Inventing the Perfect College Applicant

For $120,000 a year, Christopher Rim promises to turn any student into Ivy bait.

At Colette Club, one of the members-only clubs in Manhattan where Christopher Rim sometimes meets with clients. Photo: Jeff Brown
At Colette Club, one of the members-only clubs in Manhattan where Christopher Rim sometimes meets with clients. Photo: Jeff Brown
At Colette Club, one of the members-only clubs in Manhattan where Christopher Rim sometimes meets with clients. Photo: Jeff Brown

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Christopher Rim makes himself hard to get to. First, there’s the email to register as a guest at the Aman Club, where members pay an initiation fee of $200,000 to perch themselves above the crowds on Fifth Avenue and where Rim sometimes holds his client meetings. Then there’s the check-in at the front desk to get access to the elevator, which leads to another reception area on the 14th floor. From there, a man in a suit guides me into the main room (fireplace, lots of couches, mostly empty), then through a door that blends into a wall, past a bar (one guy drinking water; it’s only noon), and up a narrow flight of stairs. It’s there that I meet Rim in a small room decorated with bottles of Macallan 18 and coffee-table books about art.

His look is quiet luxury, though everything about this meeting appears designed to scream money. On his wrist: a $55,000 Patek Philippe watch. On his back: a Loro Piana cashmere sweater. Rim tells me that sometimes he runs into his clients here and they pretend not to know him. But he can imagine what they’re thinking: What is the tutor doing at the same club where Bill Gates lunched when he was in town?

For the past nine years, Rim, 28, has been working as an “independent education consultant,” helping the one percent navigate the increasingly competitive college-admissions process — the current round of which ends in February. He started by editing college essays from his Yale dorm room for $50 an hour but now charges the parents of his company’s 190 clients — mostly private-school kids, many of them in New York — $120,000 a year to help them create a narrative he believes will appeal to college-admissions officers. That company, Command Education, currently has 41 full-time staffers, most of whom are recent graduates of top-tier colleges and universities. The pitch is crafted to appeal to the wealthy clients Rim courts: a “personalized, white glove” service, through which Command employees do everything from curating students’ extracurriculars to helping them land summer internships, craft essays, and manage their course loads with the single goal of getting them in.

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How’s a Rich Kid Supposed to Get Into College These Days?

“We are texting students, I think it’s like 15 minutes before their math class, to make sure they are turning in their homework,” says Rim, who in interviews is soft-spoken, polite, and confident, occasionally dropping into the demeanor of a start-up bro. Most clients start with Command in the ninth or tenth grade, but a small percentage begin in middle school.

Business is good. The Independent Educational Consultants Association estimates that up to 25,000 full- and part-time IECs will be working in the U.S. this year, and the market-research firm IBISWorld estimates it to be a $2.9 billion industry — up from $400 million just a decade ago. Most consultants charge in the ballpark of $4,000 to $7,500 for helping students with typical application prep, including making their college list and looking over their essays, but Rim operates in the uppermost echelon. In certain circles in Manhattan and Brooklyn, “everyone is charging six figures,” says a parent who hired Command for her teen. In a recent survey, one-third of Horace Mann high-schoolers copped to working with a private consultant, but multiple parents with kids in city private schools estimate that number to be much higher. Rim says he has a waiting list.

Rim’s promise — that he will give kids a road map to getting into one of their top-choice colleges — is particularly appealing in this moment as the conventional wisdom about who gets into selective colleges and why is changing, setting off confusion and anxiety for those who are used to their privilege giving them a VIP pass. Legacy admissions, which have always favored the rich, are under increased scrutiny; some universities have done away with them altogether. The threshold for a donation that might move the needle has reportedly reached $10 million. Pricey SAT and ACT courses and tutors are also less effective since many schools — even competitive ones — no longer require test scores.

There are lots of permutations to his clients’ parental anxiety, all of which seem soothed by throwing money at the problem. Many of Command’s charges go to elite private schools, but the stress isn’t exclusively theirs. Rim says parents who can afford private school but send their kids to one of the city’s top public schools instead feel a burden to prove they haven’t disadvantaged their child. “They tell me, ‘Oh, my friends think I’m such a bad mom because I’m not paying for private-school tuition,’ ” he says. Or worse, he adds, their social set thinks they can’t afford it. He says he sees the same thing with parents of kids at what he calls “second tier” private schools — which he’s diplomatic enough not to name.

