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

When it comes to making a $100,000 decision, the Trombley family likes to get plenty of advice.

That explains the presence of James Heryer. This certified educational planner and college-admissions consultant in Kansas City, Mo., has been hired to walk Kalista Trombley through her biggest - and perhaps her family's most expensive - life-choice so far: finding the right college.

Professional guidance in applying to college might seem the domain of a high-income elite. But now even middle-income families are anteing up for advice from individual entrepreneurs as well as big educational firms taking aim at a surging market. Pressured by hefty tuitions and tough competition, they're starting searches early - and splurging on experts - to ensure that "perfect fit."

"As it gets more and more competitive, parents want someone on hand to help find the right college," says Carol Loewith, president of the Fairfax, Va.-based Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). "But they also want someone to be a guide for their child so applications can be done as comfortably and as well as possible."

Parents of college-bound students may recall their own experiences chatting with a high school guidance counselor, collecting brochures, accumulating good grades and a few extracurriculars. They may have even dared to write their applications without editing from Mom or Dad.

No longer. Every year brings new stories about the importance of college to future success - and of apparent stars that don't make it into their top pick.

Those stories send a growing number of parents running in the direction of consultants like Mr. Heryer, who specialize in helping high schoolers package themselves for optimum display to admissions departments. They reason that professional attention to test scores, grades, course scheduling, extra-curricular activities, application essays, and an intimate knowledge of colleges, can make the difference between getting in - or not.

"Parents are concerned that their child get the best education possible," Heryer says. "But they're overwhelmed by cost, competition, and finding that needle in a haystack."

As a result, demand is booming for help. And a growing number of people are signing up to dole out advice to the bewildered. Membership in the IECA, for example, has risen from 100 to 250 in the past decade.

This despite a hefty price tag for assistance. Heryer's fee to help locate the right college: $1,000 for a "comprehensive" package of 10-plus consultations. The price for consultants on the east and west coasts can be can be triple that amount. But patrons don't seem to mind.

"This is one of the biggest choices of my life and at first I was thinking only Dartmouth and Stanford," Kalista says. "Jim has given me an idea about colleges I would never have heard of."

Her father likes the process, too.

"It's been 25 years since I looked for a college," Tad says. "I'm not an expert. This way I get to deal with my daughter on the soft issues. I'll visit schools with her ... but I won't be recommending one over another. I'll leave that to Jim."

Parents, students, and consultants say the cost and competition to get into America's 400-or-so first and second-tier selective schools has driven families to change their approach to planning for college:

*Students are college-hunting earlier. High-school sophomores and even freshmen school are using consultants to plan their course of study, summer activities, and extracurricular activities to create maximum college-admissions impact.

*Even families of moderate means are seeking help from admissions consultants. This is especially true when a family member is a high school standout.

*Increasingly, consultants are hired mainly as family "mediators" to relieve anxiety and smooth frictions that might pop up between parents and children.

*Large companies like Kaplan Educational Centers and Princeton Review, the big test-preparation companies, are expanding to offer admissions counseling nationwide. There is talk of "a billion-dollar market" and chains of counseling centers with hundreds of outlets.

Achieva College Prep Centers already has eight offices in California that offer both test-prep help and admissions counseling. In response, many private admissions counselors are expanding to include test-preparation services.

Probably the biggest reason for consultants' growing popularity is that high school guidance counselors are more overburdened than ever.

"At my school, they have so many kids to keep track of they're lucky if they know their names," says Kalista, who attends a big public high school.

Many college-admissions officers seem generally positive about the trend.

"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.

"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."


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