College counselor Danny Ruderman has made a career of getting kids into good schools—and not by greasing the palms of shifty college coaches. Yesterday, a massive indictment revealed that college counselor/admitted criminal William Singer helped dozens of wealthy families get their children into the universities of their choosing by a variety of nefarious means (including paying coaches to admit students under the pretense that they were athletes when they were not, in fact, athletes).
Ruderman is always in high demand, but yesterday, his phone was ringing off the hook. Suddenly everyone wants to know what a legit college counselor does—and what a legit college counselor specifically doesn’t do.
Over the course of roughly 18 years, Ruderman has helped hundreds of high school students carve paths to the country’s best higher ed institutions, which he says is becoming more and more difficult as acceptance rates plummet. His clientele include many of the progeny of L.A.’s rich and famous. Still, he says, “I’ve never not had a student of mine go to a school that they want.” Among them is Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, whom Ruderman steered into Stanford.
Ruderman insists the real point of his job isn’t getting kids into the Ivy League, but rather helping kids hone their skills and passions so they’ll be more desirable to Ivy League institutions. He talked to us about what parents want, what kids want, what the country’s top colleges want, and how he makes it all click. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What are your thoughts on the Singer scandal?
Well, if you know my back story. I did not grow up rich at all. I’m the first from my family to ever go to college…So, despite the fact that I have very successful clients, I didn’t come from wealth. I know this is the way that the world can work sometimes, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I think it’s deplorable. That’s certainly not how I do things.
Is this not a common thing?
Well…I think that you attract what you are. My whole thing for the last 18 years has always been about authenticity. It’s not about getting into a specific school, or the name. I honestly don’t care. It’s about finding things that your child is interested in and then doing more of those, and that will result in college admissions. And I think that that message resonates with a lot of parents. I’ve never had anybody come to me say, “Oh, can we buy our way in?” I don’t even think about it. So, fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with it.
But you must get parents who are like, “Hey, I want my kid to get into Harvard, or Stanford—how do we get that extra edge?”
I have families all the time who have their hearts set on Harvard and Stanford. I think I have something like seven kids at Stanford right now. But, it’s never like, what do we do in terms of bribing or cheating? It’s like, what does it take? If they ask I’ll give them my answer about exactly what I just told you. And that works. I’m not naïve to think that parents don’t have connections at schools and know trustees who put in good words for kids. And I know that I’m sure wealthy families make legitimate donations if they’re legacies, they’ve been donating over time. I know that takes place. But in terms of this kind of underhanded, straight-out lying and bribery, that’s ridiculous. There shouldn’t be that much pressure to get into a certain school, because the school that you go to doesn’t mean anything. At least in my world.
Is that true? Why is then that people are willing to pay like half a million dollars to ensure their kid to go into a certain school?
Well, it’s all about keeping up with the Jonses, right? There is name recognition in certain schools. And that has a certain cachet. In the end it turns out, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve read studies in the past where they’ve tracked kids who were accepted into Harvard, and went to Harvard vs. kids who got accepted into Harvard but chose to go to non-Harvards, and there’s no difference over time in salary, happiness quotient, anything. At the end of the day, it’s about the student. However, obviously, this is a name-brand society, and so if I tell you that I went to Stanford—which I did—you’re going to immediately have an opinion about me which may be different than if I went to someplace else, good or bad. And so, especially in a town like Hollywood, where appearances matter, I can understand why people want to get into name brand schools. That’s the exact reason I have students research all the schools so that they know why they want to go there. The attraction can’t just be the name.
Don’t you think there’s more pressure on these kids in places like L.A. than in other regions of the country? It sometimes feels like many parents here are living through their children.
I think that that’s true no matter what. I think it’s especially true in places like Los Angeles and New York. I have kids at the private schools here, and the pressure is intense even among the kids: Oh, my God, what’s your GPA? Oh, my God, what’s your ACT score? It’s all driven by pressure.
Moms talk about this constantly because its such an emotional need. You’ve raised your child for 18 years, and now you’re about to send them off for the first time. It’s a big deal. And so, you want the best for your kid. And I totally get that. But what are we teaching our children, if we’re lying an bribing to get them in someplace? What does that say about us?
What’s your strategy? What kind of edge are do you give these kids?
I have kids that are from public schools. I also counsel the kids of some of the very top celebrities in this town. And I treat everyone the same, which is, “Hey, teenage boy or girl, what do you think you’re interested in?” One of the questions that I say is, “If you had a billion dollars and you were out of college and you could have any job, what would it be?” No restriction. And almost every teenager has some kind of interest whether or not it stays that way.
The goal is to find authentic ways for kids to pursue their interests. I had a boy who was interested in music production. And so he sent some emails out, and he landed an internship at a record label. And now he’s helping produce Halsey’s album. Just because he asked. This was not some underhanded maneuver. People will do things for teenagers that they’d never do for a 22 year old, if they simply ask.
