It was a story fit to impress the most skeptical college-admissions officer. A teenager is raised by her mother in Spanish Harlem. The girl has little contact with her father, but eventually, that void becomes a fount of motivation. She pushes herself academically, takes a position in student government, and resolves that one day she will leave New York City to attend college, though not too far from home.
But before Yasmin Vega, 17, wove those memories into a personal essay for her college applications, she sought an outside opinion. Last summer, the senior at the Manhattan Center for Science & Mathematics High School turned in a rough draft to visiting advisers from College Coach, one of a number of private businesses across the country that offer specialized college- counseling services to students and their families.
The company’s advisers suggested she pare down some of the essay’s chronological details, and focus more on explaining why certain events mattered to her. They told her to think about stripping some details and to be more specific about other accomplishments.
By the time she began applying to colleges last fall, Ms. Vega had a more polished personal essay in hand. She eventually included it in her application to Ithaca College in upstate New York, where she gained admission and will begin her studies in the fall.
Over the years, the range of services offered by companies such as College Coach, based in Newton, Mass., has steadily expanded, and so has their clientele. Today, those businesses market themselves to students and families, schools and districts, and even corporations, which provide college-planning advice as a perk to employees.
College Coach was contracted by Ms. Vega’s school to provide a variety of services that typify the private-counseling business today: advice about personal essays, financial aid, and preparing for college-entrance exams.
Some students are looking for advice that will bolster their chances of getting into a prestigious college—though others, like Ms. Vega, say finding a school that is the right fit means more.
From the start, Ms. Vega was targeting a school with a communications program, located no more than a four- or five-hour drive from the city, and with a medium-size student population. College Coach helped her to come up with a list of possibilities, then whittle it down.
“It helped in the whole process,” Ms. Vega said. “In the fall, everybody was just getting started, and I was already done with my personal essay and everything.”
College Coach is paid $35,000 a year by the nonprofit, New York-based Children’s Aid Society to provide services at the public science and math school, which is part of the 1.1 million-student New York City school system.
The company works in at least 25 school districts, charging them somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000 per year, said Michael London, the president and founder of the company. Some school administrators want the company to help train counselors and teachers in writing recommendations and critiquing student essays; others want the business to stage college-planning seminars and workshops for students and families.
Individual families typically pay from $650 to $6,500 for help from the company, which has 47 employees. Clients seeking the most expensive services can secure one-on-one counseling sessions from its most experienced advisers, such as Lloyd Peterson, a former associate director of admissions at Yale University.
Business Is Good
The private-counseling field is also full of self-employed consultants, often retired high school counselors or college-admissions officers working out of their homes.
Mark H. Skarlow, the executive director of the Fairfax, Va.-based Independent Educational Consultants Association, believes many of the private businesses began to take hold in the 1970s. His organization supplies professional training to individual counselors, offers them ethical guidelines, and provides a list of qualified consultants. Five years ago, his association had 170 members; it has 381 today.
Not surprisingly, the greatest number of counseling businesses can be found in regions that are home to the most selective colleges, with the Northeastern states being a particular hub. Fairfield County, Conn., “has more college consultants than [it does] Starbucks,” Mr. Skarlow quipped, looking over a membership directory.
Demand for private counseling has spiked as pressure on students to get into college has grown, experts say.
Elite private colleges are more demanding than ever, and many public institutions that were relatively nonselective years ago are raising their admissions standards, too, in the face of increasing demand and limits on enrollment, said Barmak Nassirian, an associate director at the Washington-based American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Partly as a result, high school counselors today juggle more tasks than ever. They must help college-bound students make the right college choices, while also reviewing course schedules, arranging tutoring and special services, and helping teenagers cope with crises in their lives.
“College is certainly part of what they do, but it can’t be all of what they do,” said Jill Cook, the director of programs for the American School Counselor Association, based in Alexandria, Va.
Her association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1. Yet today, that average hovers around 477-to-1 in K-12 systems, Ms. Cook estimates. Many high schools try to cope with those limitations, she said, by practicing “domain counseling,” in which advisers assume different specialties, such as the college-application process, academic counseling, and social problems.
The biggest share of the students and families that College Coach serves, roughly 75 percent, are interested in highly selective colleges and universities, Mr. London said. But he and other industry officials say they are equally capable of helping students find the right two-year or other nonelite campus.
His company guides teenagers with interests ranging from “community colleges through Harvard,” Mr. London said. “Some students haven’t done well in high school. Some may ask us if they should take a year off, or go to a community college first, then transfer.”
Mark H. Kuranz, a former president of the American School Counselor Association, acknowledges that the everyday burdens faced by his colleagues have fueled interest in college advice from private counselors. But in his view, a traditional counselor offers students insight that a hired consultant can’t.
An on-site counselor can write letters of recommendations and help shape application essays based on a detailed knowledge of students’ personal histories, he said, from having spent hours with the students. Those counselors can ask for individual teachers’ tips about students’ strengths and anecdotes illustrating their abilities.
“By the time the kids are seniors, I feel I know them,” said Mr. Kuranz, one of six counselors at the 2,000-student Jerome I. Case High School in Racine, Wis. “What specialization do [these companies] bring that gives these kids an advantage?”
Helping the Wealthy?
Mr. Nassirian said there was truth to the oft-cited worry that private-counseling services help more affluent students and families who can afford to pay for those services.
Schools and districts that contract with private companies have the opportunity to bring more equity to that process, he added—though wealthier schools, which are more likely to have well-funded counseling services, are also more likely to be able to pay for private consultants.
Students and parents can help themselves, Mr. Nassirian noted, by researching colleges on their own, early on—and committing to a strong academic curriculum. “If there’s a magic bullet,” he said, “that’s it.”
He also cautions that admissions officers are generally more impressed with the totality of a student’s achievements than with a single dazzling essay or recommendation. And that’s why he says schools and parents should weigh the services of counseling consultants carefully before doing business with them.
“There are some [companies] that provide nothing more than window dressing that admissions officers can immediately see through,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Companies Step In to Fill Teenagers’ Guidance Needs