Jai Vardhan felt overwhelmed as he prepared for his final school exams.
He tried to navigate a myriad overseas university choices and decide what he should study when he got there.
The 18-year-old Indian was looking at the UK and Canada, but did not know where to start. His school has one guidance counsellor for 200 pupils in their final year.
“I did not find them helpful,” he said of his school's free service.
“[School counsellors] are just so overwhelmed by the number of pupils that they get. It's very difficult for them to give you personalised suggestions.”
So he hired a professional consultant to help him, paying them Dh10,000 ($2,700) to help him deal with the process.
Jai is among an increasing number of young people, particularly among those from better-off backgrounds, to pay thousands of dollars to get into the right university.
“I started researching universities but could not find the information that I needed, such as the grade requirements at each university. That’s how I first went for counselling.”
He said Rema Menon, from Dubai-based Counselling Point, “gave me an idea of the scores as well as extracurriculars I needed”.
Jai applied to 12 universities in the UK and Canada, and was offered a scholarship to one Canadian campus. He decided to turn it down to attend the University of Warwick, home of the Warwick Business School.
He will begin a four-year bachelor's degree in business and management this autumn at a cost of Dh90,000 ($24,500) a year.
World's top universities in 2023: in pictures
So, does Dh10,000 give pupils the edge to make it to the university they want?
“With both parents working, families often do not have time to help pupils with planning college applications while children are overwhelmed with school exams, finishing their coursework, and university planning simultaneously,” said Ms Menon, who has a background in psychiatric social work.
Pupils often forget that extra-curricular activities, sports, hobbies all play in to an application.
“I try to understand what are the person’s strengths, the extracurriculars, and what are some of the skills that have been honed because of that exposure,” she said.
“That will all have an impact on what they choose to do in the future.”
Psychometric assessments, a breakdown of the right universities for the client, and a guide to scholarships are included in the service, she said.
Application portals and admission requirements can be overwhelming and daunting for pupils who often start looking when they are 16.
Complex visa arrangements, depending on nationality, tend to be handled separately through companies such as VFS.
Ms Menon charges pupils based on destination, with the US the highest at Dh7,500 and Canada and Europe, UK at about Dh3,000 to Dh5,000.
She said that when she started her business in 2005, very few pupils looked at universities in the UAE, but that has changed.
Peter Davos, managing director of Hale Education Group, who focuses on putting pupils into American universities, said the costs are so high in the US that parents do not want to choose the wrong university for their child.
“If you're going to go to any leading private US university — and not just the top 20 — you're going to be paying close to Dh1 million ($270,000) for the cost of attendance [over three to four years].
“If you have an intermediary that charges 2 to 4 per cent of that cost, that's very standard. Whether it's a real estate broker or financial adviser, anyone who acts as an adviser is going to charge you.”
Pupils heading Stateside need to practise for their SATs and then pass them, he said. The process can be unfamiliar for pupils in the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
His service for that starts at Dh4,000, rising to “dozens of one-on-one sessions which range from Dh20,000 to Dh40,000".
Mr Davos claimed it is good value, particularly for high performing pupils with their sights on the Ivy League universities.
If they win a scholarship, he said, they or their parents may save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“On average, a student gets back over 10 times what they pay us in scholarships,” he said.
“If someone comes to me and spends Dh40,000, and then they get a full cost of attendance scholarship, which is valued at Dh1m, or a 50 per cent scholarship, which is valued at Dh500,000 … that's a pretty good return on investment.”
Experts help with everything from assistance with essay submissions to universities, mock interviews and profiles of the institutions.
Mr Davos said his company works at no charge with high-achieving pupils who come from poorer backgrounds and who need scholarships.
More prospective students are applying for places in US universities.
The number of applications went up by 21.3 per cent between 2019-2020 and 2021-2022, according to a March 2022 Common Application report.
Soraya Beheshti, regional director for Crimson Education, another college application consultancy, said even pupils with the best possible grades may not win the university place they want.
Such consultancies have separate strategists, essay coaches, scholarship consultants, an interview tutor and even an extra-curricular mentor.
They focus on Ivy League, Oxbridge and top European universities, along with advising those in the workplace on how to choose an MBA course.
She said pupils could spend anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 for university consulting with her service.
“It's incredibly difficult to get into a top 50 university,” she said.
“We see mentoring the way an athlete would see coaching. You can be the best athlete in the world — but you're still going to need a coach.”