In order to enhance their chances of achieving glory (it goes without saying that their kids' SATs and GPAs are already in the steroid-enhanced range), families are chasing their dream by employing that most American of strategies for success -- marketing.
"I hear families use the word packaging," says the mother of a senior at one of the city's most competitive girls' schools. " 'We're packaging our daughter.' The hair stands up on the back of your neck. They made an investment, and they want a return."
That's where Katherine Cohen comes in -- though she denies that she regards her clients as product she's trying to move off the grocer's shelf and into the shopping cart of Princeton's dean of admissions. "What I call it is making sure their authentic voice comes through in the essays and the interviews," she says. "It depends on how you define packaging. You're trying to represent yourself as a student on your best day."
Dr. Cohen -- her title deriving from a degree not in medicine, the law, or even education but in Latin American literature -- typically starts seeing clients in eleventh grade, though she has students as young as eighth grade, and this year she had one seventh-grader. "You've got some neurotic parents out there," she explains.
At her first meeting with the client, the only one parents are allowed to attend, she's less interested in hearing about the family's Harvard pipe dreams -- lowering expectations may be the toughest part of her job -- than in discovering what, if anything, engages the child academically, artistically, or socially that can be transformed into something resembling a consuming passion.
"You join the school team," she says by way of jock example. "Maybe you start a sports column or become the sports editor. Maybe in the summer you get an internship at ESPN or with a sports agent.
"Manhattan families are among the most parochial in the U.S. They think, 'Because my daughter is doing well at Brearley, she must be one of the very top kids.' It is simply more competitive."
"The most selective schools are not looking for well-rounded students," she goes on. "They're looking for well-rounded student bodies. Do a few things that you love to do, spend time on them, be committed, do them for four years."
Cohen believes she broke the college-admissions code when she worked for Yale's admissions office as an application reader while studying at the university for her Ph.D. "You think it's such a mystery, but all of a sudden it becomes less mysterious," she remembers. "I understood why they let this guy in over this guy."
The quality the top colleges read between the lines for, the adviser claims, is also the one most susceptible to the conjurer's art -- character. "Eighty percent of the applicants are academically qualified," Cohen says. "So the question becomes, 'Who is the person? Who are we admitting?' "
Cohen tries to answer the question as proactively as possible by helping her kids pick their courses and extracurriculars, not to mention the subject of their personal essay, so that their desire when they grow up to, say, be Martin Scorsese or cure Third World hunger or even run the family's hedge fund seems to be a matter of predestination more than one of adolescent hubris.
If nothing else, all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed and the personal essay free of spelling mistakes -- Cohen insists she doesn't write her students' essays for them -- before they're submitted to passport control in Cambridge, New Haven, or Providence.
"You can't just wing an application and get in; you might have been able to do that twenty years ago if you had the grades and the scores," she says, thinking in particular of the lackadaisical Princeton legacy she got accepted to his dad's alma mater a week after he'd been wait-listed -- a feat roughly equivalent to resurrecting the dead.
"I went though the application and said, 'Here are the 25 red flags that need to be explained,' " she remembers. "I said, 'I want you to get your six-foot-eight-inch frame' " -- he was a basketball player but apparently not a very good one ("Princeton does look for scholar-athletes," Cohen says) -- " 'into the admissions office explaining all the red flags I saw on the application.' He needed to go in there physically. They called him two days later and accepted him."
"She made me realize it's not all about grades," says Nina Lisandrello, a pro bono client of Cohen's who believes she wouldn't have gotten into Tisch's film school last year without the counselor's help. "She said, 'You don't have great grades? Fine. We'll do this portfolio. This is what's going to make you stand out."
Cohen favors personal essays that feature painful self-revelation over exotic locales. Brandon Gross says he probably wouldn't have written about his peripatetic high-school career were it not for Cohen's urging. "I went to three high schools -- Brentwood, Phillips Exeter, and Crossroads," he explains. "I just couldn't deal with the L.A. scene. I knew there had to be more out there. She knew from being an admissions officer once that I had to address that."
Nina Lisandrello was raised by a single mother. "I had a lot more responsibility than the average child," she says, sitting at a Starbucks around the corner from NYU on a recent afternoon. "I never really thought of it as a big deal until Katherine made me realize it was and that it was important for colleges to know exactly where I was coming from."
Cohen believes that the growing movement to eliminate the SAT only works to her company's advantage. "If they're not using SATs to evaluate a student, they're going to be looking at everything else -- how you spent time over the summer, your essays," she says. "It's going to be less of a numbers game and more emphasis on everything else that makes them who they are as a student."