And so to numb their nerves, they hire a consultant. Even as colleges and universities claim to be working toward fairer admissions, they don’t prohibit paying a third party to help with applications; most don’t even discourage the practice. So while consultants can be viewed as predatory, profiting from the anxieties of parents and their stressed-out offspring, they aren’t breaking any rules. In a survey of Harvard’s class of 2027, 23 percent of respondents said they had worked with a private college consultant. The gap widens once income is considered: About 30 percent of respondents from families earning half a million dollars or more per year hired a consultant, compared with just 6 to 7 percent of respondents from homes with incomes of $125,000 or less.

Rim says that over the past five years, 94 percent of Command clients have been accepted to one of their top-three schools, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Cornell, Brown, Stanford, and MIT — a statistic that appears in bold on the company’s website. It’s an impressive number and one that’s impossible to verify, leaving just enough cushion to give prospective clients confidence without making guarantees. (Although since Command helps clients pick their schools, those lists also reflect what their mentors think is within reach.) Many of Rim’s competitors post similar statistics, despite the IECA’s advice against making such claims.

Student success is also hard to verify because so few people who use a consultant are willing to talk about it. The Command website features three case studies, but when I ask Rim to put me in touch with any of these clients — their names and photos are right on the website, after all — he concedes they are stock images and fake names. He notes the disclaimer at the bottom of the web page, which in gray type over a gray background reads, “Some details have been changed to protect student privacy” (since that phone call, the disclaimer has been updated with more specifics), but says the stories behind them are real.

Some of the secrecy is due to parents’ not wanting to admit their child’s precociousness was coached, or perhaps they sense there’s something at least unbecoming and even ethically dubious about spending exorbitant amounts of money to boost their already privileged children’s chances of getting into an elite college.

The reticence, according to Rim, may also be owed to the consultants themselves being such a coveted resource. He told Bloomberg last year that a parent at Trinity School in Manhattan once offered him $1.5 million not to work with any other student in his kid’s class. (Rim says when he declined the offer, the parent joked that he should just buy the company from him.) He says clients often save his number in their phones under a fake name, and it’s common for them to have him sign an NDA. None would talk with their name attached for this article.

A Command client with a child at a well-known private school in the city says a weirdness kicks in among parents around the eighth grade, which is when she hired Command. “I have amazing friends that I’ve been there with for however many years,” she says. “But we’re not talking about what consultant we’re using, what summer programs the kids are going to do, anything. And I’m talking very close, like you vacation with these people and you’re friends with these people. There’s a shift that happens, and it’s very subtle. The conversation about camp becomes like, ‘What are they doing before and after?’ But no one really talks about the summer programs until summer is there because then it’s too late for other people to apply.”

Rim says his clients include big swingers in finance and the CEOs of “major, major, major household-name brands.” He says they try to incentivize him the same way they might try to motivate their employees: “They’re like, ‘If my kid does very well, Chris, I’m going to bring you 20 more students. I know everybody in the Chinese American community at Horace Mann. I know all the Indian American families at Stuyvesant. I will double your business, Chris.’ ‘Chris, once my kid gets in, you’re going to have to work even harder because I’m about to bring you 500 more students.’” He laughs. “I had a parent say that.”

Rim tells me that before he arrived at the Aman that day, he had been with a special client — one of the few he meets with in person now that his company has gone virtual. He says they paid him $10,000 for a 45-minute “download” about the latest trends in college admissions. It’s hard not to be skeptical of such an absurd number, and he offers it unprompted. Rim is a master self-promoter; I imagine he thinks it will get him more business. He may be right. One of his key talents is knowing how to spin a story. It’s what he did for himself and now what Command Education does for its clients.

