For Parents Willing to Pay Thousands, College Counselors Promise to Make Ivy League Dreams a Reality
By Yishai Schwartz
June 28, 2017
With college acceptance rates lower than ever, kids—and parents—are feeling the pressure.
Amad Al-Zaben grew up in a family of six in a two-bedroom apartment in Kuwait City. He would visit the American embassy to flip through college brochures and fantasize about getting a degree in the United States. At age 15 he applied to 20 U.S. colleges. Almost as soon as he got his first acceptance letter—to Southern Illinois University—he leaped on a plane and enrolled in person. His father sold the family car to pay the tuition.
When I first met the 57-year-old Al-Zaben, now the CEO of Bader Sultan & Brothers Co., the largest distributor of medical products in the Middle East, his own children were approaching college age, and he was facing upgrades to his American dream. His three oldest—triplets with U.S. citizenship—were completing their sophomore year of high school, and all three were applying to American colleges: Faisal at the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, California, and his sisters Maya and Raneem at the American School in Kuwait.
Al-Zaben wanted to give them every advantage he could afford, including one that didn’t exist when he was an applicant. He hired Kat Cohen, who runs the counseling company IvyWise, which charges anything from $500 for a simple application review to hundreds of thousands of dollars for high-end counseling programs. Al-Zaben didn’t blink at the price. He calls it “the best investment I can make for my children.”
Al-Zaben is not alone in this opinion. Independent counselors are used by 25 percent of students at private American colleges. In this country the tutoring, counseling, and test prep market is a $12 billion industry. Worldwide it is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2018. (Gangnam Station in Seoul—roughly the city’s equivalent of Times Square—is filled with billboards for private admissions consultants.)
There’s a bull market in college counseling online, but IvyWise, which opened in 1998, soon after Cohen left Yale with a Ph.D. in Latin American literature, is widely regarded as the Rolls-Royce of the industry, and its fees reflect that status. Cohen and her team—they’re based in Manhattan but work with clients around the world through private meetings or Skype—start counseling some students before they even enter high school, suggesting classes to take, clubs to join (or, even better, to found), and how to spend their summers.
They prescribe the proper dose of SAT tutoring, craft each student’s list of potential colleges, organize campus visits, and help arrange internships.
The hourly rate for junior counselors, all of whom are admissions-office veterans, starts around $1,000. To work with Cohen herself, parents are said to cough up $3,000 an hour. A handful of students sign up for only a single “application review” or a six-hour “application bootcamp,” but most purchase packages that include dozens of hours of counseling.
Add IvyWise’s tutoring services, and the price tag can be astronomical. Each hour of tutoring costs $300 to $600, and many students use the services between five and 10 hours each week. A handful of the highest-spending clients have racked up more than 200 hours of tutoring, generating bills in excess of $100,000. “New York City is very singular in the assumption that you work with a college counseling tutor all through high school,” Merrily Bodell, IvyWise’s COO tells me. “It’s just the norm.”
Cohen counsels high school students, but it’s their parents who are her real clients. Her current student crop includes not only the Al-Zaben triplets but the children of actors, fashion icons, and one fantastically wealthy Brazilian broker. And she can boast of impressive returns for their money. Since starting the company, 92 percent of IvyWise students have been accepted by one of their top three choices, a feat that reflects a counselor’s success in crafting a “realistic” list of choices as much as it indicates admissions prowess.
This year all of the early applicants to Harvard were accepted, and over the past five years the IvyWise acceptance rate at both Yale and Princeton has been six times the national average. “I’m extremely proud of our success rates,” Cohen says, “but not surprised by them.”
In recent years application numbers have exploded and acceptance rates—especially at elite universities—have plunged. In 1994, Stanford’s admission rate was 20 percent; in 2016 it was under five percent. The Ivies, with their huge endowments and need-blind acceptance policies, are increasingly focusing their outreach on minority, rural, and lower income populations that have rarely applied in the past.
Yale recently committed to filling 80 slots in its freshman class with finalists from QuestBridge (a nonprofit that connects low income students with elite colleges), and the university partnered with Harvard, Princeton, and the University of Virginia to send a series of direct mailings to “20,000 high-achieving, low-income students” focusing on aid, fee waivers, and counseling. The plan appears to be paying dividends: In 2015, applications from low-income zip codes increased 13.6 percent, outpacing the overall 4.5 percent increase, and the number of acceptances from the same zip codes jumped 19 percent.
Of course, this means fewer slots for the highest-achieving children of privilege. Steve Frappier, director of college counseling at Atlanta’s elite Westminster Schools, tells parents, “That airplane has only so many seats, and elite schools have special interests and community-building concerns.” Often he emphasizes the sheer numbers. “I tell parents, ‘Harvard Yard has only 1,660 freshman beds. That’s 830 for boys.’ And I break it down further from there.”
In the Northeast especially, the measures some families are taking have long since passed the point of ridiculousness. When I was a freshman at Yale eight years ago, we traded stories about high school classmates who traveled on “service trips” to Africa to make themselves appear altruistic, or who studied obscure languages in the hope it might make them seem interesting.
More recently a current IvyWise student transferred to Le Rosey in Switzerland (at $113,000 a year, it’s one of the very priciest schools on earth) to differentiate herself from her Manhattan prep school classmates, who all “look the same, apply to the same schools, and have similar grades.”
The IvyWise scenario begins long before the college application process starts. Nat Smitobol, a counselor and former admissions officer at Skidmore and NYU, likens high school to a four-lap race. Most school counselors, he explains, come in to guide only the last lap; IvyWise is there for all four. A counselor might advise a high school freshman with an interest in science to reach out about working in a research lab; a sophomore could be encouraged to take advanced algebra after school if she’s not challenged in her classes.
Cohen insists her counselors are only empowering students to, as she puts it, be authentic to their core interests. “It’s about helping them understand their passions,” she says. “It’s not about taking students and molding them into someone they’re not.”
But the prodding can feel overbearing. When I spoke with Emad Al-Zaben’s daughter Maya, she was like a lot of high school juniors, someone without a strong sense of what she’d like to do after college. Unfortunately, by 11th grade a compelling narrative is what attracts an admissions officer’s attention. So what for Maya had been a passing interest—she had briefly considered joining the model UN team—was repackaged as “a passion for human rights.”
This sort of enhancement makes experts suspicious of the IvyWise approach. “I understand why parents might look to outsource their child’s motivation to a private counselor,” says Jeffrey Brenzel, Yale’s dean of admissions from 2005 through 2013. “The trouble comes later, when such students come to feel they’re fakes.”
John Katzman, a founder of the Princeton Review, bristles at this. “People think you have a passion and then you do something a lot. But it’s the opposite: You do something a lot and it develops into a passion.”
When I first spoke with Maya’s brother Faisal, he seemed to lack his father’s enthusiasm for IvyWise; he felt it was “a little unnecessary.” But as he put the final touches on nearly 20 applications, with a handful of moot interviews and a successful summer biotech internship under his belt, he felt differently. He was “miles ahead of everyone else at school” and thankful that while “other kids are freaking out, I can be focused on my schoolwork.”
Now a biology major at UC Berkeley, he also feels that his father’s investment continues to pay dividends. As he applies for summer internships, he realizes the world of higher education is an ongoing treadmill of applications and personal essays, and the “summer he spent with Dr. Kat” was when he “built those skills.”
Faisal was referring not to excellence in scholarship or character but to the skill of self-narrative. And in this, the art of self-packaging, self-marketing—and sometimes even admissions-driven self-formation—Ivy Wise and its counterparts are expert indeed.
This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Town & Country.