Donald Dunbar was an educational consultant in Boston helping young people apply to college when he began working with a boy who was attending Geneva's elite Institut Le Rosey. The boy came from a wealthy family, and they had hired Dunbar to help him get into Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he hoped to study agriculture. The problem was, the boy's grades were poor. Dunbar lobbied on his behalf, however, telling Cornell administration officials that he spoke 12 languages. Cornell's response: "But can he think in one?"

Still, Dunbar persisted, explaining that the boy was very bright, was genuinely interested in the field and was likely to put his education to good use, given that his family owned plantations all over South America and Asia and that he had already worked on some of them.

In the end, Cornell officials saw merit in Dunbar's endorsements and admitted the boy.

"This kid was near the bottom of his class, and Le Rosey hadn't gotten anyone into the Ivies lately. After that, they thought I could get anyone in anywhere," Dunbar says of the people at Le Rosey.

When they asked if he could, he said, "Of course not."

Still, the headmaster from the institute flew to Boston and hired Dunbar on the spot to help its students get into American colleges.

Dunbar is an educational consultant-part of a profession that helps wealthy families navigate the sometimes byzantine world of college admissions. He says he likes to get children early, in say seventh grade, so he can begin grooming them. If these students leave a good impression on their peers and teachers, it reflects well on them later. However, if they're selfish and competitive, that, too, will reflect on them-poorly.

He was once an admissions official at Phillips Academy preparatory school in Andover, Mass. Whenever a pupil was being considered for acceptance to the school and it was a close call, the choice always came down to something the student said in an interview or what a teacher said about him.  

Character is key in the application process, Dunbar says. He recalls a young woman who mentioned in her essay to Phillips that she had a job on weekends, and she went on to talk about how her friends wouldn't even know an eight-hour workday if it bit them. That was a mistake, Dunbar says, because it made her look too aggressive and competitive.

"Show a little immaturity in your character, and you're gone," Dunbar says. "Adolescents love to share their dirty laundry. They love saying really outrageous, adolescent things. You just have to keep them from doing that."

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