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Scores for Sale

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TUTORS: Private tutors generally charge between $100 and $400 per hour and are drawn from the standard pool of Manhattan bohos -- actors, writers, grad students supporting their artistic/educational habits by tutoring rich kids. The ability to significantly raise scores is only part of what makes a tutor "hot." Youth and sex appeal always generate business, and a background of breeding and privilege similar to the students' puts both parents and kids at ease. Being white is a plus, unless you're teaching math, in which case you really want to be Asian.

I am always impressed when a parent asks about my educational background and qualifications for the job. I would estimate that only three have ever done so. And I am still waiting to be asked for a reference, though, to be fair, referrals tend to come through fellow parents and their children's social circles. It is rare that my name is given to a student by a faculty member or even a college counselor, in spite of higher scores being in everybody's interest. School administrators "believe and always have that they have the last word on your child," says one private college counselor. More significant, she adds, they feel they must justify their exorbitant tuition; to admit to the need for outside tuition is to admit to a failing of the school.

In any event, parents spring for the extra thousands such coaching costs in part because many feel that their child's school will promote only its top candidates for the top schools. While this is not necessarily always the case, one senior at a top Manhattan school who is applying early-admission to Harvard this fall feels that she was encouraged to make Oberlin her first choice over Harvard -- not because her scores and grades and overall exceptional record were dubious in any way but because admission to Harvard is never a certainty, and failure to gain admission would lower her high school's first-choice statistics.

PRIVATE COLLEGE COUNSELORS: What do they actually do for their several-thousand-dollar fee? Some expound upon the importance of the mock interviews they conduct and the care they give to the compilation of a suitable list of colleges for your child. But the suggestion that by hiring the right college counselor parents can guarantee their child's admission to select schools infuriates many of the legitimate college coaches. Alexandra Self of the College Entrance Specialist offers the most fruitful account of what a good college counselor can provide that schools cannot. "First and foremost," she says, "I really get to know my kids. Only then can I see how to help separate them from the pack, how to profile them in a way that will be most appealing to the schools. I cannot imagine anyone putting together a list of colleges for a student without knowing the individual child as well as his or her numbers. Otherwise, any idiot with a computer can make up a list."


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