Consultants offer controversial college guidance

When Clay Chiles ’09 was in 11th grade, he began talking with an educational consultant based in the Northeast. Chiles, a native of Houston, Texas, sent his consultant writing samples and flew to meet with him face-to-face in February of his junior year. After his consultant provided him with a list of about 30 colleges he believed were possibilities, Chiles began visiting the schools and e-mailing his thoughts to his consultant.

“As I visited each school individually, I would give him a detailed account of my thoughts and impressions, and he would e-mail me back telling me where he thought I had misjudged and where he thought I was right-on,” he said. “Occasionally he would see certain things that really appealed to me and would propose another school or two that I might want to consider.”

Chiles said his consultant did not look at his essays, mainly because he procrastinated and did not write most of them until the night before they were due. In the end, Chiles’ college process was more successful than most: He was accepted at six of the 10 schools to which he applied and waitlisted at the other four.

“The fact that I didn’t apply to any schools that outright rejected me says something about [my consultant’s] judgment,” Chiles said.

Chiles is just one of an increasing pool of students who are choosing to hire private educational consultants to help them through the complicated college process. In the past few years, the number of consulting firms has grown rapidly in order to meet the demand of students who are looking for information, advice or an added edge to get into the college of their dreams.

But many in the higher education community — Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel among them — have reservations about the value of the services educational consultants provide at costs usually ranging between $2,000 and $6,000.

“We believe that in the great majority of cases, these firms provide little or no advantage over what a student could gain by reading any one of a number of good books on the subject of making a strong application,” Brenzel said.

In the end, Chiles was faced with a decision: Yale or Wesleyan University. The advice he received from his consultant impacted his decision greatly, he said.

“He said that socially he thought I would fit in amazingly well at Wesleyan and that the music and art scenes would be very much to my liking,” Chiles said. “At the same time, though, he felt that if I had the extremely rare opportunity to go to Yale, I should not pass that up, not only because it would provide me with a superior education, but also because it would provide me with so many more opportunities in the future.”

Chiles took the advice seriously, attended Bulldog Days and, in the end, chose New Haven over Middletown.

Rapid expansion

As the landscape of college admissions grows increasingly competitive, educational consulting firms are multiplying. There are about 3,000 full-time educational consultants in the United States, a figure that has doubled from two to three years ago, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Of these 3,000, about 600 are accredited members of the IECA, a distinction only bestowed on consultants who have three years of experience and a requisite number of college visits under their belt. There were about 350 IECA members a year ago, indicating the number of consultants is rising rapidly.

Educational consultants help their students through each part of the application process, some even going so far as to contact the colleges to which their clients apply — though admissions officials at Yale and other schools said they do not communicate with consultants as a rule, and do not condone the practice.

Though some firms make guarantees about the success they will have getting students in to top colleges, the majority of consultants say they are primarily concerned with supplying their clients with enough information to make an educated decision. Most of these firms come at a steep cost, though, and consulting firms are sometimes criticized because of the fact that many students cannot afford such services.

Sklarow said he believes there are a number of reasons for the rapid jump in the number of educational consultants. The primary reasons for the increase are the anxiety concerning the process and the rising number of students applying to college, he said.

“How overworked public school counselors are is another thing,” he said. “This is the first generation of college students who are naturally looking outside of their local home areas for college destinations.”

Jane Shropshire, the immediate past president of the IECA, said she believes the organization still needs to work to get the word out about the opportunities educational consultants can provide to students.

“Our big challenge is educating the public,” she said. “There are lots of people that don’t know that educational consultants exist.”

According to Katherine Cohen, executive director of IvyWise, one of the largest educational consulting firms in the country, 22 percent of this year’s class of freshmen at private colleges and universities used some kind of educational consultant.

What students want

Michael Spence, a private consultant at Howland & Spence Educational Consultants in Boston, said students come to educational consultants for two central reasons: the opportunities to receive general information and personalized advice.

“Part of what fuels educational consultants is that students are looking for someone to demystify a process which is stressful, and to get individualized focus,” he said. “Our only responsibility is to students. They don’t have to compete with the other students in their high schools.”

William Morse ’64, who worked in the Yale Admissions Office from 1978 to 1982 and is currently a private educational consultant in Connecticut, said high school juniors come to him for a multitude of reasons.

“Often they’re asking questions about courses, or how to plan summers,” he said. “They’re looking for ideas about what would be appropriate colleges.”

Cohen said IvyWise helps students find a way to make themselves stand out in the application process.

