When I was in high school, I had two friends who were both male, and maybe more importantly, Asian. We initially met each other at the behest of our parents, who wanted us to form a robot design team and compete in tournaments. That initial plan failed, but like all Asian males, we reveled in the parental disappointment and became friends anyways. Our distinctions made us tenuous friends. One, named Noah, was always the more social of the group. Being the brashest one, he was always being invited to parties and such. He also had a sharp mind for physics, which is why he chose physics as his major. The other friend, Brian, was a year older and the quietest of us, but he also excelled academically where the rest of us didn’t. He would become valedictorian of his high school, consistently scoring the highest marks of his year. He wanted to major in environmental engineering, which made him something of an anomaly: an Asian male, wanting to major in engineering. And there was me, the most average of the three. I liked to write, was fairly decent at the math and scored well on my standardized tests, but that was really it. I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do, so I decided to become a business major.
Yet when we all applied to Cornell during our senior years, only Noah and I were accepted. Brian, for all his academic excellence, was waitlisted. The reason why, we’ll never know. It might have been because applying as an Asian to an engineering major is akin to playing the lottery. Or it might have been because Cornell thought that he was too quiet to be successful. Or maybe, on the day his application was being reviewed, the applicant before him had been strikingly similar, and the committee had decided what really mattered was diversity, not merit.
Colleges are notoriously secretive about their admissions process, and in light of several lawsuits against colleges for discrimination, it’s unlikely they will ever reveal what makes a perfect applicant. It’s a fruitless endeavor to guess who will be accepted or not, but people are still trying.
One of those still trying is the brand new startup, CollegeVine. The company was founded in a Harvard dorm room in 2013, and has since blossomed to become a globally recognized program that aids high school students with college applications. Its methodology is fascinating, and from a marketing perspective, brilliant. What CollegeVine does is it partners students from elite colleges to mentor high school students throughout the college applications process. These college students are dubbed consultants, who develop personal relationships with students while keeping track of progress through the college applications process. Through a series of phone calls, the students give the consultants their desired list of schools, review their essays, strengthen their resumes to appeal to universities, and highlight their unique interests to stand out.
There’s a certain amount of cockiness to start a program like this. It assumes a lot of things — mainly, that CollegeVine truly understands how elite universities decide on applicants. That isn’t true of course, but by marketing itself around consultants from elite schools, it sells consumers on its authenticity. We’ve been here before, therefore we have the knowledge to help you. The problem with that assumption is Noah and I both got in Cornell, but we would have an easier time explaining to you mechanical shell theory than explaining to you why we got into Cornell and Brian didn’t.
Admittedly, what CollegeVine does well is it understands the quirks of the college admissions game. What separates you from others is not grades or activities — it’s your hook, a story that that will tell colleges why you are passionate about your subject. Over the course of time with a consultant, high school students will begin to learn the best strategy to sell themselves to college. Collegevine likes to believe it’s cracked the code: It boasts that 73 percent of its students are accepted into at least one of their top three colleges. The other 27 percent is, as I suspect, where the magical CollegeVine formula falls short.
But watching CollegeVine work in person is fascinating. Tonight, I’m sitting in a brightly lit auditorium, watching my friend, a consultant for CollegeVine, anxiously wait to begin a call with a student about her college applications. The student is Asian, which, as I’ll learn, is more rule than exception.
The strange thing is I wouldn’t usually think of my friend as a CollegeVine consultant. She wears ripped pants and traffics edgy humor, she wholly independent and unique, smart and brash — exactly the kind of person that makes Cornell special.
And exactly the kind of person CollegeVine can’t market itself off of.
She’s normally punk as hell, but tonight, she’s downright corporate. CollegeVine has a certain ideal of an Ivy league student that will appeal to high schoolers, and in their rigorous consultant training, they teach them how to be professional and empathetic. There’s no need for eccentricities. Ironically, in the chase to help students market themselves to college as unique vibrant individuals, CollegeVine had taken the very essence of that spirit out.
Suddenly, the phone rings, and we both jump in surprise. It doesn’t take even a second — without hesitation, my friend leans into her phone, and cheerfully asks:
William Wang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester.