College admission is a top worry on the minds of high school students and their parents, leading to a 58% increase in the education consulting industry in the past 10 years. Our guest today, Kat Cohen is the founder of one of the world’s leading education consulting businesses, IvyWise, which helps students gain admission to their best fit colleges through counseling, test prep, research services, and more. Listen to hear Kat talk about how she got her start in this industry and the knowledge she’s gathered along the way
Katherine Cohen: [00:00:00] And I saw firsthand how students were presenting themselves and the mistakes they were making, and I kept thinking, well, I could help these kids from the other side…
Sam: [00:00:14] Dr. Kat Cohen is the founder and CEO of IvyWise, the world’s leading independent educational consultant. They’ve been in business for over 20 years and worked with students in over 40 countries. IvyWise helps students gain admission to their best fit colleges with customized admissions, counseling, tutoring, test prep and research services. Kat, it’s a pleasure to have you here with us today.
Katherine Cohen: [00:01:01] Thanks so much for having me. Sam.
Sam: [00:01:05] So Kat, which high school student or parent isn’t stressed about college admissions these days, I mean, uncertainty about college has led to a 58% increase in the educational consulting industry over the last 10 years. And it isn’t, as you know, much better than I do, just about standardized tests and rankings. Tell us about your motivation to start this business. What got you going down this path?
Katherine Cohen: [00:01:33] Well, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit ever since I can remember. And I always had a job. I started working at age 15. I grew up in Los Angeles. I worked at, I actually this was even before I could drive and I would walk into Brentwood town, which is where I lived. And I worked at a local wine and cheese shop just to make some basic spending money and learn about business. After that, I was recruited by a company called the Princeton Review, an S.A.T. prep Company to start working for them, and they wanted me to recruit other students into their courses. So I learned about marketing. I learned about the S.A.T. prep business. But then they actually asked me as a 16 year old to start teaching classes. So I went through a teacher training with them. I actually started writing materials for them when I was in high school and started teaching S.A.T. prep. So that started very early on. And I loved working. I loved making my own money and I love being productive and helping others. So when I graduated from Brown University, I actually was a dancer all through high school and college. That was my main extracurricular activity. I ended up heading to Dakar, Senegal, to perform with the National Ballet of Senegal, but I got very ill there. I got typhoid fever. And so they sent me back home. And when I got back to Los Angeles, I decided to start a tutoring business because that’s what I had done before. I knew about S.A.T. prep, but I expanded it to be more than just tutoring. I actually recruited some of my friends from Brown to be tutors for me and so we could tutor kids in the area in all different subjects.
Sam: [00:03:42] Amazing, I mean, it’s so unusual, right, because you had to start with your career where you really have stayed with the same theme and area, I mean, starting, as you said, at the age of 16.
Katherine Cohen: [00:03:56] Yes. And then I realize looking back, I’ve always loved learning. I’ve always loved being a student. So when I went back to school, when I went to Yale, I was a graduate student getting my Ph.D. I received a fellowship to study Latin American literature. But it was during that time that I was writing my dissertation that I saw there was an ad for a reader, for Yale College, for the Office of Admissions. And I answered it and I thought this would be so fascinating to read applications for their admissions office. And they tested me and gave me some sample applications to— I had to evaluate them. I had to do these write ups. And I loved that, even that exercise of them testing me to do it. But I got the position and read hundreds of undergrad applications from all over the world to Yale College and learned how they read applications. I learned the ins and outs of what it meant to get into that level of school. And I saw firsthand how students were presenting themselves and the mistakes they were making. And I kept thinking, well, I could help these kids from the other side of the desk because I saw so many of the same types of mistakes that the kids were making in their applications. And that really was that aha moment when I said, I do want to help these kids from the other side of the desk. This is going to be my job. That’s going to be my career.
