Unspoken use of private consultants affects admissions

Zac Hardwick

September 24, 2014

Unspoken use of private consultants affects admissions

More than $5,000 worth of private college counseling bought five months of advice on realistic school choices, deadline reminders and application essay vocabulary for a female member of the Class of 2016. Although her public high school employed a guidance counselor who had previously evaluated applications for a prestigious institution, the student’s family insisted on hiring a counselor who had once worked as a Harvard University admissions officer.

The student, who requested anonymity to keep her family’s financial status private, said that while her friends never discussed the topic, all of them paid for private consultants, too.

“Everyone in my town above a certain income bracket definitely had them,” she said.

As hundreds of thousands of high school students draft and edit their early decision applications, due in little more than a month, these expensive services say they provide an advantage in the process. Last year, more than 31,000 students applied early action or early decision to the eight Ivy League schools — 1,678 to Dartmouth.

Judi Robinovitz, founder and co-owner of the tutoring and educational consulting company Score at the Top, said she has about seven former advisees attending Dartmouth. The company’s website says it hosts sessions called “Secrets of College Admissions — Revealed!” at five schools, alongside seven additional presentations.

Most people likely underestimate the number of Ivy League students who hire private college consultants, Robinovitz said.

“In today’s high-stakes, anxiety-ridden world of college admissions, parents are sometimes more nervous and anxious than their children,” she said. “They need someone that can guide them.”

Though many Ivy League students have used consultants, this fact is not well known, said Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college-consulting firm. The firm boasts that 100 percent of its students were accepted to one of their top-three choices. 

Dean of admissions and financial aid Maria Laskaris said she believes that some students, those who experience extraordinary situations or with special needs, could have a legitimate circumstance for hiring a specialized counselor. But she added that some people are concerned that private counselors allow “families that have the means” to try to gain an advantage over others in the application process.

But Laskaris said that she does not believe admission into an Ivy League School can be guaranteed. The process, she said, is much more complex and holistic.

“I would be very skeptical of anyone who says they can guarantee admission to schools that have highly selective admissions processes, that are holistic in nature and that still utilize a very human and individualized review process,” Laskaris said.

Dartmouth’s admissions team reads thousands of applications individually, and many officers have years of experience, she said. Even if the office does not know if a student has used a paid consultant, there are parts of the application that are more subjective, including peer evaluations, teacher recommendations, counselor recommendations and alumni interviews.

Each of those points in the application is a “gut check,” and the admissions team pays attention to consistency, ensuring that recommendations echo what students say about themselves, Laskaris said.

Although there is no way of knowing whether or not a student has used college consultant services, inconsistencies in applications can potentially lead to rejection letters, Laskaris said.

Taylor said admissions officers and the press scorn private counselors. 

“It’s all about the haves and the have-nots,” Taylor said. “Admissions offices will always want to go to bat for a kid who they feel has grown up with disadvantages, as opposed to the kid who has grown up with advantages.” 

Taylor said she keeps her work strictly “behind-the-scenes” and encourages advisees to do the same. 

“We tell our students, ‘Don’t talk about it,’” Taylor said. “It’s not necessary to tell anyone.” 

The female member of the Class of 2016 said that students who use private counselors — in addition to being wealthy enough to afford the service — have the “massive advantage” of not having to disclose the use of these services on their applications.

Although she benefitted from the opportunity, she said she believes it is morally wrong to use these services.

“I think it’s pretty bad,” she said. “It really shuts out people who can’t afford something that isn’t actually supposed to be a part of who you are as an applicant. It’s just a super strategic benefit that can only be achieved by a certain income bracket.”

ThinkTank Learning, a California-based test-prep and tutoring company, recently gained notoriety when its founder, Steven Ma, guaranteed its clients admission to a top school, provided that the applicant held a certain grade point average, among other factors.

The company uses an algorithm that determines a student’s chance of admission and then computes a fee based on the likelihood of admission, according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek. Fees can total more than $25,000 for Ma’s services, and if an applicant is denied admission, he or she receives a refund. The company has an annual revenue of more than $18 million, Businessweek reported.

Taylor said Ivy Coach and similar companies seek out former admissions officers to hire as consultants. 

“The admissions at Dartmouth, for example, requires that admissions officers work for two years,” she said. “And after two years, we hire them.”