And for companies that don't blatantly advertise cheating — a simple Internet search reveals plenty offering to write application essays — the line between help and flat-out dishonesty is unclear.
That line may never be drawn, at least by the state of California.
Legally, the California Department of Education does not have jurisdiction over private college-preparation centers or individual counselors, according to David Kopperud, an education-programs consultant.
Regulating private facilities is controversial, he said. Rather, it is up to lawmakers to take up the rallying cry.
"The legislature could propose laws to regulate centers offering college counseling and could give private services for those who can offer it."
For now, however, that leaves the college-application industry free from oversight.
Companies interviewed by the Weekly said they don't cross ethical bounds. Rather, they help students avoid purple prose by coaxing them towards engaging topics, they said.
Andover College Prep coaches instructors to help students write interesting essays, according to Nathan Allen, president of Andover College Preparation Center and former executive director of Princeton Review.
"Students are given zero credit for writing interesting English papers," Allen said. "It's a matter of helping students find what is interesting and giving them good feedback."
How much help with essays is ethical?
"While it is fine for a student to solicit input and feedback on his/her essay from teachers or family, we are concerned and find it unethical when someone other than the student writes or edits substantive portions of the essay," Shawn Abbott, Stanford University's director of admissions, said of tutoring assistance.
In other words, as long as the student writes the majority of the essay, having multiple editors is fine, in Abbott's view.
A simple Google search reveals websites peddling prewritten essays to students. Cardinal Education, an education consulting firm run by Stanford University graduate Allen Koh, advertises customized essays on its website.
But the instructors do not write essays for anyone, according to Koh, class of 2003.
Instead, Cardinal Education's tutors teach students to write appropriate personal statements and steer them away from "hackneyed topics."
Another criticism of test-preparation companies is that their benefits reach only those who can afford them, disadvantaging those who can't.
The companies' own claims of score improvement demonstrate the advantage of tutoring. The average improvement for students at Andover College prep was 340 points, according to its online study.
"Thus, our guarantee is 250 points," Allen said.
It's an even better guarantee than other companies, he said.
"You can have your money back if you don't improve for companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan. That may sound good, but this essentially means that they guarantee only a one-point guarantee."
Akshay Udiavar, a former student and later tutor with Fremont-based Excel Test Prep, agreed that private tutoring raises scores.
"[Personal tutoring] made it a lot easier to change what I was doing and improve my score," he said. "I would recommend everyone who is planning on taking the SAT to take a course."
Not everyone, however, can afford such courses.
About 52 hours of SAT classes at Andover College Prep costs $1,149-$1,195. Princeton Review charges $999 for 46 hours.
Cardinal Education charges students depending on their top choices. Applying to "basic schools" such as California State Universities requires fewer meetings and less tuition than applying to prestigious Ivy League universities, Koh said.
"We meet once a week with students until their deadline for applications for UCs. ... It becomes exponentially complex once the student applies to more difficult schools."
As to whether wealthier applicants get an unfair leg up from coaching, Allen argued it's a way for them to successfully compete with minorities and recruited athletes.
"If you're not black, Hispanic or a recruit, you're already at a disadvantage," Allen said. "It's equally unfair that the minority gets an advantage. You can give me a reasonably smart black kid and the smartest Asian kid, and I can tell you that the black kid is going to have a far easier time getting into college than the Asian one."
That argument doesn't convince everyone.
Palo Alto High School senior Sylvia Price, who is white, chose not to take SAT preparation classes partially because she objects to the disparities that they create in the admissions process, despite potential counterbalancing factors such as affirmative action and athletic recruitment.
"I think affirmative action mostly helps middle- and upper-class minorities who have similar advantages to the rich people," Price said. "I think the rich have the advantages in every aspect."
However, Koh's company provides free services for underprivileged and "particularly talented" students, he said.
"I don't feel like how much your parents make should influence what college you go to," Koh said.
He added that Cardinal Education tutors the Menlo Atherton High School football team and last year kept players' grades high enough to remain on the team.
He cited the huge amounts of time he poured into the program. "I never had a Sunday dinner with friends or acquaintances for about eight months," he said. "[The athletes] needed to know I was going to be there for them."
Udiavar, the former tutor, acknowledged the inequalities in the system. He said he hoped college admissions officers recognize that students' test scores fluctuate depending on social class.
"I know a lot of test-prep centers charge tons of money for their services," Udiavar said. "While this may sometimes be unfair, colleges definitely look at financial situations when judging scores. It's not a blind formula, so I guess it evens out in the end."
Although Stanford University considers students' socioeconomic status the school's need-blind policy means it cannot admit students based on financial situations, according to Stanford's Abbott.
And admissions officers can't tell which students have used these services, he said.
"We know test preparation and private consulting occur, and this assumption is factored into our overall evaluation," Abbott said. "However, it is quite difficult to know exactly who has taken advantage of these services."
On the other hand, holistically viewing applications can help validate students' writing capabilities.
"A student may receive assistance with the personal statement, but we will also be evaluating writing scores on the SAT and ACT, grades received in English and humanities classes," Abbott said.
"Strong writing ability needs to be reflected in multiple areas of the application in order for the writing to be considered compelling."
The decried unfairness has led some schools seriously to consider rethinking admissions, including the University of California.
Former UC President Richard C. Atkinson proposed in 2001 eliminating the SAT as an admissions requirement because, he said, it favored higher-income families. The proposal was not adopted and the SAT Reasoning Test is still required, although the suggestion to drop it has been made again since.
Despite concerns of equity and ethics, the college-application industry is likely to continue to be popular, driven by competition for a seat at top colleges, Paly senior Price predicted.
"Sometimes people have to use prep to make themselves able to create the best possible future for themselves," she said.
"Applicants are scared that they won't get into a good college, so they spend the money to try to become as perfect as possible to get into a good school."
Koh agreed that some companies prey on the fears of parents and students. "There's a disgusting amount of fear-mongering in my industry."