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Trying to find the right college? Don't go it alone.

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When it comes to making a $100,000 decision, the Trombley family likes to get plenty of advice.

That explains the presence of James Heryer. This certified educational planner and college-admissions consultant in Kansas City, Mo., has been hired to walk Kalista Trombley through her biggest - and perhaps her family's most expensive - life-choice so far: finding the right college.

Professional guidance in applying to college might seem the domain of a high-income elite. But now even middle-income families are anteing up for advice from individual entrepreneurs as well as big educational firms taking aim at a surging market. Pressured by hefty tuitions and tough competition, they're starting searches early - and splurging on experts - to ensure that "perfect fit."

"As it gets more and more competitive, parents want someone on hand to help find the right college," says Carol Loewith, president of the Fairfax, Va.-based Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). "But they also want someone to be a guide for their child so applications can be done as comfortably and as well as possible."

Parents of college-bound students may recall their own experiences chatting with a high school guidance counselor, collecting brochures, accumulating good grades and a few extracurriculars. They may have even dared to write their applications without editing from Mom or Dad.

No longer. Every year brings new stories about the importance of college to future success - and of apparent stars that don't make it into their top pick.

Those stories send a growing number of parents running in the direction of consultants like Mr. Heryer, who specialize in helping high schoolers package themselves for optimum display to admissions departments. They reason that professional attention to test scores, grades, course scheduling, extra-curricular activities, application essays, and an intimate knowledge of colleges, can make the difference between getting in - or not.

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