"Nice Kid, But..."

To get into the right college, sometimes you have to be better than perfect

The more ambitious students look for a place that will help them every step of the way. That's why many of them end up at Karen Dillard's, which tries to give them a solid base to build on. For the SAT, sure, but also for everything else.

"We're showing them how to prepare properly for any major event they're ever going to encounter, whether we're talking about SATs or whether we're talking about master's orals or whether we're talking about job interviews or presentations to clients," Dillard explains. "I can even draw the analogy to courting your future spouse."

Mathai thought her work at Karen Dillard's prepared her for her next major event: a second try at the PSAT during her junior year at Hockaday. She took the classes, hit the workshops consistently. She did well on all her practice exams. But when the real thing came along, she scored a 209. Again, well above average, but well below her expectations.

For $100 an hour, Jan Miranda guides parents and students through the minefield of college admissions. Next year, she'll charge $200.
Mark Graham
For $100 an hour, Jan Miranda guides parents and students through the minefield of college admissions. Next year, she'll charge $200.
At Karen Dillard's Test Prep, David Dillard shows off the restroom walls, which are papered with SAT questions.
Mark Graham
At Karen Dillard's Test Prep, David Dillard shows off the restroom walls, which are papered with SAT questions.

"So I was like, 'Oh, crap. I have to study a lot, because I have to do well on the SAT,'" Mathai says.

She had five Advanced Placement exams scheduled at the end of the school year, so she waited as long as she could to take the SAT, until the very end of June. Meaning: She had only one try at it.

"Thinking back, it was a huge risk," Mathai says. "I basically lived at Karen Dillard's for three weeks straight. When I actually took it, I ended up doing the best that I had ever gotten."

Her 1550 finally took the pressure off, and Karen Dillard's had another success story for its files. The money Mathai's parents dropped on her courses and study materials paid off. It wasn't as much as they might've laid out somewhere else: Seniors pay $799; a student who attended Karen Dillard's from ninth grade on would pay a $1,499 flat fee. That's about average. Generally, fees for college consultants and test-prep services range from $100 per session to a few thousand dollars for one school year.

Marsha Meyers of Cohen's College Connection won't say how much her company's services cost. Which means it's probably enough to scare away parents who might see the number in black-and-white before they're sitting across from her in an office, already committed to doing whatever it takes to get their kid in. She will say that students around here get off a little bit easier than those in other parts of the country.

"The Dallas market won't bear what New York and California will," she says.

But it all adds up. Jan Miranda has been the college placement counselor at Trinity Christian Academy for two decades. She also advises students from other schools on the side, charging $100 per hour. She had about 20 private students this year. Next year, she plans to do that exclusively, upping her rate to $200.

"I don't want to package the student," Miranda explains. "I want the student to look genuine. But I can show them things on their résumé, their high school résumé--see, we never had a high school résumé. Come on!" She laughs. "You know, but these kids have had internships, and they have all this community service work. But you have to show them how to market themselves. Just giving them pointers on how to fill out their application, you know. By moving things around on the application, you can make the application look more complete. You're still giving them the same information; you're just putting it in different boxes."

So what do you get for $100 an hour? A translator, basically, someone who knows how to speak the admissions language, no matter which dialect they're using. Someone who knows that a strong batch of recommendation letters can bulk up a weaker transcript and that a follow-up thank-you note might seem old-fashioned but isn't out-dated.

Most counselors at private schools won't admit it, and Dallas ISD doesn't track it, but it's happening. Parents are taking their kids out of private schools and returning them to the public school system. It's no big deal when it happens the other way around. It's more significant when parents reverse the procedure.

Tuition for private schools can be justified because not only do they prepare students for college, they supposedly give them better access to the ones they want to attend. But some parents are finding out that's not necessarily true. In fact, some students are better off coming out of a public high school.

That's what Mike Looney learned when his oldest daughter, Sloan, applied to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The Dallas Observer spoke to Looney in 2000 ("Public Defenders," August 3), not long after Sloan switched from private (Lutheran High School) to public (Woodrow Wilson High School). This was before he knew the added benefits of public school. He was just trying to make his daughter happy.

Sloan was the one who wanted to make the change, and it wasn't because she wanted to improve her class rank or GPA, to excel in a less competitive environment. "She wanted people, a football team, drama, musicals, drill team," her father, a Woodrow Wilson graduate himself, explains today. "Even though she had never gone to public school, she seemed to know what she was missing."

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