By Susan Berfield and Anne Tergesen As I listened to my 8th period English teacher drone on for the third time about how Finny, a character in A Separate Peace, was indeed the main character although he was not the narrator, it finally dawned on me that this was not the exciting world of high school that I had hoped for.
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This is how Andrew Garza began an essay in his application to Haverford College. It was a 1,200-word piece that established him as an intellectually curious young man. It was crafted to appeal specifically to the admissions officers at the small liberal arts school. And it was the idea of his high-priced college admissions coach, Michele A. Hernandez. Garza attended a private school in Switzerland, and that worried Hernandez: She thought he might appear to be a privileged teenager without much substance. So she advised him to write about why he had left his public high school in suburban New Jersey. "We had to make it seem like he didn't want to be around so many rich kids. We spun a whole story about him taking the initiative to leave in order to broaden his experience," Hernandez says. "It was his initiative. But he wouldn't have written about it."
Today Andrew is a senior at Haverford, studying sociology and economics. His father, John, paid Hernandez $18,000 for 18 months' worth of advice. "It is a lot of money," says Garza, a manager at Abitibi-Consolidated (ABY) in New York. "But if you look at it as an investment, it's not a bad one."
A DIVISIVE FIGURE
Hernandez may well be the most expensive college coach in America, charging as much as $40,000 to get a student into an elite college. As one of this fast-growing industry's most visible practitioners, she uses methods that are publicly scorned by rivals but are nonetheless becoming part of the profession's standard operating procedures. She is a divisive figure in an already controversial field, regularly drawing condemnation from admissions officers who say she is selling advantage (BusinessWeek, 10/24/07) to people who least need it.
If the notoriety sometimes bothers her, Hernandez is not about to let on. To her critics, she says: "I'd be an idiot to charge half of what I can. Parents can always hire a lesser person." That might sound arrogant, but she is clearly proud of turning her one-woman operation, Hernandez College Consulting, into what amounts to a luxury brand. Her clients, mostly people of some means and great ambition, rave about the personal service: the regular phone calls to their kids (you have to go above and beyond); the academic help (read the book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form); the "brand" positioning (classics would be a great angle); the advice about which colleges to consider and where not to bother; the hours she devotes to each application.
Despite being asked to pay fees that are as much as 10 times higher than average, these well-intentioned, well-heeled parents keep calling. And calling. Since she started seven years ago, Hernandez, who is 40, says she has worked with some 150 students, 95% of whom, she claims, were accepted at their first choice of college. She hints that among them have been the progeny of chief executives, financiers, billionaires.
Hiring help is not the privilege of only the wealthy, of course. According to the Independent Educational Consultants Assn., 22% of first-year students at private colleges—perhaps as many as 58,000 kids—had worked with some kind of consultant.
THE INSIDE SCOOP
But few of the 4,000 independent college counselors now scattered around the country can match Hernandez' influence or earning power. Early on, she began offering college-admissions counseling for students in eighth grade—yes, eighth grade—an approach that is becoming more common. Since 2005, she has run application boot camps in Manhattan and Santa Monica, Calif., which this summer cost $9,500 and are sure to attract imitators. Hernandez says she earned almost $1 million last year. She drives a BMW convertible. And she just moved near Middlebury, Vt., where she and her husband own 117 acres on Snake Mountain.
What makes her own story so compelling is that Hernandez is an insider-turned-outcast. A former admissions officer at Dartmouth College, she dared to reveal secrets of the opaque selection process in her book, A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges, and then to build a thriving business that helps people game the system. As she says to parents: "You don't want to pay $180,000 for some piddling school when, by spending a little extra, your kid could get into Yale." She insinuates herself so deeply into her students' lives and is so unabashed about her money-making that she has come to be regarded either as operating at the leading edge of her profession or its cynical extreme.
Hernandez had been out of college for four years when she returned to her alma mater, Dartmouth, as an assistant director of admissions in 1993. It was a job of convenience (she had married a professor there, Jorge Hernandez) and one for which she was eminently qualified but temperamentally unsuited.
