Anne Tergesen

I recently wrote an article for BusinessWeek about consultants who charge astronomical sums--in some cases, as much as the cost of a full year’s tuition, room and board-—for advising on the college admissions process. There are many reasons for the growing popularity of these counselors, who were retained by an estimated 22% of this year's crop of freshmen at private, four-year colleges, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association. One reason is simply that as the number of high school graduates has grown, from 2.46 million in 1994 to 3.15 million today, it's become that much harder to stand out in a crowd.

The consultants are also capitalizing on dual career households. Unfortunately, I know all too well how hard it is for working parents to find time to navigate the admissions process. You see, before my kids were out of diapers (and long before they could read a word), I learned the joys of the New York City private school admissions process. Each school has its own requirements. But in general, most New York City nursery schools mail applications only to families who call the day after Labor Day. With thousands trying to get through at once, you've got to spend hours re-dialing until you get a human on the line. Fail to get through on that day? You’re out of luck.

Once you get the application form, you’ve got to fill it out and send it back with a check for between $40 and $100. The exact sum depends on the school and the money is often non-refundable, even if you pull your application. The schools will then call to set up a tour for the parents and an interview for the child. What if your spouse asks a stupid question or your kid isn't a perfect angel? I’ll leave you to ponder the consequences.

I was on maternity leave during our most recent dance with the admissions directors, so I was able to schedule our eight tours and eight interviews without taking sixteen mornings off from work. In the end, we were lucky: Our son got into only one of the eight nursery schools we applied to. But it was the only nursery school I loved. Not coincidentally, it was also the only school we had a connection to: The assistant director is a good friend of my parents’ (and a wonderful lady).

The process of applying to private schools, which start in kindergarten, is both more involved and more absurd, if you ask me. You don’t have to speed dial for applications: Anyone can request one up until the deadline, which is sometime in the late fall. Again, the parents must tour and the child must interview—and interview well. The truly absurd part of the process, though, is the standardized test that’s administered to the four-year-old applicants. In New York City, most private schools require a test called the ERB. Many of the selective public schools require other tests, including the Stanford-Binet. All of these tests are expensive—the ERB currently costs $400. The results tell you whether your child can recognize patterns and do mazes. And they purport to measure his or her vocabulary. I’m not an educator, but as a parent of three young boys who can be shy when confronted with an unfamiliar adult, I don’t put much stock in the results--good or bad (and we've seen both). As a late bloomer, I also seriously doubt that these exams can measure a person’s potential.

As we all learned in Economics 101, when demand exceeds supply, producers generally raise the price until the market returns to equilibrium. But when it comes to handing out seats (or cubbies) at competitive schools—whether they’re in the Ivy League or the diaper league—it’s unseemly to sell admissions to the highest bidders. Instead, those who want "in" go to increasingly absurd and sometimes humiliating lengths to compete. In the case of Manhattan private schools, many get in due to connections with influential figures, such as headmasters/principals, and the directors who serve on the schools’ boards. Remember the case of disgraced Citigroup analyst Jack Grubman, whose employer made a hefty donation to a nursery school the year his twins applied? I hear whispers that he’s not alone in such checkbook diplomacy. Our sons were only admitted to a Manhattan private school due to my husband's alumni status.

Given the intense competition for a spot at the nation's most selective colleges, it's no wonder that so many applicants are hiring private college admissions counselors. Of course, as the bar for admission has gotten higher, the strategies applicants and counselors employ have become more sophisticated--and also more contrived and absurd. For example, these "experts" offer advice not only on completing applications but on the raw material that goes into them-—such as which courses and extracurriculars students ought to pursue. (One advised a girl intent on MIT to enroll in beauty pageants so that she could stand out in the applicant pool). And some parents are hiring them as early as the 8th or 9th grades. One college admissions dean compares the admissions process to the top schools to "an arms race.” As a veteran of the admissions wars, I can only hope supply and demand are more balanced when my sons eventually apply to college.

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