Democracy in action!
March 18, 2011The Week Magazine
Essay -How to get your kid into the Ivy League
For a fee, says Andrew Ferguson, a new kind of counselor can make any teen look
like Harvard material
Hoping for Harvard? Parents eager to get their teenagers into the ivys will
likely have to fork over some cash for private admissions counselors.
FORTY THOUSAND DOLLARS: That’s how much it takes to hire one of the
country’s most notable independent college-admissions counselors, Katherine
Cohen, for a full-service “platinum package” of advice and guidance that lasts
from your teenager’s first starry dreams of ivy-covered brick to the day of
A friend of mine had read a profile of Cohen in a women’s
magazine. The article pointed out that one out of every four students enrolled
in a private college or university hired a private counselor before applying.
It’s a big business nowadays, this private counseling. But a few things set
Cohen apart from her peers. One was the sheer size of her fee; another was the
sheer size of her success. From scratch she had built up a huge client base,
from across the country and from Europe, Asia, and South America. She’d set up
shop at a glamorous address a block from Carnegie Hall in midtown
As for the fee, it was big enough to choke the most jaded
veteran of the college-admissions madness.
My problem was that I didn’t have it—the fee, I mean, not the
madness: My son was a high school junior just embarking on the application
ordeal. I decided to call Cohen anyway.
Eventually I got through to one of her assistants, an
agreeable-sounding young man named Rod. I explained to him straightaway that I
wasn’t a potential client; my interest in their work was reportorial rather
than personal. What I meant was, while I couldn’t pay the $40,000, if he or his
boss wanted to share any of their more obscure secrets with me (“Make the Sign
of the Turtle in the application photo and the kid will get into Dartmouth
early decision”), I’d be happy to put it to use on behalf of my son.
Rod said I was welcome to go see his boss speak the following
week in Connecticut, to a group of “high-net-worth individuals,” as the phrase
goes. They were meeting on a weeknight, on the upper floor of the headquarters
of a multinational investment bank in Fairfield County, well north of
Manhattan. I said I’d be there.
Rod met me near the train platform, and together we passed
through security in the bank’s lobby and caught an elevator. When I asked after
“Dr. Cohen,” he waved a hand. “Kat,” he said. “Everybody calls her Kat.” The
doors of the elevator opened at the top floor onto a Versailles-like conference
room. Windows two stories high looked out onto the darkness and the sparkling
Connecticut suburbs below. The place reeked of cash, and so, of course, did the
invitation-only gathering of 30 to 40 well-to-do parents. A significant
majority of them, I noticed, were women, dressed in Greenwich casual,
suggesting that they were stay-at-home-in-Fairfield-County moms, who are
distinguished from ordinary stay-at-home moms by not resembling ordinary moms.
They wore tight designer jeans and complicated shoes with spiked heels. Nearly
every one was blond. Every one of them was on full alert, with that feral look
of parental ambition. They swiveled their tail-gunning eyes to Kat when she was
Kat was tinier than I would have known from studying the
jacket photo of her book The Truth About Getting In. But the glamour of that
shot hadn’t been a Photoshop trick. She was dressed all in black: flared
slacks, high heels, and a tight blouse topped with a string of pearls. With
long painted nails, she adjusted the microphone clipped to her collar and began
strolling up the aisle. “How many people have kids they want to see get into a
selective college?” she asked. The room was a forest of upraised hands.
But what’s a selective college? Harvard, with an acceptance
rate well under 10 percent, isn’t the most selective college in the United
States, Kat told us. Neither is Yale. “The most selective schools in America
are Juilliard and Curtis,” she said, referring to the two arts
“But look here.” She was waving a card with more numbers on
it. “The acceptance rate at Flagler College is 26 percent. City University of
New York, it’s 20 percent. Brigham Young University–Hawaii? Nineteen percent.
College of the Ozarks has a 12 percent acceptance rate.”
She let the numbers sink in, and you could almost feel the
shudder run through these East Coast moms: My kid won’t be able to get into
College of the Ozarks? What the f---? And wait a minute—where’s Flagler
KAT SAID SHE wanted us to learn how to think like an
admissions officer. Admissions committees at selective schools call their
method “holistic,” which involves weighing a dozen intangible factors along
with hard data like SAT scores in deciding whom to admit. The word “holistic”
is meant to distinguish their method from the purely numerical process at less-
selective universities. It’s a cagey word, “holistic,” borrowed from new age
yogis, Gestalt therapists, makers of herbal toothpaste, and other mystifiers
whose prestige depends on your not being able to figure out exactly what
Kat handed out photocopied sheets that summarized the résumés
of four college applicants—grades, test scores, extracurricular activities. The
applicants’ names had been changed, but the résumés were real.