Sam: [00:05:35] Amazing, so we couldn’t talk about this topic, right, and your entrepreneurship in this field without talking about the college admissions scandal, and it’s sort of, I think, thrown into much sharper relief for a much larger group of people, you know, some of the avenues, but equally, some of the problems in the college admissions process, these that we’re sort of living through. There’s a perfectly legal world, right, of gaming the college admissions process by picking the right classes, picking the right sports, getting help on test prep, essay editing, advice, much like you and your company provides. What are your thoughts the scandal, the playing field? How do you think about that with the work that you do?
Katherine Cohen: [00:06:32] Well, you know, our team was just as surprised as everybody else in reading about it in the news. And one of the things that we have always prided ourselves on is being an ethical practice. And from the get go of me going into this profession, one of the first things I did was join our professional organization’s, NACAC, the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, as well as IEZA for independent consultants. And they both have what are called the principles of good practice, where you adhere to these principles. You agreed to these principles if you’re going to go into this field. And it’s interesting because over the years now I’ve been in business just over 20 years. We always talked about the IvyWise difference, what makes us different from everybody else doing this. And one of our tenets, which was always at the end, was that we have an ethical practice, that we adhere to the principles of good practice. And one of the things that I did early on, because when I first started in this business, you know, independent counseling was looked down upon 20 years ago. I would show up to a NACAC conference and be snubbed by admissions officers. They didn’t think this was a real profession or they thought, oh, this person must be selling snake oil if they’re doing this.
Sam: [00:08:03] And why was that? Was it because they didn’t want the process to seem transparent at all to anybody but themselves?
Katherine Cohen: [00:08:10] I think they just at the time, it wasn’t a profession that was as widely represented as it is today. It was a really nascent profession. And they were skeptical, especially if someone worked on the college side and then took that knowledge and brought it to the other side of the desk. So what I started to do with our website, which is now a destination and it’s a destination with free resources. What we do is we go through all of the latest news in higher education and we filter that. So people our audience is getting the most up to date, the most relevant and the most accurate information. And because of that over the years, we have developed a reputation of being ethical, transparent. We’re not saying, oh, you know, we’re going to give you the quote unquote hidden secrets or behind the velvet curtain is how you’re going to you know, we’re going to show you what’s going on behind this curtain and know the secrets. No, they’re not secrets. We’re going to disseminate information that’s valid. That’s up to date. That’s accurate. That’s going to help you go through this process. And so, like I said, we were just as surprised as everybody else when this happened. But what was interesting is because we’ve always had that as one of the IvyWise differences is that we belong to these member organizations and we do adhere to these practices. That instantly became the number one thing that was so important about coming to IvyWise. More so than a lot of the other reasons why people would come to IvyWise because now people want to know that if they are working with someone outside of their school, that they are ethical, that they do follow best practices.
Sam: [00:10:09] So reputation became even more important as in the aftermath of the crisis.
Katherine Cohen: [00:10:16] Yes. And also the fact that we have a team with over two hundred years’ of admissions experience. They’re all real former admissions officers who were in admissions making the decisions in the rooms, and because we have the team and what we do is we collectively read each student going through the process, so we recreate the admissions committee, experience what we call a round table. So every student goes through our roundtable. We have a system of checks and balances built in to our way we work. So it would be impossible for something like this to happen within our company.
Sam: [00:11:06] So interesting. I want to take you back to the beginning of when you started IvyWise. How did you find your first few customers? You know, one of the things you described was that the college admissions officers were generally sort of skeptical of consultants. How did you convince your first few customers to kind of come on board?
