In the fall of 1983, Laura Trapasso, a senior at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, was confronted with choosing from among more than 3,000 colleges and universities. Given no geographic or financial restrictions from her parents, she was confused.
"She, in effect, panicked," said her mother, Jennie.
The Trapassos say they liked Laura's high school guidance counselor but felt that Laura needed more individual attention.
Many other parents, worried about stiff competition to gain admittance to the good colleges and frustrated by fears that overworked public high school guidance counselors cannot get results, are beginning to look outside the public school system for help. They've joined the growing number of parents paying from $200 to $1,000 to hire specially trained private consultants to help their sons and daughters choose and get into good schools.
After paying about $700 for that help, Laura Trapasso is now a sophomore at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The estimated three dozen Washington area college consultants say the business is booming -- doubling or tripling each year. "It's definitely a growing trend," said Geraldine Fryer, a college consultant in the District.
"It has popped up in the last three to four years, and it seems like it's just snowballing," said Jack McIntyre, guidance director at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac.
Most of the independent consultants appear to be setting up shop in relatively affluent suburban areas such as Fairfax and Montgomery counties, where the school systems are considered excellent and college counseling in the individual schools is already a serious business.
"It's really an upper-middle-class phenomenon," said Fred Hargadon, a senior vice president at the College Board. "They wouldn't be doing it if there wasn't a market for it. Why there's a market for it concerns me."
Hargadon, a former admissions director at Swarthmore College and Stanford University, said he is especially concerned because students who use private counselors are no more likely to get into the colleges of their choice than if they had consulted their public school counselor.
"A student who's going to get into a prestigious school is just as likely to get into a prestigious school without that kind of help," said Ann Hargrove, guidance director at Fairfax County's Langley High School, where more than 92 percent of seniors say they are college-bound.
For high school counselors, the trend is often considered unnecessary and threatening to their own effectiveness. McIntyre says the phenomenon is "absolutely, 100 percent, undermining" his efforts to help students.
Although counselors at a school such as Langley are responsible for 270 students each, including 50 to 60 seniors, Hargrove praised Langley's guidance services, and said it's good for students to learn to do some of the college research and decision-making by themselves.
Carol Lunkenheimer, Northwestern University's director of admissions, said she believes private consultants are needed in some regions of the country, notably in states like California, where budget cuts have meant trims in school guidance services.
"But I never thought anybody would use one in the Washington, D.C., area," she said, citing the local reputation for academic excellence and the attention paid to college-bound students.
"It isn't so much that it gains an edge for people," explained William Peirce of the Independent Educational Counselors Association, which lists seven practicing members in this area. "What it does do is take away an awful lot of the anxiety."
Enthusiastic parents claim that a good consultant can make the difference between a nerve-racking senior year and one that's tolerable.
Parents say they want the extra personal attention a private consultant provides; that consultants render valuable second opinions and can help make sense of what is, for many, a confusing blur of college fairs and applications.
"I know there are books and books about this, but if the children don't look in the books, they're never going to find the answer to their question," said Bernice Munsey, a District-based consultant.
"If it's your third child, you may know what's out there," said Marlene Blum, a Fairfax County parent. "But if it's your first, you and the child may need some help focusing in."
Parents also say that with college costs running sky-high, it's especially important to know one is doing everything possible to match a son or daughter with a school the student will enjoy.
"They're very concerned that their children get the most help possible in making the decision," said Pamela Fay, president of the 3,300-member National Association of College Admissions Counselors, which voted for the first time last year to admit independents as members.
With competition as stiff as it is -- at Georgetown University in the District, for example, only 2,500 of last spring's 11,128 high school senior applicants were accepted for this year's freshman class -- they're willing to pay for any extra advice.
James Rogers, director of admission at Brown University, where 13,707 applicants sought places for 1,350 spots in this year's freshman class, said parents often use consultants as an insurance policy. "They don't want to be left in May with the feeling that 'I didn't do enough for my girl or boy,' " he said.
Private counseling usually begins in a student's junior year, although consultants say they frequently get frantic calls midway through the senior year -- or even the summer after graduation.
"I can pretty much get them on track in six hours worth of personal time, and then there are lots of phone calls," said Joe Re, an Alexandria-based consultant for Octameron Associates.
While the range of services offered by private college consultants varies widely, most concentrate on helping students select colleges and then review their applications, give advice on writing college essays and coach them for personal interviews.
Some of the consultants also specialize in dealing with unusual problems -- the learning disabled child who wants to go to college, the athlete who needs a scholarship, the gifted student who hopes for a special financial aid package.
The Gulbis family of Reston faced such a problem when they hired Re to help their daughter Patti. She was to graduate from high school at age 16, and hoped to pursue a career in neurobiology.
Although the parents liked Patti's high school counselor, they felt her situation demanded extra attention because of her age, specialized interest and tuition concerns. They hired a private consultant who suggested Barnard College in New York City and helped Patti compile an application that led to advanced science opportunities and an affordable tuition package.
"He was fabulous," said Judy Gulbis, whose daughter is now a freshman.