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Counselor For Hire

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Linda Jacobs is one of a growing number of private advisers who are helping high school students get into the college of their dreams—for a price.

Christie Shan seems like the type of overachieving student who would never dream of skipping a class. Born in Taipei, she's a poised 17-year-old who learned English at the age of 6 but has no trace of an accent. She still speaks her native Mandarin and is also proficient in French. With a 3.9 grade-point average, Christie is one of the top students at Seattle's Lake Washington High School, where she also happens to be senior-class president. Her combined SAT scores are a solid 1260.

Today, however, she's blowing off Business Law to meet with Linda Jacobs, an independent high school counselor who guides students through the murky waters of the college admissions process. For a flat fee of about $1,500, Jacobs promises students like Christie the kind of personal attention that few school-based counselors are able to provide. Her goal is to find schools that match her clients' individual needs, desires, and capabilities. It is not, she insists, to get them into the nation's elite colleges or universities--although some of her students do in fact end up going to places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford.

It was during Christie's junior year, when she was starting to think about where she might want to go to college, that she first heard about Linda Jacobs. A friend had gone to the counselor for help, and she ended up getting accepted to Brown University. Christie, who was frustrated by the limited counseling available at Lake Washington, thought a private consultant sounded like a good idea. Her friend told her, "You might want to talk to Linda." So she did. Her parents--Christie's father is a freight processor for an import-export company, her mother an accounting clerk with Puget Sound Power and Light Company--were willing to pay the hefty fee. Even her overworked high school counselor gave his blessing. "He would like to help all the students that he can," Christie says, "but he can't focus on every person."

On this drizzly September day, Christie has come to Jacobs' combination home and office--a beige bungalow in a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the University of Washington--for some advice. She wants Jacobs to take a look at her application to Pomona College--her first choice--and she wants her to read two previous letters of recommendation from her science teachers. Christie intends to ask for a new letter from one of the instructors, but she wants Jacobs to help her decide which teacher wrote the "best" one.

Sitting on the living room couch, Christie--casually dressed in blue jeans and a white button-down sweater--hands the letters to Jacobs, who reads them quickly but carefully before rendering her judgment.

"I think she knows you better," she says, holding up one of the letters.

"Yes, I've had her for two years," Christie says.

"It comes through in the letter that she knows you well," Jacobs says.

"The only thing I'm worried about," Christie says, "is the third paragraph, where she lists all the activities I'm involved in, which will be stated in my application. I don't know if colleges will think that's repetitious. What do you think?"

"Parents want to do everything they can do to help get their kids into college, so if they can afford an independant counselor, why not?"

Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard University

Jacobs, a transplanted New Yorker who doesn't mince words, has a ready answer. "If she wants to do that," she says, "then that's fine. You're not telling her what to write. You're just grateful that she's willing to write a letter." Regarding Christie's concern about the repetition, she adds, "I don't think it matters, to be honest with you."

Writing a good letter of recommendation, Jacobs tells Christie, can take a long time. "So you need to make it as easy as you can for them," she says. "Not only do you want to send her a note thanking her for agreeing to do it, but you want to give her envelopes addressed to the office of admissions, already stamped."

Christie, hanging on Jacobs' every word, dutifully writes down the counselor's advice in a large white notebook. Meanwhile, Jacobs pores over the girl's four-page application, zeroing in on possible problems. She notices that Christie has listed four teachers as references. Jacobs recommends just two or three. "Most teachers will say the same things," she says.

"Do you have a photo?" she asks.

"Yes, but it hasn't come back yet," Christie answers.

"Even if they say it's optional," Jacobs tells her, "I recommend using one. It personalizes the application."

Jacobs takes one last look at the document and then tells Christie to go ahead and type it up. "It looks like you did a good job," she says.

While Jacobs takes a phone call, Christie gushes about her adviser. "What's helpful about Linda," she says, "is that she really helps you look at what your priorities are. Most people look at schools for the names, like the Ivy League schools. But she'll ask you, `What do you want to do? What are your hobbies? What do you like to do? Because you may not like some schools.' I don't think I would have known that if I had just done college research by myself."

Before she first went to see Jacobs, back in July, Christie was already leaning toward Pomona, which has a strong science program. Jacobs agreed that it was a good match, and she urged Christie to apply for early admission. "But she also steered me toward other colleges," she says, including Claremont McKenna, Washington University, Barnard, Georgetown, and Northwestern. If she doesn't get into Pomona, she'll still have time to apply to the other schools. (Which, as it turns out, will be unnecessary; in December, she was accepted by Pomona.)

Unlike many 17-year-olds, Christie seems to have a clear sense of direction. So what's a smart girl like her doing in a place like this? Why is she willing to pay someone like Linda Jacobs a hefty chunk of money essentially to hold her hand while she applies to college? The way Christie sees it, she'd be a fool not to.

"Even if you have great grades," she says, "and you're involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, you still don't know how colleges really pick students. They don't just pick you because you have a 4.0 and 1600 on the SATs. It's hard to distinguish yourself, even at the top. Really good students are getting rejected from schools like Princeton and Harvard. So that's why you need someone who knows colleges well. You get a more secure feeling if you're talking to an independent counselor like Linda, even though it won't guarantee that you'll get into college."

With that, Christie packs away her notebook. It's time to get back to school. She can afford to miss Business Law, but she isn't about to skip calculus.

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