The academic transcript looked like a rap sheet. The 16-year-old had dropped out of boarding schools in England and California because of behavioral problems and had only two semesters left at a small school in Utah. Somehow, he had to raise his grade-point average above a C before applying to college. His confidence was shot, and though his parents didn’t openly discuss it, he knew they were crushed at the thought that he might not get into a reputable college. What the boy didn’t know was that back home in Hong Kong, where his dad is chief executive officer of a big publicly traded investment company, the family was calling in a miracle worker.
Through a friend, his father reached out to Steven Ma, founder of ThinkTank Learning, a chain of San Francisco Bay Area tutoring centers that operate out of strip malls. Like many in the field, Ma helps kids apply to college. Unlike his competitors, Ma guarantees that his students will get into a top school or their parents get their money back—provided the applicant achieves a certain GPA and other metrics. He also offers a standard college consulting package that doesn’t come with a guarantee; for a lower price, Ma’s centers provide after-school tutoring, test prep, college counseling, and extra class work in English, math, science, and history.
Ma, a former hedge fund analyst, makes bets on student admissions the way a trader plays the commodities markets. Using 12 variables from a student’s profile—from grades and test scores to extracurricular activities and immigration status—Ma’s software crunches the odds of admission to a range of top-shelf colleges. His proprietary algorithm assigns varying weights to different parameters, derived from his analysis of the successes and failures of thousands of students he’s coached over the years. Ma’s algorithm, for example, predicts that a U.S.-born high school senior with a 3.8 GPA, an SAT score of 2,000 (out of 2,400), moderate leadership credentials, and 800 hours of extracurricular activities, has a 20.4 percent chance of admission to New York University and a 28.1 percent shot at the University of Southern California. Those odds determine the fee ThinkTank charges that student for its guaranteed consulting package: $25,931 to apply to NYU and $18,826 for USC. “Of course we set limits on who we’ll guarantee,” says Ma. “We don’t want to make this a casino game.”
Some 10,000 students—sixth graders to junior-college grads—use ThinkTank’s services now, generating annual revenue of more than $18 million. Nearly all are Asian immigrants like Ma, 36, who moved to Northern California from Taiwan when he was 11. He reels them in at free seminars, held in Holiday Inn ballrooms on Saturday afternoons. The standing-room-only events, advertised in Bay Area Chinese media, include a raffle of free SAT prep classes and a pep talk for the college-obsessed. Ma reassures the bewildered, multigenerational audiences that top-ranked American universities aren’t nearly as capricious as they seem, once you know their formula. ThinkTank boasts that 85 percent of its applicants get into a top-40 college, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. “Our model knows more about how to get into many colleges than their own admissions officers know,” he says.
Ma also writes “custom contracts,” like the one he struck with the Hong Kong CEO for his wayward son in Utah. The father agreed to participate in this article, and authorized Ma to release their signed agreement, on the condition no family member was named. His son, he explains, doesn’t know how much he paid Ma; the dad worries the truth might hurt the boy’s self-esteem. He feels guilty that he didn’t spend more time with his son growing up. He was too busy running his business; hiring Ma, he says, was his compensation to his son. “They were desperate,” says Ma.
After signing an agreement in May 2012, the family wired Ma $700,000 over the next five months—before the boy had even applied to college. The contract set out incentives that would pay Ma as much as $1.1 million if the son got into the No. 1 school in U.S. News’ 2012 rankings. (Harvard and Princeton were tied at the time.) Ma would get nothing, however, if the boy achieved a 3.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score and still wasn’t accepted at a top-100 college. For admission to a school ranked 81 to 100, Ma would get to keep $300,000; schools ranked 51 to 80 would let Ma hang on to $400,000; and for a top-50 admission, Ma’s payoff started at $600,000, climbing $10,000 for every rung up the ladder to No. 1.
College admissions officers and other educators scoff at Ma’s guarantees; they say no one can predict acceptances to elite colleges because grades and scores are only one part of the highly subjective process. Ma counters that anything can be quantified. His algorithm runs so-called inference calculations using the profile data from thousands of ThinkTank students who’ve already racked up acceptances and rejections from top schools. “With enough data,” he says, “nothing is subjective.”
