Perhaps the most valuable lesson Cohen conveys to her impressionable young clients is that life isn't a beach (though IvyWise relocates for many weekends throughout the winter to the Breakers in Palm Beach, where Kat's grandmother has a home and several of her clients invariably vacation). Rather, it's a Rolodex.
The guidance counselor isn't above hitting up friends in high places for internships when a teenager's brag sheet could use a little fluffing. When Nina's Tisch application demanded greater evidence that she was a budding Fellini than the fact that she'd started her high school's film club, Kat scored her two internships -- one with Doug Liman, the director of such films as Swingers and Go, and a close friend of Kat's from Brown, and the other with Brett Ratner, the director of Rush Hour. "He went to Tisch, and he got me an interview with the dean to look at my portfolio," Nina says of Ratner.
Cohen also garnered an internship for another client, currently a freshman at Brown, when she ran into a television executive she knew in the lobby of the Breakers, introduced the kid, with whom she'd just finished one of her counseling sessions, and thrust his personal essay into the guy's hand.
"I happened to run into her purely by chance at the hotel," recalls the executive, who asked that his name not be revealed. "She said, 'This is one of my kids.' He was in a session and he had his essay out and I've always been fascinated by college essays, largely because mine was so bad. So I read this kid's essay and I thought, 'What an amazing achievement!' I remember quite vividly how he captured the phenomenon of this New York Jewish family driving to the SATs. It was very close to professional. I said, 'Okay.' This kid is going to run the world, and we brought him in and everybody loved having him."
While all this sounds wonderful, one must eventually ask the indelicate question of whether Cohen is worth her astronomical fees. Do her clients stand a better chance of getting into the first-, second-, or even third-choice college than they would if they signed up with one of her more modestly priced competitors or even decided to cast their fate with their school's overworked guidance counselor?
"There's an implicit assumption that she's offering you something you can't get elsewhere at a much cheaper price," contends Adam Robinson, the founder of RocketReview, an SAT-prep course, and Anna's third SAT tutor. He laughingly refers to himself as Anna's "script doctor."
"To me, the really sad thing," he goes on, "is that it feeds on the cynicism not just of parents but also of the students -- that they can buy their way into institutions."
Cohen claims that 75 percent of her students -- she has about twenty applying to college in any particular year -- got into their first-choice colleges in 2000 and that 82 percent got into one of their "reach" schools. "Meaning their profile was not as strong as the incoming middle 50 percent," she says.
Their acceptances included Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and USC, among others. However, this week, she's been pleasantly surprised by acceptances at schools such as Georgetown and Tufts. "Last year, in general, I had more motivated kids," she says, essentially conceding she's not much better than her raw material. "This year, it was much more common to get deferred. It's the most competitive it's ever been."
'It is very clear that there is an industry feeding off the insecurity of these folks," says Amherst's Tom Packer. "I know how good the counselors are at the Brearleys, Chapins, and Horace Manns. These people are as good as they get. To get a private counselor is a joke; it's preposterous. In the profession, we laugh at these things. This is cause for great merriment and hilarity for people who know the business."
Perhaps so. But there's also reason to believe the colleges feel that hired guns such as Cohen give wealthier applicants an unfair advantage. This year, for the first time, Duke University includes this question on its application: "Whose advice did you seek for help with your essay? Was he/she helpful? What help did he/she provide?"
"Sometimes we can tell if a student's presentation has been polished, and sometimes we can't," admits Christoph Guttentag, Duke's director of admissions. "It will be very interesting to see what our question elicits."
Chances are, not much. One mother says she was having dinner with some fellow junior-class parents last spring, the traditional opening bell to the steel-cage college-admissions contest, when another mom announced she'd heard that colleges were going to start asking questions similar to Duke's on their applications.
"I knew this family's daughter had been tutored very early, so I said to her, 'What do you think you do?' And she said, 'You lie.' I thought, 'There it is. You just can't behave well.' "
'God forbid you make any money doing this," Cohen responds with characteristic fire. "All these educators feel the more of a martyr you are, the better you are -- 'I made $40,000 last year.' 'Well, I only made $30,000.' An actor makes $20 million for a movie, but God forbid an educator or counselor makes what a lawyer makes.
"Can you buy your way into a meritocracy?" Cohen asks rhetorically, summing up the rising discontent over high-priced consultants such as herself at the National Association of College Admissions Counseling conference in Washington, D.C., last fall. Cohen attends every year, making herself known to the deans of admissions at her clients' favorite schools. This year, for the first time, she says, they've started returning her phone calls and listening to her pitch her students. "All these panel members are bemoaning the fact that it's not a level playing field. I said it's never going to be a level playing field."