Dirty Secrets of College Coaches

Can spending $40,000 on a private college coach help your kid get into a dream school? The Daily Beast's Kathleen Kingsbury talked to admissions officers about what goes on behind the scenes—and exactly who is pulling the strings.

The numbers are in, and college applications hit record rates again this year. Harvard’s applications topped an unprecedented 30,000. Princeton’s jumped 19 percent; Brown’s, 20 percent; and University of Chicago, a whopping 42 percent. At Duke, three extra part-time admissions officers have been hired just to read the flood of paperwork.

This month, as high school juniors begin their college searches in earnest, many of them will look for an experienced counselor to give them an extra edge in this increasingly crowded field. The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) estimates that 2,000 full-time private college consultants advise students where to apply, edit their essays, even help them pick out their wardrobes for interviews. But what many of these prospective students really want from an adviser is someone with influence, a guide who can grease the wheels at the admissions office. Does this mythical figure exist?

Click Here to Hear Counselors and Admissions Officers Talk About How The System Works

“College counselors do have some room for negotiation regarding waitlists and on-the-line applicants,” one Ivy League admissions officer says of high school guidance counselors. “We’re not talking about trading students in backroom deals here, but every admissions department always has a short-list of the kids they really want.”

In other words, there’s no Batphone that connects college counselors directly to the Yale admissions office, but counselors can pull off certain tricks. How effective those tricks are depends on many factors (not the least of which are the student’s grades.) Are public and private school guidance counselors equally effective? Are independent consultants worth the money? The Daily Beast asked guidance counselors, private coaches, admissions officers, parents, and students to divulge the real scoop on what goes on behind the scenes. ( Click here to read what they had to say.)

Ask most admissions officers, and their consistent message is that your standard high school college counselor will probably do just fine. Yet, according to a National Association for College Admissions Counseling survey last fall, at public schools the average student-to-college counselor ratio had soared to 331-to-one, and it’s 250-to-one at private schools. “At my daughter’s public school, her guidance counselor had to repeatedly read her name off the file when we came in,” says Margaret Renault, the mother of two high-school students in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I’m certainly not counting on her advocacy.”

So families that can afford it are going private. It’s not cheap—fees can range from $250 to edit application essays to $40,000 to strategize a candidate’s every move in an admissions cycle.

Such advisers are routinely dismissed by admission officers as snake-oil salesmen. One of those $40,000-a-client coaches they often single out is Dr. Michele Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer who wrote a tell-all bestseller on the admissions process a decade ago. Hernandez fires back that it’s colleges’ Kafkaesque bureaucracies that make her job necessary. “Harvard has made getting into their program more complicated than navigating the U.S. tax code,” says Hernandez, who reports 24 of 29 of her clients this fall were accepted early to Ivy League schools. “I get 10 bottles of Dom Perignon Champagne every year from grateful parents thanking me for helping them get through it.”

Still, there are plenty of horror stories about college coaches fudging both their credentials and their results. Consider Ivy Success, the New York outfit whose consultants’ Ivy League pedigrees The New York Times last summer exposed as exaggerated. The IECA acts as the industry’s unofficial accrediting agency, and after close review, only offers one in three candidates membership each year.

“Private counselors don’t really know any secrets, they don’t have any pull at colleges, and they’re not going to write your kids’ essay. So never hire a counselor because they say they will get your kid into an Ivy,” says Mark Sklarow, IECA’s executive director. “The only reason to hire a consultant is if you want to find a great match in terms of schools for your child.”

