An arm, a leg and a private consultant to get into college

Want to get into a good college overseas?

Hire a consultant to help you with writing your college application essay.

More students here, and their parents, have been flocking to hire such consultants, to get an edge in an increasingly competitive college admission scene.

Some customers fork out up to US$14,000 (S$17,800) for a four-day intensive boot camp, in which consultants typically interview applicants to find out what their achievements are, give them suggestions on what to write, help them write first drafts, and then fine-tune the essays.

Others pay for one-on-one consultations that last several hours each time. These cost about $300 per hour.

A MyPaper check with consultants popular with Singaporeans found that demand for such services here has as much as doubled in the past year.

Home-grown firm Collegify, set up in 2012, has already helped over 200 students. It expects its customer base - a mix of students from top junior colleges and international schools - to double in coming years.

Other firms, like Access Education Singapore in Joo Chiat, have seen a 30 per cent growth in customers since 2010.

Mr Jason Lum, president of United States-based ScholarEdge College Consulting, has already seen 15 Singapore clients so far this year. This is up from an average of three Singapore clients each year since 2000.

Collegify's director, Mr Stanley Chia, said this growth is due to the "increasingly competitive desire for better credentials...supplemented by the growing affluence of Singaporeans".

Last year, three million applications were submitted through Common Application, an undergraduate college admission website for applying to most colleges in the United States.

Each student on the site sent an average of four applications to different colleges.

The Ivy League schools, in particular, have been inundated. The total number of applications to Princeton, for instance, has increased by more than 90 per cent in the last decade. Applications to the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), have gone up by approximately 15 per cent from 2012.

Mr Tan Zhe Hao, 21, who was accepted to the London School of Economics, has no regrets. His parents hired a college consultant in 2010 to help the former Hwa Chong Junior College student tweak his college application.

It cost him $3,000, but it was worth it, he said.

Besides being accepted into Carnegie Mellon, Mr Tan was also accepted by the University of Michigan. However, Mr Tan applied again in 2012 and got accepted into UPenn and the London School of Economics on his own accord.

"When I started...I didn't know what colleges wanted to see in a student," he said. "It wasn't until I decided to get a private consultant that I had a much clearer picture, and began to tweak my essay towards what colleges wanted to see. When I applied again in 2012 on my own, I had a clearer understanding of the process."

But others think that consultants are unnecessary.

Mr Dale Ford, chair of the counselling department at the Singapore American School (SAS), said that while private college consultants mean well, many rewrite a student's application essay. This alone can call a student's authorship into question, he said.

"A teenager who does not have stellar verbal skills - as evidenced by lacklustre English grades - but has a personal statement that reads like a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, will certainly raise an admission officer's eyebrows," he said.

Ms Karen Teo, 44, a secondary-school teacher here, said: "I think that if students leave all the work to their consultants without putting in any effort, they are not being honest."

The system, she said, is also "unfair" for families with less financial resources and are hence unable to engage such services for their children.

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