If a star high school student like Jim Mackey thought about applying to college five years ago, he might have had a few discussions with his parents and high school counselor and wrapped up most of his applications during the first 90 days of his senior year.
Not any more.
Instead, Mackey, a graduate last year of Gonzaga College High School in the District and now a freshman at Brown University, shelled out close to $500 over a two-year period on special diagnostic tests and a private counselor who helped him choose the colleges where he would apply.
It was an expensive gamble -- in this case a successful one -- that more and more parents and students in the Washington area are willing to take in the increasingly competitive ordeal known as college admissions.
Although no solid figures are available, a survey of about two dozen local organizations shows that hundreds of high school students in this area have begun to go outside their high school walls for advice and training in search of what Mackey's father calls "college nirvana."
The biggest surge in private counseling and exam preparation courses has occurred in Potomac and McLean and in similarly affluent suburban areas outside Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, according to a spokesman for the Independent Counselors Education Association. The demand can be seen simply in the number of independent counselors registered with the association, which has jumped from 40 four years ago to 80 this year. For every registered member, the association estimates, there are numerous others setting up shop in places like the family basement.
Mackey, of Vienna, ranked near the top of his class, won National Science Fair awards, and had high scores on the college entrance exams. Yet, determined to get into a good college, he took special tests and hired a private college counselor for $300. Other students enroll in courses preparing them for college admission exams or take tutoring courses that specialists say are bulging with bright students looking for a way to raise their B+s to As in advanced courses.
"This is the educational fast track," says Lynn O'Brien, director of Specific Diagnostic Studies, Inc. in Rockville. Unlike four years ago, she says, when most of the students coming to her tutoring center were failing a course, more than half of the 180 students the company now sees in a week are looking for what she calls borderline enrichment. "It's not enough to perform above average, these kids need to excel . . . ."
"Some of these students are children of parents who don't want to have to say at the tennis court, 'My child goes to a local college' . . . . It's a shame, really, but the pressure to succeed is real and as a consequence, some of these kids don't have a childhood. We see a lot of tears."
Parents of students like Jim Mackey, however, counter that the difficulty in choosing the right college from the hundreds of possibilities, increasingly complicated applications and a shrinking number of school counselors make money spent now a good precaution when the total cost of a college education can be more than $50,000 for four years.
"I am an ordinary person who has no strings to pull," says Mackey's father, Jim, a federal economist. "I am not a congressman . . . and I cannot pick up a phone and say, 'Hi, I'd like my son to go to Harvard.'
"Instead, what I can do is make sure my children have the best opportunities to go to a college they want."
Mackey plans to send his second child Timmy, now a sophomore at Georgetown Preparatory School, to a college placement counselor soon. He's also thinking of buying a home computer so that, among other things, his youngest son can practice for the college admission exams.
"My mother died when I was 15 and I never had a perspective of what was out there," says Mackey, who got his bachelor's degree from Holy Cross and a master's from Georgetown University. "Maybe a private counselor will take my kids up to the Washington Monument of getting into college and give them the overview I never had."
Diane Epstein of Bethesda, who has counselled 110 students from throughout the Washington area this year, says some of her clients are in the seventh and eighth grades. Epstein charges a flat fee of $300 for "all the telephoning needed" and three sessions that include selecting a college, college entrance essay editing, and if needed, mock interviewing.
Most independent counselors charge from $25 an hour to a $400 flat fee. In addition, up to 75 percent of the college-bound students in some schools will enroll in a college entrance exam preparation course -- perhaps the most popular of the preadmissions courses, school officials say. These courses, which have doubled in number in the last couple of years, range from about $40 when taken through a local public high school to about $325 privately.
In addition, some parents will pay from $18 to $30 an hour for private tutoring over a typical minimum three-month period to polish up specific subject areas. Less frequently, some parents, like the Mackeys, pay about $100 to have their childrens' interests tested. In total, it is not unusual for a student to have spent close to a $1,000 by the time he has applied to a college.
"The money is enough to make me feel sick. It's conspicuous consumption," says Pat Coupard of Bethesda who sent her two middle daughters, now students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and Tulane University in New Orleans, to an independent counselor when they were students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. Coupard also is going to send her youngest daughter, a sophomore at Whitman, to the same counselor after Jan. 1. "But every time I get a call from one of my daughters telling me how happy they are, I know it's worth it.
Coupard, like many of the parents who send their children to independent counselors, says that her main reason was that the counselors at Whitman, although good, were overburdened with students. Typically, a counselor at a Montgomery County public high school supervises an average of 287 pupils.
"There are many of us who don't know the ropes by the time our kids are ready to go to college," says Coupard, "and if the counselors are good but understaffed, it's worth it to get some extra help."
Some national college association officials agree with Coupard. "When there are limited resources and funding cutbacks, as there are now in public schools, students are not going to get the quality of service or access they might receive with some private assistance," says Mike Chapman, director of the American Students Association.
Other counselors, however, challenge the notion that a student cannot get adequate assistance from his high school counselors. With a bit of work and independent research, a student should be prepared to apply to college, says Jack Ferrante, a counselor at Wootton High School in Rockville.
"I compare this whole new interest with football," says Ferrante. "If a team starts training one week before eveyone else begins training, everyone else will say it's unfair. But next time around, they'll start training a week earlier, too . . . . Everyone feels they are competing for that one remaining spot at Bucknell or Harvard and if the guy over there is taking one of these courses or doing something else that just might help him look a little better, then you better do it, too."
"The only problem is that some kids thrive on this sort of competition, but other kids have nervous breakdowns," Ferrante adds.
Students like Donna Coupard, who have hired independent counselors or enrolled in exam preparation courses, take the preparation in stride.
"The counseling helped a lot," says Coupard, who ranked in the top 5 percent at Whitman and enrolled in two exam preparatory courses before entering Wesleyan this fall. "But you know what it's really all about? Strategy. You're not learning more or becoming more intelligent. You're finding out how to take tests, when to apply, what things on the application are. Getting into college is . . . strategy."