A LITTLE EXTRA HELP

Sybil Furman says she would feel "insulted" if one of her students hired a private college counselor. It would be a sign that the lead counselor at Galena High School in Reno, Nev., couldn't help families through the college maze by herself. Since the student-to-counselor ratio at Galena is only 320 to 1 (it's 485 to 1 nationally), Furman has time to visit colleges, teach students and their parents how to cruise the Internet for info and meet one-on-one with families. Recently she got a letter of thanks from a former student who had wanted to go to giant UC Berkeley until Furman argued that for her, smaller was better, and she picked Lewis & Clark College. "She said she was very happy there," Furman says.

Does your school's college counselor live up to Sybil Furman's high standard? If not, your family may already be considering hiring a private college coach. An estimated 6 percent of college-bound families have hired private help in 2004, up from 4 percent two years ago. In most cases, parents pay for the extra help because they think school counselors simply aren't up to the job. But parents of students with learning disabilities or an unusual talent like bassoon playing may seek counselors who specialize in helping those kids. Counselors are also often called in when families want to broaden the college search beyond familiar schools near home. And the rise of high-priced coaches is at least partly a function of rising wealth chasing a static number of prestigious enrollment slots. "Parents start feeling guilty if they are not doing everything possible," says Carl Peterson, a school counselor in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Whatever your reasons, here's a primer on some points families should consider:

First, figure out whether you need extra help. Even the pros admit that most kids don't. Meet with your school counselor first--preferably during sophomore year to learn about preparations for the SAT. That way you can get a sense of how knowledgeable he or she is. Study the admissions process by, among other things, looking at the Web sites of particular schools and reviewing the literature on the subject. You may find that the counselors have everything your family needs. But even if you do hire a private coach, don't alienate the school counselor. (Some families even decide to keep the outside help a secret to avoid offending anyone.) The transcript and recommendations will come through the school, and if admissions officials need extra information, who are they going to call?

Before you decide on a coach, interview several to get a sense of who might work best with you. Ask about their qualifications. Former school counselors or college admissions officials may be good coaches. Empty nesters looking for a new career probably aren't. "Weekly, I get a phone call saying, 'I got my daughter into Bryn Mawr, and I want to do it for other kids'," laments Mark Sklarow of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, who says the 400-member group hears from 100 new applicants a month, many of them unqualified. Equally important is the personality fit between counselor and student. A family looking for a deadline-minded drill sergeant may fare poorly with a nurturer good at unlocking an underachiever's potential. "I have a personality that will click fantastically with some kids and very poorly with others," says Oakland, Calif., consultant Marty Nemko. "Chemistry is key."

Try to determine in advance what your child will need. Costs vary widely depending on requirements and geography. Some coaches charge by the hour. Most prefer to be put on retainer. "We have services from $300 to $7,500," says Michael London, president of Newton, Mass.-based College Coach, a large operation with offices in five states. Consulting can range from a bit of help with college selection to a relationship of two years or more so clients get assistance with college selection, packaging, organizing, strategizing and essay writing, as well as tips on interviewing. Higher-priced services include vast amounts of handholding. Although some coaches provide guidance as early as freshman year (to make sure course selection and summer experiences look good on the resume), most counselors say it's fine to start the summer before junior year.

Try to avoid "overcoaching," creating an application that looks obviously packaged and doesn't let the applicant's real personality shine through. And while some counselors sell families on their close ties to a given admissions office, direct lobbying can backfire. "I rarely make a call on behalf of a kid, because there's usually a negative effect of him being perceived as somebody who is so packaged," says Nemko.

And, of course, a family can pay thousands, make all the right moves and still receive a thin envelope. So in a market-driven industry it was perhaps inevi-table that someone would create a pay-for-performance deal. CollegeConfidential.com, a popular Web-based information-and-counseling site, now offers an Ivy Guaranteed Admissions Program. For $10,000, clients are promised admission to the Ivy League college of their choice (or equivalent)--or their money back. Naturally, there's a catch: a tough screening process that has weeded out all but two applicants so far. (One got into Stanford; the other, Cornell--but chose MIT instead.) The screening gave other potential Ivy Leaguers a more realistic idea upfront of whether they could get into Yale. But maybe Sybil Furman could have told them that.