It’s the end of the semester and the beginning of college application season, which means articles about wealthy people paying smart but poor people to do their kids’ work for them.
As someone who teaches college, I always feel I should be more outraged than I actually am about articles like this one in the New York Post, where a bevy of “tutors” spill stories about the rich and famous slackers whose college admissions essays they write. After all, if people like Dave Tomar—who wrote pseudonymously about this topic in the Chronicle of Higher Education back at the end of 2010 and is now peddling a book—helps Madison get into a college for which she’s unqualified, she’s going to eventually end up in my discussion section, texting under the desk about how her totally uncool TA won’t like, just tell her what the thesis of her paper should be.
Like many of the tutors quoted in the article, I paid my way through college editing college admissions essays. And it may work differently on the Upper East Side, but it was almost never the one-way street that the breast-beating, hair-pulling trend stories make it out to be. I mostly interacted with students online. Many were foreign, most had no idea how to even go about writing in the very strange genre of the personal college essay, despite their ease with personal details in 140 characters or less. Applicants tend to fill their 500 words with descriptions of volunteering at the soup kitchen and the inevitable clichés about hard work and determination that you should expect when you ask a 17-year-old to reflect meaningfully on how she sees herself “contributing to the community.” Unless they apply for graduate school, students will likely never write a similar document again.
When I wrote my lengthy responses to these first drafts, I usually tried to avoid telling the kids what I really thought: that they should start over and on an entirely different topic. (My company discouraged that.) Instead, I would seize on some tiny bit of concrete personality: self-deprecation, humor, anything that would indicate that this person had some sort of a pulse, and give advice on how to expand it. I ended up providing more outlines than actual, finished products. And I was always a little surprised to find that the applicants didn’t accept many of my edits. (What were their parents paying me for?)
As for the outrage I don’t really feel: Sure, we can all agree that it’s a rigged deck—that the kids whose parents can pay $150 for a few hours of my time are at an unfair advantage. But we could just as easily make the same argument about, say, regular meals, or any of the other benefits that middle and upper middle class kids enjoy. The tutor fury seems a little misplaced. It’s also worth noting that one of the students in the Post article whose tutor wrote his application essay ended up flunking out in college, so the advantage was very temporary.
WRITE STUFF: For a fee of $7,500, Lacy Crawford would help the sometimes indifferent children of wealthy New Yorkers write their college-entry essays. (
Lacy Crawford’s first novel, “Early Decision” (William Morrow), out this week, was inspired by the 15 years she spent working as an independent college-admissions counselor to the rich-and-powerful’s sons and daughters in Manhattan, Chicago, Los Angeles and London. For a fee, Crawford would help them with their entry essays and applications to get them the one thing they couldn’t always buy — a spot in an Ivy League school. She shares her stories (with the names and some characteristics changed) with The Post.
Though I worked for 15 years as an independent college-applications counselor all over the United States and Europe — with students whose parents thought nothing of flying me in every weekend to try to make Harvard say yes — nowhere was the college-admissions race more competitive than in New York City.
Here the frenzy is amplified by money and power as it only can be in New York; college admissions are the culmination of a scramble that begins with nursery school. Here, too, the opportunities for obsessive parents to break a student’s heart seem sharper than anywhere else.
My abiding memory of tutoring New Yorkers is of sitting with one girl as night fell late in October. Tears coursed down her cheeks and onto the hem of the distinctive skirt of her elite private school. She was too upset to sip from the mug of hot chocolate her housekeeper had brought up. Her parents were working late, as they always did, and other than the staff, we were alone in the house. Spread on a table before us were college essay drafts.
“It’s hopeless,” she sobbed. “I’ve got nothing.”
From her bedroom window, where we sat, an unobstructed view of Central Park stretched north to the autumn sky.
How does a young woman with so much come to feel she’s got nothing? My students were almost all thoughtful and diligent, but their parents had fallen into a terrible trap, having raised their children to reach for the stars without teaching them how to so much as stretch out an arm.
For many of the children of the most ambitious, wealthiest parents in the city, the college-admissions process begins when a child is 2, with the hiring of a consultant to deliver nursery-school acceptances.
Once in school, if the child is slow in any subject, parents hire tutors. If the tutors fail, the parents will knock on doors until they find a learning specialist who agrees to identify a trumped-up deficit in a student’s capabilities — in other words, to label the child in some way learning-disabled — after which the parents will force their excellent school to exempt the child from certain obligations, so she no longer has to take four years of math, say, or timed tests.
The college list will be drawn up no later than sophomore spring, and it will include only trophy schools — the Ivy League, Duke, Stanford — selected not for fit but according to where the parents have influence. If a parent went to a college, it’s a “legacy school,” and it goes at the top of the list. If they know a trustee, that’s in Position No. 2. And so on down the line.
By junior spring, the “early decision” school is chosen, meaning a single application will be made by Nov. 1 with the promise that the student will attend if admitted. Statistically, this is the best chance a student has of acceptance at top schools, and it’s not a problem to apply so early for students who have had years to tour their choices and who don’t have to fill out financial-aid forms.
The summer before a student’s senior year, the parents work to secure the golden ticket — a recommendation letter from a trustee of the first-choice school — while the student interns for an exclusive institution (a neuroscience lab, a political office) or performs community service in a far-flung locale (building schools in Bangladesh).
Finally, after 15 or so years of parents managing every variable, there comes the time when a student is expected to do something all by herself: fill out the actual application. Write an essay in her own voice.
