Confronted with mountains of college brochures and lists of college Web sites, North Bend parent Karen Rohan felt overwhelmed. How could she tell...

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Confronted with mountains of college brochures and lists of college Web sites, North Bend parent Karen Rohan felt overwhelmed. How could she tell which school would be best for her daughter, Katelyn?

To solve the college puzzle, she engaged a professional college consultant to help Katelyn sort through her options. Rohan was so happy with the results, she plans to have her 14-year-old son, Garrett, start working with the same consultant before he enters high school. “It was nice, as her mom, not to have to be constantly nagging and reminding her to do things,” Rohan says.

Rohan is far from alone. There’s growing demand for college consultants nationwide. The number of consultants is estimated to have tripled to 3,000 since 2000, says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va.

Sklarow says the typical client is a student at a large public high school. Often, public-school counselors have 500 students or more on their caseload and can give little individual attention.

What’s fair?

But some high-school counselors take a dim view of the burgeoning independent-counseling field, which they feel “unlevels” the playing field for less-well-off students.

“My impression of the private counselors is they are paid to do work that maybe the students ought to be doing themselves,” says Erica Mallin, head counselor at Seattle’s Garfield High School. “If independent counselors are helping write student essays, that’s not really fair.”

Admissions dean Michael McKeon at Seattle University is more neutral, saying there are good and bad counselors. He says parents have been polishing up their children’s essays for years, long before the rise of independent counselors. Such meddling is fairly easy to detect and should be avoided, whether it’s a counselor or Mom’s secretary doing the rewrite.

Finding a quality counselor

For parents who want and can afford professional help, McKeon says the key is to find a qualified, ethical counselor who will help a student present his or her best face to colleges.

McKeon says parents should look for professional membership in either the Independent Educational Consultants Association or the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Both have rigorous standards for members. For instance, the independent consultant members must have personally visited at least 50 colleges and been working at least three years.

Help for low-income students

Private college consultants often offer some free or discounted services each year to low-income students. To be considered, contact a consultant and ask to apply to receive pro bono or sliding-scale services.

Free counseling

Private college consultants typically provide free college counseling to one or two low-income students a year. For those in professional associations, this is part of their ethical code.

If you think you might qualify, the counselors have an application to fill out to be considered for one of the slots.