Private Consultants Help Navigate College Admissions Process

What may be the largest high school senior class ever in the United States is applying to college this fall. And thousands of students will look beyond their high school guidance counselors to help them get into the schools of their choice.

Private educational consultants take up where overburdened high school guidance counselors leave off. Charging by the hour or offering a package of services, these consultants usually meet multiple times with a student to talk about goals for college and beyond. They synthesize information from parents, transcripts and other sources to help create a list of colleges that might be a good match. Then they guide students through the application process, reviewing essays, preparing them for interviews and keeping them organized to meet deadlines.

There are 4,000 to 5,000 private educational consultants in the United States focused on college admissions, according to Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, based in Fairfax, Va. The number has doubled in the last five years, Mr. Sklarow said, and is expected to double again in the next three to five years. Consultants are most heavily concentrated on the East and West Coasts, and in larger cities and affluent suburbs across the rest of the country.

Leslie Kent, an educational consultant near Washington, has a current docket of 22 high school seniors and about 50 younger high school students. To inform her advice, Ms. Kent spends about 20 percent of her time visiting college campuses. One of her clients last year was Abby Pickus of Fairfax, Va., then a high school senior. Her mother, Debbie Pickus, said, “I could have researched it all myself, but it was better for me to work a bit more on my own job so I could pay an expert.”

Ms. Kent helped Abby to start working on her college admissions materials over the summer before her senior year so she could get her applications in early. The quick start worked. By the second week of November, she had received her first acceptance, at a time when some of Mrs. Pickus’s friends were still complaining about getting their teenagers to finish their essays.

“I don’t think I could have gotten into all the schools I did without her,” said Abby, now a freshman at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “She helped me take what I thought were just everyday things about myself, like how I use computers in a creative way, and showed me how to write about them in a college essay.”

Educational consultants need to be “superorganized,” said Bob Dannenhold of Seattle, who has been helping students with college applications for 20 years. “You may have 40 to 80 students you are shepherding through the admissions process each year, and each one needs to meet deadlines for the SATs, recommendation forms, application-due dates and interviews.”

Part of a consultant’s job is to remind — aka nag — students about their college admissions to-do lists. “I had a student say, ‘You tell me the same things as my parents, but I don’t mind when you do it,’” Mr. Dannenhold said.

Some consultants have specialties — working with students with learning disorders, for example, or with colleges in other countries. Consultants may also specialize in navigating the path to private high schools, elementary schools and even nursery schools.

According to surveys by the Independent Educational Consultants Association, consultants charge an average hourly rate of $160, though the fee in the largest cities may be in the $300-an-hour range. Most prefer to offer a package of services that carry a student from the end of 10th grade through 12th grade for a set fee, averaging $3,700.

Educational consulting often comes as a second or third career, according to Mr. Sklarow. “I think you need the life experiences and perspective to help teenagers find a true match,” he said. The most common backgrounds are in psychology and education. Because there are no licensing requirements, anyone can hang out a shingle, but without training courses, annual college visits or participation in a professional association, their services won’t be as well informed, Mr. Dannenhold said.

Training to become an educational consultant can be found online through the college counselor certificate program at the University of California, Los Angeles, and by attending professional conferences. Professional associations, including the Higher Education Consultants Association, the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the Independent Educational Consultants Association, also offer information.

They also ask members to uphold ethics and standards — for example, by not accepting remuneration from any schools for placing students with them, and by only “guiding and questioning” students about their admissions essay, rather than writing it for them.

But educational consultants’ most valuable contribution may be stress reduction. Taking an emotionally fraught, highly competitive process and turning it into a time of shared discovery “is absolutely the most valuable and enjoyable thing I do,” Ms. Kent said, adding, “College selection should be an adventure that families enjoy together.”