With her daughter's collegiate career at stake, Miriam Schafer delved into the at-times byzantine world of admissions headlong.

She urged her daughter, Laiah, to hunt for schools, create a timeline and pen her essays during her junior year. But when the girl rebuffed Mom's words of wisdom, the California woman turned outside for advice.

She hired Sharon Lack, a marketing executive-cum-college admissions consultant.

“Admissions is really competitive,” Schafer says. “That's why it's important for some people that they have the best application they can, so they can stand out in the crowd.”

For $1,500, Lack helped Laiah winnow down a list of 30 colleges, finish her applications on time, review her essays and “put her best foot forward,” Schafer says.

The girl earned acceptance at all five private colleges to which she applied and now attends American University in Washington, D.C.

As universities and colleges becomes more selective and entry requirements more complex, parents are increasingly hiring private advisers – with and without counseling experience – to navigate the admissions process.

Some parents spend a few hundred dollars to find the best school for their child. Others spend a few thousand for years of advice on classes and summer enrichment camps. A select few invest upward of $30,000 to work with consultants like Michele Hernandez in Oregon or IvyWise in New York to mold students into ideal candidates for elite universities.

Of the 1.7 million high school students who went to college last fall, a projected 84,000 – or 5 percent of the class of 2005 – hired private admissions advisers, says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association based in Fairfax, Va.

Among the 260,000 students who went to private schools, one in five hired a consultant, Sklarow says.

Consultants cite January of junior year as the prime time to begin the college admissions process. But with increased competition, many consultants see students at an even younger age as parents shop for high schools that may increase their chances of entry to a specific college.

As the college admissions advising market continues to grow, so does the number of critics.

Bob Laird, former admissions officer for the University of California-Berkeley, says the unregulated industry breeds consultants that go too far.

“They come to do what's called ‘packaging' a prospective student,” Laird says. “I think it distorts the admission process. How much help is permissible, or ethical?”

The market for admissions consultants expanded as the frenzy for limited spots at top-tier schools heightened in the late 1990s. A glut of applications flooded in from the children of baby boomers to elite and state schools, driving down admission rates.

In 1980, Harvard University took 16 percent of applicants, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. This year, the school admitted 9 percent. Stanford University takes close to one in 10 students; in 1980 it took one in five. During the past 25 years, the University of California-Berkeley's admission rate plummeted from 70 percent to about 25 percent.

“Suddenly, the simple question of who gets in and who doesn't wasn't so easy,” Sklarow says. “It led many more people to say, ‘I really need help with this.'”

At the same time, many public high schools eliminated counselors. Other schools cut back on counseling. In both cases, many students lost out on a free source of college guidance.

Typical high school counselors serve 500 students or more. In California, the number is closer to one per 1,000. High school counselors generally handle not only college guidance but also class scheduling and discipline.

“Some kids need more,” Elsdon says.

Elsdon offers juniors a package called “Paving the Way.” She focuses on getting to know students. Along the way, she may administer tests to match their interests with careers, which can help in creating a college list.

She helps steer younger students to classes and summer programs that coordinate with their interests but also bolster their chances of acceptance.

Laird argues that any edge given to students who hire consultants ultimately harms the chances of entry for other candidates. Those most affected are those who cannot afford private advisers.

“I think that they have made the opportunities to go to college even more uneven,” Laird says.

Several elite schools decry the use of private consultants. Stanford's undergraduate admissions Web site says the school openly discourages “packaging,” though feedback to find errors or omissions is permissible.

“Inappropriate coaching, on the other hand, occurs when either the essays or the applicant's entire self-presentation is colored by someone other than the applicant,” it says.

Sklarow dismisses the notion that counselors help undeserving students gain entry to elite schools by massaging their resumes.

“If a kid doesn't belong in an Ivy League school,” he says, “they won't get in.”

The debate over private admissions guidance roils those in the industry, who, despite their role in catering to panicky parents, say the admissions craze has grown out of control.

“It's gotten out of hand,” says counselor Jim Walker.

Walker started as a public high school counselor in 1962. He worked as a high school guidance counselor for 17 years, until 1997, when he retired and took on a part-time private practice with his wife, Dot.

Walker Walker & Associates now includes seven advisers and sees 150 students a year. The company charges $230 for a two-hour session.

Walker says he attempts to maintain integrity by espousing a few principles.

“We never call a school on behalf of a student. We never write a letter of recommendation,” he says. “We never go against what the school counselor recommends.”

After hiring an admissions consultant, Miriam Schafer became one.

“I used a counselor for my daughter, I saw what she had done and how it helped her,” she says.

Schafer took online classes in college guidance through UCLA. She picked up some books, What Colleges Don't Tell You and The Gatekeepers , a tell-all tome about college admissions.

Then she started her business, Colleges for You.

That's the thing, Walker says. Anyone can do it.

Most students and parents with a little time and patience can apply to schools on their own, he says.

“This is not rocket science,” Walker says. “With a little guidance, families can do this themselves.”

© 2006, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.