Confessions of a College Essay Coach

Twenty-two years ago, when my older son was getting ready to apply to college, I realized that there was no one in his high school who had the expertise to guide him through a particularly difficult part of the process: writing the college admissions essay. We lived in a small, rural community and, as well-meaning as the English faculty and the advising staff were at the high school, very few students were looking to go on to the most selective colleges. As a writer, I quickly realized that the best approach to the Common App essay, which was essentially a life review exercise, was to craft a strong narrative, as the narrative form is designed to capture the attention of a reader or listener. I guided my son in that direction, he got into the school of his choice, and soon I was helping other students in the community, and then the children of friends, and then I compiled my theories and turned them into a book, Conquering the College Admissions Essay in Ten Steps, published in 2008. Over the last ten years, I have worked professionally with many hundreds of students, guiding them through the difficult assignment of writing about themselves, just as I guided my son.

The newly-exposed machinations of the college counselors, coaches, and “Desperate Parents” that figure in the college admissions scandal has surely made anyone who works in this area, as I do, reflect on the ethical pitfalls of what we do. As a society, we would like to think that we live in a meritocracy, but we know that we do not. There is nothing meritocratic about inheriting wealth—and the Brookings Institute reports that an estimated 35 to 45 percent of wealth is inherited rather than self-made. Regarding legacy, those students who are designated as such made up around 14 percent of the undergraduate population at Harvard in 2018. Nothing meritocratic about that either.

The current college admissions scandal is shocking. To see privileged people seeking to accumulate more and more privilege is a sobering spectacle indeed. Of course, we see such behavior in all quarters of our lives. I recall my late mother, then 90 years old, reporting to me with great excitement that she had been to a dentist with “a beautiful waterfall” in his waiting room who had presented her with a comprehensive plan for a whole new set of crowns. In my mind, it is a fairly short step from a dentist who pushes expensive treatments on a nonagenarian to a coach who accepts bribes.

When I begin working with students, I start by laying out the ground rules. I don’t write for students, I explain. The writing must be theirs, I tell them. I am old; they are young. The point is to capture their authentic voice so that they can feel a sense of ownership around their work. I edit their writing, as an editor edits my writing, and we engage in a rewarding collaborative relationship, focused on bringing their work to a place of true excellence. I am gratified to see that students, when they understand the degree of attention that a piece of writing demands, will often stay at it, molding the piece and refining it without my prodding them to do so.

Our time together becomes deeply intimate, and students might tell me things they have never told anyone else. In the few weeks during which we connect, remotely, I hear about their desires, their fears, their disappointments, their triumphs over adversity, their pursuit of the American dream—and I help them gave shape to all that. I charge a significant amount of money for what I do, based on the expertise I offer and on the time spent, but I don’t look to charge more than that formula warrants. Essentially, I deal with the ethical pitfalls that pock this field by wanting less. And when students and their families talk to me with such longing about Ivy League schools, I counsel them to want less—or at least to want different. Having spent another phase of my career writing recruitment and development materials for many different colleges and universities, I tell my clients that there are many great schools out there where they can find what they are looking for. Consider Tim Cook. He got his bachelor’s degree at Auburn University, and he seems to be doing just fine.

I also try to level the playing field by keeping a significant percentage of the slots I have—something around ten percent—for pro bono clients. Usually, these are students who possess the considerable moxie to cold-call me. I have found that to be a better way for me to achieve that pro bono threshold than reaching out directly to school systems, where my offer generally gets snagged in bureaucratic netting. I wonder if blue-chip educational consulting firms that go by names like IvyWise, Ivy Dean, and Ivy Coach follow that practice; I would hope they do.

One can see that this new college admissions scandal could serve as the “perfect crime” for the era we are living in—an era marked by unfettered wealth, rampant corruption, and deep cynicism. It is important to put this scandal in context, however, as just one more expression of the ethical corners that society cuts. As a practitioner in this ethically ambiguous arena, I keep these issues in my mind at all times, striving to conduct myself honorably and do no disservice to those who choose to work with me.