Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What: Julie Zauzmer, Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way into the Ivy League (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2012)

Why: A fascinating cautionary tale of overweening ambition that trumps honesty and fair play.
Full disclosure: Although for a while I was in the running, I ultimately failed to gain admission to the Harvard class of ’79, and so in the back of my mind there’s always been the nagging question of what more I could have done to push my application across the finish line at the Neon H. I ended up at what by anyone’s standards are good schools (Carleton CollegeStanford Law School and Oxford University), so it isn’t a case of wondering what went wrong with my life, but what was it about me that Harvard didn’t like?

Fast forward almost 40 years.  I’m browsing in the library stacks on a Saturday afternoon and Conning Harvard catches my eye. I flip the book open and read the first sentence: “It is hard to get into Harvard nowadays.”  This appeals to my acquired English sense of understatement. I check the book out. It turns out to be a fascinating story.

20th-century fascist dictator (think mustache) once said, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” The subject of Conning Harvard, a kid named Adam Wheeler, really took this to heart. A public school kid from Delaware, he initially focuses on venerable Bowdoin College in Maine, which does not require SAT scores for admission. He acquires a copy of a compilation of successful college application essays, and, instead of using them as inspiration for his own essay, simply lifts an entire essay, changing a few details here and there. Presto! Next stop Bowdoin!

The technique worked so well in gaining admission that he starts to plagiarize, not always well or skillfully, other people’s work in his classes. Sooner or later a professor gets suspicious, but by that time Wheeler has successfully transferred to Harvard as a result of an application that contains fake recommendations, altered transcripts, and plagiarized essays. His cheating escalates, and he wins prestigious awards based on the superior but little-known work of others.  Finally, on the cusp of obtaining Harvard’s endorsement for the Rhodes Scholarship, everything unravels (and even then, he is in the process of transferring to Stanford). At the end of the book, Wheeler has been prosecuted for defrauding Harvard, and has just violated the terms of his parole by submitting another doctored resume for—of all things—an unpaid internship.

This is clearly a smart, resourceful kid. Unfortunately, we are left with no clue as to what motivated him, but by the end the wheels have definitely come off. In any event, his story presents a cautionary tale for those who aim for big things but are unwilling to pay their dues or play by the rules. Is it so difficult to imagine this guy as a midlevel executive at Enron, or the founder of a technology company hell-bent on exiting at the top? 

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