When I posted my first flyer on Nantucket’s Main Street, I unknowingly carved out a niche for myself. It’s a niche that has allowed me to bill $300 an hour for helping rich kids find creative ways to say they’ve been traumatized—officially known as “admissions consulting.”
While there are plenty of for-hire college counselors whose job it is to cite the same ominous statistics over and over (tremble at Harvard’s 3.4 percent acceptance rate), hand-hold neurotic parents, and rehash Hayden’s List for the millionth time, this is not my realm. I don’t talk students through early-decision strategy or delineate reach, target, and safety schools. I’m strictly essays.
Due to gross overuse, the words “storyteller” and “narrative” have lost nearly all meaning, so think of it like this: I sell personality. I sell a viewpoint. I sell original thoughts. And these kids need my help because they have spent their lives up to this point being pruned more carefully than a ’Sconset hedge.
It’s a niche that has allowed me to bill $300 an hour for helping rich kids find creative ways to say they’ve been traumatized—officially known as “admissions consulting.”
My clients are mostly rising prep-school seniors from places such as Darien (Connecticut), Arlington (Virginia), and Brookline (Massachusetts). They attend top schools across the Northeast, and I get to know each one like a little sister or godson because I help them write the dreaded Common App essay.
For students of all income brackets, the essay has graduated from supporting character to leading role, thanks to the ubiquity of “Test-Optional” and the Supreme Court’s overturning of affirmative action. Where the essay used to be a nice-to-have tool for students who didn’t have excellent S.A.T. scores to distinguish themselves, now it’s essentially the only opportunity for them to provide information about themselves.
If you’re not familiar with the Common App essay, all you really need to know is that it has evolved into what is essentially a mandatory trauma dump. I mentioned my rate above, so it should come as no surprise that my students rarely have traditional trauma narratives. Poverty and racism, the stalwart essay topics, aren’t typically available to those who summer in Nantucket—so we have to get creative.
You can, with enough finessing, be traumatized by your own privilege. By the casual bigotry of your wealthy family. By your own blind spots (the opportunities others don’t have that you took for granted). I worked with one student whose father was a prominent public figure, and her essay discussed how her entire family was always performing and never allowed to “be themselves.” She said the need to project a confident outward image meant that she could never make a mistake, and she never had a chance to discover who she was.
If you’re not familiar with the Common App essay, all you really need to know is that it has evolved into what is essentially a mandatory trauma dump.
You can also be traumatized by the predictability of your own life—“gilded cage” essays are very popular (and successful, based on a three-for-three “dream school” acceptance rate last season) among my clients.
One student wrote about being envious of a friend who experienced “fulfillment” after working summers to purchase their own (used) car—having everything handed to you makes for a very medium existence.
A different gilded-cage essay described wanting to pursue a career outside of medicine but coming from “four generations” of cardiologists. It wasn’t just the family pressure; it was also the near-certain success (an entire system of string-pulling and favors, paved and ready for him) that the student couldn’t turn his back on.
I sell personality. I sell a viewpoint. I sell original thoughts. And these kids need my help because they have spent their lives up to this point being pruned more carefully than a ’Sconset hedge.
When the time comes to put together an outline for this monumental essay, I ask my clients about their friends, family, interests, and goals. They tell me about their clique drama and private feuds. I hear about contested wills and ugly estrangements. Divorce and alcoholism sometimes make an appearance.
They tell me about throwing parties in their parents’ brownstones and where they get their drugs. But it always comes back to the unbearable pressure they’re under. Whether they go to Loomis Chaffee or Horace Mann, the pressure, they say, is debilitating.
Since these kids are savvy and fluent in the language of privilege, they preface any statement that could be construed as ungrateful with an acknowledgment of their privilege. Whether it’s because they’re wealthy or white or male or nepo babies (or, as is often the case, all four), they make sure to lead with a politically correct statement.
But then they start sharing their anxieties, which are usually centered on their disillusionment with the college-admissions process. They know it’s a pay-to-play league that legacies, well-heeled international applicants, and celebrity parents dominate. One student told me that the son of a major donor to M.I.T. was applying early decision, so no one else from his class was bothering to apply to M.I.T. early. Even though they’re set up with every advantage, they feel the odds are stacked against them.
These advantages may feel paltry compared with the advantages of a family who donates an entire building to bolster an application, but the sheer fact of being rich gives 1-percenter applicants a huge leg up. In a recent study, economists affiliated with Harvard and Brown discovered that rich kids benefit from what essentially amounts to affirmative action for the wealthy, and that the “boost” consists of a three-part weapon: legacy status, athletic recruitment, and “higher non-academic ratings” (such as extracurricular activities). Even though sports contribute to a whopping 24 percent admissions-boost for students from top 1 percent families, the sense that someone else has a bigger, better advantage pervades.
I was surprised by this bleak outlook, toggling between realism and nihilism, which seemed endemic among Gen Z’s most privileged citizens. But, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been. These kids have been hearing about college since before they knew how to read and write. They witnessed what the privileged parents of the Varsity Blues scandal were willing to do in order to get their kids into college. What did we expect?
It always comes back to the unbearable pressure they’re under.
Adding fuel to the fire of disillusionment is the fact that college consultants are now suggesting kids start using their services before high school even begins, at fees exceeding, in some cases, $500,000. The unlucky students who go to them in the summer before senior year are treated to patronizing triage—“If you’d started with us when you were 13, we could have guided you through what classes to take and how to spend your summers and where to volunteer and …” This process is essentially stripping all choice and serendipity out of young kids’ lives.
No wonder there’s such a market for personality. These kids are being coached to within an inch of their lives, putting them, inevitably, in an automaton-like, hyper-cooperative “whatever you think is best” mode.
But deferral to the paid expert doesn’t work when that expert is hired to tell your story and you don’t really have one. What I’ve observed in these kids is a spiritual brokenness. They’ve been told so many times to think of themselves as a marketable product with a concise hook that they’re reduced to a slick, one-sentence assortment of activities and qualities (“STEM girl with a passion for fashion and wearable tech” being just one example) that some overpaid college counselor has made up for them. Before even a whiff of a self-actualized person can grow, they’re molded into watered-down versions of “excellence.”
These kids are being coached to within an inch of their lives, putting them, inevitably, in an automaton-like, hyper-cooperative “whatever you think is best” mode.
The misery I see is scary, but even scarier is its consistency and reach. These are not the sentiments of one spoiled kid or a sprinkling of distraught individuals—almost every student I work with, every year, exhibits this hopelessness.
We have to acknowledge that the admissions system is worse than “rigged” when the kids who are bred into success hate it, too. If you weren’t already convinced the admissions system was broken, the fact that it’s being criticized by those whom it favors most is damning.
Increasingly, the advantages rich kids possess come at the cost of some of the only things worth having: individuality and autonomy. I wonder, if they didn’t have someone telling them how to spend their free time and curating reading lists, if they were allowed to develop their own interests and not automatically placed in Girls Who Code, if maybe they’d have something sincere and compelling to answer when asked who they are.
Sanibel Chai is a writer living in New York City. She’s currently working on a retelling of the Odyssey