A money-back 'guarantee' of college admission? | September 2, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 2, 2011

A money-back 'guarantee' of college admission?

Consultant setting up shop in Palo Alto proud of unconventional approach

by Chris Kenrick

Steven Ma says his business is "hated by most colleges."

This story contains 994 words.

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Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.


Posted by Disappointed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2011 at 10:53 am

I grew up in CA in a time when everyone who was qualified to get into a UC could get in and get an exceptional education for a bargain. My sons were also able to avail themselves of this benefit. I regret to see that this is no longer possible. Because of the advent of the much needed out of state funds for our cash strapped university system we will be having fewer and fewer CA students. I wish there could be some way that CA students could get some kind of preferential treatment but, alas, I fear the days of a quality education for all are gone. I am also wondering how the technical landscape of the US will change when so many offshore students come here to be educated and then leave.

Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2011 at 11:20 am

The Gunn college counseling is a joke. We met with the counselor twice. The first time, he spoke almost without pausing for a breath because he had so much info to cover in so little time. The second time was not much different.

The rest of it was via email and a virtual pat on the back, wishing our student good luck. There was no help reviewing the college essay. Gunn college counselors are well-intentioned but they simply do not have the time to do an adequate job.

Anyone who believes that the students are well served by this is, quite frankly, out of touch with reality.

Posted by PA parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 2, 2011 at 11:29 am

I am very dsappointed with this college service. I just went thru my older daughters' college application process. She was lucky- got in all her choices except one (3 Ivies, 4 big10, all UCs and some small private liberal art schools). This service adds to the craziness of nothing but Ivies. I would discourage parents to follow this non-productive, money wasting, and may result in long term damage to your child. College application can be pleasant and stress-free process for both you and your child. Let them take the lead to visit, to explore, to figure out for themselves who they are and what they want to be. After all, they're going to college and don't you want them to be happy!! Lastly, I'd like to encourage PA weekly to write about other college counseling services.

Posted by ag
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 2, 2011 at 11:50 am

This is insane, counterproductive, and very sad. This company takes advantage of people who are desperate to get into the "right" college and who will feel like failures if they don't get in. Not to mention the fact that students end up being accepted not based on their own merit and the right match, but because someone helped them get in. When will parents understand that a successful future is not only about the "right" college on a resume, but much much more??

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 2, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Regardless of what we think of this service, let's keep in mind that college admission in the US is not exactly just based on students' merits. Just like we have the special prep schools that feed into certain elite colleges, we also have the 'legacy' students who get in based on the family name and connections.
Surprisingly, college admissions in many places outside the US have a much more transparent/objective approach: all applicants go take the same test, and the top scores get it, regardless of wealth/name/family connections.
Pros/cons in both approaches, but let's not fool ourselves thinking that we have a perfect meritocracy in our college admission process.

Posted by Kenneth
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 2, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Tiger Moms must love this! I think the Asians are doing what is necessary to get ahead. They will be our leaders of tomorrow. The only real problem I have with it is the exclusively Asian context of it. If a similar venture had a "Whites only" or "Whites preferred" policiy it would get into trouble.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 2, 2011 at 1:09 pm

This is the most racist thing I have heard of. If a business was set up specifically for the white/caucasian community, it would be closed down immediately. How can this be allowed? How can this article actually condone it?

Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 2, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Your tax dollars wasted! Colleges are funded by US citizens to educate the world's wealthy.

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm

I think it'd be poetic justice if the hacker collective Anonymous or Wikileaks were to break into this guy's servers and publish the names of every student who uses his services. Then, university admission offices could cross-check their applicant pool and nix the cheaters that these people are.

If you're against steroid use in sports, monetary inducements for college athletes, doping in cycling, or industrial espionage for that matter, you have to be against this type of business.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by College admitter
a resident of another community
on Sep 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm

One of the challenges to the credibility of Chinese goods is the penchant for simulating the superlatives. Faking protein content in feed by adding melamine. Placing "Rolex" labels on generic watches. (Remember the cute-but-lip-synching Olympic singer?) This venture fits in the same ethos by gaming the admissions credentials without actually meeting the standard. It is disturbing to see this cultural norm being accepted in certain circles.

A decade ago there was widespread cheating on the Graduate Record Exam by Chinese applicants (now corrected). That cheating resulted in many qualified Chinese students being rejected because their real scores were suspected of being fake. I'm afraid this company may provide the same disservice to high-achieving Chinese students who really do have the qualifications.

Posted by Southern Roots
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 2, 2011 at 1:58 pm

There is a difference between being inspired vs. being packaged. I believe the “top schools” referred to are the Ivies. And frankly, if the kids getting into the “tops schools” are products of a consulting firm such as this one, I would be okay if my child is not in their midst.

Speaking for myself as an Asian-American (and I emphasize AMERICAN) parent, I want my son to get into a college of HIS choice based on HIS hard work , not because I hired a coach to package him into a product so he can get into a university (maybe of my choosing).

An education alone from a “named” school does not guarantee success in life. People succeed in life because they are motivated. Two of the things that create motivation are desire and inspiration. I am glad to see my son, a senior at Gunn, being inspired by his teachers, friends and life’s experiences - both positive and negative. In the past couple years, these inspirations have helped to clarify his life’s goals. And going to college is simply a step in the process of reaching those goals.

I know my son, as most of the PAUSD kids, will get into a good college. What he does with that education after is what really matters.

Posted by Carlito waysman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

>Such guarantees violate the ethical guidelines espoused by the Independent Educational Consultants Association -- but Ma makes no apologies. "I'm challenging the system in the U.S.," he said.

Better yet, why not go back to China and challenge the system there?

The public education system in California is not living to the standards it was set to, when it was created. Nowadays is behaving more like a private education system, the joke of all this though, is that still is funded by the taxpayers.

Posted by UC cuts
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm

"Your tax dollars wasted! Colleges are funded by US citizens to educate the world's wealthy. "

Not really as foreign students pay significantly more in tuition than in-state students. That's why the UC system is courting more foreign students, it helps the bottom line.

Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm

"Not really as foreign students pay significantly more in tuition than in-state students. That's why the UC system is courting more foreign students, it helps the bottom line."

No. With demand for colleges as high as it is, domestic students could easily pay more.

Posted by Also Disillusioned
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

But, UC Cuts, they pay a lot more, benefiting the universities, but their rear ends are taking up seats. Some of those seats could go to the many, many California kids who don't get into a UC campus at all.

Posted by change
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm

our education system needs change,but nobody is willing to do that,now it is forced to change by foreigners.

Posted by Even worse
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:27 pm

As unethical as Mr. Ma's service is, there are worse businesses catering to the same target market. During this year's local TV broadcast of the annual Spring Blossom Festival, which is the most viewed TV event of the year in China and is watched by most ex-pat Chinese here in the states, there was a guy offering to help parents get financial aid for their college bound children "even if you have a million dollars in the bank." And yes, he was speaking in Chinese...

What some view as cheating others view as doing all they can to better themselves and their immediate family. It's a cultural thing.

Posted by Goin 2 College
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I was born in America, and raised in California, It is easier for International Students to get into a UC or College than me!!!!!! That does not seem fare at all!!!!
What happened to the education system here?
I want to get educated too!

Posted by Goin 2 College
a resident of another community
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm

I agree with most of the statements above, this business is wrong, and Californians are losing our education to foreigners!

Posted by Goin 2 College
a resident of another community
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:31 pm

I'm so sorry, but this business really makes me upset as a student who applied to schools all over the country!

Posted by UC Cuts
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:50 pm

"But, UC Cuts, they pay a lot more, benefiting the universities, but their rear ends are taking up seats. Some of those seats could go to the many, many California kids who don't get into a UC campus at all. "

I don't contest that at all, I was just referring to the comment that the foreign students were sucking up our tax dollars.

Posted by DD Mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

to 'Goin 2 College'

It becomes easier and easier for International Students to get into UC because UC needs their money. Check International student tuition and you will understand.

13 years ago, I went to UC, Irvine. The tuition and fee was about 25K a year for an foreigner then. International students don't really use your taxpayer's money for their education here.

Posted by DD Mom
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 2, 2011 at 5:10 pm

"But, UC Cuts, they pay a lot more, benefiting the universities, but their rear ends are taking up seats. Some of those seats could go to the many, many California kids who don't get into a UC campus at all. "

then why do you think UC don't take more CA kids? because they can't afford to do so. They don't have the money.

