Katherine Cohen, like most of her clients, appears to have enjoyed the benefits of a playing field tilted in her favor. She grew up in Brentwood; her father, an investment banker, started Bear Stearns's L.A. office, she says, and she attended the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School. Nonetheless, her college-guidance counselor tried to dissuade her from applying to Brown, her first choice.
"I was not the No. 1 student in my class," she remembers. "I had a 4.0, but other kids had higher GPAs than I did. She was really discouraging, and I said, 'Screw it. I'm going to do it on my own.'
"A lot of times, what happens with high-school counselors is they feel very invested in the top 10 percent," she continues. "And I think the middle of the class gets a little bit lost."
There's probably some truth to that. While all school-guidance counselors undoubtedly wish every one of their students well, their job security turns on getting the top of the class into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a smattering of other highly selective colleges. "The board of trustees is really involved in this very actively," contends Howard Greene, a veteran independent college adviser and former Princeton admissions officer who sits on several private-school boards. His latest book, written with his son Matthew Greene, is The Hidden Ivies: Thirty Colleges of Excellence (HarperCollins). "They want to know, 'Where are our kids applying these days? Why aren't there more prestigious names on the list? What are you doing about it?' The heads of schools are feeling a lot of pressure."
When Cohen's high-school guidance counselor gave her the brush-off, she decided to take matters into her own hands by signing up for the Princeton Review's first Los Angeles SAT-prep course. The year was 1984. "The first time I took them, I got 1,250," she recalls. "Then I took Princeton Review, and they went way up."
"These parents treat their kids like subordinates whose job is to get into Harvard. What a New York parent wants is to know that somebody is on the job and it will be fine."
When a family hires cohen, it's not getting any guarantee that its kid will get into the college of his, or rather his parents', choice. What the family is getting is someone to serve as a buffer between driven, type-A parents and their stressed-out children, someone who falls somewhere in the domestic hierarchy between the housekeeper and personal trainer on the one hand and the shrink and financial adviser on the other.
"You have these parents who are very business- and result-oriented," John Katzman observes. "In the same way they expect someone who works for them to work all night and close the deal, they approach their kids like a subordinate whose job is to get into Harvard. At any given moment when the kid is doing something off-strategy, like dating, the parent is all over them and saying, 'What haven't you done today to get the Harvard account?' What a New York parent wants is to know that somebody is on the job and it will be fine."
Susan agrees. "Don't think she's a sweetie pie," she says appreciatively of Cohen. "Katherine is a tough cookie. Some of the kids don't like her because she's so tough. She gets things done. The parent can always use 'Katherine says you have to get your application out. If you don't want to listen to me, listen to her. She's the one who's pushing this. She's the one who knows it has to be out early.' "
While Cohen claims she'll never get rich doing college counseling (she refers to it as a "calling"), she isn't quite ready to don ashes and sackcloth. She hopes to open an L.A. office next year. She's started IvyWise Kids with Nina Bauer, a Dalton School graduate, to help parents navigate the perilous shoals of pre-school and kindergarten admissions. There are plans to have an expert on boarding schools join the staff. And Cohen is hard at work on a "distance learning" Web product to provide the world beyond Wall Street the benefit of her wisdom. Company sales are in the $500,000 range and growing quickly, she says. And IvyWise baseball caps, bearing little messages on the back such as early decision, early action, and accepted, are available in a variety of colors.
"This is for me to reach the middle market," Cohen explains of the Web product. "It might be $200 for the whole kit. You might get e-mail time with an Ivy-college adviser."
The exercises may include mock college applications such as her platinum-package clientele are now given to evaluate. "It's great to put the student in the shoes" of a college-admissions officer, she explains. "Why is this guy with 1,500 SATs getting voted off the island?"
Susan awaits the results of her two-year college-admissions campaign on her daughter's behalf; she sounds almost mellow. She achieved that state of grace after suffering what she describes, not entirely in jest, as a "semi-nervous breakdown."
She was also encouraged by the words of a billionaire business mogul she knows socially. "The world," he told her, "is run by C students."
"Anna," Susan says serenely, "is going to be successful wherever she goes."