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One little firm’s bizarre mix of college counseling and deep research

This company helps kids understand how to work on and develop grad-school-level projects — which allows them to impress selective colleges

(skynesher/iStock/iStock)

The decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to return to requiring SAT or ACT tests isn’t going to change the admissions process of the ultra-selective college much. Good scores on those exams get you in the maybe pile but have little effect on final decisions at schools like that.

To win a treasured acceptance letter from the choosiest colleges you often need something unique, such as a personal research project that impresses admissions office staffers in ways application essays and recommendations don’t. Until I encountered John Leddo, a college admissions consultant in Northern Virginia, I didn’t realize there were people like him not just suggesting their clients do big projects but also providing the needed training and facilities.

Nihal Boina, a high school senior in Loudoun County, Va., told me that with the help of Leddo’s MyEdMaster firm, “I was able to conduct research into technology that can self-learn mathematical information using the Internet.” Boina has since been admitted to an engineering and business program at the University of California at Berkeley that accepts only 40 students a year. He is also a listed co-author with Leddo on two papers in the International Journal of Social Science and Economic Research.

Leddo began tutoring John C. Elkas’s son in computer science two years ago. This included, Elkas said, “teaching him how to do independent research and how to construct a manuscript for publication.” His son is a sophomore at Langley High School in Fairfax County, Va.

Sathvik Redrouthu, a 10th-grader at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, said that as part of Leddo’s program he is developing software to find the optimal approach for teaching students. Charles Gabrial said he has a daughter in the MyEdMaster program who has already done original research on medical machine learning, and she’s an eighth-grader. Habib Nasibdar said his daughter, a sixth-grader at the National Cathedral School in D.C., has been in the program for more than a year and is also doing graduate-school-level work.

I have encountered a few other instances of teenagers getting a chance at academic challenges far beyond high school. Since 2014, the Concord Review Academic Coaching Service has charged an hourly fee for online meetings between participants and experts who teach how to research and write the long history essays by high-schoolers published in the Review.

Such programs are small and inconspicuous, like MyEdMaster. They may not have much effect on the college admissions industry, but they at least give ambitious teenagers a taste of what writing a doctoral thesis is like.

Leddo, 64, said he thinks he can help students get into challenging college programs while they help him fulfill his dream of revolutionizing American education by developing a workable computerized tutoring system. He said his goal is an artificial-intelligence-based program that “will offer any kid unlimited tutoring in any subject for just a few dollars a month.”

Do ultra-selective colleges change lives? I say usually not, but this much richer author says yes.

Leddo has 3,000 square feet of office space in Herndon, Va., with two large classrooms and some smaller rooms. He charges $60 per hour for college consulting, $34 per hour for one-on-one tutoring, $20 per hour for a group research class, $66 per hour for three hours of group test preparation and $400 for a three-month training program on subjects such as medical machine learning.

This is much less than what is charged by most college admissions consulting services. The Independent Educational Consultants Association, which vets the ethical standards of consultants who use its label, said most consultants charge about $4,500 for a multiyear package of services. It says many charge a fee of “just under $140 per hour.”

Leddo has a doctorate in educational psychology from Yale. He has published several papers on medical machine learning and artificial intelligence during his career in education research and tutoring products. He said he charges so little for tutoring and college admissions guidance because his clients are in part helping his research and because he has been appalled to see families taking out bank loans for such services. He said an executive at one of the giant tutoring chains told him: “We charge these prices because we can.”

Leddo said he has also offered pro bono services to some students who can’t afford his fees and volunteered with foundations that provide free advice to college applicants.

“I know that other companies, because I have worked with them, either advise kids to have extracurricular activities or offer something like robotics or training for math competitions,” he said. “However, those tend to be national programs like MathCounts or the American Rocketry Challenge, for which there are organized competitions” where it is hard to stand out unless you win.

Leddo limits his service to just 30 to 50 students a year. I see chances for abuse if big college admissions firms try to turn research-paper training into profit centers. But for the moment, such initiatives may at least help high schools realize that some of their students are ready for bigger challenges than they are getting.

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