Posted by Asian American Parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 2, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I don't endorse this kind of business. I also don't think this is unique. Whenever, you have an unusual market demand, there will always be people with lesser degree of morality, positioning themselves for personal gains. Also, this is not unique to the Chinese culture. What we can do as parents is to stay firm with our values and teach our kids what is important. Help them to succeed with any college of their choice and encourage them to pursue their passion!!

Posted by wow
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 2, 2011 at 5:33 pm

What a wonderful speech.

Posted by Can't beat them .. then let them ..
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 2, 2011 at 7:18 pm

What's the big deal:

Let the foreign students pay to get into the college. Then some day (very likely) they will graduate.

As Nancy Pelosi says, staple a green card to their degree.

Make them American!

Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 2, 2011 at 9:05 pm

"What some view as cheating others view as doing all they can to better themselves and their immediate family. It's a cultural thing."

The Chinese culture pretty much misses the point on most things. This is the reason they all want to come to America.

Posted by Chinese-American
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 2, 2011 at 10:21 pm

My parents were born here; I was born here and graduated from Paly. There was no resentment when I grew up here in the 1970-80s and I was treated like a Caucasian because there were so few Asians (basically, only Chinese and Japanese).

With the influx of immigrant Asians, I am feeling more resentment and am clumped into the stereotyped Asian immigrant category. This is completely unfair to me. Don't assume all Chinese are the same. There IS a difference between Chinese born in America and Chinese immigrants.

My children will have a more difficult time getting into certain colleges due to my surname because Chinese are overrepresented and not considered minorities when it comes to academics.

I sure wish my heritage would learn to relax a bit.

Posted by Gunn parents
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 2, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Please do not refer this to all Chinese. Mr. Ma is from Taiwan, but NOT China. As I know, this whole thing is started by Taiwanese, but not Chinese from China. Taiwanese brought their "tradition"...extra help and extra class for kids, from Taiwan to Bay Area. Plus, many Taiwanese do not think they are Chinese anyway....they only speak Chinese. As I heard, even UC application has separate line for Chinese or Taiwanese. So, don't mix it up, please. Most Chinese from China are not part of this "race game" for a long time. However, with college application gets tough, some follow their Taiwanese friend's way... very sad!!!

Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2011 at 9:42 am

Does this discussion directly root into high school stress and overloading schedules? We can create as many connection programs for our teens, reduce the homework, move the exams days . But the real stress comes from college admissions, something that is out of control for our hard working bright kids - raising college tuitions, reduction of financial aid, foreign students increase, etc. Sad to watch. We need to concentrate on connection: high school-college if we truly want to make a difference in kids life. And I am not talking just about this rediculus company. I saw a few 'drilled' kids with high scores - pathetic. What happened with independent thinkers and curious minds? Just a primitive followers who learned a skill to take tests. And forget about Chinese. It's represented by many cultures.

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 3, 2011 at 9:48 am

As an immigrant myself, I would like to ask the staff at the Palo Alto Weekly to exercise better judgement when selecting and publishing stories like this. They are written to generate controversy, emotional responses, and tend to lump people together under simplistic labels for mass consumption. E.g. "Latinos" or "Asians" without understanding the diversity and differences within each of these communities.
In addition to the misinformation, articles like this provide an outlet to vent to all those white-collar/upper-middle-class prejudices and resentments we encounter more often these days.

Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 3, 2011 at 10:41 am

If a student wants to excel in sports, they are likely to attend sports camps, play on club level teams, and perhaps hire a "personal trainer" for rigorous drills and preparation. The ultimate goals of these expensive and time consuming procedures are typically (a) improved performance and (b) catching the attention of prominent colleges for an offer

If a student hires an academic "personal trainer," the goals are (a) improved performance in the classroom and (b) catching the attention of prominent colleges for an offer.

Is there really much difference between the two scenarios? Why does the first scenario typically draw approval, while the second scenario typically draws vitriol?

Posted by Sue
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 3, 2011 at 10:58 am

Well said, Rogue Trader. Exactly the same analogy came to my mind after reading this thread.

Posted by peter carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Sep 3, 2011 at 11:35 am

peter carpenter is a registered user.

Wouldn't it be great if our schools offered the same money-back 'guarantee' of college admission? That would force a lot of fundamental changes in what is being taught and what is being learned.

Posted by numbers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm

RT, Probably because you don't have 3000 students at Palo Alto high schools trying to excel at sports.
This sort of thing just ups the ante on all students. It's not about the money, most parents can afford it, but you've just doubled the stress on all the students. Just what they need.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 3, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Reading through these comments, I think there are two things at play here.

Firstly, rightly or wrongly some parents are giving an edge to their own students by paying for a college coach. It may just be the same as giving an edge for a sports coach which is also frowned on by some who just want their own kids to have a chance to play the sport they love at school but can't afford the private coaching. The ethics involved in this, whether some call it cheating or others call it doing the best for your child, is worth discussing without bringing ethnicity into the discussion.

The second point is that someone from a certain ethnicity is running a business specifically aimed at his own ethnicity to give that ethnicity an edge over other ethnicities.

The fact that PAWeekly has given him and his business what amounts to free publicity and appears to condone what he is doing since there is no criticism of his practices, is beyond the pale.

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 3, 2011 at 1:31 pm

The bottom line is that we cannot prevent people from trying to better themselves. For many of us who work and function in Silicon Valley, we have been witnesses to monumental changes in the corporate world that happen when an industry leader grows complacent, and a hungrier startup takes its place by working harder/smarter (and btw, many of these startups are founded by newcomers whose fathers/grandfathers were illiterate peasants somewhere in the third world). This is the beauty of an open capitalistic democracy.
We, specially in Palo Alto, have been huge beneficiaries of this paradigm as the valley become a technology/financial powerhouse. Let's not be hypocrites who try to critize and change the rules of the game the moment we feel someone is threatening our complacency by working harder/smarter.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 3, 2011 at 4:29 pm

It has nothing to do with bettering oneself. It has to do with cheating a system and the ends justify the means. College admissions is the "game."
The Tiger Mom phenomenon is damaging to U.S. education and society. Please don't assist it with publicity (-even semi-negative publicity still serves to promote this person/his "business" featured above)
It is the concept of students as "projects" to "beat" others, deceptiveness, excessive paid assistance/elevated tutoring/coaching/essay writing, rather than self-discovery, personal hard work and initiative.

Posted by Gunn parents
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 3, 2011 at 5:05 pm

This whole thing is caused by US college admission policy. SAT is a joke....it is simply too easy for most Palo Alto students, too many high scores that colleges can not differentiate who is "start" who is "less-start" anymore. So, instead of mainly depending on student academic performance, school/teach recommendation, colleges are depending on other soft area to decide whom to admit. This just generates a huge money making business to cheat on application, to add more stuff that probably not student's real nature, and to modify essays.... I don't understand how a college can differentiate a student from just 500 words of essay. NO wonder that parents have to spend money for this 500 words essay!!! We should blame and change the college admission policy, instead of focus on parents...many of them are not rich. Who do not want to save some money for their own instead of paying these money sucking business?

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Sep 3, 2011 at 6:12 pm

It is a game in which there are only willing participants.

Universities are free to set their own standards for admission and students, and their parents, are free to apply to those universities whose admission standards they find acceptable. Over 850 4 year colleges do not require SAT results (Web Link

If a student want to apply to a college that has admission standards for which their high school has not properly prepared them then the prudent student will augment their 'deficient' high school education.

If the majority of local students desire to go to colleges for which they have not been properly prepared even to apply then the fault lies with either their high schools or their choice of high school, not with their target college.

Posted by Jake
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 3, 2011 at 6:50 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] The sort of thing Ma is doing is nothing new. Unfortunately, the cheating continues once the student is at Cal.

In an upper division English class, I sat next to a Chinese student who had received an 'A' on his literature paper, as had I. However, when I tried to discuss the paper with him, it was clear he had little to no knowledge of the topic. Similarly, I had a paper stolen from my professor's mail box for returning papers. Apparently it was not uncommon for 'A' papers to disappear. (My professor stopped putting graded papers in his box.) When I was in the office at the end of semester looking for a graded paper I hadn't collected, I found an essay that had used large pieces of my stolen paper, including my title! I wondered how many pieces of my paper had been divided up by that Asian student and her friends.

