Smoothing The Way (For A Fee)

The Hartford Courant

By WILLIAM WEIR
March 20, 2006

Consultants Are The Latest Tool In Getting Into Your Dream School
Bonnie DiNardo’s son and daughter were both industrious students in high school. But with only average SAT scores, she wondered if they would get lost in the sea of college applicants.She hired JoAnne Carter, an educational consultant, to guide her children through the increasingly complicated and competitive process. Carter sorted through boxes of brochures, pored over forms and tailored the search to each child’s interests and abilities. For DiNardo’s daughter, she even called some university officials who might not have looked past her SAT results.”She picked up the phone and said, `Here’s a kid who works very hard,’ and she made things happen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened,” says DiNardo of Easton. “Without Joanne making those calls for her, I don’t know if that would have happened.”Today, her son is at Marymount Manhattan College, and her daughter is at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Both are happy and doing well.

When she founded Education Solutions in Essex 10 years ago, Carter was one of only a few consultants specializing in the college applications process. Officials at the Independent Educational Consultants Association estimate there are 2,000 such consultants, and they expect to see that number double in the next five years.

About 10 years ago, there were probably 400 to 500 consultants. Connecticut is particularly heavy with consultants, especially in Fairfield County.

“As we like to say, there are more consultants than Starbucks in suburban Connecticut,” says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the IECA.

So what do you get when you hire a professional consultant? Services vary widely. Some parents just want someone to look over the application forms. Others hire a college prep coach while their children are still in middle school. The range of fees is just as wide, from a few hundred dollars to $36,000.

Some parents say the extra help is a must in an ever-increasingly competitive race for the best schools. The number of high school students is on the rise, and subsequently, so are the number of college applications for essentially the same number of openings. Population experts say the trend should continue until 2009. Most agree that a professional consultant can give applicants an edge – how much of one is debatable.

A more troubling question is whether consultants widen the rich-poor gap by providing an advantage to those who least need it.

Hire Michele Hernandez, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth, and your kid could get calls from her Oregon-based business a few times a week for the next three or four years. As part of her “plan of attack,” she’ll advise on course selection and extracurricular activities and conduct mock interviews. If she works with your child from eighth or ninth grade right up to acceptance, it will cost about $36,000. More commonly, she starts working with students when they’re sophomores – for which fees run to about $28,000.

It sounds like a lot of money, Hernandez says, but not when you look at the big picture. If you’re going to spend $160,000 for a four-year college education, you might as well get the best preparation you can. Hernandez says clients have told her that, everything considered, her fee is a drop in the bucket.

“Some people don’t think anything of spending that much for a Lexus,” she says.

For a lot of families, though, that kind of money is never a drop in the bucket. Reggie Kennedy, senior associate dean of admissions at Trinity, worries how this new development in the process will affect less privileged students, like many in Hartford ‘s public schools.

“I doubt that there are many families there with the wherewithal to afford those kinds of services.”

Hernandez understands that the price of her services is yet one more factor that helps decide who goes to which school. But it’s a societal problem that’s been around a lot longer than professional consultants, she says. Hernandez and her competitors are just working within the system.

Carter in Essex takes a less intense approach to her consulting. She won’t take any students until the middle of their junior year. Until then, kids should concentrate on being kids, not college applicants.

She charges $100 per hour, but Carter says parents can sometimes end up saving money if she ferrets out a scholarship for their child. Her business partner, Kathleen Tamborlane, is a psychologist and they employ a team of specialists.

Carter has seen the industry grow immensely, and not always for the better. Many consultants play on the fears of parents, she says. “I really feel that it’s becoming too stressful and such a hype,” she says.

Her advice to students: Don’t go off to India for the summer because you think it will look good to college officials. You’re better off getting a summer job. That’ll show a certain amount of discipline.

“Don’t do anything to build your resume,” says Carter, who has worked as both an English teacher and an administrator in elementary, middle and high schools. “Do it because you love to do it.”

Katherine Cohen, founder of the consulting firm IvyWise in New York, isn’t so sure about this approach. Getting a job at a supermarket might help if you’re planning to go into the food industry, but otherwise, it won’t help your chances of getting into the Ivy League. Instead, she says, decide your interests early on (around middle school), and base your activities around that. A violinist, for instance, might want to join the school orchestra, play at the local hospital, and learn recording techniques at Berklee College of Music. Specializing in one thing, she says, helps students stand out among the countless other applicants.

But are 13- and 14-year-olds too young to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives? Shouldn’t high school be the time for kids to find out what interests them? Cohen says most students are more focused than we realize.

“They usually know these things pretty early on; they’re pretty clear with what they’re pursuing,” says Cohen, author of “Rock Hard Apps: How to Write a Killer Application.” “There are some kids who can’t figure out what they like until the end of high school. Those kids probably aren’t going to the best colleges.”

Admissions officers tend to be ambivalent when it comes to the issue of professional consultants. Christoph Guttentag at Duke University realizes the process is a complicated one and that everyone seeks help of some kind, whether it’s a friend, relative or professional. His main concern has to do with the essay that students include in their applications.

“You can’t blame people for seeking help,” he says. “The problem is when their voice is replaced by the help.”

“There’s always the thought that if somebody’s really good, we couldn’t tell,” he says. “It’s an interesting problem because it does make you feel like they’ve lost an opportunity to be themselves; it’s almost as if they didn’t trust themselves.”

Some consultants boast that they leave no fingerprints on their clients’ applications. Others are more upfront about their participation. Guttentag says the stigma of hiring a consultant has lessened in the last few years, but not completely.

On the application forms, he says, “almost nobody admits the help of a professional adviser.”

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