“If a student is not making an impact, he or she is going to get lost in the shuffle,” she said. “We help them put their passions to use.”

Educational consultants work with their students on areas such as standardized testing, extracurricular activities, academic choices and essay writing.

“We’ll brainstorm an essay together,” Spence said. “They’ll send me a draft, and we’ll look at it to see if they’re doing a good job representing themselves in the piece.”

But Spence emphasized that the work remains that of the client.

“We certainly don’t write them,” he said. “We aren’t making word choices.”

Students applying from other countries often use educational consultants to get a handle on the complicated admissions process.

Jahanzeb Hassan ’08, who was born and grew up in Pakistan, said Spence was extremely helpful in guiding him in the college process.

“I filled out the application and essays myself,” he said. “But he guided me in how to approach them. One concept he brought up was that I needed to create a hook, and he helped show me what colleges were looking for.

Hassan’s father got in touch with Spence three years before his high school graduation, and Spence helped Hassan—who applied to Yale under the early action program— determine where to apply.

“At the end of my junior year, he helped me narrow my list down,” he said. “I was aware of the U.S. college scene, but he was helpful with explaining the things I didn’t know about.”

Spence said many of his clients are students with unusual applications or who are applying under particular extenuating circumstances.

“A lot of us work with people whose applications are not traditional,” he said. “These people are faced with extenuating circumstances, and we can instruct them in how to best work the system.”

Often, high school students come to educational consultants when there is a particular issue that comes up that the students and their families would like advice about how to deal with.

“If a student is getting C’s the second semester of his junior year or his SAT IIs don’t break 600 … these are factors that come into play,” Spence said.

One of the largest challenges for consultants is dealing with parents, Cohen said.

“Parents sometimes have in mind that they only want to see their child go to an Ivy League school and can’t see beyond those eight names,” she said. “It can sometimes be difficult.”

College interaction

Jane Smith, a Yale senior whose name has been changed at her request, knows she probably would not be here if it was not for one person: not her high school college counselor, not her SAT tutor, not even her mother — but her educational consultant, Tom Allen.

Allen edited Smith’s essays, critiqued her resume, and made suggestions about aspects of her application she could improve, she said. But perhaps the most powerful tool Allen was able to offer was his connection to the Yale admissions network. Allen was on good terms with the admissions officer who read applications for Smith’s part of the country, and he wrote a letter to the Yale officer on Smith’s behalf.

“He’s the reason why I’m at Yale,” Smith said.

The role of educational consultants can become murky when it comes to the relationship between college admissions offices and the consultants themselves.

Some counselors, like Spence, said they occasionally contact the admissions offices of colleges to which their clients have applied.

“I probably write on behalf of a fourth of my clients, if I feel I have something to add to the application of the particular students,” he said. “Generally, I’ll write one if I feel that I know something about an applicant that might not be conveyed in the application.”

But Spence said that, in general, most consultants do not personally contact colleges.

“Some colleges don’t take too well to it,” he said.

Brenzel said he does not think the use of such firms helps students who are trying to navigate the process, and that there are other ways for students to gain information independently that will help them demystify the process without the help of a consultant. Brenzel said the Yale Admissions Office does not, as a rule, discuss specific applicants with educational consultants.

“We do not and will not talk with private counseling services about their clients,” he said.

But Karen Parkinson, the associate director of admissions at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., said she thinks there are circumstances under which educational consultants can be of help for students.

“It really is a case-by-case thing,” she said. “There’s not a general rule of thumb, since most high schools have generally fine college counselors. But there may be public high schools where educational consultants will do pro bono work or something.”

Williams occasionally discusses candidates with educational consultants, Parkinson said.

“Very rarely are we in contact with them, every now and then,” she said. “There are some very good private counselors.”

The bad eggs

While many educational consulting firms are focused on providing students with information and educating them throughout the process, other firms make bold promises and claims about the benefits they can provide for students. But many in the field said these claims are dubious and provide the public with information that is untrue, contributing to consultants’ negative reputation.

IvyWise boasts on its Web site that 58 percent of its clients were admitted to their top choice in their reach school category, 90 percent were admitted to one of their top two choice schools, and every single IvyWise student was admitted to one of their top three choice schools.

For the high cost of a service such as IvyWise, Cohen said, the company provides at every level.

“If the admissions process is an A-to-Z process, we check in with them at every letter,” she said.

But Shropshire, who served as president of the IECA, said boasts such as the ones IvyWise makes can be deceiving to consumers.