When a student is not admitted based on his or her merits, cheating is bound to happen.

I feel that Cal's admitting students based on ability to pay is down-grading my hard earned high honors degree.

Posted by Mom
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 3, 2011 at 9:24 pm

I have a question.

Does he need a license to do his business?


Posted by Carlito Waysman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 4, 2011 at 12:32 am

"Your tax dollars wasted! Colleges are funded by US citizens to educate the world's wealthy. "
UC cuts answered:
>Not really as foreign students pay significantly more in tuition than in-state students. That's why the UC system is courting more foreign students, it helps the bottom line.

As a matter of fact the foreign students are using our tax dollars, how? Mostly, all the infrastructure of the UC, CAL and community colleges were and are being built by our taxes.

Posted by Phil
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 4, 2011 at 12:46 am

...when I was a lad (1978), I don't remember it being so hard to get into college as people tell me it is now. Also, I don't remember school being as expensive as it is now.

It seems like they make the kids jump through so many fiery hoops these days to get into a good school. But, perhaps this reflects more of a last gasp of an antiquated approach to higher education than it does a trend for its future.

Maybe internet-delivered higher education will return us to low cost, widely available, high quality education. I am personally quite excited about Stanford's upcoming free Artificial Intelligence class at Web Link that has many thousands of students enrolled from around the world; in any case, with MIT's course work on line for free at Web Link and others following suit, it seems as if a new cheaper, more accessible model of higher education is beginning to take shape.

I think it's about time.

Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 4, 2011 at 9:49 am

"posted by peter carpenter, a resident of Atherton, 22 hours ago
peter carpenter is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online

Wouldn't it be great if our schools offered the same money-back 'guarantee' of college admission? That would force a lot of fundamental changes in what is being taught and what is being learned."

Peter Carpenter should be the PAUSD school superintendent! Great perspective.

Posted by old lady
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2011 at 4:38 pm

It's sad that college has become just another commodity. Time was, people went to college to get an education. Now they go to get a ticket to the job market. I think it's another example of the business model being applied to everything, including entities that are not businesses.

Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 4, 2011 at 4:54 pm

School is no longer about learning or education -
High school is about building a resume to get into college.
College is about making the right contacts for the job market.

Posted by Sam
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Criminal Attorney? Well then that would make the students who go to him feel like criminals when applying to college--so that makes them feel better for the top 80 colleges.
Well if he charges $ 6000 for peace of mind for a student who can pretty much get in on their own, what it means is that he charges that much for doing nothing (or filling up paper work). How nice--looks like he has found his niche in Palo Alto serving the rich and the busy while the middle class intelligent students are having UCs closing doors on them. btw, Berkeley must feel great that they educated this swindler! Lately they have been going out of their way to recruit chinese students for $$$

btw, I did not find anything racist against white populations here--at least not from Ma; he is more than ready to serve you if you want to act stupid or if you don't understand your own educational system.
This article makes me sick too--but guys please don't shout "R" for everything.

Posted by casey
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 5, 2011 at 1:53 am

casey is a registered user.

i think the NYT offered a more comprehensive look at ThinkTank Learning and other college consulting businesses.

Web Link

It seems that many of these services target international students, which I don't see as problematic. To the extent that these students have a sincere interest in attending an American college, a gap in knowledge probably exists with regards to what American colleges are seeking and an entrepreneurial person could profit by serving this niche. However, where these services actually write the application essays for these students, as the NYT reported, then it's an ethical problem for both the consultant and applicant.

Posted by sonyaseo
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Sep 5, 2011 at 6:27 am

Nowadays, many parents have started giving priority to international Schools, when they start searching for school for their children. Due to increasing pre-occupation for international schools among many parents in India, number schools claiming to offer international curriculum have come up in recent times. It is not essential that these schools would implement the IB school curriculum, thus it is recommended that before enrolling your child in any IB school, you make a comprehensive study about the syllabus as well as other facilities, which forms an essential part for an overall development of your child

Posted by Lucky I guess
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 5, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I'll pass on some sage advice from my elder son. Mom, it doesn't matter where you went to high school or where you get your undergraduate degree from, what matters is where you get your graduate degrees and your PhD from!!!

As a result my kids went through the U.C. system and ultimately my younger son, who earned a PhD went on to be paid by Princeton to do his Post-Doctoral there!! He now has an Ivy League on his Curriculum Vitae and as a Parent I didn't pay a nickle!!

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 6, 2011 at 3:33 am

Like law firms, these companies make their money by giving advices and consultation to their clients. I personally welcome having these companies to fill the gap left by lack of resources in our public school system. My kid never got adquate guidances from his high school counselor. I don't blame the counselor since the student to counselor ratio is like 400~500. I don't think they "cheat" the system either. I am one of their clients, and I know for fact they do not provide "fake" or fabricated materials to their students. True, that my kid does lots of activities suggested by the company, but in the end of the day, students will still need to do these activities or take the suggested courses themselves.

Posted by sun
a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2011 at 5:05 am

I am angry at this as well. If you calm down and think about it, however, the root of this type of problems is OUR system. If the admission of our universities is purely depending upon the academics (the national test scores and the GPA), then all the extra stuffs that play important roles in our current admission do not matter. Why a summer research at Stanford's History Dept matters? I did not do it maybe because I needed to make money to pay for my school. Why my parents or grandparents were graduate from this school matters? Why my parents or grandparents had donated lots of money to this school matters? Why some volunteer work at some exotic locations matters? Why...? Lots of whys.

If we do not make the university admission to be based on the academics only, you will find more and more people like this guy who try to make money by beating this problematic system!

Posted by Gotta Laugh
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:32 am

I loved the steroid analogy earlier in the thread.

So...its OK to hire a highly compensated marketing guru who knows how to game the academic system to his client's benefit...BUT...its NOT ok to let your kids take steroids to perform better on the lacrosse field in hopes of him getting an athletic scholarship.

Cheating is cheating.

Parents who use these services teach their children that cheating is an acceptable means of getting what they want.

Just what society needs eh?

Posted by Advise
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Sep 6, 2011 at 10:47 am

"my kid does lots of activities suggested by the company"

The point is that studying/analyzing a college application is supposed to be a proxy for knowing that student, w/r to the qualities seen as relevant to success at the college.

Knowing what efforts, roles and activities a student chooses on his own provides deep insight into that student. Knowing what activities a student participates in on the advice of college admissions advisers does not provide any insight into the student.

Posted by admissions officer
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 6, 2011 at 10:56 am

It was inappropriate for the Weekly to give free publicity to this business -- publicity that is worth tens of thousands of dollars to Ma. But at least the article engendered a lively discussion here.

There is no question that private coaching, along with courses that train students to take standardized tests, helps a student submit successful college applications. Students from families with fewer resources are at a comparative disadvantage. I am not sure there is a solution to this dichotomy, as the rich-get-richer is deeply embedded in our culture.

As an admissions professional who has worked at Stanford for a number of years, I know that there are a couple of countries whose student credentials are notoriously untrustworthy. It is apparently considered ok in these countries to hire others to take standardized tests for you or to write your appllication essays. When the students start taking classes, problems arise, but private schools (like Stanford) tend to be so invested in their admitted students that they turn cartwheels to support them academically and prevent their dropping out.

Of course, Americans who understand the system don't need to resort to this kind of cheating. They understand that waving a few dollars in front of a school's development office will motivate that office to apply pressure to admissions.

Whatever the value of a college degree these days (rapidly diminishing!) the admissions system is hugely dysfunctional.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Sep 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

I see many comments labeling this type of college coaching service cheating. But why? Writing an essay for other is cheating, having someone taking someone else's test is cheating, asking others to do your homework is cheating. How is taking advices and putting your own personal effort in executing them cheating!?

I can see that it is "unfair," but the whole admission system in the US is not designed to foster "fairness" at the first place. Affirmative Action, legacy point, development case, and athletic recruit to just name a few.

It is also unfair when a student's older brother in college "advises" his little brother on class selection and essay editting then.