Hernandez speaks twice as fast as most people, reads as if it were a competitive sport, and is forceful, opinionated, and stubborn. These traits were not always appreciated by her colleagues. At one point, the dean of admissions, Karl Furstenberg, reprimanded her for not being more deliberate in her evaluations. Hernandez had been a valedictorian of her high school in Armonk, N.Y., graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college, earned a master's degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University, and was exasperated by the criticism. She still is. "I thought he should bow in my direction for working so hard."
Hernandez began keeping a journal, chronicling what she regarded as the essential workings of the selection process. It wasn't revenge or ambition, she says, that motivated her to turn her notes into a book, though later she would be accused of both. It was indignation: She believed Ivy League schools weren't being truthful about how they reviewed students' applications. "We were forced to misrepresent things," she says. "Parents kept asking if there was an equation we used. There was." Privately, the schools referred to it as the Academic Index, a formula based on test scores and academic standing used to rank applicants. "It was the secret everyone in admissions knew," Hernandez recalls. "But we couldn't tell parents that. It bothered me."
The promise of the first inside account of what seemed to be an unpredictable process, along with expert advice about how students can distinguish themselves in their applications, was irresistible to publishers. After a bidding war, Hernandez received a $450,000 advance from Warner Books. One condition of her contract was that she tell no one about the book, not even at Dartmouth where she was still employed. "I felt bad for Karl because I knew the book would get a lot of attention, and it would look bad for him," says Hernandez. "But I was very complimentary toward Dartmouth."
While she was working on the book, her husband was denied tenure, an event that has come to confuse the circumstances of her eventual departure from Dartmouth in May, 1997. Five months later, A Is for Admission was published. "This book is not aimed at guaranteeing admission to an Ivy League school," she wrote in the introduction. "However, it will teach you how to maximize your chances and show you how to present yourself in the best possible light." At the time, Furstenberg told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the book was a betrayal of trust: "It offers only a glib, superficial look at college admissions. It plays into some of the paranoia and anxiety that surround this process, and in that sense is a disservice." (Neither he nor anyone at Dartmouth would comment for this story.)
The book was a success and became Hernandez' most effective advertisement when she went into college consulting full-time in 2000. It gave her name recognition—so much so that even after her divorce in 2001 from Jorge she continued to use his surname. And it helped establish her bona fides among parents, many of whom are inclined, as she is, to regard admission to the top schools as a high-stakes game that should be played using any advantage.
Those well-meaning, chronically striving parents were comfortable hiring expensive experts. Their eager-to-please kids were accustomed to being hovered over. The conditions were ideal for Hernandez. Already, a few high-priced, high-impact counselors had begun to assert themselves, not oblivious to the disapproval of educators but unconcerned all the same. Among them was Katherine Cohen, an Ivy League graduate once employed part-time by Yale to read applications, who had founded IvyWise in 1998. When Hernandez first heard about her, Cohen was asking $28,995 for her two-year platinum package. "I realized she was making a living doing this," Hernandez says. "I increased my price after that."
She would soon have a few more credentials that could help attract clients. She wrote two other books: The Middle School Years: Achieving the Best Education for Your Child, Grades 5-8 and Acing the College Application: How to Maximize Your Chances for Admission to the College of Your Choice. And she earned a quickie doctorate in education from Nova Southeastern University in Florida, where she had moved in 1998. About that degree she is candid: "It's kind of crappy compared to my other ones. But I figured it would be good to have. I am a doctor. It gives me some credibility."
Families pay Hernandez as much as they do because she promises not just substitute parenting but parenting in the extreme. She selects classes for students, reviews their homework, and prods them to make an impression on teachers. She checks on the students' grades, scores, rankings. She tells parents when to hire tutors and then makes sure the kids do the extra work. She vets their vacation schedules. She plans their summers. And through it all, she is always available to contend with the college angst that can consume whole families. Parents value her confidence; kids, mostly, appreciate her enthusiasm.
From the beginning, Hernandez pledged all that work would be invisible. Like her peers, she operates in stealth, mindful that if admissions officers find out a student was coached they will regard the application with suspicion. Hernandez rarely speaks with high school counselors. She never calls a college on a student's behalf. And she is especially careful not to leave any fingerprints on the application essays, even as she edits seven, eight, sometimes 10 drafts. "But I'm not afraid of admissions officers," she says. "If they could tell, how would I be so successful?"
