Independent Counsel

For private admissions consultants business is booming. But is their expensive expertise worth the cost?

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.")

Like the older breed of independent consultants, Leana still gets referrals from headmasters, psychiatrists, and therapists—people who "meet someone who is on the wrong track," he said. "They can't help them, and they'll send them to me." But over the years he's noticed that more and more of his clients are what he describes as "clear-cut, very strong" students, many of them demographically advantaged kids who feel overburdened by the expectations of their families and peers. "I dislike the perception that if you have money and are privileged, you don't need help," Leana said. He gestured toward the waiting room outside his door. "If you need help, you should get help."

Leana provides consultation by the hour, but he prefers to have long-term relationships with clients. "We don't do a lot of piecemeal services," he said, "because then you're doing triage, and I want to do counseling." For about $5,500 Leana provides unlimited help—whatever time is needed "to get the job done." He works with students in a cozy, quiet office with beige walls and a comfortable couch with cityscape views. Like many consultants, he asks new clients and their parents to fill out lengthy questionnaires before coming in for an evaluation. "You want to get a sense of a student's accomplishments, credentials, goals, issues, needs."

Over the next year or two Leana sees them fifteen or so times. Earlier sessions focus on which schools to apply to. If necessary, Leana will gently push parents away from their Harvard fantasies, and try to broaden their horizons beyond the U.S. News rankings. Once he learns what his clients are interested in, he may steer them toward specific summer activities or internships. "The cynics will say that you're just trying to pad your résumé for college," he admitted. "But the educator can say, 'Hey, if you do some of these things, regardless of what might motivate you, you're going to have a better high school experience.'" As deadlines near, Leana conducts mock interviews, serves as an extra set of eyes on applications, and provides a sounding board for essays, the writing of which—as anyone who has ever applied to college knows—can be awkward and torturous for even the most confident kid.

It's fair to look at all this and wonder how it differs from what high school counselors do, or are supposed to do. The differences are of degree, not kind. Leana sees fewer students—about seventy-five a year, compared with about 250 for counselors at private schools and perhaps twice that for counselors at public schools. As a result, he can focus more attention on each student; he also has the time to amass a wider array of contacts and information than most school-based advisers, who may have smaller travel budgets and responsibilities other than counseling. Leana goes to a lot of conferences, meets a lot of admissions officers, and visits a lot of campuses. In theory that makes him more adept at matching kids with suitable schools and—when it comes time to mold clients' applications—positioning them to get in.

"A really respectable educational consultant is filling a void in terms of information regarding the process," says Howard Greene, a veteran independent consultant and a former associate dean of admissions at Princeton who is widely referred to as the "granddaddy" of the trade. "We enjoy the luxury of being able to spend twenty-four-seven focused on this very complex process of educational planning. It's what the high school counselors would like to do for families if they had the ideal environment."

There's little evidence, though, that the growth in independent consulting has been driven by kids who are poorly served by their high school counselors. To begin with, most clients are at least reasonably well off. (According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, fees average around $2,650 for ten to fifteen hours' worth of visits, and more than 70 percent of clients have family incomes over $75,000.) And they tend to be enrolled in schools whose counselors have reasonable workloads. Nor is applying to college appreciably more complicated now than it was two decades ago.

What has changed—aside from the degree of hysteria among parents—is the college-admissions calculus itself. One factor is the significant grade inflation that began to afflict American high schools during the late 1980s, and took a sharp turn for the worse throughout the 1990s. From 1987 to 2002, according to the College Board, the share of college-bound seniors with high school averages in the A range rose from 28 percent to 41 percent. Significantly, the greatest inflation occurred among advantaged groups such as whites, suburbanites, and students at private schools, rather than among disadvantaged groups where there was more room for improvement. Grade inflation is said to be particularly acute at schools where college mania is worst, as parents and administrators put more pressure on teachers to avoid "sabotaging" kids' chances with low grades. A second factor is the 1995 "recentering" of the SAT—essentially a rejiggering of the curve to bring up average scores after a decades-long decline. In addition to raising the average, recentering shrank the gap in scores between candidates at the top of the elite-college applicant pool. The year before the recentering, for instance, Georgetown had about a hundred candidates with verbal scores of 750 or above. The year after, that number shot up to about 1,250. As test prep became de rigueur for those applying to selective schools, applicants' scores bunched up even further; today Georgetown has roughly 2,200 candidates each year with verbal scores above 750.

As a growing number of applicants have gotten top scores on these "hard" portions of the college application, admissions officers at selective schools have been forced to rely more on "soft" measures, such as teacher recommendations, the perceived difficulty of the student's curriculum, excellence in extracurricular activities, and, most important, the college essay. "It's kind of like what happened to the dollar when it went off the gold standard—it just floated," says Bruce Poch, the vice-president and dean of admissions at Pomona. "So we've lost some of our frame of reference at the most selective places, and are therefore spending more time on the more subtle stuff." These, of course, are the parts of the application on which consultants can have the most influence. Just as families came to see SAT preparation as a way to nudge up scores on the hard measures, they are coming to see consultants as a way of improving their kids' performance on the soft measures.