Command offers tutoring, but the real selling point is its “mentors” — 20-somethings who earn $100,000 to $200,000 a year by being on call for their teenage mentees at all hours. (The base salary is $55,000 to $72,000, but Rim says mentors receive bonuses for getting clients into one of their top-choice schools as well as for retaining clients year after year.) There are no official requirements for working with a Command mentor, according to Ali Mantell, the company’s vice-president of enrollment. “We are not just choosing the valedictorian so that we can inflate our results,” she says. “But Command only takes on a small number of students from a particular school each year because we don’t want to compete with ourselves. We don’t want to necessarily work with students that have the same interests, similar GPA profile, all the same classes, applying to the same schools.”

Once parents sign a contract (“‘Our services are strictly advisory.’ We say that 100 times in the contract. It’s like you’re hiring McKinsey,” says Rim), there’s an initial consultation, and after that, a client typically meets with a mentor one hour a week over Zoom. “Then if we need to go to two, three, four hours a week, we need to have half-hour meetings two times a week, three times a week — we’re fully able and willing to do that,” says Gabe Cramer, who oversees the company’s mentors. Those mentors assign their clients weekly tasks, he explains, which can vary in intensity depending on how close that student is to the application process. Mentors are expected to be available to their clients from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day and a minimum of six additional hours a week outside that window.

Some meetings are “road map” sessions, in which a mentor and a client plot out the next few months — deciding what internships or awards to apply to, for example. Others sound almost like therapy. Cramer gives an example of coaching a student who isn’t connecting with a teacher in a particular class. He says when it comes to essays, “editing is a big part of it, but it starts even before then.” Mentors help their clients generate ideas: “We are talking to them about, ‘Hey, remember that opportunity that you had last summer, and you told me about this amazing conversation you had with your brother?’ Or, ‘You talked to me about the fact that you just had dinner with this person in local government and it helped you see something that you hadn’t seen before.’ ” If a student isn’t a strong writer, he says, sometimes they workshop the essays verbally. Mentors also prep clients for interviews: “We have some people on our team who have been interviewers for their respective universities, and we’ll often call them in to do mock interviews to ask the questions that are actually going to be asked of them.”

Mentors plot out a testing strategy. Some students take the SAT as early as their freshman year, says Rim, to get it out of the way. “I want 1560 or higher,” he says. (Rim declines to tell me his own score but says it was “not perfect.”) Even though some colleges are test optional, Rim says, “if you’re applying from any of these private schools here, you have to take it. Imagine you’re the only one who doesn’t take it and everyone else has.” Additionally, Command helps connect clients with professors at universities of interest to offer assistance with research projects; mentors edit the emails. (A cottage industry has developed of intermediaries who, for roughly $3,000 to $9,000, will put high-school students in touch with Ph.D. candidates or professors to pad their résumés. Rim says that Command does not pay for its clients’ research positions.)

The base of its formula is what Command calls the “passion project” — the specialty it helps students develop so they become what counselors call “pointy” kids rather than well-rounded ones. Rim and other college counselors push the message that being captain of the debate team, a varsity soccer goalie, and class president is the kind of gold star that isn’t that special. Schools, they say, are looking for highly specialized students who demonstrate a specific talent or passion. (The oft-repeated quote is that colleges don’t want well-rounded students so much as “a well-rounded class.”)

The theme of the passion project becomes what Cramer calls the “hook” that hangs their essays and lists of extracurriculars together. “You don’t have to play the violin, be the first chair in your state, and rescue the whales. You can just pick one and be so good at it that you want to dare the admissions officers not to accept you and that they will regret it,” says Rim. No matter what, “we will find the story.”

Rim insists Command mentors don’t fabricate a kid’s interests but merely draw them out. Here’s an example offered by Cramer, who says a lot of clients are interested in business or finance: “One of the things that we push them to do is try to understand, What about finance? What about business? What are you trying to do in the world? And if they say, ‘Yeah, I’ve traveled around with my family a lot, I see the natural beauty of the places I’ve been around,’ we start to show them, ‘Well, actually what it sounds like you’re maybe starting to talk about a little is this idea of investing in green technologies and trying to use private industry as a way to be more environmentally conscious, and we should be investing in emerging technologies.’ You don’t know any of this stuff as a 14- or 15-year-old, but you’re kind of talking about that.”

