It was around the time Rob Strain realized some of his teachers were confusing the University of Pennsylvania with Penn State that he decided he might need outside help with his college applications. A three-sport athlete with high SATs and a 4.0 average, Strain was by no means a weak candidate for admission to an Ivy League school. As a junior at Poolesville High, in an affluent Maryland exurb an hour away from Washington, D.C., he served on the student government, wrote a bit for the school's literary magazine, and was on his way to becoming editor of the school newspaper. But Strain, who spent his sophomore year at St. James, a nearby boarding school, says, "I was used to having someone specifically worried about my college process and the schools I was looking at. There wasn't really the mentality at Poolesville of sending kids to top schools." His parents, though well-off and college-educated, were new to the frenzied quest for admission to elite universities. And so, much as a Western businessman flying into Karachi might obtain the services of a fixer to avoid getting shaken down at the airport, Strain and his family began looking for a guide. "If I was getting into something that serious," he says gravely, "I would need someone who kind of knew that world."
That someone was Steve Goodman, an independent college consultant based in Washington. Strain made his first visit to Goodman's office, on a leafy street in the Van Ness neighborhood, at the start of his junior year, and shortly thereafter signed on as a client. For the next year or so Strain made the trip down from Poolesville once every four or five weeks, meeting with Goodman to discuss everything from which schools to visit to what his essay topics should be. "My job is to help students translate their lives into a coherent message that colleges that work for them will then respond to," Goodman told me recently. "A very large proportion of them apply to and get into selective schools."
Strain did too. Last December he received word that the University of Pennsylvania had accepted him early admission, and he started there this fall. He thinks Goodman probably deserves some of the credit. "Our first meeting with him," Strain recalls, "my dad asked him, 'How are we going to know if you helped us or not?' And he said, 'You're not going to.' And that's how I feel about it—maybe I could have gotten in anyway, but I sure wouldn't want to go back and take the chance."
Admissions consultants like Goodman have been around, in one form or another, for decades, serving chiefly people of some means. (Goodman charges anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for his help.) But over the past ten years the private counseling business has grown dramatically, and its focus has shifted. Where independent college counselors once served mainly "special needs" cases—kids doing poorly in school or suffering from learning disabilities or other handicaps—they now cater increasingly to kids like Strain, who are already winners in the educational race.
"The biggest irony is that the people who are employing these folks are the people who need them least," says Tom Parker, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst College. Such people tend to have strong grade-point averages, high test scores, and a catalogue of enriching summer experiences; their high schools probably have pretty good in-house college counseling. It's precisely among such high achievers, however, that the perceived consequences of not getting into a top-notch school are bleakest, leading a growing number to conclude that the college-applications process is too risky for amateurs. "I had a mother who called me and said, 'I don't like this process, but if everyone else is getting a leg up, I don't want to fall behind,'" Goodman says. "It is true that you don't need an accountant to do your taxes. It is true that when you go to court, you don't need a lawyer. But the vast majority of Americans conclude that there is an expertise that an accountant or a lawyer has to help them with the process. And an increasing percentage of Americans are coming to the conclusion that they want the expertise of a certified education planner to help guide them through the process."
The transformation of independent counseling seems to have started during the early 1990s. By then the old feeder-school system that shuttled affluent denizens of northeastern private schools to elite colleges had broken down and been replaced by a scramble for "the national student"—the historian Robert Zemsky's term for meritocrats hailing from competitive public and private high schools all across the country. The emergence of college rankings had strengthened the prestige of a few dozen top schools, inducing growing numbers of high school seniors to apply and ratcheting up the pressure on those who once could have expected admission as a matter of course. The rapid growth of test prep, now approaching ubiquity among applicants to selective colleges, was one response. Independent consulting was another.
One day last summer I paid a visit to the Upper East Side office of Frank Leana, a well-known New York—based consultant. Though he's had his own shop for only five years, Leana spent two decades working inside schools, chiefly at Manhattan's Trinity High School, where he was first an English teacher and then the director of college admissions. (Many independent consultants come from high school counseling or college admissions.) Unlike some newer entrants to the field, Leana doesn't believe in contacting admissions offices directly—he sometimes makes an exception for pro bono or foreign clients—and during our interview he never mentioned which schools his clients have gotten into. "I see myself as a counselor who is advising about the process, not advocating with admissions people," he explained. He is studiously self-effacing about his role, and—notwithstanding a marked resemblance to Dick Cheney—retains the soothing voice and low-key manner of someone who spends a lot of time talking to adolescents. (Differing with me on a point, he'd say pleasantly, "I'm not agreeing with that, Nick.")