“You’re going to be Jim Miller, the dean of admissions at
Brown University,” she said. Oh, Brown—a couple in the row ahead of me glanced
at each other at the mention of the name. Small, old, New Englandish, Brown
casts a spell over many parents. Kat herself had worked in the admissions
office there. She told us that the typical admissions officer spends an average
of five minutes reading an application, so tonight she’d give us 10 to look
I looked through the résumés. Joe, Reggie, Kim, and Teresa
were all SuperKids. Dress them in capes and tights and they could star in their
own comic book. Joe had an 800 SAT in math and raised money for a Native
American school. Reggie had six Advanced Placement classes and a 4.0 grade
point average. Kim was a fiddle player who had recorded her own violin
concertos with the local symphony orchestra. Teresa single-handedly kept a
nearby Hispanic grade school afloat while acing her SATs. Where do these people
come from? Mentally, and invidiously, I flipped through my son’s résumé. I had
to do this mentally because his résumé didn’t exist. It had never occurred to
any of us to put such a thing together.
After 10 minutes we cast votes—Teresa won and got admitted to
heaven—but Kat made clear that our preferences weren’t the point of the
exercise. At Brown the admit rate is 14 percent, she said. A school like Brown
receives thousands of applications from superior students. In most important
respects, on paper they are indistinguishable from one another. “There are
36,000 high schools in this country,” she said. “That means there are at least
36,000 valedictorians. They can’t all go to Brown.”
The challenge for admissions officers at highly selective
schools is therefore to find reasons not to admit an applicant. It followed
that for the parent of an applicant the challenge was not to give them a reason
to say no.
Yet the reasons were so easy to find! In the seemingly
flawless credentials of these SuperKids, Kat picked up one disqualifying
imperfection after another, speaking of them as though they wiggled at the tip
of a forceps. “Look at Joe,” she said. “He has the highest class rank of any of
them. That’s good, right? Look closer. No AP classes!” Exit Joe. Kim’s résumé
was next. “The violin concertos and the symphony are impressive,” Kat said,
then noted that Kim hadn’t participated in the school’s orchestra. Soon Kim
appeared selfish and eerily single-minded, creepy even.
Kat moved on to Reggie. He took six AP classes, which sounded
like a lot to me. But at the prestigious boarding school Reggie goes to, Kat
said, kids typically take eight to 10 AP classes. So Reggie’s mere six suggest
a slacker. But look here: Under his extracurriculars Reggie listed no fewer
than 12 activities—model UN, chess club, drama club, and so on. Busy kid! Kat
wasn’t buying it. She just shook her head. “There are a lot of ‘one hour a
week’ type things. There’s no commitment. It’s like he’s just running up the
None of the parents had the nerve to object that the reverse
could as easily be true. A kid who had only a single extracurricular to which
he was intensely committed could be rejected by an admissions dean because he
showed no diversity of interests, no sense of adventure. I think it was
beginning to dawn on us that the kids could be damned one way or the other.
THE MOST THAT helpless parents and applicants could do, Kat
said, was to attend to what she called the “soft factors”—those bits of the
résumé that lie at the margins. The little things “that might be the deal-
makers,” she said.
There were summer activities, for example. How kids spend
their summers from middle school onward would tell an admissions dean a lot
about their character, ambitions, and commitment. Working at a job was fine,
Kat said—but starting their own business would be better. If they didn’t do
that, then it made a difference where they worked. (Avoid the last refuge of a
slacker: lifeguarding.) Family trips to Europe would serve only to draw
attention to the kid’s life of privilege. She was particularly dismissive of
“leadership programs” that—for a fee—brought high schoolers to Washington,
D.C., or the state capital for weeks of interning and seminars.
“But that’s what my son did!” one mom interjected. “He was
invited to do this. He got so much out of it.”
“The invitation came in the mail, I guess,” Kat said. “It
said he was ‘selected.’ Do you know why he was selected? Your zip code. Because
of your zip code, they knew you could pay.” She shrugged. “Sorry.”
Kat stressed the importance of teacher recommendations.
“Early on in high school your children should find a teacher they like and go
that extra mile,” she said. “They should spend time with that teacher,
cultivate that relationship. Let that teacher know what they’re interested in.
They should be enthusiastic in class, add to the discussion, speak up—help the
teacher make that classroom an exciting place. Each and every day they should
ask themselves, ‘How am I contributing to this class?’ And spend time outside
of class with the teacher, if that’s possible.”
And then, when the applications are due and you need a letter
of recommendation, the pump will be primed to release a gusher of praise.
I WAS NEW to this, but already I saw I had got it all wrong.
At its most intense, the admissions process didn’t force kids to be Lisa
Simpson; it turned them into Leave It to Beaver’s Eddie Haskell. (“You look
lovely in that new dress, Ms. Admissions Counselor.”) It guaranteed that
teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending
they weren’t. It coated their every undertaking in a thin lacquer of
insincerity. Befriending people in hopes of a good rec letter, serving the
community to advertise your big heart—nothing was done for its own sake. Do
good; do well; but make sure you can prove it on a college app.
If this bothered any of the other parents, I didn’t hear
about it. After the meeting broke up, Kat disappeared into a scrum of parents
reaching for her business cards and I retreated to the cheese table. I asked
one mom there if she was considering hiring Kat’s firm.
“I don’t think we have a choice, do you?” she said. “You’ve
got to do something if your child is going to go somewhere we—she—can be proud
From the book Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson. ©2011 by Andrew Ferguson. Reprinted
by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.