Just two months into his junior year of high school, Jonah Lopatin was looking for any edge he could find in the college admissions game. So he enrolled this fall in a private course on how to apply to college and got some tips he hadn't heard before.

Proofread your application three times, reading each sentence backward, the man leading the class told Lopatin. Use active verbs like "led," "volunteered" and "performed" when describing extracurricular activities. Think about the computer font--serif is more readable than sans-serif on a personal essay.

Lopatin, who attends the Edmund Burke School in the District, said the five-week course at Kaplan Educational Centers in Bethesda has helped him get organized. "I think it gives us an advantage, the fact that we started earlier," he said. "It's a good feeling of comfort."

Until recently, such private coaching was a service used by only a tiny minority of college applicants. But with three large companies--Princeton Review, Kaplan and Achieva College Prep Centers--entering the counseling field, it soon will be routine for high school students and their families to pay for college admissions advice, educators say. And some educators are concerned that applicants who can't afford a private counselor will be at a growing disadvantage.

Princeton Review--which, like Kaplan, had focused on academic tutoring and test preparation until now--also started college counseling sessions this fall and expects to do so in 30 cities, including Washington, by next fall. Achieva operates nine counseling centers in California and will expand to 250 centers across the country within the next 18 months.

Kaplan, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., began offering its course in the Washington area this fall and will provide the classes at 160 centers nationwide within a few months.

For fees ranging from $300 to $5,400 per student, the companies will guide students as young as ninth-graders on where to apply to college, how to polish their applications and how to impress a college interviewer.

In addition, the College Board, which administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, plans to debut a for-profit Web site in the spring that is likely to contain online admissions counseling.

The mass marketing of college admissions advice means that the percentage of applicants using private counselors will increase significantly, specialists say.

Patricia M. McDonough, chairman of the education department at the University of California at Los Angeles, predicts that the rate--now less than 3 percent--will grow to 12 percent within five years. Eventually, she said, paying for admissions advice will be as common as paying to enroll in SAT-prep classes, which now are taken by more than 50 percent of college-bound students.

A number of educators, including some college admissions officers, say that applicants who are being advised by only a high school counselor may find it harder to win a spot at a competitive college.

"In some ways, it's an affront to the fairness of the educational process," said Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teachers College. "The people who can afford to pay get extra help."

Others worry that the proliferation of private counselors telling students what to do will make the admissions process even more angst-ridden for the teenagers.

"This whole college admissions thing is spiraling out of control," said Debra D. Shaver, interim director of admissions at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "Students are getting involved in not what they want to do, but what they think will look good on a college application. This is high school. It's supposed to be fun."

Shital Patel, a junior at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, said getting into college is "pretty stressful. We talk all the time about where we're going to apply."

She and Lopatin were among 15 students who enrolled in the Kaplan course in Bethesda this fall, which was a free pilot program. Shital hopes the sessions will help her get into the University of Maryland's pre-medicine program.

Part of what's fueling the growth in the counseling industry is demographics. The number of students graduating from high school is increasing by 1.7 percent a year and will hit an all-time high in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Education, while the number of slots at prestigious colleges is not keeping pace.

Knowing that many colleges are becoming more selective, parents are less inclined to rely on the help of a high school counselor who may have to keep track of dozens of students. Some Washington area high schools assign more than 300 students to one guidance counselor.

More than ever, parents think that the college admissions decision will have a lasting effect on their child's career and economic future, counselors said.

"Parents have very high expectations and place a great premium on a great school," said Mark Sklarow, the executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, which has doubled its membership to 300 in five years. Those consultants are not affiliated with the three large companies.

Another reason that test-prep companies have expanded into the counseling area is the growing debate over the role of SAT scores in college admissions. Some educators believe that colleges soon will begin placing less importance on the SAT, which will create a large demand for coaching on other aspects of a student's application.

"Increasingly it's become about the whole war and not just the battle to raise your SAT score," said Andy Lutz, vice president for high school programs at Princeton Review.

Princeton Review is offering one-on-one counseling at a cost of $2,900 to $5,400; families can also buy an introductory package of services for $400. Achieva's fees range from $300 for basic help with applications to $3,000 for complete one-to-one counseling. Kaplan's five group sessions will cost a total of $699.

Officials at the companies say that those costs are within the reach of most families and that parents should look at the service as an important investment.

"Even in the poorest neighborhoods, kids are wearing sneakers that cost close to $300," said Carlos R. Watson, president and chief executive officer of Achieva. "Parents have to ask themselves, 'Is it worth it?' "

All three companies have counseling contracts with a few schools in low-income areas, and they plan to offer free services to some students through arrangements with nonprofit groups.

Nevertheless, the new services will mostly benefit affluent families, educators said.

"Even though they do outreach, the families who need it the most are not sophisticated enough to find the help," said Karen R. Cottrell, assistant provost for enrollment at the College of William and Mary.

It is lower-income students--especially those who would be in the first generation in their family to attend college--who could profit most from private counseling, said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose.

"Those are the people who are really left behind," Finney said.

College admissions officers say that they can sometimes tell when a student's application has been polished professionally--and that those applicants don't get any boost from the expert help. But they admit that as the counseling becomes more sophisticated, it is getting harder to spot such candidates.

High school counselors generally reject the notion that parents need to turn to the private sector. At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Fran Landau and her staff of nine handle the college admissions process for nearly 400 seniors.

The only thing Landau can't give her students that a private counselor can, she said, is time.

"We're not going to go over the applications line by line," said Landau. "We expect them to do a lot more of it themselves." But that difference is not a critical one in the admissions process, she said.

In many families, enlisting a private counselor seems to soothe the anxiety of the parents more than the child, Landau said. "I think there's a lot of paranoia attached to college," she said. "Parents say, 'If I don't [hire a private counselor] and everyone else does, how can I afford not to do it?' "

CAPTION: Jonah Lopatin said a class on college applications gives him "a good feeling of comfort" and has helped him understand the admissions process.

CAPTION: Nicole Kay, is a counselor with Kaplan, which offers college admissions consulting.