S. students hired their own advisers in 1998, compared with 12,000 in 1990, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). In recent years, membership in the association has doubled -- from 175 in 1995 to 350 today. Officials at the IECA estimate that American families spend more than $100 million a year on private college counselors. That's good news for the consultants, and most clients seem satisfied (see related story). But the trend raises uncomfortable questions about admissions advantages available only to the wealthy and about whether consultants are tainting the purity of the process by "packaging" students.

Driving the numbers is the increasingly competitive and unpredictable admissions experience. Gone are the days when a 4.0 grade-point average and a 1400 on the SAT all but guaranteed a slot at Stanford or an Ivy League school or a uc campus. Stanford accepted just 13 percent of its freshman applicants in 1998 and 14 percent this year. Even students with a perfect 1600 score on the SAT are being turned away by some schools. The New York Times in June declared that "the college application season that just ended was the most competitive in the nation's history."

And it might get worse. With the economy soaring, high-school populations booming and more students than ever seeing a college education as a necessity, applications to the nation's top schools will likely increase over the next decade.

But tough competition for admission doesn't wholly explain the rise in private college consultants. Escalating tuition prompts parents to be choosier about college selection, which they increasingly view as a costly "investment" that is expected to net its own "returns." And in two-income families, some parents simply aren't available to help navigate the college selection and application process.

All this comes amid a severe shortage of public high school guidance counselors. In California, it is not unusual to find a 1,200-to-1 student-counselor ratio -- and the same counselor often handles college advising and students with discipline problems. (Private schools typically have a 40-to-1 ratio.) The dearth of counselors in public schools is made worse by the fact that some of the most experienced school counselors have become private consultants, earning fees from $75 to $150 per hour. Joining them are some big names, including Kaplan Educational Centers and Princeton Review. They, in turn, are competing with the likes of Achieva College Prep Centers, which has eight California offices and envisions a national chain of 250 outlets -- as well as contracts with school districts to provide on-site counseling (see related story).

Sierra Millman had straight A's in college-prep classes at The Branson School, a top private school in Marin County, Calif. She was co-editor of the campus newspaper, headed the school's community service program, had leading roles in a number of school plays and won awards for her fiction writing. She scored 1450 on the SAT.

Wasn't all that enough? "At first we didn't feel the pressure," says Sierra's mother, Joy Millman. "But then we started reading all these articles and hearing about kids you thought would have gotten into certain schools but didn't."

Concerned about Sierra's chances of gaining admission to one of her top choices -- Stanford, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania -- Joy and husband Dan (a writer who coached men's gymnastics at Stanford from 1968 to 1971) turned to a private college consultant, Helen Britt. She reviewed Sierra's applications and made suggestions on the essays. She also provided information about a wide range of colleges, including some good matches the Millmans hadn't considered. In late 1997, Sierra won early-decision admission to Stanford, where she is now a sophomore.

Britt, who charges $100 an hour or offers full-service packages in the $2,000 to $2,500 range, billed the Millmans about $700 because she only began working with Sierra in her senior year. (Most consultants prefer to start in a student's sophomore or junior year, so they can help determine what courses the student should take.) A director of college counseling at The Branson School for 10 years, Britt went out on her own about five years ago. She says the main service she provides is to develop a list of potential schools for students and their parents, and then to guide them through the dizzying application process. "The majority of what I do," says Britt, who has visited scores of campuses, "is to find schools that will make that kid happy."

On the road to matching student and school, counselors sometimes act as mediators between students and parents. Susan and Rufus Rhoades credit consultant Nancy Gore Marcus with serving as a negotiator of sorts between them (particularly Susan) and their son, Christopher. "When he and I would have these gnarly deals, she would listen," says Susan. "She was a wonderful buffer."

Gore Marcus began working with Christopher at the end of his sophomore year at Flintridge Preparatory School in Southern California's La Cañada Flintridge. Consulting from Illinois by phone and e-mail, she recommended tests he should take and impressed Susan with an encyclopedic knowledge of college deans and the admissions process. The Rhoadeses paid Gore Marcus $1,800. Now that Christopher has successfully completed his freshman year at Amherst, Susan says she and Rufus, '54, JD '59, would have doled out twice that. "The haves versus the have-nots thing bothers me a lot; it's painfully true," Susan says. "But you have to take every opportunity that is honest and decent and do the best you can for yourself and your children."

Many higher education officials are uneasy about the new growth industry. "The whole point of the college application process," says Jon Reider, Stanford's senior associate director of admission, "is that it's supposed to be yourself. It's supposed to be straightforward. The mixture of a third party into that process is troubling." Reider, '67, PhD '83, worries that private counseling makes the admissions process "gimmicky." Not to mention, he says, the consultants who "monkey with the actual presentation and monkey with the kid's head and raise the parents' expectations."

Even more disturbing are the private counselors and, increasingly, the online companies that specialize in what might charitably be called "essay coaching." There are about a half-dozen such companies on the web. One promises "a personal, intimate, lively, engaging and creative personal statement" for $245. Reider did an informal investigation of its services and pronounces it "a cosmic rip-off. But that doesn't mean they won't make a fortune."

