“How can I get into Harvard?” high school students worldwide asked Sophia D. Chua-Rubenfeld ’15. “Can you help me?”
In the aftermath of her mother’s controversial parenting book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” then-Harvard freshman Chua-Rubenfeld’s mailbox was running out of space. Suddenly the poster child for college admissions success, Chua-Rubenfeld received pleas for guidance on some students’ ultimate goal: Harvard acceptance.
After graduating, Chua-Rubenfeld and her cousin, Amalia Halikas, Yale Class of 2015, started Tiger Cub Tutoring (TCT). The company, which borrows Chua-Rubenfeld’s nickname from her mother’s book, boasts 20 tutors and more than 100 clients. TCT set out to provide academic tutoring, college consulting, and standardized test prep to students across the country. Four years later, Chua-Rubenfeld is answering those pleas.
TCT is just one of many student-run college admissions consulting businesses springing up across the nation. Unsurprisingly, it’s also just one of many student-run college admissions consulting businesses at Harvard. While student admissions counselors provide a unique perspective for a lower price than established firms, they lack the experience of professional college counselors and the data to substantiate their services.
GROWING A STUDENT BUSINESS
“We started out meeting on the second floor of Panera every week,” Samuel Z. Huang ’18, Chief Financial Officer of Harvard Square College Consulting (HSCC), explains. Founded last year by Huang and two friends, the student-run HSCC provides Skype-based college admissions counseling.
Huang, along with Yehong Zhu ’18, an inactive FM editor, and Dominic Akandwanaho ’16, said they aimed to help meet the increasing demand from high schoolers seeking college admissions guidance.
“We wanted to help out people who have a really good shot at applying to competitive colleges and who just need more resources,” Huang says. Most new student-run services grow from this same professed intention: providing equal opportunities for students of all backgrounds.
“We are offering really, really high quality tutoring, but are knocking a zero off of what most people charge,” Chua-Rubenfeld says. Established test prep companies, which charge up to hundreds of dollars per hour for counseling, are often inaccessible to students from lower-income families. Meanwhile, one hour at a student-run company can cost about $60.
Conscious of the disparity in access to college counseling services, both HSCC and TCT offer pro-bono services to low-income clients on top of their already discounted prices.
“What we’re looking for is the kid who has really big dreams… and just doesn’t have the resources or family background to get that on their own,” Chua-Rubenfeld says. TCT aims to build a clientele of which at least 10 percent qualify for financial aid.
Worthy goals aside, these companies are, at their core, businesses. The Ivy League names help, too.
THE IVY ADVANTAGE
According to college admissions expert Parke P. Muth, it isn’t an accident that these businesses pop up at the most elite schools in the country. Muth observes that “the majority of the [student-run services] that I’ve ever looked at front and center have Mr. Smith from Harvard, Mr. Jones from Yale, Ms. Jackson from Stanford. The usual suspects. That’s their advertising.”
Both services take full advantage of Ivy League branding. Tiger Cub’s website offers the chance to “bring Harvard and Yale to your laptop today!” HSCC’s ensures visitors that their staff of almost 20 Harvard undergraduates is “the cream of the crop” and presents the crests of all eight Ivies on their home page.
If Harvard’s stamp of approval wasn’t enough to attract clients, TCT and HSCC aren’t shy about listing their staff members’ accolades. High school valedictorians, 2400 SAT recipients, National Merit scholars, and National AP Scholars abound on HSCC and TCT’s tutor profiles.
Chua-Rubenfeld says that the Ivy League pedigree “definitely gives some credibility.” It also gives them access to a niche customer base. HSCC tutors students from California to New York, and both groups target clients from China. HSCC has Chinese partners who send them students, and TCT has a Chinese version of its website that offers tutoring for the TOEFL, the common app-required English language test.
These companies’ client bases stem from Ivy League reputations. Questions remain, however, about whether they deliver on their promises.
CONFIDENCE BEFORE CURRICULUM
Student-run college consulting services advertise their commitment to individual learning styles. For the most part, tutors develop their own curriculum.
“We give them a really, really wide latitude,” Chua-Rubenfeld says. Many student tutors have experience with other test prep or college consulting organizations, and HSCC provides tutors with a training document containing tips for students. Ultimately, though, there is no formal training for services like TCT and HSCC.
