By PETER VAN BUSKIRK
Alex was at the top of his class at an exclusive Canadian prep school. Of Chinese ancestry, he had lived in the Philippines and traveled extensively before moving to North America with his parents. When he applied Early Action to Harvard University, his three-page resume highlighted his accomplishments as a nationally recognized musician and regional science-fair champion — with a 2250 SAT score.
And yet, despite what seemed to be impeccable credentials, Alex (whose name has been changed for privacy) was deferred. That’s when he and his parents came to see me.
After some brief pleasantries, Alex’s mother made her intentions clear: “I’m willing to pay you to tell us why he wasn’t admitted,” she said, “and what he needs to do to get into Harvard during the regular admission process.”
I wasn’t the first admissions consultant Alex had seen. During the previous two years
he had benefitted from intensive test prep as well as the support of an advisor who helped him prepare his application essays. Now he and his parents were searching for answers about what had gone wrong — as well as a pathway to acceptance.
Alex’s story is not uncommon as the competition for admission to elite U.S. universities rages out of control. In 2014, Stanford admitted just 5.2 percent of its applicants. Harvard accepted 5.9 percent. That means 15 out of 16 candidates — most of whom were extremely qualified —were not admitted. Even at institutions that admit one out of 10 or even one out of three, the intense competition is driving families to engage consultants to increase their students’ odds.
This is particularly true for those outside America who may be unfamiliar with the admission process.
According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), more than 10,000 consultants worldwide provide services ranging from college planning to test prep and essay preparation. Many are “agents” who, for a fee, offer to manage the application process and, in some cases, “guarantee” admission to the school of choice.
While such offers can be tempting, you should know that no agent or consultant can get a student into a U.S. university. Applicants must stand on their own merits. Admission officers employ a range of filters to identify authentic, uniquely qualified students — and they’re particularly savvy at spotting those whose credentials seem contrived.
Fortunately, there are many thoughtful, intelligent and honorable consultants with experience in American higher education. These experts can:
In short, they can reduce the stress of the application process and instill confidence in the student.
Conversely, many consultants present themselves as experts regarding a process about which, in reality, they know very little. Without conscience or ethical bearing, they’re simply intent on capitalizing on a family’s insecurity.
If you’re thinking about working with a consultant or agent, do some homework first:
Wondering what happened to Alex? While I was able to suggest some reasons why he had not been admitted Early Action at Harvard, I could not — and would not — offer any assurances about subsequent outcomes. Ultimately, he was not accepted. He did, however, receive several other incredible offers, a reminder that, for every student, there is a range of viable options.
Do you have questions about getting into U.S. colleges and universities? Send them to Peter Van Buskirk at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin & Marshall College, is author of “Winning the College Admission Game.” For more tips on the admission process, visit his site: www.bestcollegefit.com.)