By this point, our coddled child has no faith in her own words at all. Her own ideas and feelings, like a language she has not practiced, have fallen away.
Her parents wanted more than anything to protect her, to give her the world. Instead they’ve taken away her capacity to know it.
Faced with that blank page, the students panic. They freeze. Their entire lives have been pointed toward this one test of their worth: Who wouldn’t suffer writer’s block? The parents yell. Everyone sobs.
That’s when they called me.
I had been an independent college-applications adviser for almost a decade when I moved to Manhattan in 2007. For the three years that followed, I tutored some of the city’s most elite high-school seniors, working under the radar, a hired gun who slipped in and out of penthouse apartments and jogged up the side steps of brownstones like someone’s mistress.
From 2000 to 2010, more than 90 percent of my students were accepted at their top-choice schools. My name was shared among wealthy families who would not have dreamed of hiring one of the big college-application consulting shops; they wanted exclusivity, someone other students couldn’t have.
In fact, often I was asked to create false invoices (substituting, say, “child-care services” for “educational consulting”) when I billed my $7,500, all-in fee. Five days a week, from August to December, I took the 6 train from Midtown to 68th or 77th and walked west to Park or Fifth, where I sat with wealthy students struggling to free themselves from their parents’ dreams so they might have some hopes of their own.
One father requested that my meetings with his son take place in the Midtown offices of his private-equity group. His son would take the train in from Greenwich and meet me there. I offered to meet the boy somewhere easier, but no. It wasn’t safe, the father explained, as he led me into the vast glass space of his office, where his son was sitting; in fact, he had personally walked to Penn Station to meet his son’s train and escort him here.
Then he took out his checkbook and asked me, in front of the boy, what I’d charge to write his essays.
You see the logic? I love you so much I won’t risk letting you take a cab in the city, and I wouldn’t dream of letting you use your own voice to apply to college. But you can’t expect a student to write effectively in the first person if his own father has no interest in what he might say.
One young man had been flown in from Paris to work with me. He was very bright, but his English was not good enough for a top American college. Even if we could get him in, he’d struggle. His mother would not hear of this. She was engaged in a ferocious divorce from her diplomat husband, and while the blond boy and I sat there, working in the two-story atrium of their living room, professionals in slim suits wandered the apartment with notepads and cameras, making appraisals of every item that might be removed.
One evening, the mother met me when I arrived.
“We will say he’s black,” she said.
“My ex-husband, he’s not seeing the application, so we’ll say what we want. We lived four years in Senegal. Our name is exotic. So, we will check the box and say he is black.”
I said this was not a good idea.
“Why not?” she pressed me. “Can they ask for proof?”
Her son sat silent as a stone, blue eyes fixed on his notebook, while the appraisers’ cameras flashed on the Picassos on the walls.
In the months to follow, I failed to dissuade the mother of her plan. Her son was not admitted.
She, like so many others, was dumb-struck, devastated, when it didn’t work out. (This is why, year after year, new clients kept calling: They hear the horror stories of wonderful kids who got in nowhere.)
These parents haven’t anticipated that college-admissions officers might be able to hear the hollow pretense of the packaged student, the shellacked essays full of an editor’s semicolons but lacking a heart.
They don’t know a trustee’s letter can also be a curse: One trustee of an Ivy League school confided in me the secret code she shared with the dean of admissions. If she felt obligated to write the letter for social reasons, the student was referred to formally — Miss Cabot, Mr. Peabody. If she believed in the student, he or she was called by name.
“I’ve had about 100 percent success both ways,” she told me.
The girl whose bedroom window opened onto Central Park struggled all fall. She was writing boring essays about her community service (she interned relentlessly at charities all over the East Side) and sweating her “B” average.
She did not know that she was all but guaranteed admission to her top choice — let’s say it was Yale — where a building already bore her name. She didn’t think she could get in, and if it weren’t for that building, she’d have been right.
But her parents could not imagine her going anywhere else. The whole process seemed to my student a trap: She had to gain admission to and attend a school where she knew she didn’t belong. How could she write an honest essay?
We got out of that penthouse apartment and walked the park as winter bore down. I noticed she knew a great deal about Central Park; her nannies had taken her here often, of course. But there was more. And one day she confessed to me her secret: Afternoons, after school, she directed her driver to several pet stores in the city, where she bought the most miserable, chewed-up, sickly gerbils and hamsters she could find. She carried them in their cardboard boxes to the grassy spots in the park and set them free.
“I know they probably get eaten that first night,” she told me, crying. “Rats. Raccoons. Pale Male. But still, imagine that one day of freedom. It’s better than whatever would have happened in that store.”
And just like that, we had a college essay. She wrote about the rodents, yes, but she also wrote about the gardens she knew so well, and how the city of her birth had grown up around the park. She covered Manhattan history and the biology of raptors in 500 words. It was terrific.
Her parents were horrified. They forbid her to submit the essay — what would Yale think? But she did so anyway.
You’ll know how this story ends. She got into Yale, of course, early decision. But her real success was in giving the admissions officers the kind of honesty that is harder and harder to find in these days of tiger parenting. And, I like to think, in clearing a path to her own life, she graduated and became an apprentice gardener with the city Parks Service. She’ll have to work her way up to Central Park, her own front lawn, but she is finally doing what she wants to do.
This is the biggest secret to success in the college applications madness: It’s not about getting kids in. It’s about allowing them to grow up.