By Mike Dang Every year, amid fierce competition, a talented crop of high school seniors vie for coveted spots at prestigious colleges. Many have impressive grades and SAT scores, a healthy range of extracurricular activities and an enormous amount of drive and ambition. Some of them have an additional advantage over their high-achieving peers: private college consultants to help them find and get accepted to their dream school. Most college-bound students will go through the application process without the help of a college consultant, and the majority of them will find themselves content at whichever school they end up attending. So why would anyone ever consider hiring a private consultant? According to Dr. Michele Hernandez, president and founder of Hernandez College Consulting and a former admissions officer at Dartmouth, private college consultants can pick up the slack when high school counselors are too busy to give a student sufficient individual attention. They can also step in for parents who don’t have the time or the know-how to guide their children through the admission process, taking a student’s raw talent and molding it into something focused and attractive to admissions officers. Some of the most experienced consultants have worked in actual admissions offices, and can provide the type of insider’s perspective that parents and high school guidance counselors don’t normally have access to. Others hold advanced degrees in education, counseling or psychology, and derive additional expertise from visits to dozens of college campuses and years of experience in the field. “I hear stories from parents of valedictorians with amazing records who get rejected from their dream schools, and it’s because these students didn’t know how to package themselves,” Dr. Hernandez said. “Everyone is an ‘A’ student, and it’s how you stand out that will improve your odds of getting in.” For Dr. Hernandez, packaging a student means presenting an application that seems natural and seamless—essentially, an unpackaged package. It means helping a student take an ordinary hobby such as photography or playing the drums, and shaping that hobby to make the student special. It means guiding the student to make the right decisions at the right time (for instance, advising the student to take a summer internship instead of going to summer camp). It’s all about getting to know the student and creating the right strategies for him or her. Other college counselors emphasize a holistic approach to the admissions process. Members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), who qualify for membership by meeting a rigorous set of criteria and adhering to a set of ethical guidelines, work with students and their families to find schools that match their personalities, skills, interests and goals. According to the organization’s website, the consultant-student relationship is “not only about being accepted—more importantly, it’s about thriving at the institution that is the right fit for you.” While college consultants help students focus on the big picture, they are often there to do a lot of grunt work as well. They can review drafts of essays, organize students’ test prep and help students focus on the right college match. Dr. Hernandez said she’d tell a student not to waste time applying to Yale if she felt that the student was better suited for Penn. This way, students can focus their time perfecting their application for one school and avoid spreading themselves too thin. Some college consultants promise admission to at least one of a student’s top-choice schools, and come with price tags to match those high expectations. In general, costs vary depending on the consultant and the service. According to IECA surveys, the average consultant charges $160 an hour, while the most expensive consultants offer packages costing several thousand dollars. Dr. Hernandez’s most expensive package is $42,000 for services stretching over a five-year period, starting when the student is in the 8th grade. She also has an intensive four-day program for rising seniors called the Application Boot Camp, which costs $14,000. It’s expensive, but Dr. Hernandez points out that her credentials are solid and said that her track record is almost perfect. She claims that nearly 100 percent of her students who applied to top colleges have been accepted to Ivy League or Ivy-level schools. IECA surveys show that Dr. Hernandez’s fees are not typical; most counselors offer services extending from the end of 10th grade through 12th grade for an average of $3,700. Families looking for other cost-efficient ways to help guide their college-bound student can consider more inexpensive options, such as local test prep and essay-writing seminars that charge significantly lower rates, or books written by qualified consultants. The key word here is “qualified.” The college consultant field is unregulated, so it’s important that parents check out every consultant’s qualifications before signing any contracts. Lastly, though college consultants can help students get into the school of their dreams, they can’t do it if the students aren’t motivated. Just because a student has a consultant doesn’t mean he or she is bound for an elite college.