And Now The Pitch...

For Leonard King, the phone is a potent weapon. As dean of seniors at Maret, a prestigious private school in Washington, D.C., he's the vital link between the country's most elite colleges and anxious applicants. While college admissions committees draw up their acceptance lists, King networks nonstop. A few weeks ago, he listened as an Oberlin College admissions officer gave him an early read on Maret's applicants. When she told him that Megan Colletta was "between a yes and a waitlist," King went into battle. He praised Megan's volunteer work with street children in Cambodia and described her as an "intellectual risk taker," stressing that he had given her his "highest recommendation"--uncommon praise from King. Finally, he dropped what he hoped would be the clincher: Oberlin is one of the girl's top two choices. "The colleges want the best matches, and so do we," King explains. "I don't say every kid is perfect for a school."

As applying to college gets more competitive, counselors like King become power brokers. He can rattle off the names of admissions officers from Amherst to Yale with whom he'll chat before the envelopes are mailed. Not everyone returns his calls; Princeton's admissions officers don't talk to counselors. But at the University of Chicago, admissions officers often call high-school counselors themselves for guidance. "When Leonard calls, I always listen," says Barbara-Jan Wilson, dean of admissions at Wesleyan. I know he's got something important to say."

Much of the time, King acts like a coach. He tells students how to apply online and runs mock interviews. His rule for the all-important "personal statement" is, "No 'My summer in France' essays." Instead, senior David Reiner wrote one of his essays for the University of Chicago--home of free-market thinking--on the Communist Manifesto. Reiner's parents called King a half-dozen times to make sure the topic was a wise choice. King, who describes his job as "verbal handholding," assured them that offbeat topics were welcome at Chicago.

Grateful parents have sent him Godiva chocolates, enormous bouquets, even trinkets from Tiffany. But others have screamed at him, tried to get him fired and gone around him by lobbying the colleges themselves (a tactic that's likely to backfire). The anxiety doesn't end when the letters arrive. King will be on the phone into the summer, trying to nudge his kids off the waiting lists. Maret's top students will get pitch calls; one future chemist has already been offered a free laptop to enroll. Students who get rejected decorate what they call the April Ax wall, a bulletin board they paper with the rejection letters. In past years, students have burned the letters' edges and circled misspellings in red. Colletta won't be decorating the wall this year. After King's call, Oberlin decided she was perfect for them after all.