Conning Harvard

Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist
Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League

By Julie Zauzmer, with additional reporting

by Xi Yu

Lyons Press. 240 pp. $21.95


Forged transcripts and recommendations from Chinese applicants to U.S. schools. Impostors paid to take the SAT and ACT for other students. Personal statements plagiarized from guidebooks and the Internet.

Julie Zauzmer, a Harvard University senior and managing editor of the Harvard Crimson, cites these examples (and others) of college applicant fraud in Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League, lending credibility to what otherwise might be an unbelievable story.

Though Adam Wheeler's deception was extreme, his story (which Zauzmer, an Inquirer 2012 summer intern, first covered for the Crimson) exposes the cracks in the college admissions system - and the competitive college-bound culture that can break even an honest applicant.

Wheeler's specialty was plagiarism. He cherry-picked from 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays (a guide to essay-writing compiled by the Crimson) to get into Bowdoin College, won the school's Llewellyn Poetry Prize for "Hay" by Paul Muldoon, and lifted from prestigious law journals for papers he submitted for a Philosophy of Law class. By the time Bowdoin's Judicial Board booted him for violating the school's honor code, he'd been admitted as a transfer to Harvard. The Harvard Man he'd invented on paper with "correction fluid and a carefully aligned printer, a scanner and a bit of time with image editing software" was not a public school kid from Delaware with a C on his Bowdoin transcript, as Wheeler was in reality. He passed himself off instead as a Phillips Academy (Andover) graduate with nearly perfect SAT scores and improbable "5s" on 16 AP exams, and as a student who'd discovered his love of literature while earning a 5.0 at that bastion of science and technology, MIT.

Zauzmer's well-researched book is practically a how-to guide for scamming a college admissions process that's "anything but foolproof," according to her source, David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Though Harvard may be particularly vulnerable to fraud due to the sheer volume of applications it receives, the protections in place to prevent it (in-person interviews; official score reports from the College Board, including a proctored writing sample; the expertise of staff members assigned to a region or school; a subcommittee process ensuring multiple readings of an application) are standard practice at other institutions. Suspicious admissions officers may check out red flags with a phone call to an applicant's high school counselor or by subscribing to an anti-plagiarism service such as TurnItIn.com, but the most important piece of the application - the transcript - is rarely questioned. Given time and staffing constraints, writes Zauzmer, "the only option is a balanced approach between scrutiny and trust."

Zauzmer only touches on Wheeler's psychology (and his parents' presence in his life as the scandal unfolds), focusing instead on the forces that allow and even subtly encourage students' deception. The industry of college packaging (private counselors, test prep courses, insiders' guides, published volumes of application essays and even essays for sale online) is all too familiar to anyone who's attended or sent a child to college in the last 25 years. Once in college, online research services such as ProQuest.com make obscure academic work more accessible and, inadvertently, easier to plagiarize. In detailing these trends, Zauzmer illuminates a larger dilemma: admissions officers who are trying to create a community of scholars select from a pool that includes cutthroat competitors.

In Wheeler's case, technology finally trapped him when he submitted his own professor's work in his application for the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. The human element that allowed him to slip through Harvard's gate undetected finally brought his cheating spree there to an end: Though the essay he plagiarized wasn't easily searchable online, it was easily found by the true author's colleague, who recognized the text, pulled the book in which it was published from his office shelf, and compared the original to the copy.

To report on the extent of Wheeler's fraud, Zauzmer scrutinizes the college admissions system even more carefully than her subject did; she even includes his falsified transcripts, annotated to show his telling mistakes. And in quoting one of Wheeler's friends, who called him "a master of semblance," she points to his biggest con: the one he pulled on himself. If adolescence is a time for integration - for reflecting on past accomplishments and projecting a fitting future - the application essay offers an occasion to author one's life story. Wheeler blew his opportunity. Like so many high school seniors who buckle under the pressure of perceived expectations, he cynically created a mockup of himself revealing a hollow fear: that mere brilliance isn't enough to get you into the Ivy League - you have to be superhuman.

Elizabeth Mosier, a former admissions officer, teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. www.ElizabethMosier.com