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ENTREPRENEUR PROFILES

8.2.99  
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 degree."

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 is theirs.

"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 Harvard College.

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 credentials."

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 name "extraordinary."

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 him.

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
Jeremy_Quittner@businessweek.com

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