Private School Counselors Hold More Weight “My best advice to parents who care about where your child goes to college: Send them to private high school or move into the best school district you can afford. All day long I talk to private school counselors; I know every one of their kids’ names. With rare exceptions, I never hear from public school counselors.”— An Ivy League admissions officer

“Every year I look at my territory and choose one inner-city school to target. I get to know the guidance counselor there and possible applicants. We work on reassuring them about financial aid, etc. But, besides that, I really only get to a handful of other public schools in the whole admissions cycle.”— A Mid-Atlantic private college admissions officer

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…Case in Point “I’ve known most of the admissions directors I work with for 30 years. We’ve become friends— when they come to town, we go out for drinks, have dinner. Of course if there is a student I really want off the wait-list, they take my call.”— A private San Francisco high school college counselor

Still, Counselors Can’t Work Miracles “Every year I want to scream at parents—I can only do so much. I can talk to an admission person, sure, but if your child doesn’t have the grades or test scores, I’m not going to get him in. In fact, I probably won’t even bother calling…Blame the system, blame demographics, blame him, but don’t blame me.”— A New England prep-school college counselor

Geography Matters “Forever, since the beginning of time, school-based counselors have concentrated on nearby universities, in-state universities. Kids today, however, see the entire country as their oyster and they will look anywhere. They walk into the counselor’s office and say they want to look at Colorado, Florida and California. School counselors, though— because their numbers and their time are limited and because they’re not able to get away from their school— can’t help. So the demand is growing for hiring an educational consultant who has visited campuses from coast-to-coast.”— Mark Sklarow, executive director of Independent Educational Consultants Association

Counselors Have Their Own Motivations “My high school guidance counselor desperately wanted me to choose Boston College. Desperate to the point of disparaging other great schools like Georgetown, MIT, even Yale. I couldn’t figure it out until later, when a teacher I was close with explained [that] her daughter, whom, unlike me, had only middling grades and wanted to go to BC the next year. True or not, I was angry.”— Erin Healey, now a Boston school teacher

If You Can Afford It, Consider Hiring a Private Consultant “In reality, I oversee 700-plus students. Some will make it to college, some won’t. I don’t have time to even talk to them all, much less you. Of course I think parents should hire a private consultant if they can afford it.”— An Atlanta public school guidance counselor

…But Don’t Expect It to Work “My parents paid $15,000 to hire a college coach who promised I’d get into my first-choice school. But not my first choice, not my second choice, not even my fifth choice let me in— I was dinged everywhere I applied. I aimed too high. I had to take a gap year and start all over again this year. “— A 2010 applicant

“I am much more willing to speak to a school-based counselor than a private consultant. For one, the latter will call me incessantly if I give them any inclination that I care about what they’re saying. Two, I think most of them are crooks or frauds anyhow….Parents, don’t waste your money.”— A public university admission officer in the Northwest

Be Skeptical of Consultants Who Promise Results “In my experience, private consultants will basically tell you whatever you want to hear if you’re willing to pay them. I just refuse to take their calls.”— A California liberal arts college admissions officer

“Parents want to hear that I am going to get their child into Harvard. Do I dissuade them of that notion? No, I try and assure them as much as possible we’ll do our very best. The truth is, fate always takes whatever course it wants.”— A New York City private college consultant

Pick a Consultant With a Consistent Track Record “I’d never say this in public, but there are definitely a handful of private coaches, usually former colleagues, whom I call each year to check in on their students. I know I can trust their judgment.”— An admissions officer at a private Midwestern college

“There are one or two admissions folks who call me every spring. They won’t admit it, of course, nor would I piss them off by naming names. But basically they just want reassurance that this kid isn’t going to self-implode one semester in or that kid isn’t going to shoot up the place.”— A California-based private consultant

Make Sure Whoever You Hire is Discreet “To be honest, I’d say private consultants have gotten much better at hiding their work. It isn’t that often that I read an essay and know an adult wrote it. I guess I understand why parents pay for that kind of quality.”— An Ivy League admissions officer

Spend Your Money on SAT Prep Instead

“Our office is overwhelmed by applications this year. If parents really want my opinion, it is far better to get your child a SATs coach than an admissions one. Because, let’s be real, that is largely how we will be picking our class this year. How can we possibly have the time to read all these applications as closely as we once did?”— A Big 10 public university admissions officer

Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.