Some families invest in outside help to guide students through the application process.
Evan Casalino always dreamed about going to Harvard Medical School. As a student at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, New Jersey, he worked hard, got good grades and even did a summer lab research internship at Harvard to bolster his college application.
But in his freshman year of high school, his father died of sudden cardiac arrest, and in his junior year, his mother died of ovarian cancer, leaving him devastated and overwhelmed. Determined to fulfill his academic dream, he needed help. So, he hired a coaching firm, Acceptance Ahead, to guide him through the college application process.
“After everything that my family and I had been through, I wanted to honor my parents and make them proud, but also for my grandparents who were taking care of us and trying to fill the shoes of my parents,” said Casalino, whose brother, Tyler, is 14. He landed a spot at Harvard.
Casalino is among a growing number of students who are turning to college prep coaches to navigate them through the fiercely competitive and time-consuming college application process.
“There’s definitely growing demand; people are coming to us earlier and earlier,” said Nancy Stuzin, partner and co-founder of Acceptance Ahead. Another coaching firm, Sylvan Learning, has seen a 15 percent increase in its college prep business in the last year, said Emily Levitt, the firm’s vice president of education.
The reason? Getting into college is much more daunting than it was 10 or 20 years ago, because of a host of factors: more international students seeking admission to colleges in the United States, greater access for people of all economic and geographical backgrounds to information about colleges, more early-decision opportunities and an increase in “need blind” applications, in which colleges do not consider an applicant’s financial status in admission decisions.
Good grades alone are no guarantee of acceptance, and the personal essay and interview can often make the difference — either way. “While grades are important, extracurricular activities are just as important, if not more, and will really help you stand out,” said Christopher Rim, president and chief executive of Command Education Group.
It’s particularly cutthroat for those vying to get into Ivy League schools.
“The most exclusive places are 4 percent or 5 percent acceptance, so 1 in 25 will get in among a pool of really highly qualified people,” said Hafeez Lakhani, founder of Lakhani Coaching. “There are heartbreaking stories every year of a student with a near-perfect SAT score and perfect grades rejected from every Ivy.”
When is the best time to bring in a coach?
“My favorite story is about parents wanting to set up an education plan for their daughter,” said Carol Gill, founder of Carol Gill Associates, a college counseling and placement firm. “When I met with them, their daughter was 17 months old. They wanted the right prenursery and prekindergarten to get into the Ivys. But that’s New York City. It’s kind of crazy out there.”
Ideally, students should start consulting coaches in their sophomore year of high school, or junior year at the latest. The earlier they bring in a coach, the more time they’ll have to turn around weak grades through extra tutoring, add extracurricular activities that will make their college application statement stand out, do practice runs for the college interview and ensure they get high scores in the standardized tests.
Deciding on the right personal essay is also key.
Alissa Fogelson, 18, of Purchase, New York, wanted to study nutrition and hired Stuzin in her junior year to help her college application stand out.
“I had no idea what I wanted to write about” in the essay, Fogelson said. When Stuzin learned that Fogelson had a passion for dance and was part of a dance company, she arranged for an internship with a nutritionist and then suggested she develop a nutritional program for fellow dancers and use the experience as part of her personal statement. Today, Fogelson is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania
Coaches caution students to present their achievements and goals in a confident but not arrogant way.
Nikki Geula, president of Arete Educational Consulting, recalled one client, who earned top grades, was involved in volunteer work at his church and had aced his ACT test but had been rejected by many of the top colleges.
Once she read his personal statement, the problem became crystal clear. “He came across as a jerk,” she said, as his words portrayed a know-it-all who planned to single-handedly fix the gap between the tech world and business on Wall Street — not at all reflective of his personality. And he didn’t mention all of the charitable acts he had done for his community, she said.
“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance,” said Geula, who helped him rewrite his essay.
Sometimes, students are misguided when they try to grab a committee’s attention.
Geula recounted the case of another gifted student who consulted her after being wait-listed at Harvard. The student had devoted his entire essay to writing about how he came up with his best ideas while sitting on the toilet. “It was incredibly graphic and completely inappropriate,” she said. “He told me he wanted to get their attention.” She helped him rewrite his personal statement.
Then there’s the interview. “If they go in there totally unprepared and bomb the interview, it could hurt them,” Stuzin said.
Coaches often prepare students using mock interviews where they ask common — and not so common — questions students may face. They also offer tips, such as keeping good eye contact, engaging in conversations with personal anecdotes and, of course, practicing good etiquette, such as showing up on time and turning cellphones off.
“I had a kid take out his phone and say ‘Oh, excuse me, I just have to return this text’ in the middle of the interview,” said Adam Exline, who worked in the admissions department at Sarah Lawrence College and is now co-director of college counseling at Trevor Day School in New York.
Geula recalled one student from China, who was soft-spoken and shy. So, Geula brought in acting and theatrical specialists and had her do improv exercises to get her to project her voice.
The uptick in college coaching has not escaped the attention of college admissions officials.
“We do know that more and more people out there are turning to coaches,” said Jonathan Williams, associate dean and director of admissions at New York University. “It is a much more competitive process than it was five years ago, and people are looking for an edge.”
He said the quality of applications had escalated in recent years. “SAT scores or ACT scores, for example, have increased at NYU over the past five years pretty significantly,” he said, although he could not say whether coaches were the reason.
Not everyone believes coaches are necessary.
“We actually discourage them from being overly coached or overly prepared for those interviews,” Exline said. “The kids who speak off the cuff or from the heart often come through much better than kids who are scripted.”
And coaching doesn’t come cheap. A coach can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a one-hour consultation session to tens of thousands of dollars for mentoring over a couple of years. Some firms offer lower rates or even pro bono work for low-income students.
“It’s obviously a huge decision” Lakhani said. “This is the door that you’re seeking to the rest of your life. It’s one of the greatest investments of our lives.”