Geoff Cook, a Harvard senior, is the co-founder of CollegeGate, a website that bills itself as "the No. 1 online admissions essay resource." Launched in 1997, CollegeGate offers "comprehensive rewrites" to "correct and make changes to your essay while maintaining your unique voice." The site, which periodically features a photo of the Stanford Quad on its home page, employs "Harvard-educated editors" and, according to Cook, will earn a modest $200,000 in revenue this year. The standard fee: $60 to edit one essay. And just how comprehensive are the rewrites? Says Cook: "We don't say, 'Well, this essay stinks; let me write you another one.'"

Experts say overcoached students, not to mention those who buy their essays outright, submit work that is easy to peg as fraudulent. Jean Dawes, the college guidance counselor at Palo Alto High School, where 75 percent of the graduating seniors go on to four-year colleges, recalls reading a student essay earlier this year. "I turned to my husband and said, 'Well, not only did this kid not write this essay, but I can tell you the name of the counselor who did.'" She confronted the student, who, she says, was embarrassed. She declines to name the counselor.

Industry officials are quick to condemn their unethical brethren. "Anything that is designed to skirt the system, to give a student an unfair advantage, to get them somewhere they don't belong, is horrible," says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the IECA. He says he has ejected a handful of members, and others have left by mutual agreement due to questions about their integrity or qualifications. "I recently had a parent call me almost in tears," says Sklarow. "She wrote a check for $2,000 and never saw the person again."

Counselor Britt acknowledges there are unscrupulous consultants, people who "guarantee" admission into selective schools or all but write students' essays. But she says she has great respect for college admissions officials and thinks "it's hard to pull the wool over their eyes." She rejects the notion that private consultants spend most of their time "packaging" students. Her job, she says, is to advise students on what courses to take in high school, discuss the application process, edit their essays and perhaps set up mock interviews to help them prepare.

Britt, who teaches a certification program for would-be college consultants at UC-Berkeley, says it's a stereotype that private consultants work only with wealthy families and students bound for Stanford or Harvard. Many of her clients are in what she calls the "great gray middle category" -- B-level students and those from middle-class families who haven't realized there's a good school out there for them, too. She also works with students who have learning disabilities and with those exhibiting behavioral problems in high school, including some who were expelled.

She does worry, however, that private counselors contribute to the chasm between students whose families have money and those who don't. "I do think it widens the gap," Britt says. "But I don't think it's the fault of the people who are providing the services. It's the system. There's this anxiety that hangs in the air."

The consultants, of course, can fuel that angst, creating an environment in which students and their parents are only seeking the same advantages others are taking. "Once everyone starts doing it, you don't want your kid to be the one not doing it," says Cynthia Clumeck Muchnick, '92, co-author of The Best College Admission Essays, who runs a college consulting business in Southern California. "It kind of builds into a frenzy." Some consultants blame the schools themselves for ratcheting up the tension. Gore Marcus has been in the college counseling field for 23 years and has two children attending Stanford. "On the one hand, the colleges say they don't expect kids to take all advanced placement courses," she says. "But when it comes down to decision time, it's 'Johnny took three ap classes, and Lizzy took five.'"

Gore Marcus believes a good private counselor can actually put students on a more equal footing. Nothing widens the gap between the haves and have-nots more than elite college preparatory schools, she says. So a private counselor can be particularly valuable to public school students, who make up the majority of her clients. She says she cuts her fees dramatically -- from $1,800 for a package of services to as little as $100 -- for students whose families are unable to pay.

In the end, she asks, is a parent who hires a private college counselor any different from the one who turns to a private athletics coach or music tutor? "There are terrific private counselors and there are very mediocre private counselors and there are awful private counselors," she says. "But most of us provide a very helpful service at a time of transition."

It's a service that is likely to grow over the next five years. The number of children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade is at an all-time high and is expected to increase until 2008. At the same time, the portion of high school graduates who plan to go to college is up to 67 percent from 50 percent in 1977, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

All of which raises perhaps the most important question: just how useful is a private college counselor? Clearly a consultant can sometimes ease tension within families and reduce anxiety about the overall admissions process. Some are particularly skilled at matching students with just the right list of schools. Reider acknowledges that these are valuable services -- as long as the consultants don't overstep. "It's like going to a travel agent and saying, 'Can you recommend a hotel in Venice?'" he says. "That's perfectly all right."

Dawes, the college adviser at Palo Alto High School, says some private counselors do a "crackerjack job." But she also believes the consultants charge too much for their services. "Knowing what I know about the profession and what's required and needed to do an excellent job in putting together a college application," says Dawes, who's been advising college-bound students for 19 years, "I think it's very high on an hourly basis. If it's strictly working on the application and selecting schools, that's an awful lot of money to spend."

Of course, it may be a small investment if it helps a student win admission to a top-tier college. Problem is, no one really knows whether it helps. "Who's to say whether we absolutely needed" to hire a consultant, says Joy Millman. "For us, it was peace of mind."

Jeff Brazil is an editor with the Los Angeles Times. He wrote about the University's athletics program in the July/August Stanford.

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