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(Corrects spelling of Suzanne Luse in paragraphs 12-13.)
By Deborah Cohen
CHICAGO, August 12 (Reuters) - Claire Jokinen had top grades in high school but never gave much thought to where she would attend college.
Faced with the decision midway through junior year, her parents enlisted the services of an independent college counselor. This paid consultant helped with everything from fleshing out Jokinen's likes and dislikes to advising her to beef up extra-curricular activities to become a more attractive candidate to competitive schools.
The extra effort seems to have paid off. Jokinen, now 18, is entering her sophomore year at the University of Chicago. Besides boosting her profile, she said the counselor, Suzanne Luse, made her aware of suitable college choices beyond the University of Minnesota, the default selection of many students in the Minneapolis suburb where she grew up.
"I had no clue where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do," says Jokinen, who is leaning toward a major in social sciences. "It's something I should have been thinking of."
Jokinen and her parents are part of a growing group of U.S. families turning to private counselors - an expanding and somewhat controversial cottage industry - for help with college selection and an application process that has become more competitive and complex in recent years. And while the Internet has allowed for more independent college research, unfettered access to information sometimes has a stifling effect.
"There's so much information," says Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), one of several trade groups for private counselors. "It just creates more anxiety rather than less."
Sklarow estimates the ranks of private counselors nationally have swelled to 6,000 full-time professionals, up from roughly 1,300 in 2005.
Fewer counselors in schools and higher-student counselor ratios, efforts by colleges to diversify their student populations, and the so-called common college application to colleges, are cited as reasons the rise of the private counselors.
The high cost of an education, which frequently leaves students and the families in debt, is also causing some to seek help in finding the best aid and scholarship packages.
"I think parents really want to make sure they've got their options, that they understand them," says Sklarow, noting that, U.S. college tuition debt now exceeds that of credit cards.
The use of private advisers has spread throughout the United States. Many counselors offer only comprehensive packages, which IECA says cost an average about $4,000 and typically require half payment up front. Initial meetings begin as early as a student's first year in high school. Some counselors break out services a la carte, charging an hourly fee.
Luse, the Minneapolis-area counselor, uses a card game early on to help students identify their preferences for geographic location, size of school and school culture, among other attributes. Later in the process, she hosts group "jam sessions," where students come in with their laptops to participate in fact-finding exercises, narrow down essay topics and fill out applications.
"We're looking for an academic, social and financial fit," says Luse, who only offers a comprehensive package. "Everybody ends up some place where they're happy."
It is not just top students who benefit, advocates say. Average students, students with learning disabilities, those with artistic and musical talents, athletic skills or very targeted career interests find the services indispensable. There are even counselors specializing in graduate school admission.
"This is about much more than completing applications," says Dan Bauer, a Highland Park, Illinois consultant for graduate candidates to business school. "It's about developing a candidacy to be presented in those applications.
Among the most difficult tasks for any counselor, particularly those working with would-be undergraduates, is providing a reality check when admissions aspirations don't line up with a students' academic record or other abilities.
"You're playing a lot of roles in this position," says Ann Rossbach, a college counselor in Rumson, New Jersey.
Not everybody is a fan of the process, which has been criticized for being elitist and giving an unfair advantage to those who can afford it.
Jim Conroy, chair of post-high school counseling at New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Illinois - long considered one of the country's top public schools - remains skeptical.
"Many of these independents take over for the kids," Conroy says. "My concern is that they feed off the parents' insecurities and make them feel that they have connections. College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won."
The IECA is one of the trade groups that adheres to a strict ethical code and requires its members have at least three years of counseling experience.
Nonetheless, some parents are convinced that qualified outside help makes for a more studied choice.
"We knew the college selection process had changed so much," says Jokinen's mother, Shelley. "It was just very, very helpful to have somebody who was an expert at it so you didn't have to start with ground zero." (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Lauren Young and Leslie Gevirtz)