I Can Teach You, But I’ll Have to Charge

Michelle Li

January 24, 2014

Outrageous fees are part of the college admissions process — it’s no big secret. With preparation books for every standardized test imaginable, application fees that stop you from adding that one last safety school to your list and pricey volumes with oddly specific titles like “The 437.5 Best Colleges in the U.S.” and “100 College Admissions Essays That Really, Truly, Actually, Honestly, Definitely Worked,” it’s impossible to escape the process with your wallet unscathed.

But for some lucky applicants, money can buy major perks.

Charging prospective students (or their parents) between $34,000 and $40,000, Michele Hernandez ’89, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, works tirelessly to get them into their dream colleges.

Speaking twice as fast as the average person, probably to compensate for the unexpected time waster that was my phone call, Hernandez explained that her company, Hernandez College Consulting, takes 20 to 25 new clients each year, most of whom begin working with her in the eighth grade.

“The first thing I do is evaluate everything about them,” Hernandez said. “I write a 10- to 20-page report based on what they’ve done so far, their strengths and weaknesses and how they can get from point A to point B.”

For the next five years of her clients’ lives, Hernandez manages almost everything about their academic lives, saying that her goal is to make students better scholars and not just more appealing applicants. She’s placed students in reading programs, taught them how to use vocabulary notebooks and pushed them to find their academic niche.

Hernandez said that the bulk of her job is handling the psychological side of the process.

“It’s hand-holding, it’s helping them through difficult times,” she said. “A lot of the time it’s comfort-counseling. There’s nothing we don’t do over the course of five years.”

Hernandez said she does not screen potential clients based on where they want to apply, but she does turn down students with unrealistic demands or expectations.

“I have people who call me and say, ‘I want to buy a place in Stanford’s class,’ and I tell them that’s not possible,” Hernandez said. “I also have students in the eighth grade who tell me that they want to go to Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Brown, but they don’t actually know anything about those schools or how hard it is to get in.”

Hernandez College Consulting also holds a lucrative Application Boot Camp every summer in Boston. During this four-day intensive program, 40 to 60 students, usually juniors, are harshly evaluated and scrutinized to make them more palatable to college admissions officers.

The charge for four days is $14,000 per student.

“Sure, it’s expensive, and is it equitable? No,” Hernandez said. “But neither are college admissions.”

Five months after leaving the Dartmouth admissions office, Hernandez published a book titled “A is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges.” The 1997 book reveals inside information on how the world’s most selective schools pick their incoming classes.

Hernandez became a full-time college consultant in 2000 and has published several other admissions-related hits such as “Don’t Worry, You’ll Get In: 100 Winning Tips for Stress-Free College Admissions” and “The Middle School Years: Achieving the Best Education for Your Child, Grades 5-8.”

Though certification is not necessary to work in her field, her experience reading files in an admissions office taught her “everything I know about admissions.”

In her first book, Hernandez chronicles her experience in the jungle of admissions officers, dividing the “typical admissions officer” into two categories — highly talented recent college graduates and the “lifers,” people who got sucked into admissions and are now out of touch with us young folk.

“The very best of applicants will often be brighter than many of those who will be evaluating them,” Hernandez writes in “A is for Admission.”

So basically, future applicants should be catering to elderly people who didn’t go to Ivy League schools. Try to be humble and understand how many applications these people read.

Bev Taylor, the founder and CEO of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college consulting firm, is a “rival” counselor who says a large part of her job is spent strategizing and convincing students to have more realistic expectations.

“A lot of students say, ‘If I don’t try, I’ll never know,’” Taylor said. “We absolutely drop students if we do not think we can continue working with them.”

Ivy Coach’s website echoes this sentiment, stating that the company does not take on cases of unreasonable parents and students — “unless you’re Melinda Gates, your daughter with failing grades isn’t getting into Duke.” Way to tell it like it is, Ivy Coach.

Every Ivy Coach client gets into one of his or her top three choices, and according to the site, over 90 percent get into their top choice school. When asked to prove her success rate, Taylor said that the names of successful students, which are listed on her website, are all that is necessary.

“We don’t need to prove our success because of the real first and last names on our website,” she said. “Those say more than any parent testimonials or references.”

Hernandez disagreed with Taylor’s reasoning, saying that the meaning of “success” can change significantly for a student over the course of five years, making measuring success rates difficult.

Taylor also said that 80 to 85 percent of her clientele is Indian or Chinese. This, she says, makes many of her students look similar on paper.

“What we do is differentiate them, and if we have to ‘de-Indianize’ or ‘de-Chinese’ a kid, we do it,” Taylor said. “The parents are all happy about that because they know about the competition.”

Though the lucrative college counseling industry may have faced extreme skepticism five or 10 years ago, it is now growing rapidly and gaining substantial influence. According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, in the last three years, the number of independent admissions counselors has grown from 2,000 to nearly 5,000 across the country. Apparently, over 22 percent of students applying to competitive colleges received admissions help from an individual counselor outside of their high school.

Both counselors take this to mean that the stigma associated with coaching a student to get into college no longer exists.

“I don’t have to respond to any doubts,” Taylor said. “Our clients come to us because they need us. I don’t have to sell Ivy Coach.”

Before our interview ended, I asked Ivy Coach exactly how she can be sure of a client’s likelihood of getting into his or her top choice.

“We have a crystal ball,” she said.

I couldn’t tell if she was joking.