As a senior at Nardin Academy last year, Alisha Friess envisioned herself heading off to college to major in political science. She could imagine law school in her future, maybe a career as a lobbyist.
Then she talked to Mark Morlock. Economics, she told him, was her best course. She did well in calculus, too.
"Mark said, 'If you're a numbers person, why would you go into political science?'" Friess said.
As her college consultant, Morlock not only helped her pick a major, but select a college and figure out how to pay for it -- from helping with the big picture as well as the details, like filling out forms.
"The worst thing would be for your kid to write all these essays and then find out you're delinquent on getting a form in -- and they can't get in," said Katie Eberlin, a local middle school teacher. Her older son, Kyle, is now in medical school at Boston University. His brother Seth is a senior at Yale.
Guidance counselors have a lot to juggle at local high schools. They plan class schedules, offer a sympathetic ear, provide career advice, and write recommendation letters -- among other things. And a single guidance counselor might have 300 or more students on their caseload at one time.
That doesn't leave enough time for a heart-to-heart conversation with every student at each step of the college search process.
Some families are turning to private consultants for extra help, which comes with a price tag.
Bigger cities attract bigger fees. Katherine Cohen's company, IvyWise, operates out of Manhattan. Her clients pay as much as $28,995. That buys the "platinum package," which includes 24 sessions and an hour on the phone with a consultant once a week.
Local rates are much lower than Cohen's. Morlock, for instance, charges a flat fee of $395. That includes an introductory meeting, an analysis of family finances and a follow-up session to ensure that deadlines are being met. He also includes ongoing advice and help with all the paperwork.
His fee covers a one-hour meeting with Jane Mathias, one of Morlock's associates, who is also the director of guidance at Nardin. Additional sessions with Mathias cost $75 an hour.
Debunking some widespread misconceptions can be one of the most important things a consultant can do, according to Cohen, author of "The Truth About Getting In: A Top College Advisor Tells You Everything You need to Know."
The number of applicants is higher, now that the children of Baby Boomers are heading off to college. On top of that, each student is likely to send out more applications than they might have 10 years ago.
Schools can afford to be choosier about who they admit. Good grades alone aren't good enough any more.
Valedictorians and perfect SAT scores are commonplace among students who apply to the top schools. Besides a strong courseload and good grades, you need to show them something that sets you apart from the rest, Cohen says.
They want to see that you're motivated and involved -- that you have a passion and you pursue it, whether it's crew team or Habitat for Humanity.
"Colleges are looking to see how (applicants) spend their time," Mathias said. "Are they lounging on the couch or IM-ing all the time?"
Consultants can offer a dose of reality. They have a good sense of what each school is looking for, so they can give you an idea of which of your top choices is likely to invite you in.
Besides applying to the school of your dreams, consultants say, you should also apply to some "safety schools," and others that you have a reasonable chance of getting into.
"Yes, shoot for your dreams, but you better have your bases covered," Mathias said.
Sometimes the hard part can be deciding where you want to go. Friess knows what that's like. At the beginning of her senior year in high school, she figured she'd head to a college in a big city like Boston or New York. Morlock suggested some schools in Boston.
As soon as Friess visited Boston University and Northeastern, she changed her mind.
"I thought, no way. I'm not a big-city girl," said Friess, who grew up in Hamburg. "It was intimidating. A big city wasn't as welcoming as I thought it would be."
She realized she wanted to be closer to home. Two schools emerged as her top choices: Canisius and Hobart and William Smith.
An overnight visit to Hobart left her feeling that the liberal arts school in Geneva wasn't where she wanted to go. She didn't feel a connection with the students there, she said, and the town was too small.
A talk with Morlock confirmed her decision. She came to agree with him that business management would be a good major for her, as he had suggested. Canisius offers that program, but Hobart doesn't.
A year later, Friess is enthusiastic about her choice. The classes at Canisius are challenging -- macroeconomics is her favorite. She sees plenty of people she knew in high school, which is a bonus. And she lives close enough to her mother to enjoy a steady supply of homemade cookies.
Of course, if you can't afford your dream school, it doesn't matter how nice the dorms are, how outstanding their program is, or even how good the cafeteria food is.
The price tag can be breathtaking. Canisius costs about $28,000 a year for on-campus students. Yale, where Seth Eberlin goes to school, costs $42,000.
But those numbers can be misleading, Morlock says. Families shouldn't focus on what he calls the "retail price" -- they should focus on how much they will actually have to pay, he says.
Based on the information you provide on financial aid forms, schools will calculate how much money they think the family can afford to contribute each year. The difference between the total cost and the family contribution is made up by grants, scholarships, loans and work study.
Most families fill out the forms they're given as well as they can, and they figure that whatever aid package they're offered is the best the college has to offer.
That's not necessarily so. Sometimes providing additional information can work in your favor, Morlock said. Some colleges will reconsider your aid package if they know the family is paying tuition to a private high school for younger siblings, for instance. Seth Eberlin, for instance, was still in high school at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute when his brother Kyle was starting college.
You really need to know more about how that particular college operates its financial aid program to get as much extra help as you can, consultants say. That puts you in a better negotiating position.
"If you know where the school is coming from, you have much more control over the process," Morlock said.
When Seth Eberlin applied to Yale's early admissions program four years ago, he got some good news and some bad news. He was accepted to his dream school. But they weren't offering him enough aid to make it affordable -- especially when the price of Kyle's Boston University education was running in the $60,000 range.
The family pleaded its case to Yale, which asked for more information. Morlock helped them put together an annual budget, detailing income and expenses, to strengthen their case. Yale offered them a better deal.
"When they offer you a financial package, that's not necessarily the end of it," Katie Eberlin said.