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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. This fall we've been talking about issues in education. More urgent for some now, college application deadlines are coming.

BRAND: So, let's say you've decided which college is for you, how do you get in? Michele Hernandez is here to tell us. She's a consultant. Parents hire her to help their kids navigate the college admissions process. She used to be an admissions officer at Dartmouth College, so, she knows from the inside what colleges are looking for. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MICHELE HERNANDEZ (President, Hernandez College Consulting): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BRAND: Now, how much do you pay for a consulting gig?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Well, it depends when you start. The most common starting point for me is 8th and 9th graders, and in fact, since I only take 25 kids per level, I generally fill up for my full-time services at the end of, or middle sometimes, of 9th grade.

BRAND: And how much do you charge for that?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: It just depends on the intake point. So, a 9th grader for example, starting, it's $40,000 total. But that is four years of work, and I do give unlimited time 24/7, during vacations, I work all weekend. So, I don't take that many kids at a time, but I do have an application boot camp which is for 10th and 11th graders. So even when I do fill up I have another way to accommodate kids to work with over the summers.

BRAND: How much is your boot camp?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: The boot camp tuition is $14,000, which includes a four-day program the August before they apply for colleges. So they actually complete all their applications before they even get back to school the fall of senior year.

BRAND: $14,000 for four days?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Correct.

BRAND: Give me an example of what you do? Let's say that I have an 8th grader who I want to enroll and get your services for. What would you do with my 8th grader?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Right. Well the first thing I'd do is actually try to learn as much as I can about them, hopefully meet them in person, but I do collect a lot of information. 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. And then we spend some time going over all of that. Kind of, what are their long-term goals? Where are they now? Where do their natural inclinations and interests lie?

And from there we make a short-term plan, a long-term plan, and I check back with kids. I try to manage, really, but again I'm always guiding them towards things they naturally like because college admissions officers are very suspect when they see their kids are only doing things to get into college. So, you really have to do things that you love.

BRAND: So, I mean, I know you're a little biased, but would you say that without you your clients would not have gotten into the colleges they wanted to get into?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I'm not going to be a tremendous egoist and say that. I mean, it's not that I'm inventing their talent, but I certainly help them know how to show that talent to admissions officers, and how they can get it across in their applications.

So, the hard part is the application process is not clear at all, and that's the part that they have to do. So, in that sense, yeah, I think I make a huge difference. I don't think a lot of these kids would get in, and even though they have the talent, and they have the numbers, how many newspaper articles do you read about the valedictorian with 1,600 scores who didn't get into this school or that school? It's because they're not writing good applications.

BRAND: So, it's a tough economy. We are hearing about this daily, now in the news, and there is a baby boom. A lot of kids are applying to the same amount of colleges that are out there. What do you tell kids and their parents about the value of a name in terms of a university?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: I feel a little conflicted about that because a lot of my families are more concerned with the name, the way you would be with a Rolex watch or something, than they are with the quality. So, I try to focus them on the fact that there's lots of good schools, and they're not just Harvard, Yale, Princeton.

But I would say the better school you get into, I think it's fair to say it's an investment like any other. 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.

BRAND: I wonder if you could give me an example. You're saying you really help with the admissions process, writing the essays. Can you give me an example of how you retooled an essay, recently?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Usually I start with brainstorming with students. Because again a lot of their ideas are bad ideas, sort of teenage angst with the teddy bear in their rooms. So, I have to, kind of, talk it out with them a little bit so they know what they're trying to get across.

And we do spend a lot of time talking about it first, before they even, you know, write pen to paper. And then, you know, they'll, we might even outline a paragraph or two.

BRAND: And how do you make sure that college admissions officers don't suspect that you had a hand in it?

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Well, I don't know why they would think that I had a hand it because again I always preserve the student's voice. So, it's not like I'm writing in sentences or it would sound just like me. I mean I can tell that they can't tell I had a hand in it because all my kids are getting into these schools.