Posted by parent2
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm

To admissions officer:

"It was inappropriate for the Weekly to give free publicity to this business"

I thank Weekly to publish this article to reveal the ugly side of college admission process in US. There are many other private counselings around the town, more expensive than Ma, helping rich kids quietly to gain advantages of college admission for years. You, as a professional admission officer, how do you distinguish students who did on their own vs students who use private counseling since 7-8th grade? I heard admission officer only read the first paragraph of an essay, if not catching their interest, the application got dropped in a "trashcan"... So, you are creating a environment that make parents very nervous about this damn 500 words of essay. If a counseling is $10,000, then each word is $20!!! Very profitable business. No wonder some one will run this business. I don't blame Mr. Ma who is a business man, but I blame the admission process in US.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 6, 2011 at 1:00 pm

What would make the college admissions fairer is to get back to the admissions interview.

The essay was designed to take the place of the interview. Now that the essay cannot be trusted to be a true reflection of the potential admittee, it is probably best to go back to the face to face interview.

After all, if a family can pay $$X for college counselling, they can afford $$X for the fare to get to a college. For those that can't afford the fare, there could be a means test for having a video interview.

I know someone who interviews college students for jobs at a Silicon Valley company. It is quite often the case that the resume and even class choices have been groomed specifically for the job or company in question. It is only in the face to face interview that the real caliber of the candidate comes through and what may have been the ideal candidate on paper is obviously the product of professional grooming. The face to face interview is the ultimate decision on whether to offer a candidate a job. The same should be done for college admissions.

Posted by Parent
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 6, 2011 at 1:19 pm

"I see many comments labeling this type of college coaching service cheating. But why?"

I totally agree. There are people complaining about the college admission system being flawed or cheated. If it's true, then the entire justice system is flawed. When two parties are engaged in a lawsuit, why would a stronger attorney more likely to win? Presumably, the more experienced or stronger attorney charges a higher service fee. Does that say the party that can afford him/her gets away from the law?

Some people may say that both school and justice systems are flawed in the US. If so, try some places like China and Vietnam where attorneys don't need to play a big role (judge is the king). Or, even in Taiwan where bribery in not uncommon. Where is the justice in that? In fact, I see many immigrants who come to the US from those countries are still griping about the US society, just where on earth can they find a perfectly fair place? Marx tried to create one, and what happened?

Ethical or not, at least Ma is honest and frank about what he is doing, as opposed to many hypocrites out there. That reminds me of Bruce Lee, a guy who used to beat the others with "unfair" kung fu techniques. Many kung fu masters kept the secrets to themselves, or only taught to those preferred ones. Bruce wanted to teach whoever wishes to learn. He was a "cheater" even a "traitor" in the eyes of the tradition. History proved the tradition wrong. Likewise, Ma is revealing his secrets and helping his students in beating the traditional system. If Ma is a cheater, then so is Bruce Lee.

Posted by Student of UCSD
a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I deeply regret that when I was a senior in High School back then, Ma didn't offer consulting service yet. If he did, I would have been accepted by UC Berkeley instead of UC San Diego. As an immigrant coming to US when I was 15, I didn't know anything about how US universities evaluated high school applicants and whom to ask for help. Therefore, I didn't do anything extra other than having a good grade. Before I came to US, I was class president for 8 years since elementary school and teachers' favorite student. I had strong personal skill managing the class as well as excellent academic performance. I deserve UC Berkeley or even better schools, but I wasn’t accepted to any of those because I was ignorant. You only have one chance per lifetime when it comes to college application. If I am becoming a parent in the near future, I would spend whatever they asked for to send my child to better schools and experience better education and have access to stronger connection.

Posted by numbers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 2:59 pm

The problem isn't with Ma, the problem is with the system.
It's the same as web sites trying to get a better search page ranking. Consultants try and work out what "works" and then charge a fee to help anyone that wants to improve their page ranking using the knowledge they've accumulated. If Google published its algorithm, it would remove the guesswork but then they couldn't differentiate between pages.
If you can't create the best damn web site out there, you pay for someone who will get you to the top regardless.
Unfortunately, until the application process changes, there aren't any other alternatives. It's likely to get a lot worse...

Posted by CrashBurn
a resident of Atherton
on Sep 6, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I dont see what is wrong with the services these guys offer. How can this be considered cheating? It is like Roguetrader said, if a kid wants to excel in sports, the parents send him to sports camp and has special trainers and classes, this is the same thing. Did Tiger Woods cheat when his father sent him to golf camps to get better?

Also have you seen what the public school system is offering to the kids today for counseling? It is pathetic and the resources only keeps dwindling while the kids continue to suffer for it.

This guy Ma simply found a nice niche and obviously lucrative. To the counselors who says it is unethical to guarantee admission, I say BULL, to me, these counselors simply do not have the spine to back up their own advice yet willing to take their clients' money. Is it unethical to hire a PR firm to get your start-up written up in some hot tech blog?

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 4:43 pm

@Student of UCSD - I went to UCSD ('92) and found the academics to be excellent, both in Humanities, Biology and Physical Sciences. If you feel that your career has suffered because you went to UCSD instead of UC Berkeley, I think you still have much to learn about life.

PayScale.com shows only minor differences in beginning and mid-career income from UCSD & UC Berkeley attendees:

UCSD: $48.2K / $96.7K
UC Berkeley: $51.4K / $102K

@numbers - Your argument boils down to "Don't blame the playah, blame the game." Fortunately, university admissions teams don't play games, and all that remains is for universities that care to maintain their integrity to bar students who use services like Ma's.

Posted by boo
a resident of Monroe Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm

He is doing things to help our local economy.Cash for me,our schools,cash,cash,cash.

Posted by Al
a resident of Atherton
on Sep 6, 2011 at 4:45 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by numbers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Chris, Google tries to ban sites that are gaming the system. Of course, ironically, Google only finds the obvious ones as do admissions officers.
If the colleges want a different outcome to Ma's approach they will need to change the game. The question is "how?".

Posted by game player
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 6, 2011 at 5:11 pm

College admission is a game about how to make admission officers lay their eyes on you. Ma's service helps you stand out. It's supply and demand. Simple as that.

Posted by boo
a resident of Monroe Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 5:19 pm

If a real good student wants to stand out,he will no matter where you put him to,but if a student does not want to or hate to,then nothing will,it is just as simple as that.

Posted by @Student of UCSD
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 6, 2011 at 5:30 pm

@Student of UCSD

It really is not the college you go to that matters. It's what YOU do with you education, your life, your abilities. I have a child who graduated in 2009 (the worst year in recent memory) from a UC that is less well ranked than UCSD. This child is doing really well. My child got a very good job, with people who went to Berkeley or UCLA, and is actually doing better than aome people who went to UC Berkeley, UCLA or even Ivy League schools. All that without ever gaming the admissions system. Only by doing what was right for oneself, without any regard for the popular extra-curricular activities. The said child was actually promoted a year early at work this year, ahead of such people from "better" universities. I also know Ivy League graduates who are not even working.

All of this is not to brag. It's just to say that this idea that one must enter a "top" university at any cost is just completely wrong.

Furthermore, gaming the system for admissions most likely means you'll also have to try and game the system in college and beyond, and you'll reach a point where it just won't work for you any more.

Posted by Fellow Consultant
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

I agree with Rogue Trader's sport analogy.

Private boarding school, or even day school, charge upward of 30K a year without any sort of guarantee. As a consumer, I would choose a 12K guarantee deal from Ma's service then pay 30K/year for 4 years.

And I shout "Hipocrisy" to all those who call this a "cheat" Is Phillips Exeter cheating when its counselors give so much more attention to their students than a public school in the Bay Area?

Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 6, 2011 at 8:53 pm

First of all, there are tons of college counseling services that are run by non-Asians. More important, these services exist only because the entire admissions process is very unsavory and unfair.

Here is a stunning (but not surprising) example:

" ...However, in researching their 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandria Walton Radford examined data on students applying to college in 1997 and found what looks like different standards for different racial groups.

They calculated that Asian-Americans needed nearly perfect SAT scores of 1550 (out of the old 1600 system) to have the same chance of being accepted at a top private university as whites who scored 1410 and African-Americans who got 1100.

Whites were three times, Hispanics six times, and blacks more than 15 times as likely to be accepted at a US university as Asian-Americans." (Boston Globe, April 17, 2011)

- I invite you to peruse the discussion thread linked below about the blatant discrimination most universities are guilty of. For instance, in the not too distant past, there was a "Jewish" quota that limited the amount of Jews admitted to top universities.

