August 13, 2002

· Obiter Dicta

Via Eszter, I came across Ivy Success, self-described “Admissions Strategists” whose job is to get you (or your darling child) into an elite university. For a modest fee you get the “complete strategy” which

translates the essence of the candidate, his or her accomplishments and future potential into a succinct profile in a way that differentiates the applicant from the competition. We scrutinize what each individual school emphasizes and custom tailor each application and essay in order to present our client in the best way possible.

Ivy Success will “will provide guidance on how to properly position the client for each school and application; garner letters of recommendation; write, edit, and re-write essays; schedule on campus visits and interviews; [and] establish application timing strategies”. After their consultant is through them them, clients “are able to present a cohesive and confident image of themselves” to admissions offices. The whole package costs eighteen thousand dollars. Alternatively, you can pay a thousand dollars just for extensive coaching on your admissions essay.

Now, the college admissions system to elite schools in the U.S. is so difficult and stressful, and the pressure to stand out from the crowd is so absurdly strong that I can see why these kinds of businesses have sprung up. But they raise an interesting question. Do we really want people to get into the habit of subcontracting their personalities?

Ivy Success’s scheme has plenty of precedent. The academically challenged offspring of financially gifted parents (in Garrison Keillor’s phrase) have long been able to improve their life-chances by hiring a private tutor, or buying a Princeton Review course. Beyond that, better-off and better-educated parents pass on a wealth of valuable knowledge to their children in the form of piano lessons, ballet classes, foreign holidays, or just having a good collection of jazz CDs around the house. Sociologists call this sort of thing “[cultural capital]("

Ivy Success seems like the next logical step in the race to stay ahead of the neighbors. After all, it’s a sad fact of life that well-meaning, well-off parents with a rich appreciation of art, music and literature can nevertheless produce offensively boring, empty-headed children. What is to be done in these cases? Must all this parental investment go to waste? Not at all! If poor Muffy is earnest but dull, simply cough up $1000 and Ivy Success’s consultants will make her sound like Dorothy Parker. Never mind that Muffy has no idea who Dorothy Parker is. Deans of Admissions know, and that’s all that matters. A bit of judicious editing, a dash of sincerity, a pinch of sophistication and off she will go to the school of her choice.

The possibilities for expanding the business are intriguing. For instance, what happens when Muffy starts at Harvard? How will she keep up, given her essentially boring disposition? The answer should be obvious. For a monthly fee, Ivy Success could provide her with a Personal Personality Consultant (PPC) who would be on standby at all times. Her PPC would only be a phone call away, ready to advise. (This strategy has a lot of literary precedent, too.) Consumers would probably realise that what is interesting to one group of people might be boring to another, and yet being on good terms with several groups is often necessary for social success. The solution is to have several specialist PPCs. This way, Muffy could appear interesting to, say, both the Comp-Lit crowd and the Sorority Girls simultaneously. (This might involve numerous wardrobe changes.)

If you think that individuality isn’t something that can be purchased, then Ivy Consulting’s services will not seem very appealing. If you think individuality is overrated, however, you will point out that we already buy almost every other observable aspect of our identity, from branded clothes to manufactured music to focus-group-tested movies. Not to mention the large part of one’s identity that comes simply from having attended a particular university. Isn’t this just another niche in the market for identity?

Perhaps so. But there’s a further irony. In the struggle for college places, students desperately try to differentiate themselves from one another, so that they will be the ones chosen by the consumer—- in this case the Universities that admit them. But this struggle to stand out from the crowd merely leads to more homogeneity. The sociologist Harrison White points out that in markets like this, striving to be better requires—- and therefore induces—- comparability. In the process of trying to be different, competitors end up looking identical to consumers, just like McDonald’s and Burger King. Businesses like Ivy Success accelerate this process for college applicants. They sell the same product to every customer. The next person in the door after you will get more or less the same advice you did. It won’t take long for people to start looking the same.

I’m not sure whether, when deciding on admissions, elite colleges take seriously the personal statements written by applicants. If they don’t, then Ivy Success is getting money for nothing, and good luck to them. If they do, I hope they have some way of adjusting for the ability to purchase the illusion of charisma. After all, if your parents buy you piano lessons, you’ll really be able to play music for people. If they buy you a tutor and your SAT score jumps by 75, you haven’t actually cheated on the test. But if they buy you a personal essay, you’re still the bore you were before, no matter how appealing you sound.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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