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?”
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.”
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.”
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.”