Since 2008 the number of independent college consultants in the U.S. has quadrupled to more than 8,000 full-time professionals, in addition to thousands more who moonlight from their day jobs as admissions officers or guidance counselors, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) in Fairfax, Va. The field is expanding to serve some 750,000 kids applying to college every year who are assisted by just one public high school counselor for an average of nearly 500 students. Other national chains such as Kumon and Kaplan compete in tutoring and test prep. Anxiety about the elite college race drives the industry. Admissions have grown brutally competitive, while also becoming increasingly unpredictable, says Mark Sklarow, IECA’s CEO. Harvard and Stanford accepted just 6 percent of applicants this year, while the University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley—the most coveted schools among Ma’s clientele—took 18 percent. Near-perfect grades and test scores no longer ensure admission. Intangibles matter just as much: passion, empathy, perseverance, commitment to attending a particular school.
“A good counselor helps students and families get comfortable with the world as it is, not how they wish it were,” says Sklarow. “It’s someone who says, ‘The world isn’t just the Ivies. Let’s find an even better match.’ ”
Tall and portly in his blue suit, Ma has soft features and a warm smile. He lives in Cupertino, not far from Apple’s global headquarters, with his wife and two kids. (He spends at least a week every month in China, where ThinkTank has offices in Beijing and Shenzhen.)
Silicon Valley is one of the most cutthroat places to be a kid today. Many immigrant parents push their kids toward top-ranked colleges, assuming the path to success in the U.S. is similar to what it is back home, says Richard Shaw, dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford University. He says this makes newcomers particularly receptive to Ma’s claim to have cracked the admissions code. “There are many, many people employed in Silicon Valley who have been educated in other countries, and formulaic approaches fit into their life experiences,” he says. Students in China and India take state entrance exams that determine their college options. “They don’t have much exposure to the concept of holistic admissions.”
Ma tiger-moms the whole kid. Beyond tutoring and test prep, ThinkTank employs about 30 college-admission consultants to help high school students enroll in advanced classes at community colleges, assist them in finding internships and volunteer groups, and even support parents struggling to disentangle their kids from video games. Come senior year, consultants brainstorm and edit essays to “strategically position” students’ voices and résumés. They also proofread applications, he says. “A good sculptor brings out the natural beauty of the stone,” Ma says.
ThinkTank’s center in Millbrae is located near the San Francisco airport in a commercial strip that’s also home to a psychic and the No. 9 Foot Spa. Inside, student photos line the reception area. Printed below each framed face is the kid’s name, SAT score, and the top-10 college she got into. Ivy League pennants and floor-to-ceiling posters showing ThinkTank’s admission results paper the hallways. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech hangs nearby.
On a warm June afternoon, chatty and relaxed kids and parents mingle. Aaron Sun, 15, drops in for an English language class. He moved from China to the U.S. in February, starting his freshman year in a big public high school. He had minimal English skills and even less of a clue about mock trials, the tango club, or In-N-Out Burger, where local kids hang out. His dad put down $40,000 for ThinkTank’s Guaranteed Total Solution Package. A wiry boy with spiky hair and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, Aaron gets access to ThinkTank’s full menu of consulting and academic offerings, and, as long as he meets the firm’s requirements for grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, is guaranteed admission to one of 130 top-ranked schools.
“The guarantee works like leverage,” says Aaron’s father, Xiaowei Sun, who owns a synthetic diamond company in Henan province and trades off with his wife living with their two kids in California. “Because they have the pressure, they’ll pay more attention to the kid.”
Aaron says his ThinkTank counselor has mapped out a three-year plan of language instruction, advanced placement classes, SAT bootcamp, and hundreds of hours of extracurricular activities such as the golf team and Best Buddies (a group that pairs kids with special-education students) to culminate in his college applications in late 2016. The counselor wanted him to work as a volunteer with a local company or nonprofit this summer, but Aaron, a smiley kid whose face grows ashen with terror whenever he speaks English, said he wasn’t ready. “Maybe next year,” he says.
