The Stanford admission application asks a variety of questions to gauge a prospective student’s interests in everything from dormitories to academics to potential roommates. An applicant must also sign an honor code.
But what if applicants had to acknowledge whether or not they had used outside help, like a for-profit counseling agency, during the process?
That was the question Shawn Abbott, the director of admission, raised to the faculty’s Committee on Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid earlier this year. Abbott brought up the issue following concerns about an advertisement currently running in the Stanford Magazine for an “application boot camp” run by Michele Hernandez — who bills herself as “America’s premier college consultant” — that has provoked responses from several alumni, according to Kevin Cool, the magazine’s editor.
“The Hernandez company, and probably other similar companies, appear to be helping college applicants, including Stanford applicants, cheat on their applications,” Jonathan Eisenberg ’92 told the Office of Admission in a letter he provided to The Daily.
Hernandez, the head college consultant at Hernandez College Consulting and former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth, said that characterization is incorrect.
“We’re helping kids who could get into Stanford on their own,” she said. “We can’t invent talents, but we can show how to better represent them.”
The company helps clients outline application strategies to improve their chances and provides oral feedback on essays, Hernandez said. Her experience with applications from the university perspective, she said, means she knows “what would be crossing the line” in terms of help.
She charges up to $40,000 per client, sometimes for months of counseling, Business Week reported in 2007.
According to the magazine’s advertising manager, Phil Johnson, the advertisement is not directly placed by the publication itself; rather, the magazine is a partner with a third-party group called the Ivy League Magazine Network, which purchases advertising space in elite college magazines across the country.
“The magazine does represent the University, and if something is really inappropriate, it is the discretion of the magazine and the editor to pull it,” Johnson said.
So far, there are no plans to remove the advertisement from the Stanford Magazine.
“We’re not contractually obligated to run these ads, but if all other schools are running them, then we need a compelling reason not to,” Cool said.
Richard Shaw, the dean of admission, wrote to several universities also partnered with the Ivy League Network to alert them of Stanford’s situation.
“It has nothing to do with the ads themselves,” Cool added, “but with [the reader’s] perception of the company and the business practices as unethical.”
So, how does an admission officer flag outside help?
“We certainly encounter situations where we are suspicious when the application or the writing appears to be too ‘polished,’ so we always look for multiple pieces of evidence in an application,” Abbott wrote in an e-mail to The Daily. “If the essay is brilliant, we typically expect that the student will also have strong grades in English courses, strong writing test scores and recommendations that talk about a student’s writing ability.”
According to Abbott, there is not a formal policy in place to deal with “suspicious” applications. He would not say directly whether or not an applicant who paid Hernandez’s company for help would be considered cheating.
A move toward a more clear policy, Abbott said, would be to add a question on the Stanford application asking whether or not the applicant received outside help with his or her application. He called it “murky” territory, though, as outside help could range from having a college counselor or teacher provide advice to the “cheating” that alumni like Eisenberg accuse Hernandez’s company of facilitating.
“We’re wrestling with the idea that a question should be added to the application, but it’s not as simple as it sounds,” Abbott said. “If we add such a question, we need to determine what to do with that information, and we need to determine how we address honesty.”
The faculty committee has yet to make a decision on adding such a question.
“We are concerned about adding a question to the application that might encourage students to be less-than-honest if they feel their answer will influence their admission one way or the other,” Abbott said. “The bottom line is that the faculty Committee on Undergraduate Admission & Financial Aid would need to determine if they want us to consider this information in our selection process.”
Cool is concerned, for his part, that rejecting this advertisement when no other university has would set a negative precedent.
“Not everyone agrees that these practices are unethical,” he said. “[Hernandez] could be a savvy entrepreneur that has exploited a market successfully.”
For now, Abbott hopes that applicants remain honest and attest to their own work when signing the personal statement. He likened the online signature to abiding by Stanford’s Fundamental Standard.
“We aren’t blind to the fact that some students use independent college counselors,” Abbott said. Unfortunately for us, it is impossible for us to know exactly who is using a counselor and to what degree.”