Harvard University's iron gate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA Credit - Getty Images
With college admissions season upon us, a question comes to mind: Has there ever been a concept so repugnant as the private college counselor?
From the start, the odds in college admissions are stacked in favor of the rich. Roughly 4 in 10 kids born into a family in the top .1% of the income distribution will go on to attend one of the top 80 schools in Barron’s rankings. By contrast, less than one-half of 1% of children from families in the bottom income quintile make it to a, so-called, “elite” college. More than 60% don’t attend any college at all.
Advantages for kids born into wealthy families are baked into the system. Most elite colleges give substantial preferences to recruited athletes, as well as the children of alumni (known as “legacies”), donors, and faculty members. From 2014 to 2019, Harvard admitted just 5.5% of applicants overall, but nearly 34% of legacies, 47% of faculty kids, and 86% of recruited athletes.
Nearly 1 in 10 Harvard students is a recruited athlete. Most play one of a proliferation of niche sports largely available to the rich such as crew, fencing, and squash. Only 3% are economically disadvantaged and 70% are white, as shown by data produced in connection with a lawsuit alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian applicants. This case is currently pending before the Supreme Court, in the hopes to end race-based affirmative action.
Those who aren’t satisfied with their advantages of birth can turn to a college counselor for additional help navigating the system. To be clear, this is not your high school guidance counselor, passing out pamphlets for the local community college or state university. These private counselors commonly are graduates of Ivy League colleges or veterans of the admissions offices in these schools or both. They take disparities between rich and poor, which diverge from birth, and explode them exponentially.
To their tony clientele, private counselors offer bespoke, white glove services, including assistance in constructing the sort of extraordinary extracurricular opportunities that catch the eye of admissions officers—known in the biz as “distinguishing excellences.”
In 2017, Elizabeth Heaton, a college consultant who worked in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania wrote an essay titled, “What Kind of Hook Do I Need to Get Accepted to an Ivy League College?” It’s all about distinguishing excellences, she argued. But being an Eagle Scout isn’t a distinguishing excellence, Heaton explained, because 50,000 kids achieve that rank every year. Valedictorians are a dime a dozen. So, too, are class presidents. Creating a nonprofit that solicits $1,000 and serves 500 meals isn’t a distinguishing excellence, either. “But it can become one,” she wrote, “if you are raising $100,000 and serving 500,000 meals.” Her other examples included a “future global leader fluent in eight languages,” a student who runs regional volunteer efforts for a U.S. Senate campaign, and a Biology Olympiad winner.
Quality science research opportunities can be hard to come by for high school students—especially ones of ordinary means—but Heaton’s organization and others like it will help you find one that can become the sort of distinguishing excellence that will catch an admissions officer’s eye. Their “Research Mentorship Program” will match you “with a researcher from a top institution, such as Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and MIT” with the goal of developing a college-level research project that’s “a meaningful addition” to one’s application. It also includes 10 mentoring sessions and help getting the work published or presented at a conference. Be forewarned, though—the program is only available to people in the Premier and Elite plans.
Of course, college admissions officers may not be familiar with reverse-transcriptase inhibitors or machine-learning algorithms. Distinguishing research needs to be translated into accessible language. Not to worry. Private college counselors are more than happy to “edit” your college essay. Maddeningly, but unsurprisingly, when a team of researchers led by the sociologist AJ Alvero studied 240,000 essays submitted to the University of California, they found that their content and style were even more strongly correlated with household income than SAT scores. “I don’t think it’s possible to imagine a universe in which some of those students didn’t have help with their essays,” Alvero told me.
Underlying Alvero’s intuition is the rapid proliferation of college counselors. 30 years ago, fewer than 100 people worked as full-time educational consultants. Today, Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, puts that number at greater than 8,000. One reason for this is that the Common Application—which allows students to apply to many schools at once—has driven down admission rates. In 1940, Harvard accepted 85% of applicants. In the 1970, the acceptance rate was 20%. Last year, for the class of 2026, it was just 3.2%.
Another reason is that colleges fill an increasing portion of their classes—sometimes as much as two-thirds—through early admissions. This requires applicants to make a complex strategic calculation. “Part of the reason anxiety is off the charts is the decision-making in colleges has become so opaque,” Sklarow explains. “We see that parents are willing to do just about anything.”
And “just about anything” is what’s required. For their insight, college consultants charge exorbitant fees. After CNBC reported that one consulting firm charged over $100,000 for its services, the company boasted on its blog that the news station had “grossly underreported” its fees. When the New York Post reported that the same company charged another mom $1.5 million, the company wrote that it made “absolutely no apologies” for what it charged.
The result is a grossly unlevel playing field. In the Harvard Crimson’s survey of incoming freshmen, just 1 in 5 students reported having a private admissions counselor, but nearly 2 in 3 of those who do come from a family making over $250,000 per year.
It’s easy enough to imagine ways to make things fairer. Elite colleges could adopt practices akin to federal lobbying rules and make admissions officers pledge not to work as consultants after leaving their jobs at the college. Students could be required to write their personal statement while sitting for one of the standardized exams or simply to disclose whether they had assistance in preparing their application.
Elite colleges have taken none of these steps. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the advantage offered to the rich isn’t a hold-your-nose byproduct of the system—but its very point.