“They are very trusting of their tutors, and of their ability to cater curriculum to individual students,” says Taylor Kay Phillips ’15, a tutor at TCT.
Joan H. Zhang ’17, another TCT tutor, says TCT is “really trusting that these are high achieving Harvard or Yale students who know what they’re doing.”
This hands-off approach leaves tutors to prep on their own, using online resources to tailor their curriculum to individual clients. “We use online resources, like the College Board. I do research online and then help them through the problems they can’t get,” says Alexander T. Moore, a tutor at HSCC.
Still, TCT has a clear philosophy. According to Chua-Rubenfeld, “99 percent of coaching kids through the college process is just instilling them with confidence.”
Providing confidence turns out to be something almost every tutor emphasizes as one of their main objectives.
“Do my students feel like they are stronger writers? Are they more confident?” Phillips says of her strategies for measuring success.
According to Moore, tutors’ own college admissions memories may remind them how crucial confidence is to an application.
“We just went through the process, so we’re way more familiar with it,” Moore says. Despite this unique perspective, many of the tutors don’t have the qualifications held by most professionals.
THE PROFESSIONAL EDGE
“I was massively unqualified. I’m not an education expert. I didn’t know how to help these kids,” Chua-Rubenfeld admits. Chua-Rubenfeld viewed starting a student-run consulting business as a challenge.
Many professional college counselors join organizations like the National Associations of College Admissions Counselors (NACA) or the International Educational Consultant Association (IECA) that host conferences and workshops on admissions. Here, professionals learn about a wide range of schools and establish relationships with college representatives. Student tutors, by and large, don’t have access to these resources.
Student-run groups draw mostly on their own admissions experiences. According to Muth, these experiences, though relevant for applying to highly selective schools, are less broadly applicable because “95 percent of students who apply to Harvard are not getting in.” Most students, says Muth, “will probably need a wider range of schools to look at.”
Chua-Rubenfeld, though, says that TCT’s services aren’t exclusively focused on Ivies. “We definitely don’t feel that every kid needs to get a 2400 or be a Yale, Harvard, Princeton admit to be successful,” says Chua-Rubenfeld.
Student run groups also don’t yet track and guarantee results the way some of the professional tutoring giants do. Kaplan testing offers a higher score or your money back. The Princeton Review guarantees at least an 100-point improvement on its students’ SAT scores. But for the student-run groups, Zhang notes, “It’s very challenging for them to have a score guarantee because we’re not teaching on a structured system or a plan.”
In place of metrics, these companies rely on a more subjective measure of success: client satisfaction.
“So far I don’t have a lot of hard data. But I have happy students and that’s really important to me,” Chua-Rubenfeld tells us. Both companies are still young; neither has completed a full admissions cycle. Data-driven promises could be a part of their futures.
Even advertised facts, figures, and testimonials, though, may be difficult to fact-check, Muth says.
“There are many websites that list things like the number of their students who have been admitted to certain schools. There is certainly some embellishment going on, as there is very little way these figures could be checked,” Muth wrote in an email.
In HSCC’s case, for example, a website testimonial, ostensibly from a current Harvard freshman, praised the company for “all the guidance I received from HSCC... They helped me see the qualities that made me unique—and illuminated those traits through my application.”
The student in question, though currently a freshman at Harvard, said she never used HSCC’s services. Zhu, one of the HSCC co-founders, hosted the student at Visitas and associated the student’s name with the erroneous quote.
Zhu said she helped the student with “college related activities,” using the student’s name “on the condition that when we did have clients we would replace the reviews with updated reviews [from formal HSCC clients]... We just haven’t had a chance to update the website yet, but I will get to it right away.”
After The Crimson reached out to Zhu for comment, the testimony was removed from the site.
Huang, one of Zhu’s co-founders, declined to comment on the false testimonial. Akandwanaho, the third co-founder, could not be reached for comment.
According to Muth, situations like this aren’t unique to undergraduate-run services.
“It is not just students groups that are misleading families, students and educators,” he says.
While questions still remain about the efficacy of student-run college consulting groups, their rapid growth suggests they aren’t going away anytime soon.
These groups’ ultimate pitch lies in the interaction with “a student who was accepted to college two years ago, versus a person who may have been accepted 30 years ago,” Moore says. “There’s a difference to that.”