Here is a quote from the former Dean of the Yale Medical School: ""Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all."
Web Link

-- Perhaps now you know why Steven Ma sounds so combative, and why college counselors (Asian and non-Asian) are thriving.

Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:17 pm

Here is a link to the Boston Globe article discussing the current Asian quota/discrimination
Web Link
For those of you decrying how students play the system, are you not aware that universities are longstanding masters of "gaming" the system?

For example, all the universities are trying to jockey up the "rankings" list. One of the key criteria is acceptance rate. The lower the acceptance rate (i.e. the higher the rejection rate), the higher up the rankings the university goes.

As a result, high school students get flooded with fancy brochures and visits from admissions officers to "please apply to us."

The numerator (# students accepted) remains the same, but the denominator (# students applying) increases. As a result, the acceptance rate goes down -> which rockets the university up the rankings list.

Another bizarre occurrence is when second tier universities come across a top student, they will often not admit them, or put them on the waiting list - because having that student reject them works against them in the rankings.

Posted by Mom
a resident of Los Altos
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I echo the perspectives of Rogue Trader. Colleges used to discriminate against Jews for the very reason that they are doing to Asian Americans now -- we take up more seats in colleges than what our population should allow.

I am proud to have champion like Mr. Ma to fight this inequity.

Posted by Rogue Trader
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:49 pm

More crazy stats:

At Princeton, the general acceptance rate this year was about 8%.

On their website, they note that applicants who scored 2300-2400 on their SAT (an insanely high number - probably in the 99.9th percentile) had an acceptance rate of 22%.

And yet, legacies (students who had a family member attend Princeton) had an acceptance rate of 40%!
Web Link

How crazy is that? Score a 2300 on the SAT, you have a 22% chance of getting in. Have a parent who attended Princeton - 40% acceptance rate.

The Dean of Admissions of one of the top schools in the world said to me "We give preference to legacies because it makes the families happy. And that often means more donations, and including us in their estate planning."

It is not a meritocracy, certainly not among the private universities.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 6, 2011 at 9:54 pm

I strongly oppose these costly college counseling services. You really have to be around people using them for years to undersstand they are NOT about the authentic child. They bring short-term advantages, sometimes. They are bringing a very ugly mentality and unfair competition to this country.

Like anything, there is a spectrum of practices, and some are really over the top. I get the sense some people have brought over the cram school mentality.

It's NOT about learning and respect for education. It's about SCORES. It's about insisting that Ivy League + SM, perhaps top 3 LACs(US News & WR rankings) are somehow engraved in stone as the ONLY schools worth striving for and attending. It's about monies families putting out 20+ apps (and now, MORE have to choose to do that to keep up, since you compete with your peers from your high school owing to geographic distribution and the need to be competitive with current practices at your school - #APs taken, for example. Never mind that some kids have been prepped in advance of each AP and for each test, and that not all choose to do this deceptive hand-holding nor can afford it!

Umm..your future is NOT doomed if you do not attend Harvard. Check with Buffett.

The president of Reed College famously wrote in the past year about what nonsense these increasingly influential college rankings are...how they are doctored to some extent.

I suggest that "groupings" within the rankings DOES make some sense and can guide a student to make educated guesses about suitable schools, where students will be in the same stats range, and where to apply. But many schools are DIFFERENT and cannot be numerically ranked with utter certainty, as the vulgar college counseling services insist, using extreme fear to motivate their wealthy, uninformed clients.

The extreme college counseling services do perpetuate nonsense about being Ivy or...college is worth nothing. This is appalling ignorance.
According to these doofuses, Cal Tech, for example, is not a top school. Grinnell College is not worth considering. Recently, because of this nonsense, certain people are undervaluaing UC Berkeley and U Mich, for two very good examples. The problem is this nonsense gets into the general public "knowledge" and "opinion" and damages entirely valid schools.
Oh, don't forget the near-Ivies and the "lesser ivies" -- they are worth VERY little (never mind one near Ivy takes the most national merit finalists right after Harvard, again, for a selected example-)

Colleges and universities that have big PR/ad budgets are increasing advertising, outreach to wide array of students to increase applications (in order to then reduce acceptance rates); some take a LOT off waitlists - so, the point is, why not RESEARCH schools, majors, careers, cities, etc. rather than follow blindly what some college counseling service insists is their "inside" advice, with their "inside" contacts.

How about being an honest person?!

Some college counselors are secretive. Some use tactics to clearly ensure a certain ethnic clientele. They certainly are not regulated, and the idea of making guarantees is just vulgar, IMO.

If a kid attends sports camps, THEY have to do the actual sports, though the guidance WILL help. From what I observed here in Silicon Valley, there is widespread cheating going on with ethnic-based college counseling services. Students can be so closely supervised year-round as to take away individuality, responsibility, accountability for "their" own work!

There are local informal ethnic networks whereby curriculum is carefully saved and
passed within a chain of persons; MOST of our kids do not enjoy
such secret privileges
I have believed students should learn as they go - in class.
Yes, a highly motivated student may be tutored to advance in a particular favorite subject; that is NOT what is being objected to here. I object to a practice which amounts to being prepped outside of school in advance of school ("earning" the grade). It boils down to competition; what others do around you does affect you as you submit your college apps. The standard advice I give to the non-cheaters is to proclaim loud and clear that you did your own work, wrote your own essays, made your own choices (about where to apply, etc.) and speak from your heart. More top colleges are noticing packaged students that are really very similar, and the packaging may be beginning to backfire...

The Tiger Mom deceptive practices should be discouraged as they are not authentic.

It is well known that SAT scores can be substantively raised with extreme (sophisticated) prepping. Some very average students are packaged to appear to be "stars."

Exeter is an excellent, historically famous private school -
yes, however there are quite a few excellent public schools around this country. For example, meet college students (when your kids attend college) and find out about these schools - I have - they are all over.

I knew several kids from Los Altos High School who seemed to have high-grade counseling (appeared superior to PAUSD practices at the time, anyway-); my note would be things are often in flux in PAUSD HS, so I am not sure of the quality of their college counseling currently. The administration of the HS we knew here has changed remarkably over the past decade, for example.

Really, don't decide the quality of a high school by noting the #of AP tests forced by parents on their kids; instead READ the DESCRIPTIONS of interesting schools that are occasionally published as part of these semi-silly HS rankings. The other point is that in the U.S., THINGS CHANGE, especially in education! - thereby to some extent negating what is the cool place to be.

Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Sep 6, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Lesson #1 for high school students - Life is not fair.

Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 6, 2011 at 10:44 pm

The documented history of a period of racism by the Ivies against Jews is well documented and a shameful history. It has NOTHING to do with this discussion.

My understanding is that alleged current racism by the coveted Ivies against Chinese-American applicants (who are all perfect, incidentally, with perfect SAT scores, right!) has not been proved to ANY degree. For anyone remotely interested, this topic has discussed ad nauseum on College Confidential forums by people from all over the country, with input from students, parents, college admissions officials, cited references, etc. There are no conclusions whatsoever, except that the situation with Jews historically was quite different from perceived grievances by Chinese-Americans currently.

I also recall reading a relatively recent link (NY Times, I believe, though I don't have it at hand) that College Board cannot offer SAT testing in mainland China (though testing IS apparently done at various places overseas to students who may wish to apply to US colleges) owing to 100% acknowledged lack of credibility for control and proper ethics to ensure accuracy of the testing.
There is also a documented problem of the SAT test being immediately transmitted to China (after taken in HK or?) for purposes of cheating/prepping and this is expressly forbidden by College Board, but you can see there may be a problem when people claim to have "perfect scores." Yep, there ARE students with perfect SATs but I'll take those who took the test under controlled, reputable settings. Even so, students of VARIOUS ethnic backgrounds receive perfect SAT scores and are indeed refused acceptance at some schools.
These things happen and do not offer "proof" of discrimination against a particular ethnic group.

Posted by Gunn High School Student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 6, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Boo hoo to all the parents who say this isn't fair.

I'm a senior and I don't have any of these 'services' except I did some SAT practice from a tutor.

