Just ask Jeremy Friedman, who is juggling 12 applications in addition to his class work and a part-time job.
"I didn't think applying would be this stressful and difficult. I didn't realize how many essays I'd have to write, how much organization it takes, how much research there is to do," said Friedman, 18, a Beverly Hills High School student who is applying to Northwestern, Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania, to name a few. "You want to try to get an edge on everyone, because you really never know what the schools are looking for."
To gain that elusive edge, Friedman worked hard for solid grades and strong test scores, and got help forming his college list from his school's guidance department. But that's not all -- he and his family also hired two independent college consultants to make sure nothing was overlooked.
"I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing any schools that would be of interest to me," he said. "I had already done a lot of research, but maybe they had other ideas that I wouldn't have thought of before."
Friedman isn't the only one looking beyond the confines of his school building this fall for extra help getting into the right college. A growing number of families are turning to private consultants to allay the competition that marks modern college admissions, local consultants and school officials say. And in the class of '09 -- which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts will be the largest graduating high school class on record -- some students are looking for all the edge they can get.
"Putting together an application is a very complicated process. We help demystify it," said educational consultant Jeannie Borin, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based consulting firm College Connections. "People use personal trainers to motivate them to stay in shape. Singers might hire a voice coach to reach the high notes. Coaching is common in countless fields. So it's not such a crazy thought -- if you're going to make such a large financial investment as going to college, you want to get it right."
Consultants cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on whom you use, and for what.
According to U.S Census Bureau statistics, college enrollment rose 17 percent from 2000 to 2006. As the applicant pool grows, so do students' fears of being turned away from the school of their choice. This translates to students sending out more applications than ever -- often as many as 12 or 15, Borin said.
"It used to be the case that when someone was qualified to go to a college, they knew they would get in," she said. "Astonishing candidates are now being turned away. It's somewhat of a crapshoot. Students are covering their bases and applying to more schools -- that's one of the factors that's making this more competitive."
Borin, formerly the admissions director at Valley Beth Shalom Day School, helps college hopefuls compile a list of appropriate schools, offers interview tips and aids in the process of honing the all-important -- and much-dreaded -- college essay. Students come to College Connections as early as their freshman or sophomore years to discuss their classes and extracurricular activities, so Borin can begin making recommendations based on their interests.
But do all students need another level of supervision as they select and apply to colleges? Not necessarily, say some high school guidance counselors. It just depends on what each family needs to feel safe.
"We're finding that more and more, even the ninth- and 10th-grade parents are so worried about the college process they see coming a couple of years down the line," said Leanne Domnitz, head guidance counselor at Beverly Hills High School. "We have over 600 seniors going through this process. Some of them are self-contained, they're right on top of it, and they're fine. At the other end of the spectrum are kids who are completely overwhelmed by this process and need their hands held. I understand that for some families, it's just too much."
Guidance counselors handle about 300 students each at Beverly Hills High, Domnitz said, so they don't have hours on end to spend with students who need lots of one-on-one help.
Students, particularly in the public schools, often can't get time from their overburdened high school guidance departments, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), based in Fairfax, Va. Rising demand for experts who can devote more time to students has fueled a striking growth spurt in the consulting industry: The number of educational consultants in the United States. has doubled in the last five years, and Sklarow expects it to double again in the next five years.
"In an average public school in America, there are 600 students for every counselor," he said. "It's worse in California than in any other state. Counselors are simply playing triage -- they give a student what they can, but it's often not very much."
That isn't the case at some of Los Angeles' private Jewish schools, according to the guidance departments at Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). At NCJHS, for instance, guidance counselors only handle 50 students each and can give kids more of the in-depth help that some seek, said Celeste Morgan, director of college guidance at the West Hills school.
"We really work with students on brainstorming topics for their essays, helping them edit them and making sure their college lists are balanced so they have as many options as possible in the spring," said Morgan, who previously worked in the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania and read as many as 23,000 college applications during her time there.
She doesn't believe her students stand to gain anything from a private college consultant that New Jew's guidance department doesn't already offer. "At smaller, independent schools, where they have resources like our department available, that's all they really need," she said.
Joe Blassberg, director of college guidance at Milken, agreed. "The process that we take our students through gives them the tools they need to make the right choices about where they should be applying," he said. "Certainly, if my skill set or experience doesn't match what the student's needs are, then I'd be happy to help that student find additional support services. But I haven't run into that situation yet."
Milken senior Jonathan York, 17, said he's taking full advantage of his guidance counselor's support as he works on his stack of 15 applications. "It's not rare for me to stop into my counselor's office every other day, if only to ask a quick question," the Stanford hopeful said.
With all the aid he's getting from Milken, York hasn't felt the need to seek extra guidance from an independent consultant -- but he admitted that he will be asking family members to read over his essays.
"Every kid doesn't need an educational consultant," said Sklarow, director of the IECA. "The best reason to hire a consultant is to cast a wide net. You're looking not just for a college, but for a place where you're going to grow up over the next four years. An educational consultant will help you make that match more effectively."
IECA members must visit at least 50 campuses a year, so they have a wealth of first-hand knowledge that many high school guidance counselors lack.
This knowledge extends to Jewish life on different campuses, according to Borin of College Connections -- how large the Jewish population is at a given school, whether the students sustain a thriving Hillel and whether it's viable to keep kosher on campus.
Alexandra Dumas Rhodes, founder of Santa Monica-based Rhodes Educational Consulting, also considers it an asset that she can work with clients during the summer before senior year, when many students have limited access to their school's counseling department.
But the cost of hiring a college consultant bars many families from doing so, said Mary Charlton, a guidance counselor at Van Nuys High School.
"If a student needs to be walked through the process, and you can afford to do that, great. But if you're strapped for cash and can get good guidance from your school counselors, it's superfluous," Charlton said.
Ultimately, most agreed, what students need most is a level head and a realistic approach to the application process. If students focused more on themselves and less on the competition, said Morgan of NCJHS, the fall season might lose some of its frenzy.
"They don't need to frame the process as something where it's them against more students than have ever applied before," she said. "What they need to look at is: have I done my best?"