A Harvard Dropout Trades on Harvard's Name and Applicants' Fears
A case of millennial chutzpah or a breach of ethics?
Dropping out of college used to be a personal failure. Now it's a status
symbol. Quit school. Start a Web company. Make millions. Like Bill
Gates. Who needs college?
Well, not all of those dropout entrepreneurs are turning their backs on
Old Ivy. Take 21-year-old Harvard University student Geoff Cook. A year
away from his BA, Cook says he's ditching academia to devote himself
to his Web company, CollegeGate.com. Just what does CollegeGate.com do?
It claims to give undergraduate, business school, and grad school
applicants an admissions "edge" by rewriting their application essays --
for style and content.
Cook certainly sounds like a guy who's slamming the door on his
alma mater's fingers -- even after blowing three years' tuition.
"On a business level, if you are going to start your own thing, the
Harvard degree is almost a meaningless thing," he scoffs. "It is not
like you are going to get a million dollars if you had finished your
That belief hasn't stopped his CollegeGate.com -- whose home page
sports Harvard's crimson and white colors -- from mentioning Harvard's
trademarked name liberally, leaving the impression of what could be
interpreted as an official link: "Make Your Essay Count, Put Harvard
Editors to Work for You," the site promises. Its "Premium Harvard
Editing Service" offers to run your essay through a "dedicated team of
Harvard-educated essayists." Until Business Week Online inquired about
the reference late last week, the site also promised: "Harvard-educated
essayists and/or admissions officers edit and critique all essays."
After Business Week brought the site to the university's attention,
an official there contacted Cook, who subsequently dropped the reference to
admissions officers. No admissions officers -- from Harvard or elsewhere
-- actually work for CollegeGate.com, Cook acknowledges, though he says
he still wants to hire some.
Cook's two-year-old Web site -- which says it's "the Net's biggest and
best editing resource" ("I believe we are the best. As for the
biggest...it is always small businesses trying to act big," Cook
elaborates) -- is part of a larger industry that feeds on a widespread
public belief that admission to a top-ranked undergraduate or
graduate school is essential for success in life. That has produced a
boom for the old-line standardized-test tutoring companies and generated
a plethora of application coaches and essay "improvers," whose work
raises troubling questions about who does the writing that applicants claim
"We make the changes to the essay," Cook says. "We rewrite it, that is
true, but there is some limit." CollegeGate.com's site says little about
limits, however. "Our professional editors will not only ensure your
essay is perfect, they will work to make your essay's content
phenomenal. No matter how good or bad you think your application essay
is now, the edited essay will blow your mind and will give you the edge
you need in the intensely competitive college and graduate school
application process," it says.
In fact, the limits are unclear. Harvard officials say they accept the
idea that students get help from parents, teachers, or other mentors.
But thoroughly revamping a candidate's work for pay puts CollegeGate in
an ethical zone Harvard's admissions office appears to condemn. "We
expect [student essays] to be honestly presented and to be their own
work, and to the extent that it is not true, it would be a violation of
that expectation," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions for
Other Web sites in the admissions-essay business appear more circumspect
than CollegeGate.com. Myessay.com says it gives advice and provides some
sample essays. Ivyessays.com's site says it does editing and sells past
applicants' essays as templates. Both have strong statements that they
don't support abuse of the application process.
CollegeGate also says it gives "access" to over 100 essays free via its
site, which does warn students that copying the free essays is
plagiarism and admissions officers will probably catch it. Vedant
Mimani, president and chief executive officer of Myessay.com, based in
New York, says the essays applicants submit to his service are "never
rewritten," calling the practice "unethical and fraudulent."
Ivyessays.com officials didn't return calls for comment.
Cook appears unperturbed by the controversy about the college-essay
editing business and probing questions about his claims. He admits he
has no license to use the Harvard name. He also acknowledges that "there
really is no such thing as a Harvard editor," claiming that it's clear
the editors aren't Harvard staff or faculty members -- despite the
wording. "The [site's] tool bar may say 'Harvard editors,' but the pages
say 'Harvard-educated.' It's explained," he insists. The description is
legitimate because all editors are Harvard students or grads, he says.
(He doesn't edit anymore.) "It's a credential, and we like to show our
David Illingworth, associate dean of Harvard College, initially said:
"The Harvard name is definitely trademarked, and it has to be used by
license, and if they are not using the Harvard name in an appropriate
way, then that is obviously not a good thing." He later said he called
Cook and was satisfied with his responses. "We are handling this
internally," he said. He declined to elaborate.
Allan Ryan, an attorney for Harvard, says there's nothing wrong with
Harvard students (Cook is still listed as a student there) using their
credentials to sell a business or service. There is a problem, however,
when students suggest an affiliation with the university that doesn't
exist. The suggested affiliation becomes even more problematic when the
person is selling educational services. "When we talk about a service
that is aimed at high school students and appeals to their desire to get
into college, then we want to be very clear that Harvard University is
not offering the service," he says. Nonetheless, university officials
stress that they're very cautious about pursuing a Harvard student legally,
and they aren't sure they'll even send a cease-and-desist letter, though
Admissions Director McGrath Lewis did call the site's use of the Harvard
It was the ease of starting a Web business and the entrepreneurial
lifestyle that attracted Cook to the idea. "Everyone at Harvard wants to
be an investment banker or a consultant," Cook says. He says he started
CollegeGate in his dorm room with $800, partly from a credit card, in
1997, depending on word of mouth to sell his service. In 1998, he says
the company had revenues of $85,000, and his staff of 20 part-time
editors revised 1,500 essays. This year, he expects the company to edit
more than 3,500 essays, bringing in revenues of almost $220,000. Cook pays his
editors between $30 and $45 per essay, which doesn't leave a lot for
Cook says he made $36,253 last year, a salary he deems inadequate. He
thinks that could rise to between $70,000 and $80,000 over the next year
-- before taxes. If his dream doesn't pan out, "it's not like Harvard
won't take me back," he notes.
CollegeGate's primary service, Premium Harvard Editing, costs
about $60. Usually two editors work on each essay for a total of two
hours, Cook says. The deluxe service, which costs about $200, includes a
week of feedback sessions with the editors. The fact that he doesn't
intend to get a degree and is no longer an active editor at any Harvard
publication -- though his site bio lists him as an editor at two --
doesn't trouble Cook: "That's the way it works. The founding members
don't have to have the great educations."
As for the ethics of his activities, Cook says his service doesn't
encourage plagiarism and doesn't do anything that hasn't been done for
years. "I think the fact that you ask someone to help you reword a
paragraph does not make it dishonest or plagiarized," he says. Cook says
private school students have always had advisers or English teachers to
coach them on their essays. His service is simply "evening the playing
field for someone who grew up in a crummy school district with no one
whose opinion is worthwhile on writing an essay."
Cook concedes that he doesn't know if his clients actually fit that
demographic profile, though he contends that only a minority apply to
Ivy League schools. As for success rates, that's hard to measure, too.
In April, Cook conducted an E-mail poll of all 1998 clients, and 400
replied. Of that number, he says 85% got into one of the top three
colleges on their lists.
Like most entrepreneurs, Cook has big plans -- assuming Harvard doesn't
try to shut him down for infringing its trademark. He's looking for
angel investors to kick in a few hundred thousand dollars. After two
or three years, he's hoping for an initial public offering, and
"if the company were able to sell for a couple of million, well, you
know, then I could do whatever I want." And prove that only chumps
go to college.
By Jeremy Quittner in New York