Katherine Cohen: [00:11:31] Well, I did a lot of things in the very beginning. So when I left Yale and left Reading, I decided I needed to learn everything I could before actually going into practice and that that was something really important. So I went immediately to get my certificate in college admissions, counseling from UCLA. And that was really important because that was a real certificate and it was taught by people who were admissions officers who gave off a full curriculum of what this profession was about at the same time. So even before I started my company, I attended NACAC, the National Association of College Admissions Counseling Conference. I wanted to learn everything about this industry, and I just started reading, researching, learning everything I could even before I opened up my practice. The second thing I did is I came up with a name for the company I was and I didn’t name it Kat Cohen Consulting, and there was a reason behind that because I wanted to create something that was a real consultancy where students from all over the world could gain access to not just me, but to a team of experts that would help them with every component of the admissions process. So that concept very early on was important because I didn’t want to be just a single practitioner in a small office where someone was just coming to me. I really wanted to build a team of experts. And then the other thing I did even before opening up my doors was I organized all of the knowledge I had gained all of the materials that I had researched. And I put it all together into a workbook for students. And that workbook actually ended up becoming the first book I published, “the truth about getting in” later, years later. But that was critical for me. I had to organize everything that I had learned and make it my own. And I did all of that before even opening up my doors. So then how did I get my first clients? Well. I started giving away free information, and this was something I look back on this and this was critical,like people would call me, they knew that I was doing something with college admissions and they would ask me questions all the time. And I constantly give out free information without charging anything. And this ended up getting back to this woman who worked at Vogue magazine, and she ended up calling me because they were doing what they called their college index. And they wanted to know what the latest gadgets were that students were using. What were the latest styles on campus? What were the hot schools at the moment? And so what I did, she kept calling me and I kept researching more and getting back to her, not thinking really anything of it other than that I was helping her and she ended up calling me back and she said – this is right before the issue came out – you know, we want to put you in as a resource. Can we put you in as a resource? And I was like, absolutely amazing. She said, well, what phone number should we give? And at the time, I had just moved to an apartment in New York City and I didn’t even have an office at the time. This is right before I was going to write. As I was just getting started, I’d come up with a name. I was just getting everything together and forming my LLC. And she said and she wanted the phone number. And I’m thinking, oh, my gosh, am I going to give you the phone number to my apartment? I can’t do that. I said, let me call you right back. And I remember that college students could get an eight hundred number attached to their home number so that they could call home for free. So I called the phone company and I said, do you have an eight hundred IvyWise number? Luckily, I had already had my L.L.C.. And luckily it had seven seven letters. Sure enough, 877-IVY-WISE was available and I called the woman at Vogue back five minutes later I said, you can use 877-IVY-WISE. She said great. And then they published this tiny little paragraph, no photo about me and my services. And from that tiny little piece I got five hundred phone calls from around the world.
Sam: [00:16:23] That’s amazing. That is such a great story. And it’s a perfect segue way because, you know, I guess you get siblings. Once you’ve had one child go through your process. You sometimes get cousins, but you don’t tend to get friends. Right, because people don’t generally want their friends to know how their child got into whatever school they went to. So talk a little bit about how you scaled your business. You know, it’s so fascinating. I think that that piece in Vogue was such a sort of monumental event, looking back. But from there, you’ve gone on, you’ve been in business twenty years. You’ve grown across such a variety of countries. And to just masses of students, talk a little bit about scale.
Katherine Cohen: [00:17:15] So one of the first things I did after I got those 500 phone calls is I realized I couldn’t do it all alone. So I hired an assistant and started delegating. And this was critical in the very beginning. I also found a tiny little office space on 57th Street in New York City, tiny back office space. But it had that 57 street address, which I thought was important in terms of having a professional space to work from. So I quickly moved into this space with this new assistant and started looking for people who were in admissions and I had to build my team. So I started to do that slowly and deliberately. And that that was probably one of the first things I did that I didn’t realize at the time that the team would be as big as it is today. I thought I would just hire a couple of people, but I realized that in order to fulfill the needs of people who were calling us, we had to have experts in all different areas. So I needed specialists. So we expanded outside of college admissions into different specialties. We hired counselors that could help with K-12, boarding school, graduate school admissions, and built up a team of tutors to help with the demand of SAT/ACT prep, AP exams, SAT subject tests. And then it went beyond that to A level exams and IB exams and exams from all around the world. So I’ve had to constantly adapt to the needs of our clients, of people who started calling us, and what’s interesting is we’ve actually been working remotely with students exclusively for over a decade. So what’s interesting today, because we’re in the middle of this pandemic and now we’ve gone to remote and Zoom, we were actually 100% percent prepared when everyone was suddenly stuck at home this spring, which was great because we had done that early on in order to attend to all of our clients around the world. But we never advertised. We grew very organically through word of mouth. So when you say families didn’t necessarily tell their friends, they did start telling their friends and they not only told their friends, they would tell people that they didn’t even know that, well, they would be at a hair salon talking to somebody else in the chair next to them. And that’s how we got the person who came in. And it was very interesting that how we grew so organically through word of mouth without advertising, we were very lucky. And it really came down to the IvyWise experience, people truly enjoying the experience from beginning to end, from first phone call to the company to the final, you know, admit letter to the school they so wanted to go to. That was the right fit for them that that experience was great and that our reputation sort of preceded us at that point.
