How To Get Holly Into Harvard

Bloomberg

By Liz Willen (excerpted)
September 2003

With more students than ever vying for admission to top U.S. colleges, parents seeking an edge are hiring private consultants who charge as much as $32,000.

Beverly Lenny, head of guidance services at Hunter College High School in Manhattan, says guidance counselors can do the same work as private consultants without the big price tag. “A lot of this is really just a high-pressured sales pitch the consultants are trying to rationalize,” says Lenny. “Very bright, motivated kids don’t need consultants.” Private consultant Katherine Cohen, 36, founder of Manhattan-based IvyWise LLC, counters that guidance counselors have time constraints and other demands that she and her fellow professionals do not. Cohen, whose two-year platinum package for juniors costs $32,995, gives advice on everything from tutors to finding internships and community service opportunities. “I’m the negotiator, the mediator, the big sister, the nagging parent,” she says. “A lot of my job on a daily basis is to alleviate anxiety.”

Cohen, a graduate of Brown University, has a doctorate in Latin American literature from Yale University, where she was hired to read and evaluate applications for admission. She began IvyWise in 1998 in her loft with a budget of $5,000. With Manolo Blahnik heels, fitted jeans and a penchant for bright colors, her chic and casual style stands out as much as her prices. “She’s like the movie star counselor instead of the old-school tweedy guy,” says John Katzman, chief executive officer and founder of New York–based Princeton Review Inc., which prepares students for college and graduate school admission tests. “The people who pick her respond to her because she’s younger, and they go to the same clubs as she does. But more important is her full-immersion approach; it’s not just about advising her students about schools.”

Cohen meets with parents only once, during an initial consultation in her turquoise-and-orange-accented Midtown office. With students, Cohen goes over essays, conducts videotaped mock interview sessions and even sets the weekend schedule, deciding which night students may go out and which work must be finished first. “The myth is, you can’t be a kid anymore,” says Cohen. “You can, but you have to be interesting and productive.” She tells students to stop attending summer camp after eighth grade unless they’ve become counselors, and she advises against teen tours to foreign countries that don’t involve total immersion in language and culture. “I want to make sure these students are stopping and taking every opportunity to make the most of their lives on a daily basis,” Cohen says. “I feel like I’m more of a life counselor.”

Cohen is hiring additional counselors and says she hopes to open offices in London and 20 U.S. cities in the years to come. Cohen says IvyWise has made a profit every year; she declined to provide details. Thirty-three percent of her practice is pro bono, she says, while 25 percent of her students come from outside the U.S. Upon request, Cohen takes clients on customized tours of college campuses for $4,000 a day; she recently returned from a four-day tour with an international student. Hourly rates are $500. “I have no apologies for what I charge,” she says. “I’m in the right industry at the right time, and my service is the best.”

Alfa Garcia, 17, who graduated from Bergenfield High School in New Jersey in June and who’s headed for New York University in September, recalls her first pro bono meeting with Cohen in her junior year. “She asked me for my credentials, and it put me in shock,” Garcia says. “I was really behind.”

Garcia hadn’t yet researched schools, planned her courses or put together what Cohen calls a brag sheet, listing her interests and accomplishments. “I started freaking out, but she was there every month, reminding me about the tests, the college visits, the letters,” says Garcia. “When I sent her my résumé and essays, she took a pen and wrote all over the place.” Cohen asked Garcia to elaborate in some areas of the documents, complained when she was too vague, asked her to do more research and pointed out errors and poor word choices throughout.