Four years ago, Grace Bauer, then a senior at South Lakes High School in Reston, thought the world was ending when she was rejected by Columbia University, her first-choice college.

"She had the Ivys on her list, and I knew that all the kids at Flint Hill, all the private high schools had a legup on her," says her mother, Elizabeth Vandeburg. "And that's because they had coaches."

Can college admissions officers tell when a student has been coached?
No, says Michael Reilly, the executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers: "I think in many cases, they do not know." Particularly at competitive schools, "I think it's somewhat expected that students will try to gain some counseling and advice, whether that's through a private counselor or working closely with someone at a high school."
David Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid at Johns Hopkins University, said there's a "real disparity of views" among his admissions officers. "Official high school guidance counselors know the kids, the educational curriculum at their school and how it aligns with other schools, so I do think they're in a good position to find a good fit for students," Phillips said. "But given the economic climate, there are dwindling economic resources around the country in schools. Students do need help navigating the admissions process, and in that sense, there is a real role for college counselors to step in."

So this year, Vandenburg interviewed three independent "college counselors" for her son, a senior at South Lakes. Her referrals came courtesy of South Lakes parents: "I knew a couple people who I was sure would be looking into it."

Once reserved for the wealthy, the arena of costly college coaches has become more attractive to middle-class families, who are seeking an edge in the increasingly competitive college admissions process. Although time with these private practioners is costly, some parents are deciding that no price is too high to keep up with their kids' classmates and get their children into top schools.

"If you go back a generation, it was like, wow, could you believe people are actually prepping for the SAT? And now I can't remember the last student of mine that didn't," says Steven Goodman, an admissions strategist in North Cleveland Park. "It's the same with this. The field has grown to a point where students acknowledge their friends and neighbors are doing it, so therefore it makes sense for them to do it as well."

The goal, counselors say, is to help students realize the most compelling parts about themselves to stand out on applications. Some consultants are former high school counselors who have relationships with admissions officers, or at least know which interests or qualities a particular college is looking for.

Take Nina Marks, who created Marks Education after a decade spent counseling students at National Cathedral School. She wrote the school's college handbook, which was copyrighted and sold.

"What I realized is this is a particularly punishing system for bright and ambitious students," says Marks, a Harvard graduate. "They feel there is less and less wiggle room in trying something new, in making a mistake."

Marks says her students are becoming younger -- some are in fifth grade -- and that she's seeing more students from public schools.

And she gets results. Three-quarters of her company's seniors were admitted to their first- or second-choice colleges -- including the Harvards and Yales -- as were 84 percent who applied early.

But parents shell out a lot: A college consultant can cost between $250 and $40,000, depending on the counselor's background and how much time a child needs with them.

To keep Marks on retainer for senior year, a parent would pay $10,000; booking another member of her staff would cost about half.

Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, said this kind of consulting "is another example of wealth buying you opportunities."

Laitinen says she doesn't fault parents, who are simply trying to do the best by their kids with the means they have. But she questions whether middle-class parents are thinking through their options.

"It's this sort of 'keeping up with the Joneses' or arms race that creates this flurry in your brain, and you have to to slow down and say, 'Wait a minute, what's the whole range of possibilities here? What's the best state school?' " Laitinen says. "I think parents obviously want to do the best thing for their children, but they're also not committing their child to a life of indentured servitude if they don't go to an Ivy League institution."