Britney Henry, 16, an honors student in her junior year at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, plans to apply to a number of top colleges next fall, including Columbia, New York University and the University of Chicago. But she and her parents, Lisa and Brian Henry, are not relying on Britney's high school guidance counselor to help her find the school that best matches her interest in journalism.

Instead, the Henrys, who live in Fort Washington, are planning to hire a private educational consultant to guide Britney through the college admission process. "We want to get ahead of the ballgame and make sure all areas are covered in order to find a good journalism program," explains Lisa, who works full time running two funeral homes.

The Henrys are among a growing number of parents nationwide who have decided that applying to college has become so complicated, so anxiety-producing, or so time-consuming, that they want professional help -- often at a rate of about $125 an hour. A decade ago there were about 400 private educational consultants in the United States, also referred to as independent college counselors, says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Fairfax-based Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). Today there are closer to 3,000, says Sklarow.

A decade or so ago, 1.5 to 2 percent of families with prospective college students hired a consultant. Approximately 6 percent do so now, Sklarow says. Usually, he notes, consultants are hired on retainer rather than on an hourly basis, and costs typically total about $2,600. At the extreme end, people have paid as much as $32,000.

"With the kind of intensity that parents have about college, public school counselors can't live up to parental expectations with the growing numbers of students that they have responsibility for," says Joyce Smith, executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, an Alexandria-based nonprofit organization.

The Washington area is particularly ripe territory for educational consultants, says Sklarow, because it is home to some of the nation's top public school systems and to a large number of parents who expect their teenagers to attend top public or Ivy League-caliber universities. Additionally, many of the students applying to these schools resemble each other -- they have an A or A-minus average, good standardized test scores, and impressive community service work and extracurricular activities, he notes. "The anxiety results from how to stand out in the application pool."

An educational consultant can help a student do just that as well as focus on particular interests in order to "cast a wider net beyond the same eight schools" to which so many others are applying. Ideally, families hire a consultant in 10th grade, he says; the consultant then offers advice to the student on which classes and summer activities to pursue to strengthen college applications.

The real crunch comes in the junior and senior years, when consultants can help students improve their study skills, highlight talents, communicate with parents and meet application deadlines, Smith says. Private counselors can also offer "hand-holding and reassurance" to families, because they know the process well, says Sally Rubenstone, co-author of "Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions" (Thomson Peterson's, 2002) and editor of the Web site CollegeConfidential.com.

Peter A. Sturtevant Jr., director of School Counseling Group, a D.C.-based educational consulting firm, says consultants can demystify the college application process and create a supportive environment. He likens the consultant's role to that of a travel agent, coach and therapist rolled into one, "with a little masseuse thrown in."

Potomac resident Shelly Basen hired a counselor to help each of her three sons -- now ages 26, 24 and 19 -- with their college admissions processes.

"The first time around it was the blind leading the blind," Basen recalls.

With the second son, the family knew more about the process, but the counselor served as a good sounding board as her son considered applying for early decision. And with the youngest, now a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, Basen says the counselor was helpful in finding certain schools that could serve as "safeties."

The counselor kept everyone focused, too, she adds. "It was easier on all of us emotionally for the boys to listen to her talk about their essay. . . . With her they took the process more seriously."

But educational consultants have their critics. School-based guidance counselors, for example, are often skeptical. "Students and parents need to recognize that there are professional counselors in the school," says Emyrtle Bennett, director of guidance at the District's Woodrow Wilson High School.

Carole Kihm, director of student services at Fairfax High School, says she and her staff know many college admissions officers personally and that Fairfax High's counselors start preparing students in ninth grade. "It's probably lucrative to be a private educational consultant, but I know it's not necessary [for students]; I can't imagine there's anything they cover that we don't," she says.

Kent Weaver, a high school counselor specialist for Montgomery County Public Schools, says he doesn't frown upon parents who hire an educational consultant, but he worries they are "doing so too quickly without using the resources available at the school that are free." Weaver, who runs the county's high school counseling program, says he believes students benefit from doing their own research and going through the college decision-making process. "To the greater extent that they have someone else do it for them, they don't learn those skills that they will need again and again," he says.

Some college admission directors also question the potential advantages of a private consultant. John A. Blackburn, dean of admission at the University of Virginia, says consultants "keep parents calm but are no better than guidance counselors in high schools. . . . If students challenge themselves, do well, and write well, they will be strong candidates anywhere."

Kathryn Napper, director of undergraduate admissions at George Washington University, says kids who are coached by a consultant and therefore appear too polished "are a turnoff." How can she tell who those kids are? "It's a gut reaction from years of experience," she says. "We want interesting students . . . not cookie-cutters or ones who write Pulitzer Prize-winning essays."

Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College, notes, "We are skilled at deflecting lobbying from paid agents and do not try to cultivate working relationships with them." Though she understands why students whose parents don't have much knowledge of the U.S. education process or the admissions process at competitive colleges might turn to consultants for guidance, "it won't help here," she says.

Still, some believe the rise in popularity of education consultants stacks the deck against families with modest means.

The son of Cheverly resident -- and former Maryland state delegate -- Rushern Baker III is a senior at Suitland High School and plans to apply to several top colleges, including art-oriented schools such as Cooper Union, Rhode Island School of Design and the Art Institute of Chicago. Though Baker and his wife, Christa Beverly, have devoted several hours a week since last year to their son's college planning, they believe having a private educational consultant would help.

"I'm just a parent," Baker says. "I don't know what we should be doing."

"It would be nice to know what are the three things we need to do to get Rushern into Cooper Union and get a scholarship," he continues. "It would be nice not to have to worry about the essay or application. . . . It would take the hassle out of it and make life a lot easier."

But other families don't want hired help, whether they can afford it or not. Cabin John mom Ilene Ackerman did not hire a consultant to advise her older two children on college admissions. They both attend Washington University in St. Louis. Ackerman's youngest child, Olivia, 16, is a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and plans to apply to college without private help.

"It goes along with my philosophy of being a parent to want to help my children with this," Ackerman says. "I enjoy guiding them through this and am happy to be a part of it."

Lisa and Brian Henry plan to hire a consultant to help them find the best college for their daughter Britney.