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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: One question I most often ask the applicants I work with is, “how did that (the experience they had) make you feel?” And they are perplexed because they are never usually asked this question.

This puts me in the position of being their shrink. Almost immediately they share with me: troubles at home, knotty relationships with a parent, their deepest worries in life. Last year two kids “came out” to me and one shared some serious legal trouble her dad had been in. One girl, Zoe – not her real name – a bright, funny kid told me that she suffered from body dysmorphia. When I told Zoe that she could and should write about it, she got excited. I don’t think that essay alone got her into an Ivy League university, but I believe it helped.

In a strange way, applicants and families are all trying to “game the system.”. I see the wealthy kids portray themselves as an “every kid” trying to not come off elitist. And I see the underserved kids I work with pro bono trying to tell an intentionally sad story which will engender sympathy.

Two years ago, I took on a kid with a hard-luck story: “I worked at a gas station…” “Often I slept on a dirt floor…” Even, “I used to borrow a friend’s old computer to write papers and do my homework.” Sometimes drafts would come back making her sound increasingly poor. Finally, I did an Internet search and discovered that her dad owned six gas stations and her mom was a software engineer for a Fortune 500 company. I called the mom, told her how disgusted I was, and dropped them as a client.

Parents may not come out and say it, but occasionally they want me to actually write the essays. “My kid is a terrible writer,” one mom said a couple of years back. She and her husband, both powerful New York City lawyers, wanted their kid to go to a particular university where the student’s admissions chances were slim to none. I tried to get the kid to work hard on his drafts, to be thoughtful, to open up and express himself. But along the way I started to realize what everyone wanted from me. One email I received from him just said, “fix this” – meaning, make me sound better. When I questioned him on it, he said indignantly: “My dad said you’re supposed to write this.”

These things happen with a certain type of family, where the kids had too much help, too many tutors and consultants, and no incentive to work hard. Every year I would find myself resigning and returning money. No one complained, no one ever badmouthed me: They knew that they’d  be admitting their kid couldn’t write an admissions essay.

At the same time, I’ve ended up having an amazing window into families across the country, from a wide range of backgrounds and economic resources. And I feel a satisfaction way beyond what I felt from any of my other writing work – without writing actually any of it.

For example, one of my clients, Maya – again, not her real name – grew up wanting to work in medicine. We tried for weeks to find her personal statement story but hit brick wall after brick wall. Finally, I threw a hail mary: “What do you do for fun?”

It turned out Maya is quite the baker. Maya’s mom bought her a new stove for her 16th birthday. Her repertoire was cookies, pies, and pastries.

“Anything you’re not good at?” I asked

“Cakes! I’ve ruined every birthday cake for my siblings and every anniversary cake for my parents. Fifteen in total.” That she knew the exact number of cakes said something to me. She was obsessed with them. I asked if she was going to just stop baking cakes. “No! I’m baking one for my calculus team this weekend.”

“That’s an essay!” I told her. Maya saw this idea as one about her failing at something, while I saw it as an idea about her not giving up, a fascinating character trait. It took a while to convince her (and her mom), but I finally found a way to do so. “Baking is chemistry. Plus, what do scientists do? They stay in the lab until a cure is found. They’re baking cakes!”

Maya agreed, her essay was a total original, and she got into her top choice.

(to be continued)