But I don't think this is 'cheating'. This is just doing whatever it takes to get into a top school. Face it, the system is horrible, they only accept kids who are rocket scientists or sleep less than 4 hours a day. I have a 3.9 GPA at Gunn and an SAT above 2100. I'd say that's outstanding, but say it at gunn and that's about average, if not a below average SAT score. I don't stand a chance.

I don't blame a single kid who uses that service. The parents who think this is unfair are part of the problem too. You think your kids stood a chance of getting into ivies? Think again, you know nothing about the Gunn environment and how cutthroat it is. The fact that you are upset that your kid can't get into ivies because of this is saddening in itself. So what if he doesn't go to ivies? Look at my resume that I put above. I have that plus multiple leadership positions and great ties with my teachers. That's not going to put me anywhere, because I don't own a business, I didn't do an internship and a space NASA lab, and I didn't get into Stanford research camp. Those kids who bought this service did, and now they are getting their payout, acceptance into ivies.

I'm not bitter at all. I'll probably get into UCSD, and maybe if I'm lucky UCLA, with my stats. Those kids played the game and won. I didn't, my parents didn't want to pay for it, and they're going to be disappointed when I don't get into ivies, just like all you parents, but I'll have seen it coming from a mile away. If your kid tells you, "Well mom, I don't really think I'll get into stanford knowing the kids at Gunn", think of this article, and this post I'm making, because they're not just saying it. They really mean it. I know you think your kid is a star, but at gun, being a star is about normal. Or maybe below average. To be a star at gunn, you have to be Einstein.

Posted by Mom
a resident of Los Altos
on Sep 7, 2011 at 2:33 am

To "former Paly parent"

I am appalled by your ignorance given you wrote so many false information to mislead the public.

The current college admission system is discriminating against Asian. Learn to read more before you comment!!

Web Link

If you choose to live in the theoretical fancy land, so be it, rest of us still need to deal with the unfair system in the Bay Area like the student above stated.

Posted by a Los Altos HS parent
a resident of Los Altos
on Sep 7, 2011 at 3:07 am

My friend referred me this article and I found the discussion interesting...I happen to know this company and talked to them a couple years ago when my son was applying to college. I didn't end using their service but I did think they were nice people. I listened to their seminars and my son had already had an excellent profile. He got in U Chicago. My friends who bought their service actually mostly had positive feedback. I think this kind of service can definitely be helpful, but parents don't also need be paranoid if your kids are already well prepared. I trusted my son and he made it. Good luck!

Posted by game player
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2011 at 9:46 am

Thanks Mom for Los Alto for the link.

College admission is indeed an unfair game, particularly to Asian. No wonder Ma's business can thrive, even in this economy.

Posted by numbers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 7, 2011 at 9:57 am

Mom, a resident of Los Altos, if your assertion is correct, all that Ma's service will do is further drive up competition within the Asian community for the limited number of allocated spaces. It won't help fight any inequity.

Posted by Life is Not Fair
a resident of Ohlone School
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:15 am

The top American private colleges are private clubs who set their own rules.
They basically are looking for applicants who have the potential to bring glory to the college's name and/or come from families who will donate $.

They are not rewards for working really hard and being smart.
And because there are racial quotas at the Ivies
(Web Link if you are Asian, then you are really only competing against other Asian applicants, not everyone.
For example, if you're Asian and want to get into Harvard, you need to be one of the roughly top 425 Asian applicants (1700 enrollment x ~20% Asian quota / 80% yield).

Posted by Reality
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:29 am

Reality: Wealthier families will give every possible advantage to their kids. These kids who can afford private schools, college counseling, tutoring, etc... will have an advantage over others. Don't bash these services unless they are truly doing something unethical (like writing their essays or taking the tests for the kids).

America is not a level playing field.
It never has been.
The world is more competitive than ever.
You can cry about competition and feel entitled to the good life (like those in France).
Or you can wipe your tears, step up to the plate, and do your best.

Posted by admissions officer
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 7, 2011 at 10:57 am

It is not necessarily cheating to pay for assistance with the college admissions process. (Some of these consultants do write or edit essays for their clients to a degree that crosses the line. If you, the applicant, are asked to sign a statement declaring that this is all your own work, then you will essentially be misrepresenting the truth.) However, if you hire someone to take the SAT for you -- a not uncommon practice in a couple of Asian countries -- that is cheating, no matter how you candy coat it ("it's the score I deserve, even if I can't get it myself").

My own biased assessment, having read tens of thousands of applications and worked with others with similar experience, is that it is tougher for an Asian applicant to shine. If I had to stereotype, I'd say that many Asian and Asian-American candidates focus too much on academic achievement vs exploring their passions (something that can stand out on an application) or developing a strong sense of who they are and what they have to contribute to the world.

In some cases, a consultant can be helpful. But an experienced admissions officer can often spot an essay that has been "workshopped" by a paid consultant. Not always, but often. The student is usually better off if s/he can do some soul searching, read the prompts, respond to them authentically (vs giving the answer you think the adcomm wants), and get a parent or other friend to proofread the results. That's all. I just saved you a lot of money!

Posted by @Student of UCSD
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 7, 2011 at 11:20 am

It is funny to see how everybody here, whether for or against the counseling services, thinks it is mandatory to go to an Ivy League university or the top 3 UCs, more or less, to lead a successful, happy life. Funny and sad at the same time.

Posted by pamom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm

To Paly Parent who is appalled by the SAT prep programs -- The SAT used to be called the Scholastic Aptitude Test and for many years the College Board maintained that students could not study for it. After many businesses sprang up to prove them wrong (such as Kaplan, etc.), they finally joined in the prep business themselves. Today, it is called the initials SAT (the College Board changed the name on the sly -- it is NO longer the Scholastic Aptitude Test). The College Board not only encourages students to practice for the SAT, they also sell their own SAT prep programs! So Ma is just offering a more comprehensive prep service.

The real problem is the admissions process of the Universities and how they set it up.

To the disappointed student who did not get into UC Berkeley. My son graduated from a "lesser" UC, and at the time was disappointed he did not get into a better UC or Ivy. But the program where he went turned out to be excellent. He obtained an internship with a professor and did well after graduating. A year later he had an outstanding job in his field. Some of his friends who went to Stanford and ivies did not do as well.

Posted by numbers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm

"The best thing about having gone to Cambridge University was never having to deal with not going there."
"That's the only advantage. Some of the most ineffably stupid people I've ever met went to Cambridge University, it's no guarantee of anything, it's pretty much a lottery."
-- Stephen Fry

Posted by GoCardinals
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Many comments posted here seem so far from reality IMHO. As a Stanford sophomore I know first hand that the smartest people in my Math class are mostly Chinese or Indians. Things just come easier to them than they do to me - a white Oregonian. Trust me if there were ever a "transparent" entrance test on Science or Math to these Ivy's, a small fraction of folks from the US would make the cut. To deter that from occurring, what do we do? We ask in the college app essays of folks to write complex essays on stories of their lives? I needed all the help I could garner to write these essays. I needed help in cracking the SAT, especially the stupid critical reading section - remember the long passage! If the Asians get a 2400 (without someone else sitting in for them at the exam ie), it's hats off. We are failing as a country. Looks at our high schools. Yet we want to create artificial barriers to keep talent out of this country. Face it, you either lead or get out of the way - my dad (an unemployed chrysler worker) used to quote Lee Iaccoca during my high school years. I worked hard and I'm proud that I have the smartest people amidst me - mostly asians!! So quit complaining, instead, tell the kids to work hard. We have every resource. Jobs, Grove and Gates are the past. Zuckerberg too shall pass, it's the next generation that I worry about. Just my $0.02.

Posted by Tao
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 8, 2011 at 1:21 am

I believe there is a "Tao" (Way) in how everything runs and operates and normally at its own course with cause and effect. Evolution, survival of the fittest, why we are what we are, it's all a reflection of the Tao. Why college consulting services thrive? Like the "gameplayer" said above, it's supply and demand. Because college admission system is unfair, people like Ma stands out. Problem-solver only exists if the problem exists. Why not focus on the core?

Posted by Who are cardinals?
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 8, 2011 at 11:41 am

One would expect a native English speaking Stanford student to know the difference between a color and a bird.

Weakness in handling plurality is a dead giveaway.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 8, 2011 at 9:04 pm

It is apparent that the PA high schools these days must prepare students for college, teach content, and prepare students for college admissions.