“Consultants who say that a certain percentage of students will get into their top choice schools don’t take all clients, so that clearly affects the quality base of their client pool to start out with,” she said.

Spence said he thinks there is a major difference between educational consultants who make promises for their clients and those who emphasize the educational process.

“People talk about educational consultants as if we are these parasites that are adding to the stressfulness of the process,” he said. “Most of us are not power brokers. We are not selling influence; we are selling process. We help to find a match.”

Morse said it is a common misconception that consultants can automatically gain acceptance for their clients. Instead, Morse said he perceives himself as a collaborator and mentor figure. He recalled one instance in which a parent demanded that Morse get her child into Princeton.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not the right person for you,’” Morse said. “If your child belongs in Princeton, I’ll [advise him to] take the courses and do the right things to help him get there, but I don’t get people in.”

Mike Antanoff, an educational consultant in Denver who teaches people who want to become educational consultants, said a large majority of consultants focus on educating clients rather than guaranteeing results.

“There are still consultants out there who advertise that they’ll get students in or that they have people who schmooze with admissions officers,” he said. “But 90 percent are like us who go to the schools, do the learning and focus on educating students.”

Antanoff says he gets very upset when parents suggest he should be able to guarantee admission for their children.

“Even if I could get students in, I wouldn’t,” he said. “Are you teaching that the world runs on influence and power? It’s an outrage, besides the fact that’s it’s totally unethical.”

For an educational consultant to receive accreditation, he or she first must submit an application with references after three years of experience. Next, the applicant must pass an examination in which he or she writes about three different colleges and evaluates three different case studies pertaining to clients.

After these steps, a consultant must visit at least 75 colleges in five years and earn 75 “educational units,” which are earned by attending conferences and workshops.

Even with these standards in place, uncertified educational consults are still prevalent.

“The ones who aren’t certified certainly exist,” said Antanoff, who accredits consultants. “Anyone can say they’re an educational consultant. Hopefully, in 10 to 20 years, the public will be able to tell the difference.”

The money question

Though educational consultants may be able to provide many services for clients, their work comes at a price. While some educational consultants have tried to cater to low-income students by offering their services for free, the playing field is still far from level.

Brenzel said most students using private consultants are typically in a relatively high socioeconomic bracket.

“Most families that hire private counselors are affluent, by the nature of the case, and therefore these families generally have access to perfectly good college guidance counselors in their own schools, whether public or private,” he said.

In the increasingly competitive world of college admissions, applicants need every edge they can get, which perhaps helps explains the increasing number of students flocking to educational consultants. In his new book “The Price of Admission,” Dan Golden examines the preferential treatment legacies and those with money receive when applying for college. Golden makes the case that children of big donors and illustrious alumni receive preferential treatment.

“There are a lot of people in the admissions world who are disturbed about the unfairness,” he said. “Colleges are eager to conceal these practices. But there are many instances of colleges making sure children of donors get special privileges.”

Golden said that while Yale is not the most blatant offender, it is not completely innocent either.

“Yale comes up a bit [in the book],” he said. “Yale may not be the most meritocratic, but I don’t think it’s the least either.”

Despite the high costs of a firm like IvyWise, Cohen stresses that her organization tries to provide help for students who couldn’t afford it otherwise. One out of every seven students IvyWise works with is taken on pro bono, Cohen said.

Kathleen Koch ’08 said that many of the students from her public school in Tulsa, Okla., including herself, worked with a consultant in the area, who did not charge students for her services. Most of the students who worked with the consultant were high-achieving high school students who were interested in applying to more competitive colleges, she said.

The consultant read Koch’s essays, facilitated SAT tutoring and helped students determine to which colleges they would apply, she said.

“She was helpful,” Koch said. “She had connections with a lot of admissions people at the top schools.”

Koch is a staff photographer for the News.

Some educational consulting companies, such as College Directions, a new organization based in Maryland, are focusing on students from low-income backgrounds who are typically the first in their families to apply to college.

Theresa Atta, director of College Directions, said the organization, which is less than a year old, has worked with high schools in the area to find students qualified for the program, which typically means that they have at least a 3.0 grade point average and are eligible for federal financial aid.

Atta said her primary goal with students is simply to supply them with the information they need to make educated decisions about their collegiate plans.

“Lots of these students go to schools with three to four counselors but with upwards of 1,500 students,” she said. “At a private school, the whole office is dedicated to your going to college.”

Comments