You can't put a price tag on getting into your top college. Or maybe you can.
With competition among college applicants as fierce as it has ever been, some students are doing whatever they can to get a leg up — no matter the cost.
That's where private help comes in. A growing number of college counselors offer their expertise — for a price — and promise results.
When Christopher Rim, now 23, was the only graduating senior at his high school in Bergen County, New Jersey, to get accepted to Yale, underclassmen immediately reached out to ask him how he did it.
(This year, Yale's acceptance rate hit 6.31 percent, near an all-time low. Princeton University offered admission to just 5.5 percent of a record 35,370 applicants and at Harvard, the admission rate fell below 5 percent for the first time ever, to a record-low 4.59 percent of applicants securing spots in the Class of 2022.)
Rim started his own college consulting firm from his dorm room to help other Ivy hopefuls. He is now the president and CEO of Command Education in New York, with offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seoul. Rim charges $950 an hour.
The goal, he said, is "inspiring and motivating students to figure out what their hobbies are and how to take that to the next level."
The counselors at Command Education are all very recent graduates of the nation's most competitive schools. The oldest senior counselor is 26.
"We're non-parental," Rim said. "Because of that, students trust us."
And as a result, 96 percent of students they have worked with were accepted into one or more of their top choices, according to Rim's own account.
Mimi Doe, a co-president and founder of Top Tier Admissions in Concord, Massachusetts, starts working with students as early as the 8th grade. Clients come from all over the world.
The prices range from $2,500 for five hours of essay guidance to $16,000 for a summer bootcamp and significantly more for private tutoring. "There's more demand for private counseling than anything" Doe said, in part because they only work with a limited number of students each year.
Similarly to Rim, Doe and her team help students develop one area where they can shine.
"One hundred hours of random community service hours is a colossal waste of time," Doe said. "They should be doing something they are passionate about."
"Colleges don't want a well-rounded student, they want a well-rounded class."
"We give kids a streamlined approach for what really matters," she said of their successful track record (94 percent of their private clients have been accepted to their first-choice school, according to Doe's unverified tally).
But don't think paying for counseling is a cure-all.
"Nobody should hire an educational consultant because they think they will get them in to a particular college," said Mark Sklarow, the CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. "Kids get in because of hard work, effort and brains; they don't get in because someone knows a secret handshake or anything like that."
The better way to use an independent consultant is to find the schools that would be the best match, he added. "If kids begin to focus on more appropriate choices they will improve their odds of getting in."
Of course, many high schools have guidance counselors who serve the same purpose at no cost at all. But depending on the number of students in a class, it can be difficult to get personalized advice about college planning.
Plus, the number of counselors available to students has been steadily dwindling for years. Currently, the national student-to-counselor ratio is 482 to 1, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
However, in some cases, that one counselor will more than suffice.
Ronny Anderson, 68, is a college counselor at Southland College Prep Charter High School in suburban Chicago with 30 years of experience. He said his approach has resulted in a 100 percent college acceptance rate for the school, including getting graduates into top universities like Harvard, Stanford and Yale.
The secret, he said, is crafting a very personalized story.
"At Harvard, you can get a perfect score and still not get in," Anderson said. "You have to be able to present yourself in a compelling way."
"I tell my students, 'you must not only be able to walk on water but you've got to be able to freeze it so others can follow.'"
Another important factor is deciding on which schools a student should apply to at the outset. "We've done a very good job on school selection on the front end, that's why we've been able to get 100 percent on college acceptance," Anderson said.
He also plays a large role helping the students find scholarship funding, securing over $20 million in merit-based scholarships for the graduating Class of 2018.
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