Even preparation for college and preparation for college admission are not aligned. It's like the difference between running a good election campaign and doing a good job in government; there seems to be no obvious relationship.

Since teaching content outside of school is a market, it's only natural that preparing for admissions is also a market.

The racism, reverse racism, and morality issues discussed on this thread seem kind of irrelevant to the development of this market (since we live in a "free" or "capitalist" economy).

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2011 at 3:33 pm

@Anonymous - so you're saying morality has no place in a free, capitalist society? Wow, that is both untrue *and* depressing that you'd think that way. If morality isn't relevant, why shouldn't I lie about my childrens' achievements, incapacitate all the other applicants, and fake my income data to get a needs-based scholarship for my kids?

@GoCardinals - as someone who's been in the Internet startup world for almost 20 years, I can tell you with certainty that for the most part, those math-smart Asians/Indians (from Asia and Asian/Indian-American) tend to hit career growth ceilings of their own making. Math and other rote memory subjects are but a very small part of the total package needed to make business leaders; that's why it's good & right that standardized tests are not the only thing universities evaluate. Universities - including Stanford - are supposed to be places where the country's future *leaders* are prepared, but as you imply, the reality may well be that higher education is about preparing smart, mid-level drones for industrial use.

My last point to you both is that our country is in dire straights right now not because of poor university education, but precisely because our morals have gotten soft. We want instant gratification, easy ways out and are always looking out for #1. This has led us to leaving governance to two corrupt political parties ($15T debt now), short-sight

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 9, 2011 at 10:40 pm

"that is both untrue *and* depressing that you'd think that way."

Well, morality works well in a monoculture, but we are a multicultural society and a society of laws.

For example, gay relationships have been immoral here by the dominant culture since the settlement by Europeans of North America, but that really doesn't matter because the laws now allow and to some extent protect those relationships.

I consider it immoral in school to target a grade rather than learning, but so what? Most here consider it their obligation to target grades and are confused by a perspective that chasing grades is wrong.

Also, I must be misperceiving the whole higher education industry if it is in any way currently actualizing moral principles.

Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2011 at 10:31 am

I found some of these postings interesting. It seems like there's too much focus on ethnicity though, maybe because Ma's clientele is mainly Asian and Asian-American. As a teacher and parent of a student enrolled in one of the state universities, I am appalled that our state universities are now actively recruiting students from out of state and overseas because of the financial crisis. Even our community colleges are seeking students from overseas who pay big bucks to attend Foothill or De Anza in hopes of transfering to a U.C. (In one honors class at Foothill last year half the students were from Hong Kong.) My point is not that Asians, Europeans and New Yorkers should not be welcome in our colleges and universities. It is that our system of education should be well funded so that public institutions don't need to actively recruit students who can pay more. This is not fair to middle class families like ours who have been paying taxes for years and struggle to pay U.C. tuition, which is going up practically every year. Public colleges and universities should be within the reach of any California high school graduate who meets the entrance qualifications. Active recruitment of out-of-state students means fewer spots for California students.

Posted by Asian Sophomore
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 7, 2011 at 11:30 pm

Personally, I think this is a terrible representation of Asian Americans and results in unfair bias against this group. As an Asian American, I know that there are definitely parents who push their kids to get into certain schools, but I just wanted to put this out there, that not all people have such low moral standards as to lie and trick their way into Ivy League schools. There are also (Asian) kids and people who get in to Ivy League schools because they work their butts off. When other people study half an hour for a test, they study three, and then ace the test, deservedly. If that is not the case, and they weave a tale of lies to get in, the school won't do them any benefit anyways, because as with any school, there are harder classes and easier classes. The student who was accepted because of true personal achievement and integrity will receive far more benefit from the school because they know how to work hard and push themselves. Unfortunately, this article is only going to fuel the controversy of college counseling and discrimination against Asian Americans. However, at the heart of this issue is a faulty college admissions system that allows for there to be a market for such fallacious services.

Posted by A Chinese Parent
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 5, 2012 at 2:41 am

Colleges have admission guidelines that encourage students to improve SAT scores, earn better GPA and join good community services. I think the guidelines are there to evaluate students and to help them grow all around.

The problem with Thinktank is not at helping students by following this guidelines. Thinktank actually help students to cheat on college applications. They write essays for students. They fake activities that students never participated and put them on college applications.

To me, that is wrong. It is fairly well known in Chinese community that Thinktank will help students to cheat the system. My best friend used their service to beat the system. Her son was advised by Thinktank to do some kind of summer activities. For some reason, the activies did not happen. Thinktank still put the activities on the college application for her son. Her son was accepted by some good colleges, but my friend really regret using Thinktank because she felt that she taught her son how to cheat and how to lie...and how to be dishonest and not being caught.

I am not sure who should be responsible for this type of investigation. Some government agencies really should invest how Thinktank is helping students cheating the college application system.

There have been hundreds or thousands of students using Thinktank to cheat on college applications. It is really unfair to other honest students and parents.

Posted by 3rd Gen Chinese
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm

This is a complete shame for Chinese born in America. We are Americans and don't believe in the cheating that many Chinese immigrants condone. Please understand that not all Chinese immigrants condone the practice of cheating, just as all Hispanics or African-Americans do not commit crimes.

Posted by Huh?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Unpaidlady
a resident of Mountain View
on May 8, 2013 at 8:24 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 4, 2014 at 10:59 am

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

This article has now made it to the national stage:

Web Link

Posted by Ruffian
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2014 at 2:28 pm

The point being missed is that the UC system was developed expressly to serve qualified California natives, and they are supposed to be given priority BY LAW--a fact that Jerry Brown has reminded their collective admissions offices repeatedly.

Yet natives of China, who often cheat to get in, are given priority, while gifted California students, who are usually much more well-rounded, are passed over.

Sickening, just sickening.

Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 4, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

@ruffian - we CA citizens are to blame. Until we go to Sacto with pitchforks demanding our CA-born children get their due, UC admissions officers will continue to do their masters' bidding.

I thought I heard the other day that Jerry Brown's masterful stewardship of the state has gotten us to the point where the state has a budget surplus? Ain't it time to get back to UC for Californians???????????????????

Posted by Ruffian
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 4, 2014 at 6:51 pm

The law has no teeth until it is enforced. Yet the people with the power have not done this. There need to be truly punitive fines and dismissals from highly-paid positions in the UC system.

Mr Ma not only makes all Asians look bad, which makes him a traitor to his race, but he is also a traitor to this nation for usurping well-qualified citizens. What he does SHOULD be illegal--it is certainly unethical and immoral.

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 4, 2014 at 9:01 pm

I think most of these comments reflect some racist resentment from seeing how 'others' are doing better in a world of global competition.

How come nobody complains when privileged white kids get a leg up by attending prep schools that feed into many of these elite colleges, or when they get in via the 'legacy' student quota?

Racism and attacking the newest group of immigrants, so pervasive in our country's history.

Posted by China Watcher
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 5, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Except Carlos, that they are NOT immigrants--they are just visitors with no intention of living here permanently, or becoming citizens, or contributing to our country. They actually take what they can get from America, and then go back to China and use it there. It may even be a form of theft, ethically speaking.

Chinese kids do not go to Chinese universities because then they would have to major in what the Chinese government wants and needs them to major in, which is not always what the kids or their parents want them to.

Also, the two central banks of China announced last month that they intend to prosecute all Chinese citizens who took out large government loans, and then left the country with the money in order to pay cash for homes in the U.S. That money was never paid back in any amount to those central banks ( Central Bank of China and People's Central Bank of China). Those luxe Palo Alto homes they bought may soon belong to the Chinese government! This will be a huge political and financial issue for California especially, as the Chinese government tries to extradite these people for trial ( possible execution?) in China.

Posted by Carlos
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 6, 2014 at 12:05 am

China Watcher, not sure where you get your data that "they are NOT immigrants", and what exactly you mean by "they". Don't even think this information is available, so I assume you are jumping to some conclusions by lumping together people by names or ethnic origin, which is always the genesis of racial prejudice. And there's already plenty of that on the previous postings.

