Are College Admissions Pros Worth Their High Fees?
By Mike Spector
Tricia Hassenfeld holds an acceptance certificate from Brown University. Getting advice from a private admissions consultant helped the teen polish her application and might have aided her in landing her first-choice college.
When it came time to apply to college, Tricia Hassenfeld had a 4.0 grade point average, a combined score of 2150 out of a possible 2400 on her SATs and four printed pages worth of extracurricular activities. But she still didn’t feel prepared for the enormity of the college admissions process.
“My parents kind of had a mini-nervous breakdown realizing all of the things that go into it,” said Hassenfeld, a 17-year-old from Nashville, Tenn. “We needed help from somewhere.”
So Hassenfeld turned to an independent admissions consultant, who charged $2,000 and started the summer before Hassenfeld’s senior year. She helped Hassenfeld pick out desirable schools, organize her resume and polish her essays. By late December, Hassenfeld had what she wanted: an acceptance letter from her top choice, Brown University.
Faced with stiff competition at the nation’s top colleges, students and parents are paying thousands of dollars for admissions consultants. These new players on the college scene do their best to supervise an application, make an applicant look desirable and put their student clients in the best position to win a spot at the school of their choice.
Consultants on average charge about $3,500 a student, according to the Independent Education Consultants Association, and advice can begin as early as during a student’s sophomore year in high school.
College admissions officials generally frown on the practice, saying overly polished essays can dilute the authenticity of a student's application. The new industry has spawned a wide array of services, including large firms that appear to shape the bulk of an applicant’s work.
“Admissions officers are, candidly, a little irritated,” said Barmak Nassirian, a spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “There’s too much redecorating going on, and people can see through that.”
No one knows exactly how many consultants there are or how many people use them. But there’s no doubt the numbers are rising. Membership in the Independent Education Consultants Association, for example, has doubled in the last five years to about 4,000, according to Mark Sklarow, the group’s director. He said data collected by the association suggests that membership will double again in three years.
Sklarow pointed to a few reasons students and parents are turning to consultants. First, increased competition at top schools motivates parents to seek an edge so their child doesn’t make any mistakes in the application process. Second, high school guidance counselors are often overwhelmed; some in big cities are responsible for 1,000 students at a time. What’s more, in the face of a rapidly changing admissions process, parents fear they lack the expertise to advise their children.
The nationwide Kaplan prep service offers a 15-hour premium consultation package for $1,899. The service promises help with every step of the admissions process, including essay writing, securing letters of recommendation and interview coaching. On the higher end, Princeton, N.J.-based College Confidential allows clients to apply to its Ivy Guaranteed Admissions Program, a $15,000 investment that guarantees admission to a client’s first or second choice school. Rejections result in a refund.
Applicants should be dubious about such claims, said Lee Stetson, the admissions dean at the University of Pennsylvania. “The thing not to do is be too automated,” he said, referring to consulting services that use across-the-board methods to help prepare applications.
Stetson said consultants can offer valid help in many cases, especially in lieu of adequate high school counseling. But over the last decade, he said he had seen a sharp increase in “overly packaged” applications, which he said challenged admissions officers to determine “who is real and who is somewhat contrived.”
Consultants stress that most practitioners play by the rules and help anxiety-ridden students and parents make smart choices. They formulate lists of schools that might be a good fit for students and serve as editors and sounding boards as students write their admissions essays.
After meeting with a student about academic performance and other interests, Altshuler draws up a list of schools that might be good matches. Then, over the coming months, he helps students with their essays, stays on top of deadlines and answers any questions that crop up.
Donald Levick, a doctor in Allentown, Pa., said his daughter’s overwhelmed high school guidance counselor didn’t offer the kind of attention they wanted. He hired a private consultant who recommended Emory University in Atlanta, a school the family had not considered. The consultant also fine-tuned essays. Eventually, his daughter, Rachel, got into the University of Pennsylvania.
Levick said they made the choice to go to a consultant because “we can afford to do this, and I wanted to provide every possible opportunity for my daughter.”
But that’s a problem, according to critics, who point out that wealthy students applying to top schools are already in a position to succeed. Those well-off students generally don’t need consultants, said Nassirian, director of the admissions officer association. Meanwhile, poor students who could use the guidance can’t afford it.
And admissions officials argue there’s no direct correlation between admissions consulting and gaining acceptance to a dream school.
“I think, ordinarily, it’s a waste of money,” said Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, Harvard’s admissions director. “Good advice is good advice, and most students don’t have to pay for it.” She said she couldn’t imagine private consultants giving Harvard applicants an edge.
Most colleges are very clear about what level of test scores and academic performance are needed to gain admission. And of the 6,900 accredited post-secondary institutions recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, fewer than 200 are deemed highly selective, according to the Century Foundation, a public policy research center in New York City.
Back in Nashville, Hassenfeld will soon make preparations to move to Rhode Island, where Brown awaits. She said she appreciated the personal attention from her consultant, which she said helped the most when she wrote a personal essay.
“It was well worth it," she said, "every bit of the way.”