Inevitably, this perception has resulted in another significant change in the college consulting business: students are approaching independent counselors in earlier grades. Though the vast majority of kids who work with counselors still start at the end of tenth grade or the beginning of eleventh, all the consultants I spoke with said that more and more families are seeking help earlier. "If they come to you too late, you can't do as much," Leana says. A student entering her senior year, consultants point out, can't go back in time to add more Advanced Placement courses to her transcript or apply for an internship at a bank instead of spending the summer at the beach. And as colleges have demanded evidence of "leadership" and "impact" (awards won, official positions held in clubs and on teams), the threshold of the college-admissions process has been pushed further back, to sophomore or freshman year. "What I love is when kids come who are ninth-graders, eighth-graders, for what I call an educational planning session," Leana says. "And that's not about getting into college. That's about looking ahead at high school and saying, 'All right, what can I get out of this, how can I get that out of this, what are some interests I can develop?'"

Like any other maturing industry, private admissions counseling has begun to diversify. Once a trade with just a handful of practitioners, it now encompasses boutique practices and large firms, old hands and brash upstarts, generalists and specialists. There are Web sites, including EssayEdge, which promises to have your application essay looked over by "Harvard-Educated Editors"; companies that run tours of college campuses; and even summer camps where kids spend a few weeks writing their applications and burnishing their interview skills. Demand continues to bring consultants into the field: retired teachers, former high school counselors or college admissions officers, even parents who got a few of their own kids into top schools and decided to hang out a shingle. "There's extraordinary unevenness," Tom Parker, of Amherst, says, "from people who are literally giving students bad advice and faulty advice—particularly when it comes to financial aid—to people who are really quite good, who understand the process, who aren't trying to hoodwink us, who want to provide kids with a reasonable service."

Not surprisingly, increased competition has spurred a dash for credentials. "The field of independent counseling is in an unprecedented period of growth," says Mark Sklarow, the executive director of the IECA, whose membership has grown by a third in just the past two years. "We get a hundred applications for membership a month." The National Association for College Admission Counseling—traditionally a membership group for college admissions officers and school-based counselors—now has twice as many independents on its roster as it did a decade ago. UCLA's extension school began offering a certificate in college counseling in 1993, with about a hundred enrollees. This year it has more than six times that number.

There's a fair bit of sniping between established consultants and newer entrants, who tend to see college counseling less as a calling and more as the booming business it has clearly become. On the same day that I met with Frank Leana, I paid a visit to Katherine Cohen, the founder of the consulting firm IvyWise and another top pick among wealthy families. A couple of years ago Cohen was the subject of a cover story in New York magazine, which dubbed her "The $28,995 Tutor"—for what at the time was her maximum rate for a two-year comprehensive counseling package. In a field where personalities tend toward the fusty and professorial, Cohen is a stylish thirtysomething blonde with a husky voice and a well-kept manicure. She's also unabashedly self-promoting: about fifteen seconds into our interview she bragged, unprompted, that this year "eighty-five percent of our kids got into their number-one-choice dream school, and a hundred percent of the kids overall got into their first- or second-choice school."

Cohen got a lot of flak—and also plenty of clients—after the New York story came out, and some point to her as an example of all that has gone wrong in the world of counseling. (Bruce Poch described her as "a really great snake-oil salesman.") And it's true that although Cohen has mastered the therapeutic patois of her field—"We take a look at what [students'] needs are and what their personal and educational goals are, and then we come up with a plan for them," she explained to me—she is at heart a saleswoman. She doesn't talk about counseling; she talks about "the IvyWise process." But on closer inspection it seemed to me that Cohen, though less well credentialed than her more established peers (before founding IvyWise, she worked as a private academic tutor, received a certificate in college-admissions counseling from UCLA, and served as a first reader in Yale's admissions office), was not that different from the other consultants I spoke with. What is unique about her is the extent to which she has embraced counseling's shift from a somewhat informal extension of the high school guidance office to a profitable business in which people of means expect to need expert advice and near-industrial-scale regimentation. In Cohen's hands, applying to college looks a little like deploying a brigade to Iraq: her clients get personalized color-coded binders an inch and a half thick, bursting with checklists, schedules, deadlines, information on internships and prizes, and assignments designed to familiarize kids with the colleges they think they want to go to. "Doing this with one of our counselors"—she gestured to a binder—"it's been shown, through our past statistics, will give you an edge. Absolutely, they will have an advantage. Mainly, though, it's because they're going to put work into it, and they're going to work with us to become the best them that they can be. We are guiding them. In a lot of ways, I feel like we're more life coaches."