A Command client who is a senior at a private Manhattan high school and was recently admitted to an Ivy League school describes a similar process. She says her mentor helped her start a blog related to her desired major and edited her posts. “All my activities, the internship I did last summer, the blog, what I wrote about in my essays, it was all focused on that,” she says. “It really was what I was interested in and what I probably would have pursued anyway, but I wouldn’t have done so much focus on it if it wasn’t Command saying to me, ‘This is how you’re going to get into college: Make sure you let them know what you want to do.’ ” She says the blog is mostly stagnant now.

Mentors also serve as mediators between kids and their parents, helping students deliver news of a bad grade or navigate an argument. They coach students on starting their own businesses and nonprofits, too. Rim says one time a client of his appeared on Shark Tank and Command helped him perfect his pitch. Another decided her passion was makeup tutorials, and Rim’s team provided marketing and web design for her YouTube channel. “That’s not cheating,” he says. “She could go and hire someone from Fiverr” to do the same thing.

All this must be boiled down into a college application that typically includes a 650-word personal statement or a handful of 200-word Q&As, a high-school transcript, some recommendation letters, and test scores (maybe).

Rim didn’t discover the advantage of specializing: The high-school students who have found a place at the best colleges (without legacy admissions or their family name on a wing) are often the pointier kids, and there have long been people engineering that pointiness. Kat Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a Command competitor, has been at this game for more than 25 years. She tells me she once took a junior-varsity swimmer with an interest in engineering and turned him into a mini-expert on everything aquatic — volunteering for clean-water nonprofits, screening documentaries about the fresh-water crisis, and designing boats in his bathtub. She had him quit the debate team and join the robotics club and says he was ultimately accepted to an Ivy.

But while educational consulting itself isn’t new, the level of hand-holding offered and the price tag attached have skyrocketed, in tandem with the pressure parents feel to do everything in their power to give their kids every advantage. These parents hear the message that their privileged children are now in trouble. Admissions officers’ priorities have changed. Colleges and universities, sheepish that their decadeslong efforts to make college more meritocratic have largely failed, have increased efforts to recruit from rural areas, attract more first-generation students, and eliminate financial barriers to entry. (Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, among other universities, offer free tuition for students from families earning under $75,000 to under $150,000 a year, depending on the school.) And with test scores no longer a gate through which all applicants must pass, colleges have more leeway to design a class to their liking.

These same parents tend to ignore the data that shows that being rich in and of itself is still a golden ticket. A damning analysis published last year found that kids of the one percent were 34 percent more likely to get into elite universities than other applicants with similar SAT or ACT scores and that students from families in the top 0.1 percent were more than twice as likely to be admitted. The recent Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action is expected to benefit white and Asian students at the expense of Black and Latinx students. Stressing that he is drawing from conversations with his colleagues at other institutions and not just his own school, Adam Exline, director of college counseling at Trevor Day School, a private school in Manhattan that costs up to $62,500 per year, says that “if anything, the SCOTUS decision sort of has made families, especially affluent families that can afford multitudes of test prep and tutors and everything else, feel like, Oh, well, that’s good for us because now fewer non-numeric factors can be considered.

Canh Oxelson, executive director of college counseling at Horace Mann, who formerly worked in admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, notes there’s a particular irony to a consultant working with the most financially advantaged teenagers. “Of course the IEC is going to accept that family as a client. They know as well as I do the kid’s going to get in no matter what. The kid could draw circles on a piece of paper for an essay and they’re still getting in. I’m amazed at the families who do it. I think, Why did you do that? I guess if you have that much money, it’s not a big deal.”

Put all those connected families with money in one school, however, and the playing field starts to feel uncomfortably level again. “You think you did it right: My kid got into a good private school. You’re on that path and so you think you’re fine. Then middle school hits and then suddenly you start to hear the back chatter of all your friends who already have high-school kids on how challenging it is and all these things you need to do,” says a Command client. “And now you yourself are like, What are you going to do differently? It’s an ever-changing environment, and it’s supercompetitive, and so you hire a counselor just to help you continue with whatever edge you have.”

The fact that a public-school kid from Paramus, New Jersey, who has never set foot in a college-admissions office has convinced the upper tiers of New York society to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars to help their already well-connected children get into college is proof of Rim’s hustle. His story starts on the western side of the Hudson River. The son of an attorney and a substitute teacher, Rim was a good but not stellar student at a magnet school. He knew nothing of the private schools 40 minutes away in
Manhattan, much less about the students who occupied them.

