One of the Dartmouth admissions committee's favorite essays this year was written — unbeknownst to committee members — by a student who had thousands of dollars worth of help.
That help came from former-Dartmouth-admissions- officer-turned-college- application-consultant Michelle Hernandez. Had the committee known she had a hand in her client's application, Hernandez tells Madeleine Brand, "They certainly wouldn't have admitted her, and they definitely wouldn't have featured her as one of their favorite essays."
But she doesn't sound remorseful. This is the highly competitive college application game, where even a 1600 SAT score and perfect grades don't guarantee acceptance to a top school. Having worked all sides of it, Hernandez can play the game as well as perhaps anyone; on her Web site, she boasts that 90 percent to 100 percent of her students receive acceptance letters to their first-choice college "year after year."
She charges accordingly: around $40,000 for a full consultation package, starting when the students are in grade nine, or $14,000 for a four-day boot camp.
The Full Package
Hernandez begins by learning everything she can about her clients and "hopefully meeting them in person." She has the student and parents fill out very detailed questionnaires and then she begins voraciously reading.
"I read all their teacher comments, school reports, you know, the kinds of books they read, the kinds of magazines they read. I mean, I kind of intake all this information and from that I produce about a 40-to-50 page report," she says.
From that, she makes a short-term and long-term plan for the students, incorporating their goals, natural interests and problem areas. She gives them recommendations for what classes to take and how to spend their free time.
"I give them customized reading lists. I teach them how to keep vocabulary notebooks. I guide them through course selection, what to do over summers," she says.
If a client wants to go to MIT but spends his free time playing video games with friends, for example, she advises him to become more productive.
She can shape her students' lives only so much, however, she says.
Helping Kids 'Rise To Their Potential'
"I try to motivate kids. I can lead them to water, I can't necessarily make them drink," Hernandez says.
Likewise, she can't have her clients seem too desperate to impress. The admissions process involves a delicate dance. She must help her students rise to their own potential, based on their own unique passions and talents, she says.
"College admissions officers are very suspect when they see that kids are only doing things to get into college," she says. "So you really have to do things that you love. So my job is kind of to find out what kids love and how to direct them in that area so they can stand out and show their passion and academic excellence to colleges."
In terms of college essays, she says, she simply guides the students.
"Usually I start with brainstorming with students because a lot of their ideas are bad ideas — sort of teenage angst or the teddy bear in their room ... I'm helping kids write great essays in their own words, but you know, it may take 12 drafts to get there or I might have rejected five of their other topics before they get to one that I think, from my experience as being an admissions officer, will play well in an admissions office."
Sometimes she ends up doing some pretty serious "editing" — but she is careful to make sure colleges don't suspect that she was involved, she says.
"I don't know why they would think that I had a hand in it because I always preserve the student's voice, so it's not like I'm writing in sentences or it would sound just like me," she says.
A Little Polish Or Major Fraud?
Ted O'Neill, dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, says he is not impressed.
"I mean, basically, she's talking about perpetrating a fraud and saying she gets away with it therefore it's OK," he tells Madeleine Brand. "I think she's basically saying she's cheating, or helping them cheat. I don't know that there's any way around that estimation."
Hernandez would say that these are talented students who deserve to get in. They simply need a little need help polishing what is there and making it through a complicated applications system. O'Neill is not convinced.
"Think of the people who can't pay $14,000, who aren't getting help polishing their essays, I mean, come on, who deserves it?" he says.
He thinks that parents are teaching their children a bad lesson by using Hernandez's services. Instead of controlling the whole process, he urges parents to be "sympathetic bystanders."
"They should listen to them ... I think if they're asked to help with essays they should read something and say, 'That's great, that's exactly who you are,' or, 'I don't think that's who you are; I think you should write it again,'" he says.
He understands that everyone needs help with editing, but getting too involved, rewriting in someone else's voice, forcing a topic just because it will sell "is to do violence to your kids and their futures," he says.
Getting Past Ivy Status
There are many good colleges, O'Neill says. "The fact is there is something false established when you think you must get into one place."
On this he and Hernandez initially seem to agree.
Though her Web site boasts that she got 24 out of 29 students into Ivy League schools in 2006 and 2007, she says that's not what it's all about.
"I feel a little conflicted about that because I think a lot of my families are more concerned with the name the way you would be with a Rolex watch," she says. "So I try to focus them on the fact that there are lots of good schools and they're not just Harvard, Yale, Princeton."
That said, she believes in the power of prestige.
"If you're going to spend that kind of money, the better school you get into, the better an investment it will be in the future," she says.