There is, of course, that price tag. When asked how much her services cost, Cohen seemed eager to set the record straight. She explained that her top rate—now $32,995—is only for the deluxe "junior/senior platinum package," involving more than a hundred hours of work ("So if you break it down hourly, you're looking at about three hundred dollars an hour"—well within the typical range for top consultants). She then had her assistant print out a brochure showing the many "a la carte" services IvyWise counselors offer in the three- and four-figure range. She also let me know that a third of her clients are pro bono cases, and argued that "educators across the board should be getting paid more money."

After several minutes of this Cohen paused for a moment. "You know what the right price to charge is?" she finally asked. I shook my head no, expecting some lofty defense of pedagogical principle. "The right price to charge," she told me, "is what the market will bear ."

But even as private consultants position themselves as necessary guides through the college-admissions process, they are provoking a backlash from the very gatekeepers they're paid to finesse. In June I visited Charles Deacon, the dean of admissions at Georgetown University. We sat in a large, spare conference room where just a few months earlier Deacon and his admissions staff had winnowed some 15,000 applications down to a freshman class of about 1,500. Like many people involved in admissions work, Deacon has a kindly, paternal aspect. But he is known in the business as something of a hardliner—a fierce critic of practices that have fed what he calls, with a wave of his hand, the "craziness" of college admissions.

Most admissions officers at selective schools say they won't discuss individual cases with independent counselors; Deacon takes no calls from them, period. "We simply don't work with private counselors," he told me. "There is no question that a private counselor is the hired hand of the family to get the kid an advantage." Deacon says he doesn't mind counselors who help kids pick out the right school, or guide people who are new to elite-college admissions through the process. (Everybody seems to agree, for example, that students applying from outside the United States usually need independent counseling.) But he's sour about what the field is becoming. "What you have is a vulnerability out there, and it really isn't lack of counseling—it's the need to buy any edge you can buy. People will pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to some individual if they believe it's going to pay off. And why do they think it's going to pay off? Presumably, this independent counselor is able to say, 'Here's where my kids get into school.'"

Exactly what counselors do promise—explicitly or implicitly—is, of course, part of the delicate dance of the profession. There's little doubt that most of the parents who approach independent counselors think they will improve their children's chances of getting into a good school. Look at consultants' Web sites and promotional materials, and the message is hard to miss. Some not only list the schools to which their clients have been admitted but also say how many of their clients have been admitted there. If asked, some counselors will even tell you which admissions offices they find are friendliest to independent counselors. (Georgetown never seems to be on the list.) When pressed, though, most reputable independent counselors say they never try to help kids get into schools they're unsuited for. "Our goal is what's in the best interest and future planning for the child," Howard Greene says. "It's not taking the fee from parents by claiming you can shoehorn a kid into an elite college." Counselors are not hired guns, they argue, but matchmakers, sounding boards, knowledge banks. Or, as Cohen puts it, "We don't get kids into college. Students get themselves into college."

In truth, it's hard to evaluate how useful or effective private counseling is in any given case—and impossible to say whether a kid could have gotten into a particular college without outside help. Experienced college admissions officers have usually read tens of thousands of essays, recommendations, and brag sheets during their careers; they're good at ferreting out the signs of overaggressive coaching. If you don't already have what it takes to get into a selective college, they argue, you probably can't get it from an independent counselor. "I am still pretty darn good at reading an essay and telling you what the verbal SAT is," Tom Parker says. "I'll read an essay and say, 'Yeah, somewhere in the seven hundreds, or somewhere in the six hundreds,' and I'm usually right. For a place like [Amherst], ninety percent of applicants have extraordinary consistency in their application file, from beginning to end. You look at the scores, at what the teachers say about them, and you say, 'This all hangs together, this makes sense to me.'" Most of the admissions officers I spoke with said that extra college counseling, when undertaken by talented kids, is usually superfluous—and in some cases can actually hurt their chances. "Many families now feel they are disadvantaging their kids if they don't sign them up for all this stuff," says Robin Mamlet, the dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford. "The irony is that sometimes it really does obscure the real individual underneath and make it harder for us to see who they are—and harder for them to get in."

Over time that, too, may prompt a reaction from the world of elite higher education. If colleges begin to lose faith that the soft parts of an application truly reflect the kid whose name is on it, the pendulum will begin swinging back in the direction of the hard measures—toward an admissions culture that depends largely or even entirely on standardized-test scores. For now, admissions officers at selective schools "do have the opportunity to do full-file review," Parker says. "We come somewhere close to making some judgments on soft data that I think make our admissions process superior to an exam-driven process. But I see all of the forces that are trying to control all the soft data, where we make our interpretation, and driving us toward an exam-driven culture." That would do more than solidify the advantages of high-scoring affluent kids—it might, perversely, put most educational consultants out of business. Until then, however, it's tempting to view independent counseling as, in Poch's words, "the 2004 version of unnecessary orthodontia."