Sam: [00:20:48] I love that story. And it’s so great that your business was always set up in that going remote has been totally seamless during this time. So let’s talk a little bit about accessibility, since that’s so much part of the zeitgeist at the moment and colleges have sort of been on a mission to recruit a diverse class socioeconomically, ethnically and every other way. These services at your company and equally in your industry can run $10,000 and they can run $100,000 to $200,000. Tell us a little bit about why that is and how do you sort of think about that in this climate where access is sort of, you know, top of mind for every entrepreneur these days?
Katherine Cohen: [00:21:53] Well, I think you bring up a good point, because even after my business exploded after that Vogue piece, I got kind of pigeonholed as the quote unquote, elite college counselor because of pricing. And I think the media really focused on our pricing that we were priced at the high end of this profession. I know today there are other firms that are priced in similar ranges, if not higher than IvyWise and for different services. So I know we’re not unique right now, but I did get pigeonholed and I’ve worked really hard over the last two decades to balance that out and pivot away from that image, because we really want to be the thought leaders in this industry and give all students the information they need to succeed in college admissions. So when I started the business, I always had the model that at least 1 out of 10, if not 1 out of 6 students, it’s range, depending on the year, were completely pro bono. So I always like to think about it, okay, the paying students are going to pay for the non paying students, number one, and that has been since day one of my business. Now that we have a much bigger team and we have this wealth of information and experience, we can share it with everyone. So our website is a free resource. Our website, our blog, our social media channels are speaking opportunities that we take, the school partnership initiatives we do. We are doing so many things to give as much free, valuable information as we can to give that away. And I think that’s critical. So while the media will focus on one service or one program that might be tens of thousands of dollars they need, if they look at the company as a whole and what we’re doing, our goal has always been to be the free resource and the best resource in terms of information on college admissions.
Sam: [00:24:14] I’m really glad to hear you say that. Kat, 20 years is a long time to run your business as you look back, what are a couple of assumptions that you made when you started the business or along the way that you’ve subsequently pivoted away from or just changed?
Katherine Cohen: [00:24:36] So when I first got into it, educational consulting, it was really a niche business. And like I said, a lot of my first clients came from word of mouth. So it was really important to build up my reputation with my work. So not just flashy press or digital advertising, because now college consulting is more commonplace. So whether it’s a full counseling program from ninth grade on or just a quick chat with a college consultant online, it’s become more democratized, which is fantastic. And we’ve had to pivot to offer our services to a variety of students across the globe, not just the initial market we started in. And I think that it’s become different because we are a global company. We work with students coming from all different types of curricula from around the globe, from over 40 countries. We have definitely pivoted to be able to serve all of those students and schools. We’re also partnering with schools, not just students. We also have a B2B side of our business. Super interesting, tell us a little bit about the B2B side of the business, so we have been working with schools to partner with them. We are creating our own certification to certify counselors so they can work in schools, because generally what happens is a school will hire maybe someone who’s worked at another school in college counseling. Very rarely do they hire someone who has real college admissions experience from behind the desk. And a lot of times someone who gets put into that position is just formerly an English teacher or a history teacher, someone like that. And so there hasn’t really been a way to certify college admissions counselors for schools. And I think schools want better approaches. They want a better return on their investment for their families. And so families, when they’re choosing a school, they’re going to be looking at where those students went to college, where those students were placed. And these schools are constantly trying to improve that placement list. And so what’s been wonderful in partnering with schools is we can help them with their admissions process. We can actually come up with a system for the school that works for their student body and their families and improve what they’re doing. And that has been incredibly rewarding because we can actually touch. Thousands of more students than we can with our boutique service by partnering with the school.
