Dave Montesano spent 50 hours with Natasha Lalji. Her parents could afford his company's $3,200 fee, and the family wanted his advice on what would distinguish her from other students in the competition for a good college. She was of South Asian descent, not uncommon at the selective schools on her list. Her grade-point average at Seattle Preparatory School was 3.6. Her SAT score was 1220. She exhibited no specific talents or abilities above the norm except for one thing: she had traveled to 35 countries with her parents. And that, if properly communicated, was what Montesano thought would work for her.

A college-planning associate with Appian Education in Seattle, Montesano is one of a new breed of college-admissions consultants who use business-school marketing principles to sell students to their preferred colleges. He calls it "strategic matching" and says that despite what its critics claim, it is nothing like peddling soap. He says all colleges, even the most selective ones, want students with unique qualities and talents. All students, if they look hard enough, have something that can catch the admissions dean's eye.

Sometimes the approach winds up being clumsy. In a recent article for National CrossTalk, a publication of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, writer Anne Roark described how a consultant who was unimpressed with an applicant's typical math-science premed image decided to make a big thing out of the student's Latin course.

The student's father told Roark that his daughter's application downplayed the math and science while announcing her intention of majoring in classics (at many schools, a small department in search of majors). Unfortunately, her first-choice college didn't buy it. "We have become more cynical about some of the novelty" claimed in such applications, says Bruce Poch, admissions dean at Pomona College.

Admissions officers and high-school counselors say emphasizing one talent or activity is fine, as long as it is indeed a student's genuine passion. A strong theme can also help overcome weaknesses elsewhere in the resume. One of Montesano's clients, whose family owned a small chain of Mexican restaurants, had an SAT of only 1150, so he advised her to focus on her championship cheerleading and her work training other cheerleaders.

With his help, she came up with a description of herself as an "intellectually capable first-generation Latina who adds substantively to in-class discussions, improving their meaning and effectiveness." The teachers writing recommendations for her were given those talking points, and she got into her Early Decision first choice, the University of Puget Sound.

The same approach worked for Natasha Lalji. Her selling point was an ability to support diversity at a top college. She had a favorite way of putting it. "I see myself as a worldly and insightful honor student who uses my diverse background as an Asian-American to create an atmosphere of harmony at my school," she says. This was the subject of her essay and the theme of her interview. It may seem artificial to some, but Firoz Lalji, Natasha's computer-entrepreneur father, says Montesano managed to "identify some very good colleges where they had a need for a person like Natasha." She got into 70 percent of her choices, and will attend Santa Clara University.