And in fact, the office where I used to work at Dartmouth, their most recent alumni magazine had a list of their favorite essays for this past year, and one of the six essays picked was one of my boot camp students who was featured with the essay that we helped her with.

So, obviously they can't tell that we're working with them because they certainly wouldn't have admitted her, and they definitely wouldn't have featured her as one of their favorite essays. 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 because it will fulfill what they're looking for.

BRAND: Michele Hernandez, President of Hernandez College Consulting, and a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College. Michele, thank you.

Ms. HERNANDEZ: Thank you.

BRAND: OK. Now we go to the other side. We're going to hear from the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago, Ted O'Neill. And welcome to the program.

Mr. TED O'NEILL (Dean of Admissions, University of Chicago): Well, thank you.

BRAND: What do you think when you hear that?

Mr. O'NEILL: Well, that is very provocative talk. I mean basically she's talking about perpetrating a fraud and saying she gets away with it, therefore it's OK.

BRAND: Fraud? That's a pretty strong word. I mean, she would probably take issue with that, saying she's just helping them write a better essay.

Mr. O'NEILL: Well, I hope it's not a legal issue, but let's just say in admitting that she's doing this work for them and doing it so well that it actually sounds like them, 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.

BRAND: Now, Michele Hernandez and other consultants would say that these students that she's helping, they're sort of diamonds in the rough, that they do deserve to be in these schools and many of them would not be accepted because they haven't had the help in polishing their essays or their applications.

Mr. O'NEILL: Well think of the people who can't pay $14,000 dollars who aren't getting help polishing their essays. I mean, the fact of the matter is it's very hard to tell who deserves it unless you're on the ground, in the admissions committee, reading a fair slop of applications to a school, understanding what the school needs in a particular year and then you can start to make some decisions, and even then it's hard.

BRAND: But what do you say to the parents who say, you know, I'm going to use everything in my power to get my kid into the best schools, into a school like the University of Chicago.

Mr. O'NEILL: I say they probably aren't being as good parents as they should be. That's a very bad lesson to set for your children.

BRAND: So what should they do?

Mr. O'NEILL: They should help their students in ways that kids need help. They should listen to them, they should be sympathetic 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 do it again. I think they should really be sympathetic bystanders in this process. It's not theirs.

BRAND: And then, if it would mean the difference between getting in and not getting in?

Mr. O'NEILL: So be it. There are a lot of good colleges. These aren't students who aren't going to get to a good college. The fact is that there's something false established when you think you must get into one place. That's a bad way to go about this, so that's something parents should fight to begin with. Why would getting something you don't earn be satisfying to someone? It can't possibly be. It has to be destructive.

BRAND: So, if you knew a student had the help of a consultant, maybe the consultant didn't write the essay but helped edit it or provide guidance, would you say, no, I won't admit that student?

Mr. O'NEILL: No. I'm a teacher of writing. I know people get help with their writing. I help people with their writing all the time. That's part of writing. Rewriting is writing. Literally, some of my best friends are independent counselors. I don't think they will ever overstep the proper lines. I think they offer editing help, they offer suggestions, they offer to talk to people about what they're really trying to accomplish. But they don't do it for people, they don't go too far in this, and they're very, very wary about violating the students' right to speak for themselves.

BRAND: Ted O'Neill is the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago. Thank you very much.

Mr. O'NEILL: Thank you very much for calling.

BRAND: OK, Alex, seems like a lot of parents out there think a big name school does make a difference, that it does matter and that, you know, it's prestige. And prestige will translate into, what? A better life, I guess?

CHADWICK: Yeah. Well you know my first experience with this was academic probation at a community college, where I went on to discover they don't let you cut classes in basic training. But you went to Berkeley.

BRAND: I went to Berkeley and I went to Columbia, so, and we're sitting side by side, so there you go. There's the lesson.

CHADWICK: This is about the blog, right? Because there are two staffers here, one went to Yale, another went to St. Olaf's?

BRAND: St. Olaf, I never heard of it. But anyway, the essays are there, you can check it out, npr.org/daydreaming. And Day to Day continues in just a moment.

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