Sam: [00:27:37] Yeah, makes total sense, tell us a little bit about competition. Who do you view as the competition? How do you differentiate yourself?
Katherine Cohen: [00:27:47] So I used to say that we never had any competition, for the longest time because we were really the only consultancy that truly had the expert team and the comprehensive services that we offer now. But as college consulting has become more mainstream, especially in the last five years, there are a few firms that have started to copy what we’ve been doing for over 20 years. What sets us apart are a number of things, but first and foremost is our experience, our team having that over two hundred years of combined experience in admissions. Our counselors are former deans and directors of admissions from the top schools in the US. Those people were in the rooms where the decisions were happening. They were making those decisions. They were sitting in committee. So they knew exactly what colleges are thinking about when making these admissions decisions. And a lot of times you’ll see it in other companies on their websites, it’s a little bit unclear if they were actually working in the admissions office, maybe they came from that school or they graduated from that school. But what was their actual role? And that’s something that we have to tell people when they’re looking at independent counselors to look very clearly at the background of the people who are counseling you. What’s also different is our client experience. So our students are benefiting from our entire team because we’ve created what we call roundtable. As I said before, which simulates the committee review process. Our counsels are looking at every facet of a student’s application and giving them feedback as if they were in the actual admissions committee deciding on that student. And so that’s a unique experience. I don’t know another counseling practice that does that, where we bring all the great minds together, those experts, and have them give feedback not only on the students list, but on the applications, the essays, talk about other schools maybe they should be applying to that aren’t on their list or, hey, they should be thinking about this or thinking about that. And you’re getting this diversity of feedback, right? Because all of our counselors come from different schools and they’re diverse themselves. So they’re not just getting the feedback from one person. Another thing that makes us stand apart in this profession is that we also have a tutoring side to our business. So we are helping students with test preparation and with academic subject support. And because it’s all under one roof, we can see, a counselor can see the tutoring notes of the student. So everything is transparent. And I think what happens with other independent counselors is they might be going outside for tutoring or they might be getting some bad advice from someone local. And that counselor doesn’t know the advice that that outside tutor is giving because they’re not under the same roof. So that’s something, I think, that has helped us streamline our process and make sure that we are able to ensure that everybody’s on the same page. We have an incredible support staff that provides what I call like a white glove service to our clients. We make sure every family is taken care of from start to finish. And as I said before, it’s very important that every family that comes to us has an amazing experience. Regardless of the outcome, they know they are being attended to. We are open twenty four seven. They can call and email at any time. We work with kids, obviously in all different time zones, we get back to people quickly and we make sure we answer all of their questions and we are there for them for whatever they need. The other thing that makes us different is we actually have a proprietary what’s called my IvyWise portal, and it’s unique to our business and I think something we’ve also been ahead of the curve on. So we provide families with the technology they need to get the most out of their Ivy wise program. So you can log in. You can see all the notes from the counseling session. I mean, that’s another thing we do. We write notes, copious notes after every meeting, after every counseling session, after every tutoring meeting. So there’s nothing that sort of oh, Lucy Goosey or I don’t know what my daughter did with their counselor. The parents know what’s going on. The students know what’s going on, their deliverables. Everything’s in writing within twenty four hours after the session and they can go on to their portal, look at it. They can look at any practice tests, see the practice test scores. They can look at the feedback from the roundtable. It’s all in one place that’s easy to access.
Sam: [00:32:35] Love that. So despite the college admission scandal and with the lack of access to testing and college visits, that’s been a feature of the 2019-2020 year, anxiety levels are really high and the role of educational consultants is set to be even more important. Thanks to CNBC, The New York Times, Chicago business and HowStuffWorks for the data cited in today’s episode. Kat, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Ideamix radio with us today. Thank you.
Katherine Cohen: [00:33:07] Thanks so much for having me.
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