Stephen Phillips meets the coaches who tip the odds in favour of students with hearts (and wallets) set on the Ivy League.
And you thought it was competitive getting into UK universities? As A-level results land on doormats and clearing goes into overdrive in the UK, the admissions process in the US is becoming more cut-throat.
Michele Hernandez knows this more than most. The American admissions consultant runs "college application boot camps" and boasts an acceptance rate among clients of "90 to 100 per cent eight years running" at institutions at which only 8 to 15 per cent of applicants are accepted.
Hernandez touts the "inside knowledge" she gained from four years as an assistant admissions director at Ivy League Dartmouth College. One testimonial on her website reads: "Thousands of top candidates apply to college every year, tens of thousands have great grades, lots of activities and superior teacher recommendations, but literally only TWENTY high-school seniors have Michele Hernandez."
Her services don't come cheap. Prices range from $4,500 (£2,360) for an in-depth consultation to $36,000 for a four to five-year package. For this, students as young as 14 can expect intensive vocabulary-building exercises, "admissions strategising" (including mock interviews), revision for key tests and "50 to 70 hours per student doing essays and applications", Hernandez says. Over summer, she is in daily e-mail contact with many of her charges. "I'm a professional nag," she adds. Clients can count on discretion. "I work behind the scenes so that no one except you and your family will be aware that anyone assisted you in the application process," her website assures. But demand outstrips supply. She says she had to turn down scores of students last month.
Another consultancy, New York's IvyWise, goes for the soft sell. On its website, personal empowerment mantras ("the process is about you") and aspirational questions ("what do you want to do with your life?") are set against a photo montage backdrop and British folk musician Beth Orton singing, "Today is whatever I want it to mean". Students can opt for a Platinum Package, costing up to $30,000, or select a la carte offerings such as a consultation, at $1,000 a go, with IvyWise's cadre of resident experts. Last year, 80 per cent of clients got into their top-choice colleges and all were admitted to one of their top three, says college counsellor Jaclyn Shapiro, a former admissions counsellor and reader at Northwestern University.
Hernandez and IvyWise are part of a mushrooming private admissions consulting industry that has sprung up in America in the past decade. Since 1996, membership of America's Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), the professional body for private admissions consultants, has risen from 150 to 550. Mark Sklarow, its executive director, says the association fields 100 membership applications a month.
A November 2005 IECA poll found that among the 1.2 million US students enrolled at four-year degree-granting institutions, 84,000 hired a consultant, including 58,000, or one in five, attending private colleges.
The offspring of the baby-boom generation are reaching college age, and more applicants are competing for the same number of places. This year, Dartmouth admitted 15 per cent of applicants versus 22 per cent six years ago, and there were more candidates with perfect scores on the SAT - the nearest thing to a US college entrance exam - than places, says admissions dean Karl Furstenberg. Stanford University turned down 40 per cent of candidates who had perfect scores on their SATs. "There's no question many applicants are getting help in the admissions process," Furstenberg says.
In 2005-06, the US high-school test preparation market was worth $510 million, according to research firm Eduventures. IECA members, whose average fees are $3,200 per student, must have at least three years' admissions or school counselling experience and 50 campus visits under their belt, Sklarow says.
Like socially conscious lawyers many consultants devote time to pro-bono work with students otherwise unable to afford their services, Sklarow adds, something Hernandez and IvyWise also offer. But admissions officers are concerned that the activities of some players represent a cynical attempt to rig the system and play on candidates' insecurities. "There are a lot of people who think they know the secrets to admission," Furstenberg says.
"They're selling their services to people who are anxious and nervous." He fears that the spectre of candidates groomed for entrance success with "highly-burnished test scores" threatens to undermine institutions' attempts to promote equity.
There are also concerns that candidates are being advised to pursue certain extracurricular activities to impress campuses. The use of paid consultants "has left us wondering what's real and what's manufactured", Furstenberg says.
Some institutions are fighting back. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton Business School, MBA candidates have to sign a statement on their application form, attesting that the work is their own, says admissions dean Thomas Caleel. But it is difficult to spot the hand of a consultant, he concedes. "When you get highly polished applications, it's hard to tell whether they've used a consultant, have a friend with an MBA, or are just a rock-star candidate."
Denver consultant Steven Antonoff, former admissions dean at the University of Denver, says consultants who make bold statements about their admissions rates and charge exorbitant fees give the profession a bad name. Most consultants are concerned with "finding a good educational fit" for clients, says Antonoff, who spends two months a year touring campuses. He says much of the demand for his services comes from students who used to attend the nearest institution and are now casting the net wider.
A pilot scheme being launched at Tufts University might make the application form process less subject to manipulation by consultants.
Instead of the usual open-ended questions often posed, applicants for 2007 entry to the Boston campus will be given the option of answering a new set of questions that might, for example, ask them to design an advertisement for a new product, says spokeswoman Kimberly Thurler. "These kinds of questions are not the kind of thing than can be readily practised at a 'SAT Camp'," she adds.
One thing is certain; any changes to the admissions process will be closely watched by those whose livelihoods depend on it. In June, the University of California, Berkeley's Haas Business School posted advance notice of a new application form for its MBA programme online. Within a fortnight, international admissions dean Peter Johnson recalls finding a consultant touting a full rundown of the new questions, replete with tips on how to approach them.