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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Katherine Cohen

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-04-27

Katherine Cohen speaks in precise, complete sentences. There's an adjective or two tossed in, but, for the most part, she addresses questions directly, making liberal use of verbs. She keenly listens to her questioner before responding. She maintains level eye contact. She asks questions of her interviewer. She projects self-assurance.

In fact, she could well have been at a session with a college admissions counselor. During the course of a lunch with the reporter, Ms. Cohen, founder and president of IvyWise in Manhattan - a leading educational consulting service for the nursery through the graduate school admissions process - did precisely what she exhorts her students to do during interviews with admissions officers. She tested those prescriptions while getting into Ivy League institutions: she's a graduate of Brown University, and obtained a doctorate at Yale University.

"What's different in my approach to the admissions process is that I don't only focus on the so-called 'hard factors' - taking tests, course load, grades, application essays, and so on," Ms. Cohen said. "I also help students with the 'soft factors' - nurturing better relationships with peers and teachers, making an impact in their school and communities. I tell students that the pillars of success are built on the steps of failure. I tell them that life is a journey of self-discovery."

"At the end of the day, I help kids make their dreams come true," she said. "I help them I tap into their natural talents and use these talents to make an impact both in and outside the classroom, which colleges specifically look for. Our business is an educational one-stop shop."

The shop offers counseling for students of all ages, academic subject tutoring, standardized test preparation, and help for students with learning disabilities.

And it has done very well indeed. IvyWise's fees range from $1,000 for a three-hour consultation to $33,000 for a two-year, 100-hour package with Ms. Cohen. She has 4 full-time tutors working for her, and 10 part-time counselors. At any given time, she takes on no more than 20 students. And as part of her commitment to assisting youths from underprivileged families, free counseling is given to one out of every seven students.

A key reason that IvyWise has flourished since its founding in 1998 is the hunger of students to get into America's top schools and colleges. The National Association for College Admission Counseling says that of the 1,540 colleges and universities that are its members, the overall acceptance rate is 71%. But the acceptance rate at the top 50 institutions is often no more than 20%.

Each year, 2.9 million students graduate from America's 39,545 secondary schools, and about a third of them apply to colleges, with the number edging up each year. International students account for another 100,000 applications. Ms. Cohen said that about 30% of her business comes from overseas students, whose parents dispatch them to New York to be counseled by her.

Aren't her fees steep, almost the equivalent of paying a year's worth of tuition at a top college?

Ms. Cohen's answer came in the form of an anecdote. She was attending an educators' conference in Las Vegas when another independent counselor cited her by name and proceeded to disparage her fee structure. At first Ms. Cohen held her counsel, but then decided to respond.

"You tell me what the right price is," she said to her antagonist. He wasn't able to provide a response.

"The right price is what the market will bear," Ms. Cohen told The New York Sun. "That's the only price to charge. There is this existing myth among educators that the less you charge, the better work you are doing. Besides, broken down hourly our fees are equivalent to those of other educational consultants in New York City - about $200 to $300 an hour. The difference is that I developed a methodology, a program that is very comprehensive. I don't apologize for my fees."

When students go through Ms. Cohen's program, they clearly get results. This year, 76% of IvyWise students got into their top choice "reach" college. And 98% of her students got into their top first or second choice college.

Ms. Cohen discovered more than a decade ago in her native California that there was a market in counseling college-bound students. After graduating from Brown, she traveled to Senegal to dance with the National Ballet of Senegal; at college, although academically concentrating on Hispanic literature and psychology, she'd become an aficionado of African dance. She fell severely ill in Africa, and came home eventually.

It was while recuperating in Los Angeles that she thought of tutoring kids who were applying to college; she'd had some experience in such tutoring during summer vacations while she was still an undergraduate.

"I went from 1 student to 20 students in the very first month," Ms. Cohen said. "Soon I employed five friends, who'd also graduated from Ivy League schools. We called the company, 'The Ivy Injection.' We charged students $60 an hour. I found that I especially love helping others to learn."

That enthusiasm for the tutoring life was then put on hold for the next several years while Ms. Cohen pursued a doctoral degree in the Spanish department. Besides Spanish, she expanded her linguistic fluency to include French, Italian and Portuguese. She also studied Medieval and Classical Latin, and literary theory.

While at Yale, she obtained a job evaluating applications in the admissions office. She also taught undergraduate courses.

"I found my passion in teaching," Ms. Cohen said. "It was fun."
But at the end of the six years that it took to get her Ph.D., Ms. Cohen evaluated her own life. The daughter of stock broker - who turned a professional tennis coach - and a mother who imbibed in her a love of books, Ms. Cohen decided to quit teaching.

"Reading those applications at the Yale admissions office had opened up a whole new world," she said. "The light bulb turned on inside my head. I realized that I could professionally help these kids."

So she took courses at the University of California in Los Angeles in order to obtain certification as a college counselor.

"I decided then that I was going to do it on my own," Ms. Cohen said. "That was one of my life's defining moments."

She moved to New York to join her then fiance, a Briton who lived in Manhattan. She opened IvyWise. An article in Vogue that mentioned her brought 500 phone calls. She moved her office from her downtown loft to midtown.

Ms. Cohen was relentless in her ambition. She wrote two briskly-selling education books, both published by Hyperion. A third book is on its way, and Ms. Cohen - a strict practitioner of yoga for 22 years - is also working on an autobiographical novel.

And where's her business headed?

"I have huge dreams for my business," Ms. Cohen said. These include establishing learning boutiques across America, producing DVDs, iPod-casting, and creating a scholarship fund. She may even expand abroad.
"I am lucky because I absolutely love what I do," Ms. Cohen said. "I get giddy just going to work."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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