Michele Hernandez boasts that 95% of her teenage clients are accepted by their first-choice school. Her price: As much as $40,000 a student.As I listened to my 8th period English teacher drone on for the third time about how Finny, a character in A Separate Peace, was indeed the main character although he was not the narrator, it finally dawned on me that this was not the exciting world of high school that I had hoped for.This is how Andrew Garza began an essay in his application to Haverford College. It was a 1,200-word piece that established him as an intellectually curious young man. It was crafted to appeal specifically to the admissions officers at the small liberal arts school. And it was the idea of his high-priced college admissions coach, Michele A. Hernandez. Garza attended a private school in Switzerland, and that worried Hernandez: She thought he might appear to be a privileged teenager without much substance. So she advised him to write about why he had left his public high school in suburban New Jersey. "We had to make it seem like he didn't want to be around so many rich kids. We spun a whole story about him taking the initiative to leave in order to broaden his experience," Hernandez says. "It was his initiative. But he wouldn't have written about it."
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A Divisive Figure
But few of the 4,000 independent college counselors now scattered around the country can match Hernandez' influence or earning power. Early on, she began offering college-admissions counseling for students in eighth grade -- yes, eighth grade -- an approach that is becoming more common. Since 2005, she has run application boot camps in Manhattan and Santa Monica, Calif., which this summer cost $9,500 and are sure to attract imitators. Hernandez says she earned almost $1 million last year. She drives a BMW convertible. And she just moved near Middlebury, Vt., where she and her husband own 117 acres on Snake Mountain.What makes her own story so compelling is that Hernandez is an insider-turned-outcast. A former admissions officer at Dartmouth College, she dared to reveal secrets of the opaque selection process in her book, A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges, and then to build a thriving business that helps people game the system. As she says to parents: "You don't want to pay $180,000 for some piddling school when, by spending a little extra, your kid could get into Yale." She insinuates herself so deeply into her students' lives and is so unabashed about her money-making that she has come to be regarded either as operating at the leading edge of her profession or its cynical extreme.