I get questions all the time. Here’s a popular one I receive from parents…
Q: How exactly did you get into the admissions consulting business?
A: I entered the admissions essay business as an act of pure desperation. I had asked my then-girlfriend to move in with me, an invitation she declined because “you don’t have a job.” I was, at the time, in mid-career as a screenwriter and journalist. The work was sporadic at best: I would toil for months on a screenplay, TV show, or magazine profile, then not again for months more.
I answered an online ad from a graduate school admissions company looking for a writer with my exact background. When they discovered I did not go to Yale or Brown, they ghosted me. But I really wanted my girlfriend to move in with me, so I decided to start my own essay consulting company. In the beginning, I hustled for every applicant. I put business cards on cars at local high school’s college nights; I pestered friends with kids applying to college; and I threw ad money in Google’s direction. Once the applicants showed up, I worked by instinct and a desire to discover who these kids were. I genuinely enjoyed talking to them. I was not trying to pass myself off as a peer, but I didn’t talk down to them either.
The essays I found in those nascent days were only OK. There was an essay by a girl who collected snow globes. There was one by a boy whose arm had been broken in the same place four years in a row. There was an essay by a girl whose psychiatrist-parents told her bedtime stories about their patients. I was pretty much clueless. But I did know which stories I liked, and thought would be effective.
After a while, I started to make a name for myself. When a good friend touted me on the listserv of his daughter’s NYC private school, the phone rang – a lot! Having better candidates for elite schools forced me step up my game. I began to see which essays worked. I also got more selective, insisting on a resumé or activities list, wanting a say in where and when applicants were applying. I also learned how to keep parents from being overly involved, knowing that could keep kids from being fully honest. I got good at listening, identifying moments or experiences in their lives that made a difference.
Coaxing compelling stories out of 17-year high school seniors is more art than science. Somewhere deep down inside of every high school senior are attributes and characteristics that differentiate them from the billion other applicants they are up against for an increasingly smaller number of spots at top schools. My job is to help find what makes these kids interesting.
(to be continued)