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."