Another kid, a rising sophomore, arrives for his first college-counseling session. His family has paid about $7,000 for a standard package with no admission guarantees. Now they’re considering upgrading to a guaranteed program. His report card is excellent, so his consultant, who declined to be named, shows him a list of extracurricular offerings he can pursue. He agrees to check out Best Buddies, the California Scholarship Federation, the Dragon Team (a Chinese culture group), and Team HBV, which raises awareness about hepatitis B. He likes biology and wants to go to Berkeley. She tells him the best schools are flooded with applicants with exalted grades and test scores, so the best way to stand out is to do things that demonstrate special talents and interests. She recommends escalating his outside activities: first-year biology club in school, second-year biology summer camp at a university, and third-year biology internship at a research lab. She promises to follow up by e-mail with specific program ideas.
Ma says a lot of his work is “life coaching”—pulling shy, immigrant kids out of their shells. He struggled in school after immigrating to Oakland in sixth grade, failing to flourish until a 10th-grade geometry teacher piqued his interest in math. Ma was accepted at Berkeley with a 2.9 GPA, but with enough extra credits from studying math, physics, and engineering at a community college to enter the university with upper-level standing. After a stint at a Houlihan Lokey hedge fund in Los Angeles, he followed a girlfriend north to Silicon Valley, borrowed $8,000 from an aunt and founded ThinkTank in 2002. In 2006, when some parents questioned the effectiveness of Ma’s college advice and essay editing, he came up with the money-back guarantee. “The least we can do is compensate our clients for their disappointment,” he says.
For big-ticket customers, Ma is a surrogate parent and best friend. He used predictions from his computer model to cajole the son of the Hong Kong executive, showing him he still had a shot at college if he lifted his GPA to 3.0. Ma flew to Utah twice to visit the boy at his new boarding school, got him tutors and test-prep help, and landed him a summer internship on a local political campaign in San Francisco. Still, the boy had serious doubts any of it would work.
Another student, Renzhi Yu, met Ma when Yu was 15, shortly after arriving from China with his family in 2006. They hung out at In-N-Out and Blondie’s Pizza, so Yu could learn about American teen life, and Ma showed Yu around his old haunts at Berkeley, including the LaConte Hall physics library and the “secret lawn” where Ma used to nap. Ma told Yu he had to become “well-rounded” to get into a good college, unlike in China, where the national exam is paramount. “I had to demonstrate outside interests and passions,” says Yu, now 23. After the 2008 earthquake in China, Ma encouraged Yu to help set up a library at a school in southern China for resettled kids, with old textbooks and a computer Yu brought over from the U.S. Yu wrote about the project in his college essays—“the most amazing experience of my life”—and described it in his admissions interviews.
He finished high school with a 3.7 GPA, a 32 ACT score (out of 36) and rejection letters from UCLA, Harvard, and Stanford. He was accepted at USC, went there, and loved it. Ma refunded $40,000 to Yu’s family for the rejections—they had paid extra to take a shot at a “reach” school—and kept $30,000 for the acceptance at USC. “About what we expected,” says Ma.
His current big bet, a kid named Alan, is the son of a Chinese energy executive. Ma takes father and son along to Bay Area charity events and does volunteer work with the boy to round out his résumé. Recently, Ma and Alan organized a mass screening for hepatitis B, including setting up blood-test booths at ThinkTank’s centers. The contract pays Ma a minimum of $90,000 should the boy strike out with all top-10 colleges, and $600,000 if he makes it into an Ivy or Stanford.
Ma says his biggest loss over the years was a $250,000 refund he sent back to the parents in China of a kid rejected by seven Ivies in 2011. “I way overshot,” he says. (Still, that girl ended up attending Cornell, which wasn’t among the eight colleges the family agreed to guarantee. “The mother wasn’t happy with Cornell, can you believe it?” Ma says.)
Cumulatively, Ma targets a 75 percent retention rate on his guaranteed contracts. Last year, he says, he kept 78 percent of the upfront fees paid by guaranteed clients. “More than that means we’re not taking enough risk; less means we’re not doing our jobs well,” Ma says.
The IECA doesn’t accept counselors who guarantee admission, says CEO Sklarow. “Anyone who makes a guarantee is a fraud and a huckster,” he says.
Shaw, Stanford’s dean of admissions, says it’s “ludicrous” to think Ma’s algorithm could reliably pick winners and losers. “Helping young people game the system is the wrong approach.”
