More families turn to college consultants

Real estate agents guide buyers through the maze of the housing market. Financial advisers help people invest money wisely. And now more parents and students are seeking expert help for another of the most costly – and confusing – decisions they must make: which college to attend.

With competition for top state and private schools tougher than ever and tuition continuing to rise, more parents are looking to consultants to help their children choose the right college.

In many dual-income families there is a little more money, but parents have less time to spend guiding their teenagers as they prepare for college.

Because a college education is such a major investment, "it pays to make sure you have a good match," says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. The profession has been around for about 25 years, he says, but has seen enormous growth in the past five.

The goal of the family and the consultant, Mr. Sklarow says, should not be simply to get students admitted to the highest-ranked school possible, but rather to find one where they will succeed academically and socially. "Too many people think that success is getting in. That's just where it starts," he says.

A good consultant will interview both students and parents in order to understand the complete picture. He or she will review students' academic records as well as test scores, and possibly suggest tutoring where necessary.

The consultant will ask about how students see themselves socially, what extracurricular activities they plan to pursue, and what their political and religious views are.

Consultants should try to uncover any hidden issues, say those within the field. Parents may tell their children they can go to any school they choose, for instance, but secretly root for their alma mater or an Ivy League school.

Methods vary after the first interview. Some consultants may meet with students just a few times during the application process, while others have regular appointments.

Judith Berg of Oakhurst, N.J., meets with students once a month, starting in January of their junior year. In their senior year, as she walks them through the application process, they meet once a week.

Ms. Berg has students fill out practice applications early on to show them what schools are looking for. She helps them analyze their college visits, decide what kind of environment they feel most comfortable in, and choose their essay subject.

"What they gain the most," she says, "is the ability to make decisions based on their own research."

Berg's services don't end once the student is admitted to college. She also offers feedback to her clients as they choose first-semester classes.

Other consultants take a more hands-off approach. Steven Antonoff, an educational consultant in Denver, says he spends about six hours with his clients during the entire process. "My job is to learn about a student and ask the right questions," he says.

Mr. Antonoff tries to explain what it is really like to be a student at specific schools, what the students and professors are like, what research opportunities are available to undergraduates. The process turns families into "more knowledgeable consumers," he says.

Such expertise doesn't come cheap. Most consultants charge a retainer fee of $1,000 to $2,500. Others are paid by the hour, with rates ranging from $80 to $200, depending on the geographic region.

Whether parents want a consultant to hold their teenager's hand through the entire college-search process or just someone to help decipher financial-aid information, Sklarow says there are a few key things to look for in an educational consultant.

Consultants should have a background in admissions and college counseling. They should visit between 30 and 50 campuses a year and belong to a professional organization such as the National Association for College Admissions Counselors or the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Some educational consultants specialize in helping troubled teens or students with learning disabilities.

Perhaps most important, parents should look out for gimmicks such as guarantees of getting into top schools. Sklarow says there are probably consultants out there who will do too much of the work for the students – going as far as writing application essays.

"You don't use a consultant because you think they're going to use some kind of magic to get [your child] in," Sklarow says.

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