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For Sale: Successful Ivy League Applications—Only $19.99

The path to the nation’s most selective colleges is crowded with entrepreneurs—independent consultants, test-preparation companies, and publishers of a zillion guides. They peddle information and insight, along with strategies for unlocking coveted gates. Recently, Howard Yaruss decided to join them.

Mr. Yaruss is the founder of the Application Project Inc., which sells copies of successful applications to Ivy League colleges. Want to browse applications submitted by 21 members of Brown University’s 2009-10 freshman class? You can buy access to them for $19.99 on the company’s Web site, WeGotIn.net. For the same price, you can see applications filed by 14 members of the 2009-10 freshman class at Columbia University. Or you can buy both sets for $34.99.

It’s all in the name of transparency, says Mr. Yaruss, who touts his new service a way to show students what successful applications look like—and what admissions officers look for when they evaluate them. Seeing how accepted applicants presented themselves, he says, can help high-school students, especially those who lack affluence, college savvy, and knowledgeable counselors.

“It’s the one remaining part of the process that’s shrouded in mystery,” Mr. Yaruss says. “Students spend thousands of dollars preparing for the SAT. We’re offering this for the cost of a trade paperback.”

Copies of the applications contain the entire response to each question, including essay and short-answer prompts. Personal data— names, addresses, and social-security numbers—are removed. The company obtains the copies directly from students, who are asked to submit their application via their college e-mail accounts as proof of their enrollment. So far, the company’s database of applications includes only Brown and Columbia, but Mr. Yaruss plans to expand it to all Ivy League institutions, as well as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2011.

Mr. Yaruss, 52, earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown and later became a lawyer. He worked in the financial-services industry for nearly two decades before starting the Application Project last year. The company has advertised on U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings Web site , and through Facebook and Google. Since WeGotIn.net went live earlier this fall, traffic has been “excellent,” says Mr. Yaruss, but he declines to disclose the total number of customers. After all, this is a business.
One can only assume that this business will grow. In some circles (like Manhattan, where Mr. Yaruss is based), fretting about Ivy League colleges is a fever, and people are always seeking a cure. A tip, a clue—anything that might help raise the odds of getting an acceptance letter—is always in demand. What Mr. Yaruss promises is a peek behind the complex curtain of holistic admissions reviews.

The catch, of course, is that an accepted student’s application is only a document, which may or may not reveal the why of any student’s acceptance. It’s not like a winning lottery ticket or a mathematical equation, in which the numbers must line up exactly. Studying an application might tell you some things, but not others, like the applicant’s family background and income, the number of other students who applied from his or her high school or home state, the probing question he or she asked (or didn’t) during an admissions interview, or whether his or her unique talents and interests were in demand at a given college in a given year—or a 100 other factors.

That’s why a few admissions counselors who saw the WeGotIn.net on Thursday could only scoff. “An application out of context has no value, and it’s disingenuous at best to imply that it does,” said Willard M. Dix, an independent counselor in Chicago who works with low-income students. “But there’s a sucker born every minute. Sites like this clearly know that.”

Alice Kleeman, a college counselor at Menlo-Atherton High School, in California, calls the service “revolting.” She suspects that the site might cause students to think they have no chance if they happen to lack the academic records, personal experiences, and writing abilities of students who were accepted.

Ms. Kleeman also thinks there’s a high likelihood of abuse. “Even if students have the integrity not to simply lift responses from these apps, the site could also have the potential of causing students to believe they should submit something just like these apps, rather than their own authentic app,” Ms. Kleeman says. “I would hate to see my students spending money for something like this.”

Mr. Yaruss, who says he has already encountered some “hostility” in the admissions realm, suspects more criticism will come. But he’s been pleased by the response from the people whose help he needs most—college students. He has  solicited their applications by contacting them through Facebook. His pitch: sharing them would help other students who aspire to attend elite colleges.

But the company also provides a financial incentive. Each student who shared his or her application was paid (two received $100, and the others received less), which seems only fair. Why shouldn’t students make a little money on this venture, too?

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