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 and receive 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, tacit 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.
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 target-marketed 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 tends to lead 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.