Admissions officers, of course, have little respect for the work of Hernandez and other consultants. "I believe that most of the funds expended on independent counselors are simply wasted," Jeffrey Brenzel, the dean of admissions at Yale, wrote in an e-mail. "We do not believe they have much, if any, effect on who we accept."
Hernandez' apparent success depends, too, on how well she manages the expectations of the kids and their parents. She says nearly all of her students are accepted to the school they most want to attend. But in many cases, she strongly suggests which college would be a reasonable first choice. She calls that strategizing. First she writes a 12-to-18 page report for each new student, based on transcripts, test scores, and other accomplishments, that gives the likelihood of their gaining admission to the schools they are interested in. "I have written: 'You have 0% chance of getting into Harvard early decision. Don't apply,'" she says. "People pay for accuracy. I know exactly what it takes to get into Harvard." Her apparent candor serves another purpose, too: Such an assessment makes it unlikely that she will fail.
When she begins working with kids already in their junior year of high school, she is naturally a bit constrained in what she can advise after that initial evaluation. "At that age, they have what they have," she says. When John Garza contacted Hernandez in January, 2002, Andrew already knew he wanted to attend Haverford. Hernandez told him it would be a reach. Then she started suggesting ways he could fashion himself into a more attractive applicant.
Over the next year, as she does with most of her clients, she worked with him by e-mail and over the phone, occasionally in person. She helped him navigate the International Baccalaureate curriculum, advising him to sign up for classes that U.S. colleges would recognize as difficult. She directed his interests. "I helped in ways that would look good and let him be true to himself," she says. Early in his junior year, Andrew had become involved with Habitat for Humanity, though his contributions were modest. Hernandez talked to him about the importance of leadership: In his senior year, he served as president of the local chapter. She encouraged him to make a bigger impact: He helped raise $4,000 to build homes in Kyrgyzstan and Hungary by expanding the organization's sandwich-making business on campus.
Then she suggested he write his main application essay about something else altogether. "The Habitat for Humanity theme, the tug on your heartstrings, sounded too common," says Andrew. So he tried another topic that would reveal more about his intellectual enthusiasms: how running helped him understand the existentialist philosophy he was reading about. "She gave me specific suggestions about the essay to form one cogent image of who I am," says Andrew.
Crafting that singular, convincing portrait of the student is central to Hernandez' approach. She considers sentimental pursuits a distraction and those done out of obligation misguided. So it went with Ben Selznick, who started to work with Hernandez in the spring of 2002 when he was a junior. His father, David, a tax attorney in Armonk, N.Y., paid $16,500 for about a year's worth of advice. "We had a very motivated son who wanted to attend a top university," he says. "We wanted to give him every opportunity we could."
Ben was a talented drummer, and Hernandez told him to concentrate on his music. He recalls conversations about his schedule: "I was on the track team and she asked: 'Are you going to be a track star?' So I quit and got a job as a drum teacher at a local music school." She put the kibosh on plans to be a camp counselor, too; instead he spent several weeks that summer at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
During his senior year, Ben joined a couple of singing groups, took more music classes, and completed an independent study in composition. "A lot of it came from me realizing that music could be a good way to pitch myself," he says. At Hernandez' suggestion, he visited Dartmouth. It became his first choice. Hernandez then told him to apply early decision, which is binding. (Almost all of her clients apply early somewhere because the acceptance rate is higher than during regular admission.)
He applied as a music major. Ben had been uncertain about how to frame his main essay until Hernandez advised him to write about the experience of listening to his favorite piece of classical music, Wagner's Tannhäuser Overture, and its influence on his own creative process. Ben was accepted to Dartmouth. He graduated in May with a degree in religious studies and is now working as a paralegal at a law firm outside of Boston.
Andrew and Ben were typical Hernandez clients: bright, eager, and just months away from applying to college. Before long, though, she began to promote her services for younger kids. Hiring Hernandez to work with 14-year-olds became a more tempting proposition for parents as they watched the acceptance rates at elite schools drop. By 2004 she was signing up a new eighth- or ninth-grade student almost every month. She had also moved to Portland, Ore., remarried, given birth to her second child, and begun calling herself "America's Premiere College Consultant."