Rim, as he tells it, was the underdog. He says when he was a high-school junior, his guidance counselor told him he would never get into an Ivy League university and he should save money by going to a state school. Even now, Rim tells the story with a chip on his shoulder. “I think when someone is saying that I can’t do something, I want to prove them wrong,” he says. Against his counselor’s advice, he applied to Yale and was accepted, “beating out the valedictorian,” he notes.

For Rim, his pointy narrative was that he was a young person dedicated to public service. As a sophomore, he founded a nonprofit, It Ends Today, talking to middle-school students about bullying. The idea behind it was that tweens and teens would listen to students slightly older than they are. “It wasn’t an adult speaking to them,” says Rim. “We were like their older-brother, older-sister type of figure.” (Rim says he didn’t experience much bullying himself.)

Speaking as president of anti-bullying nonprofit It Ends Today, which fizzled out when Rim matriculated at Yale. Photo: Courtesy of Luce Foundation

He showed an early knack for raising his organization’s profile — and his own. When Rim heard that Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation was hosting an anti-bullying event with Oprah Winfrey, he cold-called Harvard’s Berkman Center, a sponsor of the event, to get an invite. He leveraged that into local press coverage and eventually landed a position on Born This Way’s youth advisory board. He convinced Perez Hilton to make a video supporting It Ends Today after tracking down the celebrity blogger at a book signing. After Rim was recognized by the James Jay Dudley Luce Foundation, a New York–based nonprofit spotlighting public service, its president wrote what was essentially a public letter of recommendation for him in the Huffington Post’s now-defunct open-contributor platform with the headline “Anti-Bullying Hero Hopes for Harvard.”

Much like high-school students padding out their applications, Rim has polished some of his accolades to high shine. On the Command website and his personal website, in his Medium bio and to the press, Rim describes himself as the recipient of “President Obama’s Lifetime Achievement Award,” which sounds impressive but isn’t exactly the Medal of Freedom. The award is more commonly called the President’s Volunteer Service Award, for which any U.S. citizen over the age of 5 who has completed a designated number of hours of community service can apply. If accepted, volunteers receive a certificate and form letter from the president. Rim’s 4,000 hours put him in the Lifetime Achievement Award category, above gold, silver, and bronze.

Rim has also said he sold a tutoring company he founded in eighth grade called Prestige Review Group to “a Shanghai-based consulting firm.” When asked about it now, he brushes it off as a small project in which he tutored “30 clients or so” — fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders — for $20 to $30 an hour and says he gave the proceeds to charity. He clarifies that he was connected to the buyer through a family friend and that it was really the worksheets and other study materials he developed that he’d sold, but he says he can’t give more details because he signed an NDA.

Rim last filed a report for It Ends Today the same month he started at Yale and says the nonprofit fizzled out by his sophomore year. By then, he was receiving calls from parents of students at his former high school wanting to know how they could get their children into a top school without perfect grades and test scores. Rim initially gave advice for free, then moved into editing college essays for a fee — the perfect side hustle during his work-study hours in the library. The money was enough for him to join his new college friends on trips to Bali and Paris. “Some of my friends and people I was living with in my suite, they were prominent families. Their names are on buildings at Yale. Their names are on buildings at Columbia. One parent is in the news every day doing an interview with CNBC,” says Rim.

Less than a year after graduating from Yale with a degree in psychology, he had enough of a client roster to move to Manhattan and work as a college consultant full time. He came up with the name Command Education in the shower of the studio apartment he rented in the Financial District and met with clients at a Joe & the Juice, charging $75 an hour. Initially, the company had a charitable bent: He was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for education, which praised his “one-for-one” model that meant that for every paying client, Command would work with a low-income student pro bono. At the time, Rim told a local paper that he recognized the “big opportunity gap” between the clients who could afford him and those who could not. “A lot of people in this industry tend to widen the gap by helping people who can afford it and ignoring those who can’t,” he said. “That’s not the right way to do this.”

