David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected].com

Charlatans, Fools and Essays

“There is no possibility whatsoever of reconciling science and theology, at least in Christendom. Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. If he did, then Christianity becomes plausible; if he did not, then it is sheer nonsense. I defy any genuine scientist to say that he believes in the Resurrection, or indeed in any other cardinal dogma of the Christian system.”

“This summarizes what for many scientists is a genuine dilemma ­ whether Christian faith can exist within a scientific framework. Drawing on your knowledge of scientific inquiry, support or refute Mencken’s assertion. Include in your argument both personal and historical examples.”


Isn’t that a great essay question? Don’t you wish you could go to school with students who were brilliant, insightful and quirky enough to respond cogently to such a sophisticated issue? Earlham College, an exquisitely wonderful liberal arts school in Indiana, used this prompt for years. (They no longer do: Colleges entrance essay questions are becoming increasingly homogeneous. The reasons for this march toward vanilla are the subject of another newsletter.)

I want to use this question as the starting off point for the following question: “What is the role of the independent admissions counselor in the transition process?” Either independent counselors convey an advantage to the applicants with whom they work or they don’t. If independent counselors convey an advantage to their (invariably wealthy) clients, then they are useful–and gaming the system in a dishonest way by helping students of privilege get in to “top” colleges. If independent counselors do not confer an unfair advantage, then they are useless. They are preying on vulnerable families at a sensitive time in their lives.

Before refuting this assertion–that independent counselors are either charlatans or fools–let me point out two egregious example:

1) Somebody–OK, I admit it! The somebody was an independent counselor–charged a bunch of money to tell high school kids what to wear on their college interviews.

The “counselor” who grabbed a suitcase full of samoleans to tell kids not to show up naked to their admissions interviews (really, what else is there to say?) doesn’t play in the public pool and is not a member of the professional organizations to which competent, ethical counselors belong (the National Association for College Admissions Counselors and the Independent Educational Consultants Association.) The haberdasher guru is a counselor in the sense that there are “doctors” who prescribe peach pits as a treatment for cancer.

2) Somebody else–Yes, another independent counselor–claims that all of her students were admitted to their first choice college. This assertion is, at best, an unfortunate marketing ploy that makes “Stop smoking in an hour 100% guaranteed” seem honest by comparison. “Top” colleges admit fewer than one student in ten. All your clients got into their first choice school? Let me show you a bridge in Brooklyn; it’s for sale.

Then what is the role of the independent counselor? If we don’t confer an unfair advantage, what do we do?

At our best we dispel misinformation, assuage anxiety and help families through a stressful time. We help students understand that choosing and applying to college should be a time of self discovery and insight, not a time of frenzy and competition.

Here’s an example from a concerned parent to whom I spoke earlier this week. This call is typical of hundreds of conversations I’ve had over the past 30 years: “My son has a 3.0 now that he’s a junior, but he had a terrible ninth grade year, he even got a D in Algebra. He has some attention deficits, inattentive type, and his grades have been up and down. He’s a great kid–plays lacrosse, writes beautifully, knows all kinds of arcane information about esoteric topics, but he’s a little immature. I’m concerned that he won’t be admitted to any college anywhere.” Dad goes on. “All the parents of his classmates say that our son has no chance, that he should join the military, that kids with ADD never succeed in college, that he won’t get the support that he needs, that even if he gets in, he’ll flunk out. We don’t know what do, where to apply, how to handle the process.”

Here’s the good news for this family and for thousands like them: Each and every assertion above is as misguided as it is untrue. In fact, there are hundreds of colleges that accept virtually every qualified applicant. Hoards of B students go to college every year. Scads of students with attentional issues go to college and are successful in the classroom and out. There is a continuum of colleges that offer support for these students. And colleges are sensitive to the trend of an applicant’s grades. A “D” in ninth grade algebra can certainly be forgiven, especially if the student has a B in pre-calculus as a senior.

Helping this family come up with an appropriate list of schools has value; knowing where this young man will not just survive but thrive, is the sacred trust of the independent counselor; knowing about great colleges that aren’t on the top of some silly list in a magazine is a great gift to present to families. Helping this student feel good about his academics, his abilities and his future is worthwhile. Sure there are charlatans in this profession who only work with kids applying to the same “top” schools, pretending that they can help these kids game the system or gain a competitive advantage. But these counselors are in the minority. Most of us make an honest living working with great kids like the one described above.

And who knows? In a given admissions cycle and with solid junior year grades, this young man could look as high as Earlham College–that wonderful school that used to ask such a thought provoking essay question.



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