The use of private companies in college counseling has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in China and India, where admission to American universities is becoming increasingly competitive. UChicago, currently ranked fourth in the U.S. World & News Report, is one of the top tier colleges to which companies promise to increase students’ chances of being admitted.
Nikita Sachdeva, a fourth-year in the College, commented on the recent trend of explosive growth in the Indian college counseling industry. “The supply of these services in India has increased phenomenally. When I was applying, there were only two or three, maybe five companies that did these things, and now I know so many. I know people who graduated from U.S. universities and went back to India to start a company like this,” Sachdeva said.
Lily Xu, a second-year from China, used one of the many college counseling companies in Beijing when applying to American colleges. The firm, run by an American couple, advertised their network of connections at American universities. During the summer before her last year of high school, Xu participated in a three-week college tour run by the firm, which brought students from different high schools in the Beijing area to visit colleges such as UChicago. During the visit, she had the opportunity to speak with current students, professors, and admissions officers. Later in the year, the company also helped her with brainstorming essay ideas and practicing interviews.
Sachdeva personally knows Indian students at UChicago who used the companies, although she herself did not. The appeal of the companies, she believes, lies in the personalized attention they provide on components of the applications, such as the SATs and essay writing, which are not included in the normal Indian curriculum. The companies also target a very specific clientele—wealthy Indian families who live in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai and already plan on investing significant sums of money in overseas education.
According to Sachdeva, counselors at Indian high schools often discourage the use of private companies due to their exorbitant fees. However, Sachdeva and Xu claim that a large number of their peers both in India and China still utilize these admissions firms.
Sachdeva thinks that, while the counselors may increase the probabilities at the margins and help the application read better, they are not fate changers. While she does know students who used the companies and got into Ivy League schools, Sachdeva is confident that those students deserved admission regardless of their use of private services.
Xu, on the other hand, believes the companies are especially useful for international students who may not really understand the American education system.
“In China, we went through a very different education system. It influences your thinking process and your writing style, so we had no idea how to write the American college application...I think the firms were there to help us present the best out of ourselves,” Xu remarked.
Xu also highlighted the visit to UChicago as a key benefit of the firm, as she had never heard of the university before coming to the United States and only became interested after coming to campus.
Many of these companies, such as Ivy Coach and ThinkTank Learning, do not publicize the cost of their counseling services. One Bloomberg Business report cited a custom contract between ThinkTank Learning and a Hong Kong CEO of $700,000, paid over five months. While these numbers are cited in the news, most packages offered by college counseling services cost significantly less.
Based on her experience using these companies, Xu said that the average is around 100,000 RMB, or $16,667, though the prices in China vary significantly by firm. Younger, less experienced counselors can be as cheap as 30,000 RMB, while one of her friends paid around 200,000 RMB for a top-of-the-line firm.
ThinkTank Learning’s 2015 admission results list two students who were accepted to the University of Chicago, with SAT scores of 2350 and 2340 and unweighted GPAs of 3.92 and 3.88, respectively.
Brian Taylor, the director of Ivy Coach, stated in an email that Ivy Coach does not release the number of students they work with or the price of their packages to the press. When asked about the firm’s goals for the future, he wrote, “Our goals for the past remain our goals for the future…helping students gain admission to their dream colleges. This has not changed. This will not change.” He attributes the firm’s business from China and India to the fact that “education is highly valued in these countries.”
When discussing UChicago in particular, Taylor praised the school for keeping its quirky essays because they discourage those students who are not truly interested in UChicago from applying.
“UChicago is defying what every other school is doing to boost their U.S. News ranking. UChicago wants students who really love it,” says Taylor, adding that UChicago’s rise in rankings has occurred in spite of its difficult application.
As a part of the college counseling business for nearly 10 years, Taylor believes that one of the biggest misconceptions about admissions is that every year it becomes harder to get into top colleges.
“Schools encourage unqualified students to apply to Harvard or Princeton, but that doesn’t mean the student pool has become more competitive,” Taylor stated in a phone interview.