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 matriculation.
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 Manhattan.
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 introduced.
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 conservatories.
“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 College?
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 they’re doing.
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 over these.
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 score.”
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 of.”
From the book Crazy U by Andrew Ferguson. ©2011 by Andrew Ferguson. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.