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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Today Andrew is a senior at Haverford, studying sociology and economics. His father, John, paid Hernandez $18,000 for 18 months' worth of advice. "It is a lot of money," says Garza, a manager at Abitibi-Consolidated (ABY) in New York. "But if you look at it as an investment, it's not a bad one."
A Divisive Figure
Hernandez may well be the most expensive college coach in America, charging as much as $40,000 to get a student into an elite college. As one of this fast-growing industry's most visible practitioners, she uses methods that are publicly scorned by rivals but are nonetheless becoming part of the profession's standard operating procedures. She is a divisive figure in an already controversial field, regularly drawing condemnation from admissions officers who say she is selling advantage to people who least need it.If the notoriety sometimes bothers her, Hernandez is not about to let on. To her critics, she says: "I'd be an idiot to charge half of what I can. Parents can always hire a lesser person." That might sound arrogant, but she is clearly proud of turning her one-woman operation, Hernandez College Consulting, into what amounts to a luxury brand. Her clients, mostly people of some means and great ambition, rave about the personal service: the regular phone calls to their kids (you have to go above and beyond); the academic help (read the book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form); the "brand" positioning (classics would be a great angle); the advice about which colleges to consider and where not to bother; the hours she devotes to each application.Despite being asked to pay fees that are as much as 10 times higher than average, these well-intentioned, well-heeled parents keep calling. And calling. Since she started seven years ago, Hernandez, who is 40, says she has worked with some 150 students, 95% of whom, she claims, were accepted at their first choice of college. She hints that among them have been the progeny of chief executives, financiers, billionaires.Hiring help is not the privilege of only the wealthy, of course. According to the Independent Educational Consultants Assn., 22% of first-year students at private colleges -- perhaps as many as 58,000 kids -- had worked with some kind of consultant.The Inside Scoop
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.