Ma preys on immigrants who think going to an elite school is the only way to succeed in America, says Denise Pope, a senior lecturer in education at Stanford who runs a program in Silicon Valley high schools to demystify and take the stress out of the college process. “This commodification of fear is unfair to the parents, it’s unfair to the kids, and is deeply disturbing,” she says. “We know in the majority of cases that the undergraduate college you attend doesn’t play a significant role in your long-term prospects.”
Ma says he has data to prove ThinkTank works. The average GPA of his clients accepted to Berkeley in 2013 was 4.15, he says, while the average GPA of all accepted Berkeley students (as published by the school) was 4.18. Overall, 22 percent of ThinkTank’s applicants to Berkeley got in, compared with 17.3 percent of Berkeley applicants as a whole. The spread was bigger at other UC campuses: a difference of 6.3 percentage points at San Diego, 9.4 points at Davis, and 10.4 points at Irvine. At each school, ThinkTank’s acceptees had a lower average GPA than the accepted student pool as a whole.
When Ma opened ThinkTank’s Palo Alto center in 2011, it stirred a debate among locals. Chris Zaharias, an early Netscape employee and now founder and CEO of SearchQuant, says resentments were stoked by the immigrants’ academic success and their perceived detachment from the community. It’s usually the Asian parents who ask teachers for extra credit at back-to-school nights so their kids will have a better shot at earning an A, says Zaharias, who has two kids at Palo Alto High. When a local newspaper ran an article on ThinkTank, he posted comments calling its students “cheaters” and comparing the business to steroid use in sports.
“People from Hong Kong or China are buying houses here so their kids can go to our schools,” he says. “They’re creating an arms race, and ultimately you realize you shouldn’t participate because you’re not helping your kid. But it’s hard to resist.”
Ma understands his clients are ill-served by obsessing over college pedigree at the expense of how well a school fits a student’s needs. He says he tells parents to calm down; to let their kids explore activities and interests—and colleges—that genuinely suit them. But few listen, he says. Given the stress level, many kids are better off with ThinkTank overseeing the process than their parents, Ma says. “We help them get along.”
After college, Ma says many of his alumni go on to medical school and other graduate programs. Other former clients are at Goldman Sachs and Deloitte. Ma says he also sees many who graduate from college and are lost; for these kids, he’s considered starting a program to teach job and life skills.
Ma is now talking to potential investors about funding further development of ThinkTank’s software and expanding, eventually, into 200 cities nationwide. He’s also attempting to start a string of American-style high schools in China, costing between $5 million and $10 million each, with the first in Shenzhen. “If these people are coming to the U.S. to study anyway, we really have to get them right when they’re younger,” he says.
With more capital—ThinkTank’s current valuation to potential investors is $60 million—Ma hopes to buy hundreds of completed college applications from the students who submitted them, along with the schools’ responses, and beef up his algorithm for the top 50 U.S. colleges. With enough data, Ma plans to build an “optimizer” that will help students, perhaps via an online subscription, choose which classes and activities they should take. It might tell an aspiring Stanford applicant with several AP classes in his junior year that it’s time to focus on becoming president of the chess or technology club, for example.
He’s also trying to limit guaranteed deals to the $50,000 range—a price point that’s accessible to a mass market, unlike the big-ticket deals that require so much of his time as a personal mentor. Ma says he’s turned down a $1 million deal this year to guarantee Ivy admission for the son of a Chinese real estate developer and a $500,000 offer from a technology executive to mentor his son without any guarantees at all. The rich contracts, while lucrative, don’t provide a scalable business model, Ma says. He’d rather focus on becoming the go-to college-counseling service for public-school families frustrated with the advice they’re getting from guidance counselors. “That’s the wave of the future: Go to a public school, buy our guaranteed total solution package, and get all the tutoring, summer guidance, and college-application help you need,” Ma says. “Private-school counselors don’t know anywhere near what we know.”
For the troubled son of the Hong Kong CEO, Ma provided what the boy’s own father never did: his time, attention, and faith. “Steven was the only one who believed in me and told me I still had a chance,” the son says. This past academic year the freshman at Syracuse University—ranked No. 62 by U.S. News—earned a 3.8 GPA, “a total turnaround,” he says. For that, Ma kept $400,000.