The one-for-one model didn’t last. Some parents pretended they didn’t have the means to pay, the pro bono students often weren’t invested enough to show up, and working for half of his clients for free wasn’t sustainable, says Rim. He cold-emailed everyone he could find from the Parents’ Association at Stuyvesant High School, the notoriously competitive public institution in lower Manhattan, and asked if he could give a presentation about college admissions at no cost. “I’m so good at that,” he says of his persistent outreach. (Rim occasionally does a version of this now; in the fall, he hosted two weeks of free workshops at an underserved high school in Miami.) Eventually, a Chinese American family on the Upper East Side with a child at a private school in New Jersey heard about Rim and hired him. “They told everyone in their Chinese community,” he says.

He broke into the city’s private-school set and soon found himself in the fancy Fifth Avenue apartment of a new client. Rim says that one day this teen’s mother gave him a reality check. As Rim recalls it, “She said, ‘Chris, if you want to make it here in New York, you cannot charge $75. No one’s going to take you seriously.’ ” Rim says she told him to charge $1,500 an hour and vowed to bring him more clients.

Rim moved Command to a higher-end co-working space above Bergdorf Goodman’s men’s store in midtown. The office “skewed much older, like, sophisticated. I think each office was occupied by probably some rich guy who was managing his own money,” says Rim’s friend Yaron Benchlouch, who met him while they were both working there. “The juxtaposition of Chris, a young guy running around in a T-shirt, with all these other guys in suits, big shots, that’s what caught my eye.” He says Rim started in an office he describes as “a 50-square-foot janitorial closet with no windows.” Then, “he gets a bigger one, then he gets the second-biggest office.”

While many of Rim’s competitors were former college-admissions officers who knew the ins and outs of the application process, he took a page from his nonprofit playbook and pushed the near-peer approach to his clients, telling them not only that he had recently gone to a highly selective school but also that their teenagers were more likely to listen to someone in their 20s than a person who looked and sounded like their parents. Clients ate it up, and compared with a competitor like Ivy Coach that reportedly charges $1.5 million for a multiyear package, Command was practically a bargain. Rim says one family paid him his full hourly rate to go to SoulCycle and brunch with their 17-year-old son. Another invited him to their house in the south of France. “They just wanted me to be around their kid,” he says.

The real boon came in 2019 when news of Operation Varsity Blues broke and the larger world learned that even celebrities and multimillionaires were so worried about college admissions that they were willing to commit a crime to get their kids into the right school. In response to the scandal, The Wall Street Journal published a story about college consultants with the headline “The Legitimate World of High-End College Admissions” and included Rim. “I think we received 300 inquiries in 24 hours,” he says.

Rim says he planned to move Command into a large office at 750 Lexington Avenue in 2020, but the pandemic hit and the company went virtual and has stayed that way. (The first time we spoke, the address was still listed on the company website.) He bought a $7.5 million home in Miami and bounced between New York and South Beach, where some of his clients had relocated. (Rim also owns a $2.3 million apartment in Manhattan, according to property records.) COVID turned out to be good for business. In the first 18 months of the pandemic, as teenagers tried to learn calculus over Zoom and colleges urged students to apply early and loosened application requirements, Command tripled in size. Rim posted a picture of himself with his employees on a company retreat in Sedona, Arizona, thanking clients “who trust us with their child’s future” and giving a shout-out to “the parents who don’t follow me on Instagram but religiously watch all my stories” with the tongue-out emoji.

If he’s at all uncomfortable with his job, he doesn’t show it, and he doesn’t see it as working against middle-class and lower-income students who can’t afford to hire a consultant. In his view, the game was rigged long before parents hired him. “Even going to private school, it’s an advantage. It’s a lot of money,” says Rim. “Sixty-thousand dollars, starting in kindergarten. What? To play with blocks?” By the time these students get to high school, their private schools typically have robust college prep. At many in the city, guidance counselors work with 20 to 30 students; at New York City public high schools, the average ratio is one counselor to every 190 students.

“When I’m working with these students, people might say, ‘Chris, you’re helping the rich have an unfair advantage.’ Yes,” he says. “But an unfair advantage over other rich students. I’m not helping a wealthy client take the spot of a low-income student or an underrepresented minority. They’re competing against each other. Everyone has their own part of the college-admissions process. So I’m helping my client ‘Jenny’ from Horace Mann have an advantage over not-my-client ‘Johnny.’ They’re both billionaires.”

