Marketing Irresistible Students

The New York Times yesterday featured a revealing piece on “branding” as a strategy for college admittance. There are few topics so noxious as the lengths to which desirous students will go (and amounts that parents will pay) to buff their applications to a fine polish with the aid of pricey consultation services. Their counsel typically recommends a farrago of service to underprivileged communities, expertise in obscure sports or instruments, nebulous leadership and the like. At the end of which there may be a student left amidst the advertising glamour.

On a recent afternoon, Miss Lindsell and Jasmine Rebadavia [sophomores at Columbia Prep], met with Chioma Isiadinso, founder of a small New York coaching firm, Expartus, for an introductory session. The girls reeled off their activities – playing flute, running for the cross-country team, working with organizations that grapple with global issues like child soldiers and sex trafficking.

Gently, Ms. Isiadinso asked them to think about how they might play leadership roles in those activities or channel them into summer programs that might demonstrate their ardor.
“Think not just what you’ve done, but why you’ve done what you’ve done,” Ms. Isiadinso told them. “What they care about is the passion, commitment and consistency.”

Remember that, applicants, if you don’t have a private counseling session lined up yet. Efforts have clearly reached absurd lengths. Other coaching services go so far as to arrange internships and jobs for students in order to improve their admissions marketability. Now they’re also clearly trying to paper over any presumed application defects:

Still, private coaches striving to get students to define themselves may push them to the edge, or sometimes overboard. Jon Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School in California, tells of a counselor who, aware of campus politics, urged an Eagle Scout to volunteer for an AIDS telephone help line to prove that he defied the Scouts’ gay-hostile image. “I think it’s disgraceful advice,” Mr. Reider said. “It matters whether you’re doing the activity for the right reasons.”

“I don’t like the idea that a kid is a box of cornflakes,” he added.

The kids seem quite happy to comply with this advice, though, if it can earn them a coveted admissions spot. Duke University, in what seems to have been their only sensible act of the last decade, began asking on their application if students had used private coaching services. It’s a step in the right direction. The author comments that “Colleges say they are getting wise to students who dress up a privileged background with a benevolent sheen.” That’d be fortunate. It would be more helpful if high school students would stop pursuing activities because they thought admissions officers would find them appealing, and started doing things because they actually wanted to.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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