Paying for Help to Get Into Ivies

Columbia Spectator

By Lydia DePillis, Spectator Staff Writer
April 03, 2006

The headquarters of the consulting company IvyWise, located in a tower next door to Carnegie Hall, seems at first as inaccessible as the colleges to which it promises admission. But upon entering the big, open office, one is put immediately at ease: it feels like a neatnik’s dorm room, decorated with cushy rugs, shelves of college guides, and color-coordinated accessories.

Ranging in cost from $1,000 for an initial consultation to $30,000 for the full treatment, IvyWise’s services include comprehensive, one-on-one help with everything from essays to extracurricular activities. However, counselor Jaclyn Shapiro-herself a graduate of Northwestern-says that her job is to let the student make the decisions.

“It’s important in this process that they feel like they’re the ones that got them in to college, not that someone else did it for them,” said Shapiro, sitting on one of the office’s comfortable couches. “The worst thing that you could do is undermine that process for them.”

IvyWise is part of a growing field that has risen as admissions rates have plunged. According to college counselor Keith Berman, a doctoral student at Harvard researching the effect of the new SAT on elite college admissions, says the industry started spreading out from the New York area several years ago, and that now a full 25 percent of applicants to selective schools seek help outside their high school counselors.

“In this part of the country, the competition is very, very real,” said Berman. “People should seek out help. It’s not just better for their chances, it’s better for their children.”

What drives a family to pony up the cost of a semester’s tuition for the extra edge that might get their child into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale? Sometimes they want help minimizing the effect of a blemish on their record, such as a bad semester or a disciplinary problem. A counselor can also help preserve family harmony during the stressful process, saving parents the strain of nagging their kids about deadlines and research. But very often, they find that the counseling available through public high schools-where 400-person caseloads are not uncommon and counselors must deal with personal issues and academics on top of college admissions-just doesn’t hack it.

Private school students, on the other hand, often enjoy the advantage of well-staffed college admissions offices, whose counselors regularly tour colleges all over the country and have built up relationships with admissions officers. Rob Koppert, director of college counseling at the Dalton School on East 89th Street, says that extra help can get out of hand.

“College counseling tends to take on a life of its own in becoming the primary criterion in a student’s decision,” said Koppert. “It just makes it all about getting into college rather than trying to expand and enrich their lives.”

Certainly, every independent counseling service differs slightly in its approach. While Berman emphasizes the importance of the process to the growth of the student and hates the idea of “marketing” an applicant, others are happy to sell their clients by doing a large chunk of the work for them.

“With all the things that they have to do, they don’t need to be typing out applications. … If it didn’t have to be typed, then Mommy and Daddy would write it out for them,” Bev Taylor, a Boston-based private admissions counsellor who calls herself the Ivy Coach, said.

Taylor, who has worked as a counsellor for 16 years, puts all of her clients’ applications together and sends them to the students for signatures. “It’s such a game,” she said.

She speaks with pride of all the high school seniors whom she has launched into the starry firmament of American higher education-including one student who she called the grandson of the president of Abu Dhabi, even though Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is not actually a country and does not have a president. Although she says that eighth grade is a good time to start the counseling process, she has had requests from parents of kids as young as kindergarteners.

“I thought that was a little bizarre,” said Taylor.

Although their services are beyond the reach of anyone outside the very rich, many counselors also offer free help to those who can’t afford it. According to IvyWise’s Shapiro, fully one-third of the agency’s clients pay nothing. Berman believes that the field is “very aware” of the social-justice implications of elite college counseling, and she wishes that the inside information he peddles could be made available to all.

“Ultimately, I hope the field will change so that colleges will be more forthcoming about how they make these decisions,” said Berman. “The students who don’t have access to counseling services are the ones who suffer.”