In mid-December, when early-decision letters roll in and some students inevitably find out they did not get into their dream school (“The ones who hired our competitors,” says Rim), Command’s rate spikes to $250,000 for two weeks — just enough time to get their regular-decision applications in fighting shape by what, for some schools, is an early-January deadline. Rim insists he’s not taking advantage; that this is the cost to be one of the three students his company works with during that short window. “We’re going to work with them for maybe six to ten hours a day, including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day,” he says. “It’s a lot.” It’s also about the cost of four years of college tuition.

Guidance counselors at private schools express frustration with such consultants and question families’ motivations in hiring them. Frank Cabrera, director of college counseling at Brooklyn Friends School, says he understands why parents might hire a private consultant if a child has learning differences or some other extenuating circumstances, “but I don’t think the majority of folks fall into that bracket of people who really feel like their child needs additional support in this process.”

Among private-school parents, there’s a paranoia that guidance counselors are working for the school, not for their kid; the thinking goes that they don’t really care who goes to which school as much as they care about hitting certain benchmarks — e.g., five kids off to Harvard, three to Stanford. “Nobody trusts their school counselor,” says a Command parent. “They don’t. Because, for me, we pay full tuition, we donate, but we are not a trustee. We’re not a trustee at any of the colleges, either. And so they definitely have the families they are looking out for — and that’s just the way the world works.”

With a private consultant, “you have somebody that you feel really gives you unfiltered, honest feedback versus them guiding you or talking you down because they want to save space for somebody, a higher donor or a trustee.” Rim reinforces this belief with the story of his own guidance counselor’s discouragement, and he urges students to push back if a school is advising them against a certain college. “You have the right to apply wherever you want. I give them this confidence,” he says.

Oxelson says he and other school-based counselors he knows simply don’t operate that way. They can also do things private consultants can’t. For one, they are the only people who have a full view of a student’s application. They see transcripts, grades, essays, teacher evaluations, and, of course, the letters they write. The school counselor can ensure that all the pieces of the application fit together organically to tell a story. When a piece doesn’t fit, “it just looks weird,” says Oxelson. “We’ve had a situation where a kid had a great sense of humor and the college counselor here says, ‘You have got to use that sense of humor in your essays.’ The independent educational consultant said, ‘No, we don’t want you to do that. That’s too risky.’ Meanwhile, the teachers here and the counselor have written about this kid’s sense of humor that is showing up nowhere in that kid’s portion of the application. That’s where it can go wrong.”

Michael London, who co-founded College Coach in the late ’90s and no longer works in college consulting, believes IECs can be helpful but adds that working with the wrong consultant can backfire. “Privilege is not in favor right now. Bought experiences are experiences that came through connections; it’s more of a turnoff, in my opinion,” he says. In other words, “privilege doesn’t always give an advantage. The ultrapolished essay? Super-uninteresting. A tough read … Someone who writes something that’s a little bit raw is cool.”

There may also be a danger in the advice that students have to be “pointy.” There’s value in trying new things in high school and building a diverse set of skills, and the process of trial and error helps kids learn who they are. There’s a narrative for those kids, too, says Trevor Day School’s Exline: “One of the tough things about being pointy is that it can unintentionally raise the bar on yourself. So if you are a pointy STEM kid and you really want to be premed, well, everyone who wants to be premed has an A in every science class and in every math class and an internship, and they’ve worked in a research lab and they have a 1550 on the SAT and a 35 on the ACT and all these other things. If you have decided to go pointy in that direction, or try to fabricate yourself as pointy in that direction, and you are short on any of those metrics, it probably isn’t going to work out. You have to be really careful about where you’ve decided to try to stack the deck.”

As a matter of ethics, college-admissions officers won’t speak with private consultants — at least they purport not to — because most applicants don’t have one. But colleges will talk with a school-based counselor. Some are on a first-name basis. “One of the reasons I tell parents there’s a risk to going to an IEC is that the bottom line is if a college has a question, who are they going to call? They’re not going to call the IEC,” says Oxelson. Not that parents always listen. Sometimes, Oxelson learns a student is working with outside help when he’s reading their college essay and sees the consultant’s name in the Google doc. (Rim says this is the same way he finds out when a client is working with more than one consultant.)

