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Posted at 12:32 PM ET, 03/10/2011

'Crazy U' delves into admissions process

By Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson

A few weeks ago I received the book, "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College," and groaned. Great, I thought, another book written by another Baby Boomer for fellow Baby Boomers about what the admissions process means to them (and not, you know, their college-bound children).

crazy-u.jpgYet, as I read "Crazy U" while on a ski trip with friends last weekend, I found myself reading passages aloud and saying: Did you know that the SAT has become so boring because the test writers are working within tightly written guidelines aimed at not offending anyone? Can you believe there's a woman in New York who charges "high net worth individuals" up to $40,000 to advise their kids through the admissions process? Did you know that back in the 90s, one in four colleges were accused of fudging the stats they gave U.S. News to determine rankings?

This isn't your average parental guidebook -- although, be warned, there is a healthy dose of admissions hype, recounted convos from D.C.-area kitchens and an entire chapter dedicated to separating from your offspring. This is deeply researched look at college admissions that delves into parts of the process most parents never see.

(Ferguson will be online at 1 p.m. Thursday to answer questions about his book and the crazy admissions process in general. Click here to submit questions.)

I found "Crazy U" absolutely fascinating -- although one of my friends pointed out that it's "fascinating " and not "terrifying" because we aren't the parents of high school kids. Yet bringing the book to brunch Sunday morning launched our group into a long, complicated discussion about admissions, how financial aid is decided, if colleges really do take a holistic look at applicants or if they just look at test scores, and if it's worth taking out more student loan debt to get a master's degree simply because everyone in D.C. has one.

Ferguson's book has been getting glowing reviews, which are often written by Baby Boomers who relate the book to their children's quest for the perfect college. In the Wall Street Journal, reviewer Daniel Akst (who is the "father of twin boys who are three years away from this dismal rite of passage") wrote that "Crazy U is compulsively readable, unusually vivid -- and thoroughly dispiriting, even though the author's son ends up doing just fine." Here at the Post, reviewer Steven Levingston (whose daughter just turned in all her college apps) said "the book is both a hilarious narrative and an incisive guide to the college admissions process."

Here are a few things I underlined in my copy, many of which sparked conversations with my friends:

* One out of four students enrolled in a private college or university hired a private counselor to help through admissions, Ferguson reports. Often these are former admissions office staffers (Ferguson compares it to Capitol Hill's "revolving door") who swear they know what it takes to get into a fancy school and scare parents with low admit rates, high tuition prices and tales of "SuperKids" with perfect test scores, high GPAs and amazing resumes filled with service work.

* As Ferguson's son attended an SAT prep class, he sat at home and took the test himself. He did well in critical reading, but in math he scored at "a level somewhere below 'lobotomy patient' but above 'Phillies fan.'"It made me wonder how many score-obsessed parents have done the same. They really should.

* For parents who make their living writing and editing, a college admissions essay can be a tricky situation. Ferguson devotes an entire chapter to his son writing essays (and even purchases a personalized essay online as an experiment). His son struggled and suffered through many elusive essay questions, but savored one from Georgetown University that asked applicants to write about a current world crisis and propose a course of action. Answering the Georgetown question was "like a vacation," his son said, and made writing the other essays easier.

* And Ferguson even goes after major newspapers that obsessively write about the admissions process. As a reporter who has written a few such stories, I chuckled at this paragraph: "Admissions stories are a staple of the news business, of course. They have been so since the first baby boomer editor realized he couldn't afford the tuition of the school his kid desperately wanted to go to, and he dispatched his reporters to find out why the hell not."

Again, Ferguson and I will be online Thursday at 1 p.m. to answer questions about "Crazy U." Send us your questions now.

Campus Overload is a daily must-read for all college students. Make sure to bookmark You can also follow me on Twitter and fan Campus Overload on Facebook.

By Jenna Johnson  | March 10, 2011; 12:32 PM ET
Categories:  Admissions  | Tags:  Admissions, Campus Overload Live  
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As an independent college counselor, I take issue with the statements in "Crazy U" that college consultants tell parents they know what it takes to get a student into a fancy school and scare parents with stories about how difficult it is to get into college. It is against the ethics of our profession to tell parents that we can get their student into a particular school. We help students find colleges and universities that are a good fit for them and provide college counseling to guide them in the transition from high school to college. I also think we do everything we can to take the stress out of college admissions and help families to keep the whole process in perspective.

Susie Watts

Posted by: collegedirection | March 10, 2011 11:59 PM | Report abuse

When Mr. Ferguson correctly notes that about 25% of seniors use an independent educational consultant, he immediately questions their value. Instead, I hoped he would realize that the field has grown as quickly as it has because it fills a need. Unlike his own kid, most students' fathers can't--and shouldn't--spend a year deeply enmeshed in their child's college search and application process.

It is easy for him to point out the ONE IEC in the country that charges $40,000 but why ignore the fact that thousands of others charge about 1/10th that amount. Yes, some independent educational consultants are former employees in admissions offices, but the vast majority are former school-based counselors. In both cases, professionals frustrated by limited time wanted to move into a profession that puts students--their clients--ahead of institutional needs.

I'm not sure if Mr. Ferguson actually checked into the descriptions and web sites of professional IECs but he would have seen a strong emphasis on a "good fit" not on "getting in." In fact, members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association have their marketing materials examined when they seek membership. Not only must the emphasis be on fit, and the IEC demonstrate a clear message that they don't use 'pull' or 'insider information' or improve odds of 'getting in' but they may not use any language that seeks to raise parental anxieties. The message from a professional consultant is that there are great colleges matches for everyone. The consultants value comes from having visited hundreds of campuses and advised hundreds of students--not from any secret network of insiders.

The number of students using IECA members has more than tripled in recent years. Why? Because every student deserves great advising that is focused on their own educational and social needs, learning style, and more. This what an IEC can provide a family. It is a shame that Mr. Ferguson didn't appreciate that not every parent can invest in the process as he did.

-Mark Sklarow, Executive Director
Independent Educational Consultants Association

Posted by: msklarowIECA | March 11, 2011 2:53 PM | Report abuse

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