From what I can see by observing the ThinkTank students in Palo Alto, I think the vast majority of them are local kids (probably first or second generation immigrants) whose families are willing to spend extra time/resources to ensure they gain admission to the best colleges they could apply to. They probably don't have access to the social or economic privileges that the "legacy" kids (predominantly white) enjoy, so ThinkTank is a very clever business that addresses an unfulfilled need. To put it in perspective, students who gain admission to colleges after these coaching services still represent a tiny minority compared to those who get in by being in the "legacy" category.

The resentment and hate language generated by this article might have to do with the fact that these are not immigrants who do our gardening and clean our homes. They don't need any of our sympathy, and instead they are driven and resourceful enough to compete for slots in the country's top colleges, like any other middle/upper-middle class kid would do.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 6, 2014 at 7:32 am

"so I assume you are jumping to some conclusions by lumping together people by names or ethnic origin, which is always the genesis of racial prejudice."

No, I think he just read the article. Note the "Students from Chin" part.
"helping Asian-American students, and students from China, get into U.S. colleges"

Remember the old adage: When we ASSUME, we make an....well you know now.

Posted by MoralHazard
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 6, 2014 at 8:38 am

There is 'help' with admissions, which many people get, and is honest and critical and even more so for students of parents who never went to college.

And then there is cheating. It's not even a fine line, there are service companies in Cupertino who will take your particulars, and fill in the completed applications for any number of schools. They write the essays, select relevant 'interests', and cook the entire application for you. Outright lies about extra-curricular a? Who cares! Need a stand-in for SAT - no problem, for a service fee they can supply a ringer with a fake ID. And it works to a point.

And the colleges know this widespread misrepresentation. And the know it is predominantly Asian students. But they are not very good at weeding out the exact cheaters, so a form of collective punishment is used.

So this is a game, but a horrible one. This is not a game everyone chooses to play - a Chinese colleague who informed me of this, also made clear that because of this 'game' his son is downgraded at every college he applies , just because he is assumed to cheat ( he did not). Based on his last name and address. Some change their name.

So cheaters are getting in, and honest kids are losing this game.

Some schools are responding by eliminating SAT and weighing grades more than essay. Many are arrogant to think they can detect cheaters. Most are happy to stir up competition - that drives up numbers of applications, and hence selectivity rankings.

You also see Colleges cheating - some offer students "super-scoring" on SAT, and some go so far as to have admitted freshmen retake the SAT to further bump up the scores in the US News Ranking. The high water mark of cheating is currently held by Claremont McKenna and a dozen other schools who dispense with reality altogether and just make up numbers for US News Ranking. Who would send their kid to THAT school? They have institutionalized cheating. And who would hire from there? I won't.

Honest kids are losing, in-state kids are losing . And soon UC credibility will be gone, as well. I won't vote for any more UC funding until they clean up their admissions process, AND focus on California students.

Oh, and what happens to these kids that get into prestige schools based on cheating? If they manage to graduate , they interview for a job in my engineering company. It's pretty hard to cheat your boss - we know who produces. There are many low level positions filled by dead-end code monkeys who aren't very good at thinking, problem solving, or innovating. They are good at 'doing' defined repetitive tasks. Little problems like SAT questions which have simple, verifiable results. Over and over again.

On the other hand, those who really love this stuff, who can imagine a new approach, who can really problem solve will go far; regardless what school they came from.

Posted by MoralHazard
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 6, 2014 at 8:47 am

...oh, and when the downturn comes, the non-performers are let go. Maybe they go start a business showing others how to cheat...

Posted by EmmaB
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2015 at 2:29 pm

I just finished reading a post called 4 Reasons a Tutor is the WORST Thing You Can Do For Your Child. ( Web Link ) Basically, it talks about how having people help your kids with their homework teaches dependence, lack of accountability, lack of passion... and it kills confidence. It tells kids, you're not good enough to do it on your own. A service like this takes it to a whole new level.

Posted by EmmaB
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 19, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Also worth noting: Colleges aren't stupid. They're figuring out that SAT scores can be bought -- either with money, or by sacrificing other, REAL learning experiences. Which is why hundreds of schools are turning towards testing-optional or testing-blind admissions. Kids need to develop their real interests, not just learn how to take one test.

Posted by Leadership
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 19, 2015 at 5:03 pm

@Kenneth mistakes: "Asians are doing what is necessary to get ahead. They will be our leaders of tomorrow. "

Um, no. At least not the packaged & prepped kids. The leaders of tomorrow will be very similar to the leaders of today - who I interview and hire. If a kid has what it takes, they need very little prep, maybe some solid advice, and someone to coach them a little on their essay ('coach', NOT 'write'). They will become leaders regardless what the college application says, and regardless what college they go to.

The Packaged & Prepped crowd will be among the lowest performing students in their college if they gamed the system to 'stretch' into a just-barely accepted position. I notice Mr. Ma does not guarantee graduation, just admissions. You can lookup Malcolm Gladwell's video on college admissions - basically the bottom 1/3rd are weeded out of any school; or don't succeed much beyond admission. It is not a position you should be paying for. Basically schools use you to boost revenue, because they will not be teaching you for very long.

If Mr. Ma was genuine, and honest, his guarantee would cover graduating from a top-tier school. That is what is valued in this world. Admissions is not the game that matters.

And if these kids make it through their school (with whatever help their parents can muster), they may not be leaders in the workplace. That takes something genuine.

Which, judging from Mr. Ma's service, is something the kid has never seen.

More likely these kids will be middle of the road students (the kid with C's in the article is showing the best likelihood is that he will get C's in college) They may get hired as a mid-level functionary in a company; but true leadership is only going to come about through some genuine change.

Leadership is not about packaging; nor is it necessarily about grades (which is why many leaders come from many different schools). It is much more about competence, social skills, honesty, hard work, optimism, insight and perseverance. It can be taught - Boy Scouts teaches the basics. A good mentor at work can teach this. High School does not teach it. Most colleges don't teach it. I teach it - and it takes a few years. And it doesn't look like what I read here!

These are all things that Mr. Ma is emulating, but cannot really bestow upon these students. They will not be tomorrow's leaders. Regardless what school they con their way into.

The parents are buying their kid one more step on an imaginary path to nowhere. Far better to act themselves, get into a good enough school where they will be in the top 1/4 of their class, and excel at learning and contributing in college. Graduating with something real is worth far more.

And it will be obvious in the first interview after college. Dead obvious.

Posted by All the World Hates a Cheater
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 19, 2015 at 5:22 pm

Calling Mr Ma: Taiwanese ARE Chinese, just not the communist variety.

BTW: have you heard the adage: "Those who can, do; those who can't, cheat-- I mean, teach".

Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 20, 2015 at 6:43 am

Back in May 2015, 15 Chinese nationals in Pennsylvania were charged with impersonating students in order to cheat on standardized tests (SAT, GRE, TOEFL).

Cheating by foreigners to gain entry into Western countries via their education systems has been going on far too long. I am glad that people are finally realizing this.
I was astounded at the number of fake universities "immigration universities" used to help people do this (if they had the money). This has been going on now for at least 25 years.
Credential and reference buying upset me too, but I was afraid to say anything when I moved back, because I didn't think anyone would believe me.
Believe me.
After this many years, there are thousands of foreigners working here with fake credentials and who cheated their way through our honor code based system.

Web Link

Some fake schools are right here in California.
Web Link

Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 20, 2015 at 4:52 pm

There are many locally based "immigration" agencies who have non-paying ads on craigslist that are responsible for bringing in hundreds of Chinese people into our area under the cover as being "students". These people are attending private high schools and community colleges. The company is always looking for families to provide a room and meals twice a day for the students for around $1,000/month.
At one point they were looking to hire drivers to drive their vans to pick up these people at the airports.
Someone should look into these operations.
This seems like it may be a loop hole in our immigration system.
Is there no end to this?

Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 20, 2015 at 5:33 pm

"Your tax dollars wasted! Colleges are funded by US citizens to educate the world's wealthy."

Wrong!! Tax dollars are typically less than 15% of a "state" college's budget, a paradigm pioneered by Ronald Reagan the Great in the sixties. The schools are justifiably pleased to admit these students and receive their tuition money.

Want to change that? Then pay more taxes.

Posted by Commentator
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 20, 2015 at 5:45 pm

Just more whiningabout Asians who don't play fair because they wory harder and smarter, and they don't let the whites win as God intended.

Tough, gang. Wise up. Learn to work smarter, do work harder, and forget any presumption of birthright entitlement.

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