The free fashion show at a Greenwich, Conn., boutique in June was billed as a crash course in dressing for a college admissions interview.
Yet the proposed “looks” — a young man in seersucker shorts, a young woman in a blue blazer over a low-cut blouse and short madras skirt — appeared better suited for a nearby yacht club. After Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, was shown photos of those outfits, she rendered her review.
“I burst out laughing,” she said.
Shannon Duff, the independent college counselor who organized the event, says she ordinarily charges families “in the range of” $15,000 for guidance about the application process, including matters far more weighty than just what to wear.
Ms. Duff is a practitioner in a rapidly growing, largely unregulated field seeking to serve families bewildered by the admissions gantlet at selective colleges.
No test or licensing is required to offer such services, and there is no way to evaluate the counselors’ often extravagant claims of success or experience. And Ms. Duff’s asking price, though higher than many, is eclipsed by those of competitors who may charge upwards of $40,000 — more than a year’s tuition at many colleges.
In the last three years, the number of independent admissions advisers (as opposed to school-based counselors) is estimated to have grown to nearly 5,000, from about 2,000, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a membership group trying to promote basic standards of competency and ethics. While initially clustered on the East and West Coasts, counselors are making inroads across the country.
The consultants association has made a particular target of counselors who boast of helping nearly all their clients gain admission to their top-choice colleges.
“When you say things like, ‘We know the secrets of getting in,’ it kind of implies that it’s not the student’s ability,” said Mark H. Sklarow, executive director of the association, in Fairfax, Va. “It suggests that there’s some kind of underground code.”
A reputable, experienced counselor might, for a few hundred dollars, help a student compile a list of prospective colleges, or brainstorm topics for an essay. But others demand tens of thousands of dollars to oversee the entire application process — tutoring jittery applicants on what classes to take in high school or musical instruments to play, the better, their families are told, to impress the admissions dean.
Never mind that admissions officers say that no outsider can truly predict how a particular applicant might fare. “I guess there are snake oil salesman in every field,” said Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, “and they are preying on vulnerable and anxious people.”
While the going national rate for such work is about $185 an hour, a counselor in Vermont and another in New York City are among those who charge some families more than $40,000. Their packages might begin when a child is in eighth grade.
“It’s annoying when people complain about the money,” the Vermont-based counselor, Michele Hernandez, said. “I’m at the top of my field. Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon? If you want to go with someone cheaper, or chance it, don’t hire me.”
Dr. Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, says she counsels as many as 25 students in each high school grade each year. She also offers four-day “boot camps” every August in a Boston hotel, charging 40 incoming high school seniors as much as $14,000 each.
Lee Stetson, who retired in 2007 after three decades as dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, now has a counseling practice near Philadelphia, where he charges as much as $15,000 for his junior-senior package. Unlike many competitors, Mr. Stetson says he cautions his small group of clients, maybe seven students a year, that he will not handicap their chances of admission to a particular college, nor button-hole former colleagues on their behalf. “I’m hoping they see me more as someone who understands the process,” he said, “than someone who can influence the chances of acceptance.”
While Mr. Stetson was one of the most influential admissions officers in the country, the extent of other counselors’ experience may be more difficult for parents to divine.
On her business Web site, Collegiate Compass, Ms. Duff says she brings “firsthand perspective to today’s admissions landscape,” borne of her earlier work “as a reader” in the Yale undergraduate admissions office. While outside readers help evaluate some candidates’ files, they typically have no decision-making authority.
It is not uncommon for other counselors to exaggerate their backgrounds. Ivy Success, in Garden City, N.Y., which charges some clients nearly $30,000, says on its Web site that its counselors have “years of experience as admissions officers to help you gain an edge in this competitive and uncertain process.”
Victoria Hsiao, a partner in Ivy Success, said in an interview that she had worked as an admissions officer at Cornell for several years in “the late 1990s.” But Jason Locke, the director of undergraduate admissions at the university, said there was no record, or memory, of Ms. Hsiao doing such work. (Mr. Locke did confirm that she graduated from Cornell in 1996.)
Asked about the discrepancy, Ms. Hsiao said she had mainly assisted the admissions office as an alumna who conducted interviews. She also said a partner, Robert Shaw, had been an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania. Asked about this in an e-mail message, Mr. Shaw said he had been only “an assistant,” from 1987 to 1988.
“Don’t remember all the details,” he said, adding, “We really don’t want to be a part of your article as we’re not a service for the masses.”
Admissions officers say that for many students, the advice of their high school counselors should suffice. Those applicants who might benefit from supplemental counseling — like those at urban high schools with overworked counselors — are often among the least able to afford such services.
Regardless, colleges say parents should be wary of any counselor’s claim of being able to lobby for a candidate’s admission. While noting that there are “genuinely rational and knowledgeable folks out there doing this work,” Bruce Poch, the dean of admissions at Pomona College, adds, “Some of the independents leave me looking for the nearest emergency shower.”
Though none of the counselors said business was off in the struggling economy, some are making adjustments. Having initially presented the fashion show outfits as serious, Ms. Duff later said she had intended to “create a lighthearted environment,” the better to promote two new advisory DVDs she is offering, “at a price that is accessible.” (One for $45; two for $80.)
Katherine Cohen, the founder of IvyWise in New York City, has a team that charges from a few hundred dollars to more than $40,000. But she also has been emphasizing a spinoff called ApplyWise that for $299 helps students assemble their application in ways reminiscent of Turbo Tax.
Dr. Cohen, a former reader at Yale, is a member of the independent consultants association — despite a claim on the IvyWise Web site that runs afoul of an association admonition. “Congratulations,” it blares, “100 percent of IvyWise students were admitted to one of their top three choices in 2009!”
Fewer than one of every five admissions consultants can claim to be an association member. Bill Dingledine, a longtime educational consultant in Greenville, S.C., is among those advocating even more stringent certification offered by the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners. It requires counselors to pass a three-hour written examination.The concept has yet to catch on, at least in part because many counselors’ practices are already booming. Asked how many counselors had sought, and won, that certification last year, Mr. Dingledine had a ready answer: about 20.