So you urge people to do stuff like that—but the ultimate goal is to get them into a college, right? That’s what the service is?
Yes, optimally, these parents pay me for me to help them walk them through the process and navigate the application and the essays, and just the psychology of keeping everyone calm and not freaking out about it. Half of my job is literally that. Just breathing, and saying it’s going to be OK. You’re going to get into colleges. And you’re going to go. And you’re going to love it, because college is amazing. No matter what the name of the school is.
Stanford can take anyone. What they want to take is interesting kids who are going to come to campus and make a difference.
What’s the story with Evan Spiegel?
Evan’s story is that he called me in the fall of his senior year, and he said Danny, I’m not going to apply to Stanford. [He said], honestly, I’m not the top of my class, and this application is so long, which it is. And I said Evan, we’re going to apply. I don’t want to hear any more about it. And the reason is, Evan had amassed four years of graphic design experience.
He’s a very creative kid in high school. He was designing for his newspaper. He was making websites and logos and he took a bunch of art classes. And Stanford has a design school, a very good design school. So, Evan was what I call a match. In other words, he had a skill set that matched a major that Stanford had. So, even though he wasn’t the top of his class at Crossroads…that’s okay, because he met the threshold. He had good enough grades and test scores.
Stanford can take anyone. What they want to take is interesting kids who are going to come to campus and make a difference. So, Evan got into Stanford, and that’s where he met Bobby in the product design program. And that’s where they came up with the idea for Snapchat. So, it’s funny, Evan jokes that if it weren’t for me, there’d be no Snapchat.
Had you heard of William Singer?
I’ve heard of him on the outskirts. But, I never met him. I will tell you that five minutes ago, a parent called me and said that she’s his client. Just started with him. And obviously, they did make a change. So, they’ve already got my name and they called me.
Again, whether I have a kid at Harvard or Stanford—and I do—I couldn’t care less.
What’s the typical target for your services?
I slide my scale, because my parents could never have afforded me. So, it can run from a couple thousand dollars to 15 or 20 thousand dollars depending on how long I’m working with a child. I usually don’t talk about those rates because I want to individualize my services and make it work for people. It’s not just like, oh, here’s a big-ass bill. You’re going to pay me.
I have no problem in justifying my fee because I love to make a difference in kids’ lives. Again, whether I have a kid at Harvard or Stanford—and I do—I couldn’t care less.
Could you get a C student into Harvard?
Your phrasing I think is a little bit misplaced. I don’t get anyone into anything. All I do is help them be the best versions of themselves and then help them come up with essays that showcase those talents. The kid gets himself into Harvard. But, yes, I have kids at Harvard. Yes.
You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be interesting.
How crazy is the process of getting into college now. What does it take?
One of the reasons I have job is—and I wrote an article, an op/ed piece for U.S. News and World Report about this—here is no standardization in this process. So, every school has a different set of requirements, essays, deadlines. It’s a nightmare. And that’s why it’s so confusing and why I exist. Because to expect a 17-year-old to figure all this out on his own? It was easier when we all applied on paper. The Internet’s made things more complicated.
So, for Harvard, for example, there is an application. There is something called a personal statement, which is a 500 or 600 word essay. And then Harvard has a supplemental essay that you can choose what you want to write about, about the same length. Also grades, test scores, and teacher recommendations…
I have had students with perfect grades—straight As, perfect test scores—who got into a ton of schools but they didn’t get into a Harvard or Stanford. And then I’ve had students with lesser grades, mostly As, some Bs here and there, a good but not great test score, kind of like the Evan story.
You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be interesting. So, if you have great grades in school, and that’s all that you have, you will get into 99 percent of the colleges. But, in order to get into the top-tier ones, they want to know what you’re bringing to campus. What kind of passion? What kind of interest? What kind of unique take are you going to contribute to the college campus?
Are you finding that kids are getting more anxious about college?
Yes. You should come into my office when I have anxious teenage girls. Being a teenager in and of itself is anxiety producing. In some ways it’s no different than the last 30 years… except in Los Angeles, at a private school where almost all the students are good students.
At my high school, 17 percent of my graduating class went to college and 25 percent will at some point go to prison. That’s not Harvard Westlake. But in Harvard Westlake, or Brentwood, or Crossroads, or any of these schools, the majority of the students are getting As. They’re smart. They work really hard.
And when you work really hard, that creates this pressure situation and it manifests in anxiety. You’ve got kids who are having anxiety attacks. You’ve got kids that are seeing psychologists, that are getting more medicated. And I think it has to do with not just the college process, but also their phones. You know, these days that is how kids communicate.
It’s a tough time to be a young person these days.