According to Rim, school-based counselors “hate” him. The real tension seems to be in the secrecy. “I’ve never had an IEC reach out to me directly and say, ‘Hey, I’m working with this child, and these are my observations. I would love to be in partnership with you,’ ” says Cabrera. (Cramer confirms that Command mentors don’t speak with guidance counselors, even when clients request it.) Cabrera notes that when a student is working with an IEC, it can cause confusion if the school-based counselor and IEC are saying two different things. “Then it becomes a battle of Well, who do we trust? Who does the student trust? Who does the parent trust?” And private consultants make more money. In some cases, a lot more. “Part of the tension I feel is also, How are you benefiting financially from my expertise for free? ” says Cabrera.

“I had a kid tell me once, ‘My parents hired an independent college counselor because they said if the Horace Mann counselors were any good, they would go be an IEC,’ because that’s where you make the money,” says Oxelson.

Colleges are just as unwilling to talk about independent consultants as Command’s clients are. When asked if they actively discourage students from paying a third party to help with the application process, Cornell, Harvard, and UPenn declined to comment. Caltech wrote, “We would prefer not to respond,” and Columbia said it would circle back and never did. MIT, Princeton, Duke, Northwestern, the University of Chicago, and Stanford ignored the request altogether. Dartmouth answered that its admissions officers “do not engage with third-party consultants, only in-school counselors and those associated with community-based organizations.” Brown said that its application asks students to confirm that the information they submitted “is accurate and wholly their own” and that while its admissions officers will talk to school-based counselors, those officers don’t interact directly with independent counselors or consultants. Not a single school agreed to be interviewed; a few cited the busy admissions season.

Mark Dunn, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions at Yale, also said “no” to an interview but wrote in an email, “In my opinion, working with an IEC can ultimately work against an applicant.” He continued in part, “An application can also seem overly engineered in a way that makes us question what motivated a student to pursue the commitments they’ve included with their activities list, or simply why they are presenting themselves in a way that seems like what they think an admissions committee wants.”

Even college consultants admit they’re not always successful. Rim pulls out his phone to look at old messages from a parent — “a huge CEO” — who was upset that his child didn’t initially get into any of his top schools. “The parent went off on me, cursed me out, blah, blah, blah. Sent me the rudest messages,” says Rim, scrolling and shaking his head. “They will create this narrative that they think they deserve it because they worked hard. I’m like, ‘You deserve it, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. That’s what this is.’ ” Normally, he says, he would feel bad, but in this case, the parent “edited all of our work.” Reading from his phone, Rim says this is what he wrote in response: “I’m so sorry, but you didn’t listen to us. So there’s nothing I can really do.” When the parent messaged back in the same tone, Rim says he went “full force.” “I was like, ‘You didn’t listen to us. You hired us, and you feel dumb,’ ” he says.

When Rim was starting out, he didn’t correct his clients when he disagreed with them. It was too intimidating. But he’s over that, he says. Once, when a student said he could get a letter of recommendation from President Biden because his dad was a donor, Rim said “no.” “I told him, ‘It’s going to be a generic letter,’” he explains. He has also had to remind parents, when they’re annoyed that a mentor didn’t text their child about basketball practice, that
Command is not a nanny service. Sometimes the kids themselves overstep. “It’s weird when a student is like, ‘I assigned you to do this research for me,’ to my mentor. We’re like, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not your assistant, and also you need to do this yourself.’” It raises a question: If you have to pay for someone to remind your kid about basketball practice, is he really a Harvard man?

As we walk out of the Aman Club and onto the sidewalk, I ask Rim if he’s staying there tonight before flying back to Miami. (He is currently renting out his Manhattan apartment.) He laughs and shakes his head. “No way — it’s too expensive,” he says. He seems to have deactivated from sales mode and appears more like a 20-something going to meet up with a friend, which he is. After we say good-bye, I glance at my phone and realize our meeting lasted two and a half hours. The numbers swirl in my mind. If I were a client, I’d owe him more than $30,000.

Inventing the Perfect College Applicant