Taking the SATs for the first time -- or even the third time, as many driven teenagers in search of the perfect 1,600 do these days -- can constitute something akin to a near-death experience. But for Anna, a senior at one of the city's top private schools, it was even worse than that.
"Everything completely went wrong that day," says Susan, Anna's mom, who has been involved, perhaps too involved, in her daughter's quest to gain admission to a brand-name college. "It was a disaster, a horrible situation."
The proctor didn't show up until minutes before the 9 a.m. start of the test, Susan says, interrupted Anna during the exam to register her, shortchanged her time on several sections (Anna knows this because she was wearing a stopwatch at the suggestion of one of her SAT tutors), and denied the teenager an entirely permissible bathroom break. Furthermore, a street festival was getting under way outside the testing center that fateful Saturday morning, further adding to Anna's woes.
"When the test was over, she was hysterical, crying," recalls her mother. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. They study, we pay for tutors, they're nervous wrecks."
While Susan may have overreacted somewhat -- she shot off a five-page, single-spaced, handwritten letter to the Educational Testing Service, called the organization's president, and thought of suing ("I could have had the proctor on trial," she explains, "but my husband refused to let me do it") -- she had reason to be upset.
Beyond the $20,000-plus a year she spends on Anna's tuition, she has invested thousands more on separate math and verbal SAT tutors -- "I believe in specialists," Susan pronounces, sitting in the library of her sun-splashed Park Avenue apartment on a recent morning. However, the priciest member of her daughter's college-admissions swat team undoubtedly is Dr. Katherine Cohen, the founder of IvyWise, a college-consulting firm, and possibly New York's youngest, probably its most handsomely compensated, and without a doubt its hippest independent college-guidance counselor.
"Katherine is very cool," Anna attests. "She's got great fashion sense. Her apartment is really cool. She started her own business. She cares about her clients. And she looks great in a bikini."
"Guys lust after her and the girls want to be like her," observes John Katzman, the head of Princeton Review and a friend of Cohen's. "The kids don't see a straight line between where they are right now and older academic guys," he adds. "It's easier to see the straight line to Kat. She's only a couple of years older and much less parental."
Brandon Gross, a former client of Cohen's and a sophomore at Brown University, denies that his interest in his tutor extended beyond having her help him craft a crack personal essay, though he admits she caused quite a stir at his birthday party. "My friends couldn't believe she was my college counselor," he says.
Kat, as her awestruck proteges call her, is part of a prosperous new breed of private counselors who are helping the children of the rich attain their birthright of getting accepted to the Ivy League college of their choice despite the ever-mounting odds against them. Cohen's "platinum package," which includes 24 sessions and an hour of phone time per week, typically spread over junior and senior year, costs $28,995. "I sold out already," she tells me, referring to next year's crop of high-school seniors. "Everybody wanted a platinum package this year. I've got to clone myself."
That's not to say that worthy families need fear attacking the psychologically traumatizing college-application season alone or, God forbid, exclusively under the direction of their kid's sleep-deprived in-school guidance counselor. Cohen, who, at 33, has the sort of academic credentials (Brown and Yale), kick-ass work ethic, and nicely toned physique that inspire confidence in the overdecorated sanctum sanctorums of the Upper East Side, has several lesser payment plans still available.
"You can also do an a la carte series if you can't afford a whole package," she says as she sits in her elegantly utilitarian midtown office (she also has one downtown), whose paintings and fabrics are by junior socialite and Cohen friend Lulu de Kwiatkowski. Cohen is referring to her warp-speed college-application-review option. "It takes me about two or three hours, and it's $1,000."
Getting into one of the nation's most selective Ivy League colleges or their equivalent has always been something of a blood sport among ambitious Manhattan families, most of whom apply to the same handful of schools. What's different today is that kids from places like Albuquerque and Tucson, with the encouragement of the colleges, no less, have the temerity to believe they have equal rights to an Ivy League education.
"I'm afraid Manhattan parents are among the most parochial in the United States," sighs Tom Parker, Amherst College's dean of admissions. "It's like a little town in Tennessee in terms of being oblivious to the rest of the country. They sort of think, 'Because my daughter is doing well at Brearley, she must be one of the very top kids in the U.S.' There are lots of bright kids throughout the country. It is simply more competitive."
So competitive, in fact, that last year a Yale admissions officer, by all accounts a winning fellow, told one West Side family that the college could have tossed all its acceptances in the trash and culled a statistically identical and stellar freshman class from the reject pile.
It's as if the schools were being asked to choose between Superman and Batman. A Horace Mann senior who got into Harvard early-action this year touched upon the absurdity of the situation when she tried to describe the difference between a Yale man or woman and one who might make the cut at Harvard.
"The Yale type is very well rounded -- an A student who's a varsity athlete," she said. "A Harvard student is someone Harvard thinks is going to be famous someday."
Harvard's director of admissions, Marlyn McGrath Lewis, admits as much. "In order to make a final decision to admit," she says, "we have to identify for ourselves some unusual characteristic that will set the candidate apart in our pool -- either a very unusual academic accomplishment, a contribution to the humanities or writing, a great performer or composer, or someone who can help one of our 41 intercollegiate teams. Once we're as sure as we can be of the academics -- which highly developed, one might say overdeveloped, talents set the person apart as someone we'd want to bring here?"