More Parents are Hiring Pros to Coach Kids for Admission

USA Today


By Fredreka Schouten
April 29, 2003

An American rite of passage is turning into a growth industry. Growing numbers of harried parents are seeking professional help to sculpt their kids’ résumés, polish their essays and sharpen their interviewing skills to boost their chances of acceptance to selective colleges. The services range from counselors who charge about $100 an hour to review a college application to businesses like IvyWise in New York, which collects as much as $29,000 to help navigate the college admissions system.

In 1990, about 1% of high school graduates got help from professionals. Today, about 6% do, and that number is expected to double in a decade, says the trade association for professional education consultants.

“The sheer growth in the number of kids graduating from high school with a fairly fixed number of college slots means it’s become a challenge to get accepted at the college of your choice and a challenge to get through the process,” says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. His group, based in Fairfax, Va., represents about 350 private consultants.

Some college admissions officers are harshly critical of these services. They say consultants do little to help students and just increase their stress levels.

But business is booming. A jump in birth rates through the 1980s is producing a surge in college enrollments, and colleges can afford to become more choosy. In 1990, nearly 2.6 million students graduated from high school. Demographers predict that about 3.2 million will graduate in 2009, beating the previous record, in 1978.

“As the numbers grow, competition at places like Michigan and other selective schools will be more intense,” says Theodore Spencer, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Last year, 25,108 students applied for 5,200 freshman slots at Michigan, up from 19,115 in 1997.

The number of counselors on the job at high schools has not kept pace with skyrocketing enrollments, Sklarow says. The average public high school guidance counselor has a caseload of nearly 500 students a year, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

“The counselors at the high school just don’t have the time to spend with your kids, and we were overwhelmed by all the information,” says Sonya Mallinoff, a parent from Takoma Park, Md.

That’s why she and her husband turned to a private consultant, Lori Potts-Dupre, several years ago to help their daughter, Sarah Giovanniello, sort through the 20 or so colleges she was considering.

“Our role is helping families understand how the process works,” says Potts-Dupre, a former University of Maryland administrator. “Many people are keen on the same 25 schools, but there are so many others that are incredibly good that families don’t even think about.”

She charges about $400 for an initial 2½-hour meeting with families and $200 for each 90-minute follow-up session.

Potts-Dupre helped Sarah refine her search and practice her interviewing skills — and even nagged her when she procrastinated, Mallinoff says.

Sarah will graduate from Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College in May.

Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, sometimes begins working with students in their freshman year of high school — long before the actual college search begins.

She and her staff will plot out the classes that students should take, line up tutors to help students brush up on shaky academic skills, edit their essays to colleges and help students find good internships and study-abroad programs for their summers.

“Colleges are looking at how you spend your time outside the classroom,” says Cohen, author of The Truth About Getting In and Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application, due in August. “They look down on kids who take the whole summer to work on their tan.”

But some college admissions officers say the real targets of their disapproval are paid consultants who promise easy admission to a top college.

William Shain, director of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says parents should be wary of counselors who claim to have an “inside track” into the admissions process at any school. Few actually do, and it can be very stressful for a student to go through intense last-minute coaching in the hopes of attracting the attention of an admissions officer.

And he warns that colleges are suspicious of applications that seem too slick or professional. “I’ve read a lot of essays, and I know what a high school student sounds like,” he says. “When a file feels like it was written by a 45-year-old attorney, it probably was.”

Tips for applicants

1. A challenging high school curriculum. Students should take honors and Advanced Placement, college-level courses.

2. Grades that demonstrate effort. Students’ grades should show an upward trend. But slightly lower grades in hard classes are better than all A’s in easy courses.

3. A well-written, personal essay. The essay that accompanies the application should be carefully written and give a sense of the student’s personality and goals.

4. Strong involvement in a few activities.Colleges want to see that the student demonstrated leadership and initiative in a few activities, rather than minimal participation in many activities.

5. Solid test scores on college admissions tests. Counselors described high test scores as “moderately important” and said these scores should be consistent with high school performance.

6. Special talents or experiences. Colleges are looking for unique students who can bring diversity to the campus.

7. Letters of recommendation. Notes from teachers and counselors that emphasize a student’s special skills and character.

8. Enthusiasm for the school. Colleges want to hear that the student will attend if accepted, and to hear why the student is committed to the university.

9. Out-of-school experiences. Colleges want to hear about jobs and volunteer experiences that demonstrate a student’s maturity.

10.Additional recommendations. Students can supplement recommendations with those from other adults such as coaches or work supervisors. But recommendations from family friends rarely carry much weight.