Athena Fitzpatrick of Worcester, Mass., needed help finding a college. Her parents scraped together the cash to pay consultant Joan Bress. But in the end it was Ms. Bress's role as an intermediary and communicator between Athena and her parents that mattered the most.
"When I couldn't talk to them about it because they weren't hearing me, I could talk to [my consultant] about it," Athena says. "She met with them and put into words what I couldn't. She was like the mediator."
Likewise, Kalista Trombley, a high school senior in Kansas City, Mo., and her parents are enjoying the consulting process for reasons that have little to do with finding the right college. One of the things they find most valuable is the consultant's role as mediator.
"It allows us to step back and not be as involved," says Tad Trombley, Kalista's dad. "It's a tough period. There's a lot of ego, and autonomy issues. It's hard for a parent to step in and say 'aim lower,' but an educational consultant can step in and do that if necessary - and it gets mom and dad out of it."
Parents often hire consultants as much for their role as mediator as that of college-search sleuth. But frequently they may not want anyone, especially the schools their children are applying to, to know they used a professional.
"Applying to college was traumatic for so many of my friends," says one Boston-area mom whose son was just accepted at a top school and asked that her name not be used. "I hated to think we needed to do all these extra things and play games," she says, "but I decided to hire a consultant because otherwise you can talk endlessly about what to do. It's nice to have an outside person say, 'Yes, this makes sense.' It made things quite civilized for us."