Being a college admissions coach in a post-Varsity Blues, the COVID-restricted era seems like a job no one would want. Still, Hafeez Lakhani, Founder, and President of Lakhani Coaching, says this is an unbelievably rewarding time to be in this field. Upscale Living magazine sat down with him to tell us why that is.
You weren’t always in education, so what did you do before you were a college coach, and what led you to this career?
Aside from my love of writing fiction, the most exceptional job I ever had was during three of my four summers while at Yale working as a high school camp counselor. My last summer, just after graduating, I remember turning to a fellow counselor and saying, “Man, if I could do this as a job forever, I would.” I probably said that because weeks later I would be starting as a commodities trader at Morgan Stanley, a demanding job I took on for four years, before realizing that writing fiction and lighting a fire in young people meant more to me. So here I am, twenty years into coaching students, a published fiction writer, and something of a professional camp counselor.
Do you council all of your clients yourself, or do you have a team?
It started just me, but as my impact grew—students admitted to Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, among other great schools, SAT improvements as large as 600 points, ACT jumps as large as 12 points—I began to receive more referrals than I could handle. So, I established my company and began hiring coaches, training them in Lakhani Coaching philosophy—the fulfilling high school career. Today we have over a dozen coaches, from a professional opera singer to a startup founder to social justice advocates, allowing our clients to choose from a range of personalities, experience levels, and rates, from $260/hr to $1000/hr. Our team works in four key areas: selective admissions, standardized testing, academic skills, and character growth.
The $1000/hr is to work directly with you? What about families who can’t afford even the $260/hr?
The top rate is to work directly with me, and I say that humbly. I grew up in a middle class, suburban South Florida. My family couldn’t afford such high-powered help. As for those who grow up with even less, in 2018 I was thrilled to launch Lakhani Scholars, a scholarship awarding $10,000 of our coaching services to high-achieving, low-income students from across the U.S. The scholarship is growing—we aim to serve 100 low-income students per year by 2025, at zero cost to those families.
Do families need to be in New York City to retain your services? What types of families do you typically work with?
We are based in New York but, given the power of the internet, we serve clients all across the U.S. and in 12 countries worldwide. Using Skype and a powerful combination of online tools, we’ve been working remotely with students since 2010. On a typical day, I may be Skyping with San Francisco, Boston, Milan, Kazakhstan, or even with a Manhattan student whose schedule is so full that a virtual meeting makes more sense than coming into my office.
We see an enormous range of family types. Privacy is a huge priority for us, but let’s say our fee-paying clients range from anesthesiologists to CEOs to Saudi princes. We help families fulfill their academic dreams at any of these tiers, whether they do 15 hours with us or 1000.
You mentioned a “fulfilling high school career” as a philosophy. Can you elaborate?
It’s a pillar to our success. Students often ask me, what do I need to do to get into Stanford? What’s my checklist? I say, wait. You should be asking, How am I doing at cultivating a fulfilling high school career? Fulfilling to whom? To you first, and then others will notice. We then outline our three major paradigms for a fulfilling high school career—Academics, Problem-Solving Ability, and Character, and we chart a specific course of ambition in each. Character, in particular—far beyond simply extracurriculars—is what sets Lakhani Coaching apart. What we are saying is, if Stanford is a dinner table with a limited number of seats, what makes you, our student, the most interesting person to deserve that last spot? What do you add to the dinner table conversation?
How has the Varsity Blues admissions scandal impacted your business?
While most surgeons save lives, there, unfortunately, maybe some who practice dishonest medicine. Similarly, Varsity Blues revealed that there are bad eggs out there in admissions coaching. Thankfully, Rick Singer and his clients were caught. Meanwhile, word of mouth—and our focus on integrity—has served my company exceptionally well. Our clients know that we ignite sincere ambition in our students, helping them gain admission to Yale, Stanford, or USC not by cheating but through earnest hard work.
How has the college application process changed due to COVID-19
What hasn’t changed is that selective admissions will remain selective—standing out is key. Given SAT/ACT cancellations, colleges will be forced in some cases to make decisions solely on academics and character. For students whose problem-solving ability, which SAT and ACT measure, is a boon to their application—perhaps a correction for so-so grades—we encourage sending in excellent scores even if a school has gone temporarily test-optional. In all other cases, we continue to focus on strength in academics and elevating genuine character to help our students stand out.
What do elite colleges look for in an applicant?
Selective colleges can spot a fake from a mile away, which is why we emphasize our three paradigms for a fulfilling high school career. It is this genuine philosophy that has fueled our students landing at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Columbia, among other great schools.
What makes a strong college essay? Does a student need to have built a children’s hospital in Senegal to get into Harvard?
Our ultimate test for a strong college essay is as follows: imagine that we are admissions officers sitting around a table late in the afternoon. We must decide today on a pile of 500 student applications, all of which we reviewed on our iPads, in some haste, the previous week. The successful essay will be one for which, when it’s time to discuss our student, someone at that table, even if tired, even after having discussed hundreds of candidates, will say: “Oh, Ella… She’s the one who…”
The answer to “she’s the one who…” need not be something so rare as building a children’s hospital. It merely needs to be a true reflection on a moment in the student’s life that illuminates her ambition.
What do you tell a student if he or she does not perform well on a standardized test?
Think of improvement on SAT or ACT—meant to measure problem-solving ability—like growing any other skill. Could you study all night tonight and be a great skier tomorrow? No. But if you approached improvement one step at a time, ideally with an instructor who can guide you through form, use of your poles, weight distribution, how to maximize your edges, before you got a chance to run through long runs, even practice races, with that coach, you will undoubtedly get better. Just as in a sport, if you have one bad run, that does not mean you are doomed. This is why colleges are great about considering a student’s highest SAT or ACT score from multiple sittings—allowing students a chance to beat their personal best.
What is one of your best student ‘turn-around’ stories?
An art student with a B average year once came to me as a sophomore aspiring to attend Cornell. In most cases, it is unheard-of for a B-student to aim for the Ivy League, but I wasn’t deterred because her commitment as a young artist was extraordinary. Over the next two years, my team and I helped her focus on excellence in academics, both in grades and in challenging course selection. Her summers involved college-level art classes and assisting a professional artist on a photoshoot through Central Asia. She worked tirelessly, directly with me, to raise her SATs to 1520 (of 1600), a 450-point jump from her starting point, alongside 750s (of 800) on two Subject Tests—success on testing is an important counterpoint to her earlier grades. To cap it off, she composed reflective college essays focused on the roots of her ambition in art. In the end, she was admitted to Cornell alongside her other top choices, RISD, UCLA, and USC, a remarkable success story.
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