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Trying to find the right college? Don't go it alone.

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"We have found most of these counselors have done the pre-screening for us," says Teresa Duffy, dean of admissions at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. And that leads to a good match. But she is quick to add caveats.

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"We do see people selling themselves as college consultants who don't have a clue," she says. "It's 'buyer beware' for students and their families - they have to carefully check references and background before they hire an adviser."

She adds that it is easy to see through fancy packaging - a student, say, whose paper credentials show activities done more at the behest of a consultant than out of a sense of commitment. "It's usually pretty transparent," she says. "They didn't become a different person their senior year. They were just packaging themselves."

Ms. Loewith warns that no reputable consultant will guarantee getting a child into a school - or help write a student's essay. A consultant can, however, give feedback on tone and content.

For their part, the college blood hounds say they can help students sniff out the right school among more than 3,600 four-year colleges. They market their dispassionate perspective and breadth of knowledge about institutions.

Heryer, for instance, helped Kalista expand her list of choices well beyond the Ivy League to include lesser-known but still-competitive schools. Kalista will visit four schools this summer and four next fall at Heryer's suggestion. But there's more.

Summer homework assigned by Heryer includes: writing her goals, interests, adjectives describing herself. For practice, she will also fill out the common application many schools accept.

And, instead of bagging burgers, Kalista landed a job as a clerical temp running errands for judges at the municipal courts. It was her discovery, but Heryer ratified it as appealing to an admissions committee.

For Athena Fitzpatrick, who will return to Connecticut College in New London as a sophomore, the helping hand of a college consultant was a relief.

"I had this list of about 30 schools and knew I just couldn't do it on my own and couldn't visit them all," says the Worcester, Mass. resident. "My parents wanted me to pick the right school but they didn't know either."

Joan Bress was Athena's consultant. Athena came to her "a little late" at the beginning of the summer before her senior year. But Ms. Bress quickly helped Athena, a ballet dancer, winnow her choices to a school that had both a good dance program and a strong theater program, and which would allow her to pursue both interests.

"Summer is a great time for students to do a lot of thinking about who they are, what questions they should be asking themselves," Ms. Bress says. "Why do they want to go to college? What's their learning style - and how do their personality and social needs dictate what they should be looking for in a college?"

For serious students, a key reason to hire a consultant is to get early guidance on taking the "right" courses in high school - and activities that will catch the eyes of college-admissions officers. And doing it right is harder than ever.

"I'm detecting a degree of resistance, a backlash to the kids of privilege among the most selective schools," says Michael Spence, a Boston consultant. "They would rather see a [summer] volunteer experience that looks like they're sweating to pay back society - rather than some canned program where they swim with dolphins or ski at Mt. Hood."

Elizabeth Berry, a junior this fall at a private high school in Phoenix, found a summer program she feels good about. And she thanks her college consultant Rusty Haynes for pointing her toward it.

She began working with him in her sophomore year. After their first meeting, he sent a list of 20 colleges, including many she had never heard of.

"He's opened my eyes to the whole process ... what's out there and what I can accomplish," she says. Haynes runs CollegeMasters, a consulting company with offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M., and Chester, N.Y. And he knows all too well about parents who start prepping kids at a very early age.

"It's all just a little insane," he says. "I think the most important thing is to stress the 'fit' ahead of the name of the institution. The most important thing is ... self-esteem. We don't want them stretching to get into Stanford and then drop out."

Elizabeth agrees. She wants to be a journalist. So Haynes recommended a summer writing camp at Carleton College. She applied and, to her delight, was admitted to the prestigious three-week program. After that, she's going to be a counselor-volunteer at multicultural "Anytown" camp in Prescott, Ariz., - another Haynes idea.

"I have my sights set high," Elizabeth says. "I consider college so competitive you need a specialist. Rusty's worth it."

*E-mail claytonm@csps.com