College Consultants: Price of Admission

The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Kathy Boccella, Inquirer Staff Writer
October 28, 2007

The season of college admissions is upon us, and savvy parents know that what’s at stake here is nothing less than their child’s Entire Future.

That explains why families are shelling out thousands of dollars to people such as Joan Koven of Haverford, a former marketing manager turned college consultant who guides kids through the increasingly competitive and uncertain admissions experience.

Koven helps students compile lists of target schools, tells them which entrance exams to take, coaches them through practice interviews, edits their essays, and basically holds their hands – as well as their parents’ – through the entire agonizing process.

The price tag: about $3,000.

“The rules of engagement are different than when I went to school,” said Larry Bunis, whose son, Dan, a senior at Cherry Hill High School East, works with Koven. “You can’t leave anything to chance.”

Bunis isn’t alone in trying to game the system. Last year, 120,000 students used private counselors, more than double the number 10 years ago, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Membership in the group has grown from about 600 in 2000 to 4,000 today. The cost can run into the tens of thousands, more than a year’s tuition at some schools, though the Philadelphia average is $3,800.

When it comes to easing the anxiety of helicopter parents and pressure-cooked kids, families say it’s worth every cent.

“I did it for me, to be honest with you,” Jill Backhus of Jamison said about hiring consultant Susan Strom, who not only calmed Backhus’ jitters but helped her daughter, a so-so student, already get accepted into three schools – West Virginia, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and the University of Tampa.

Steering a student to the right school is a big part of the job. Strom recommended 18 schools “that we probably never would have picked” and advised against some others that her daughter liked but wasn’t qualified for, Backhus said.

Many consultants are retired guidance counselors or admissions experts. They get to know the nation’s 3,500 campuses so they can recommend schools that match the student’s interests and abilities.

What they aren’t supposed to do is make promises that they will get a student into a certain college – or any college, for that matter. Some also help with financial planning, though usually that is a separate service.

Growth in the largely unregulated industry has raised concerns about advantages available only to the wealthy and whether private advisers “package” kids into slicker, less authentic versions of themselves.

So many applicants to Swarthmore College use consultants – as much as 20 percent – that the school is considering asking students whether they have gotten outside help on their application, said admissions director Jim Bock.

Stanford University already cautions applicants on its Web site that “there is a difference between feedback and coaching” and advises them to resist the urge to “package” themselves into what they think the college wants.

Save your money, says Haverford College admissions director Jess Lord. “I sometimes tell people, ‘I’ll give you the advice for free.’ I don’t think it is that complicated.”

The people who need the help the most, students in poor schools with too few guidance counselors, are the ones who can’t afford it, he said.

And some admissions directors say they can see a consultant’s fingerprints all over applications.

“It makes it harder to get to the core of what that student is, and I don’t know how that helps,” said Jenny Rikard of Bryn Mawr College.

But no one denies that schools’ confusing selection process is partly responsible for driving the numbers.

Applications, once one page, are now the length of novellas. Acceptance is no longer a sure thing at certain schools. And high school guidance counselors are stretched too thin – the national ratio is 500 students to one – to be able to give students all the help they need.

About a third of this year’s projected graduating class of 3.2 million, the biggest class in U.S. history, will attend college. Top schools such as Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania get so many qualified applicants that they turn down roughly 90 percent, though the national average is about 30 percent.

“So many kids are applying to the same schools,” said Bobbi Hannmann, an educational adviser in Moorestown. “The expectation is a top kid is going to a top school. Some people are surprised when they see that’s not going to happen.”

Bunis wasn’t too worried about his son, a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, getting into college. And it didn’t hurt that he wants to study aeronautical engineering at his father’s alma mater, Cornell University.

But he wasn’t taking any chances.

“It’s so competitive, particularly at the upper level, that small things make a difference,” he said.

At Koven’s suggestion, Dan Bunis hedged his bets by applying to six schools and taking the ACT as well as the SAT and SAT subject tests.

An experience that most parents would describe as akin to dental surgery has been surprisingly “pleasant,” Larry Bunis said.

Counselors like to start working with students in their junior year – by senior year it may be too late to make a difference, they say – though some parents sign their youngsters up as early as ninth grade.

“Ninth grade counts,” said Katherine Cohen, a professional adviser who worked in admissions at Yale College and who started ApplyWise, an online college coaching service that costs $299. “People are waking up to that.”

So what do colleges want? Forget well-rounded. These days it’s all about “specialists” who make an impact on their school or community. Being an A student alone “is not good enough,” said Cohen.
Instead of forcing kids into a mold, Koven, a mother of three and former Crate & Barrel manager, said she encourages them to pursue interests “that make them more of a person, not necessarily an applicant.”

And she insists students stick to a timetable, worth the cost alone. They may not listen to their parents, but “they listen to me,” she said.

Students come to her basement office once a month in 11th grade and weekly in senior year. Last Wednesday, Meghan FitzPatrick and Eric Roseman were finishing their applications, way ahead of most of their friends.

FitzPatrick, a senior at Merion Mercy Academy, said having “a third party” help with the process kept the peace at home.

An artist who plans to major in graphic design and advertising, she applied to 13 schools, with the University of Delaware her top choice. Because she has dyslexia and doesn’t do well on standardized tests, Koven helped her find schools that don’t weigh the SAT as heavily as other factors, such as her good grades and artistic and singing talents.

Though she is a good writer who got a near-perfect score on the SAT writing test, FitzPatrick froze when it came to writing her essay. So Koven told her to spit out all her thoughts, then helped with organization.

“I’m so relieved,” the 18-year-old said as she hit the send button on her final application, to Villanova University, then pushed a big red button that blared out loud, “That was easy!”

Roseman, a senior at Lower Merion, also sent in his last application, to the University of Virginia, his dream school. He wants to major in business, but Koven advised him to apply as a liberal arts major because it was less competitive.

After she had gone over his essay – “Is that how you spell appendicitis?” – and he shipped it off, there was one last thing to do. She brought out a talisman, her father’s old Cornell University class ring, and each student rubbed the garnet stone for luck, perhaps with a silent prayer of “Please, please, please let me get in.”

Tips for Hiring a Consultant

The Independent Educational Consultants Association says members are required to meet certain guidelines for admissions, and recommends that families check out a consultant’s background before hiring them.

Here are some things to look for:

  • Consultants should have a background in guidance or admissions with a master’s degree in a related field.
  • They should visit college campuses regularly, spending at least 20 percent of their time on the road. The organization requires members to visit at least 50 schools annually.
  • They should attend college admissions conferences to stay current with trends. A consultant who gets most of his or her information off the Internet should raise a red flag.
  • They should never make any promises or hype their ability to get students into certain colleges.
  • Families can call the organization to check on ethics complaints.

SOURCE: Independent Educational Consultants Association.
For more on college admission consultants, go to http://go.philly.com/consult