FINDING THE 'SELLING POINT'
What sets Hernandez apart these days is the intensity with which she extends into adolescence the Brand Me imperative. Her approach with these students depends on sussing out and then encouraging their own inclinations. If someone says she likes photography, Hernandez might suggest she take photos of the homeless, then mount an exhibit as a way to raise money. "A kid wouldn't come up with that idea on their own," she says. "They don't know what colleges are looking for." Hernandez advised a student working on a nanotechnology project to e-mail famous scientists and compile the exchanges into a book. "If you did that, I guarantee you'd get into any school," she said to the girl. To another student who enjoys studying Latin, Hernandez suggested learning Greek over the summer, too: "It's a great selling point." When a ninth-grade boy said he might be interested in his school's tech club, she told him: "You can take it over and take it in a new direction."
Today, Hernandez has 80 clients. And yet, unlike Cohen of IvyWise, who now has a staff of 15 providing help with applications for nursery school on up, Hernandez is still on her own, answering every phone call, sending every e-mail. She doesn't want to manage employees and, in any case, doesn't believe her knowledge can be transferred or replicated. That, of course, places a natural limit on her business. In 2005 she hadn't yet reached it but was close enough that she began looking for other ways to expand her operation. She soon came up with an idea that would again be derided by educators and embraced by parents.
Hernandez and Mimi Doe, a parenting expert with whom she had just written the book, Don't Worry, You'll Get In: 100 Winning Tips for Stress-Free College Admissions, announced their first application boot camp. It was a $7,800, four-day summer program for students about to enter their senior year. Doe and Hernandez promised they would leave with completed applications and a strategy for where to seek admission.
All 15 spaces for the New York seminar, held at the luxury Kitano hotel, were snapped up in weeks. In the summers of 2006 and 2007, Hernandez and Doe raised the price, first to $8,200 and then to $9,500, and still filled one session in Manhattan and another at the Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica. Next year they may hire others to help edit the essays so they can open the program to more students. They will charge $12,500.
But is it worth it? There is no way to verify her claims. Even Andrew and Ben, who respect her expertise and dedication, express some ambivalence. "I would like to think that I would have gotten in anyway," says Andrew. "But the reality is, you never know. I think Michele eliminated the risk that I wouldn't get in." Ben, mulling over his college experience in the months after graduation, puts it this way: "I'm thankful to Michele. I didn't think she was indispensable, though. Could I have done it myself? Maybe. Could I have gone somewhere else and been happy? Yes."
Certainly, plenty of kids delight in the opportunities consultants like Hernandez make available to them. Many thrive under high expectations; others aren't undone by the sacrifices called for. Ben, for example, has no regrets about following Hernandez' advice, even if it meant giving up the camaraderie of the track team and summer camp. Andrew's experience led to a job with Habitat in Mexico for one year before he began Haverford. And during college vacations, he worked with microlending programs in Latin America.
But, in general, the intense pressure to succeed is a big reason the incidence of anxiety, depression, and drug use is as high among children of the affluent as it is among children of the inner city, according to Columbia University psychologist Suniya S. Luthar. "Young people perceive that their whole lives are building to this moment of applications, rejections, acceptances. They see it as either you make it or you are doomed to a second-class existence," she says. Even those who do get into top schools may suffer the consequences of their success. Barry Schwartz, a psychology professor at Swarthmore College, says: "Those who excel enough to get into Harvard or Stanford are likely to be less inspired students once that goal has been achieved."
Set aside for the moment the concerns of the affluent, though. There is another fear about expensive counselors such as Hernandez: that they help distort an educational system that can already leave the less privileged at a disadvantage. As Ben says, "It's so not a level playing field to start with, and then you go beyond. I just told friends it was my dad's idea to hire her."
Hernandez, meanwhile, is finding new ways to extend her brand. She and Doe have created a virtual boot camp ($2,999). They have put together a 60-page book, Set Yourself Apart: The Ultimate Guide to Top High School Summer Programs ($189). They have a partnership with two SAT tutors who on Hernandez' Web site offer five hours of help over the phone ($1,600). And Hernandez and Doe are hoping to link up with a travel consultant, someone who could plan family trips to visit colleges. "That will be like Ralph Lauren's Purple Label," Hernandez says. "It won't be for everybody."
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Berfield and Tergesen are associate editors at BusinessWeek