Monday, May 15, 2006

"Packaging" Students for College, and Medical School Admission

Although this may seem a bit far afield for Health Care Renewal, the recent story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard student who quickly went from acclaimed novelist to being accused of plagiarism opened a new, and troubling window on how students are admitted to college, and even medical school.

The Harvard Independent reported that Ms Viswanathan wrote in the acknowledgements page of her now withdrawn novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, how she got "a helping hand from beginning to end," from Katherine Cohen. "Cohen is the founder and CEO of IvyWise, a private college-counseling firm perhaps best known for charging prices that would be exorbitant for all but a tiny sliver of Ivy-ambitioned parents."

Such services, and IvyWise in particular, were discussed as early as 2001 in New York Magazine . This article described "a prosperous new breed of private counselors who are helping the children of the rich attain their birthright of getting accepted to the Ivy League college of their choice despite the ever-mounting odds against them." Furthermore, "In order to enhance their chances of achieving glory (it goes without saying that their kids' SATs and GPAs are already in the steroid-enhanced range), families are chasing their dream by employing that most American of strategies for success -- marketing. 'I hear families use the word packaging,' says the mother of a senior at one of the city's most competitive girls' schools. ''We're packaging our daughter. The hair stands up on the back of your neck. They made an investment, and they want a return.'" These packaging services are capable of nearly taking over high-school students' lives for as long as their high-school career. The cost of the IvyWise platinum package (in 2001) was close to $30,000.

The Harvard Independent described the intensive involvement of such packaging services in students' lives. IvyWise's Cohen said, "I really look at everything going on in a student's life and plan everything from courses for four years to summers to outside activities and focus on strengthening whatever weaknesses (academic and personal) may come up." Furthermore, per the New York Magazine article, "The guidance counselor isn't above hitting up friends in high places for internships when a teenager's brag sheet could use a little fluffing." A follow-up article in the Harvard Independent declared, "perhaps the most striking aspect found in the wealth of coverage linked to on is the intense level of control that the company's counselors had over clients' academic and social lives. Indeed, if Cohen did in fact limit herself to projecting already-present qualities in her clients, many of them must have walked into IvyWise's Manhattan offices with little or no sense of who they truly were." The article includes copious quotes from the Ivywise web-site that show how Ivywise may affect aspects of students lives from their weekend schedule to whether they attend summer camp, thus, "true selves do not go into sessions with Cohen so much as emerge from them."

Local Rhode Island columnist Mark Patinkin summarized it nicely, "If your kids are applying to Ivy League schools but don't have such an agency behind them, the Kaavya's of the world have the advantage." "So Kaavya wasn't just another 'student' applying to Harvard. She was an elaborately packaged 'pitch.'" He concluded, "once, standout kids in America achieved success through hard work. Today, instead, they are carefully packaged for success by adults."

The results are suggested by another article in New York Magazine, appropriately entitled, "Generation Xerox,"

But there’s something fundamentally untoward about the cynical lessons that such a makeover process teaches the kids who go through it—especially when it seems to work.
We’ve forged a society in which misrepresentation is routine, encouraged, obligatory. For all her sweet Hogwarts dreams, an observant, canny, IvyWised-up kid is bound to draw certain conclusions about the way the real world works.
[the student] had already come to understand that her success so far was not just a matter of talent and discipline but of buying the right connections, cutting deals for behind-the-scenes assistance, cunning.

So how is this relevant to Health Care Renewal? As noted above, the IvyWise packaging process does seem to teach the cynical acceptance of misrepresentation, a notion that may be at the root of many of the stories on Health Care Renewal. Presumably, this lesson may be transmitted informally not just to students "packaged" by one service or another, but to others exposed to them.

More directly, some of the Ivywise packaged students may have already gone on to careers in medicine or health care. Finally, Ivywise offers to "counsel" students who apply to medical school. How often medical students have been packaged by one "counseling" service or the other, and the effects thereof, have yet to be investigated.

1 comment:

Alabaster said...

I've set up an open directory of admissions consulting services like IvyWise, Essay Edge and others where families can anonymously review their experience working with them.

IvyWise has an entry on the index

Anyone weighs in on their experience would be doing a service to the whole educational community.

Someone needs to hold these consultants accountable and help separate the honest operators from the "packagers."