It’s so easy to make fun of William “Rick” Singer’s 2014 college guides, “Getting In” and “Getting In: Personal Brands,” that it’s almost not worth it.
After all, while he was revealing the “50 secrets” to getting readers into the colleges of their choice, he was also, according to federal authorities, helping wealthy parents scam the application process at prestigious universities using an array of tactics, such as hiring SAT ringers and pretending that non-athletes were promising recruits. Even celebrities got mixed up in the scandal. Hallmark Channel mainstay Lori Loughlin is accused of paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to get her daughters into the University of Southern California by pretending they were destined for the crew team. “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman allegedly paid $15,000 so her daughter could get help on the SATs. (And we don’t mean tutoring.)
Meanwhile, Singer — who pleaded guilty last week to a number of charges — was offering advice to other, presumably less moneyed kids through a couple of 80-page volumes. The idea was to confer all the wisdom he had gained during more than two decades of helping children attain their dreams (or their parents’ dreams, at any rate).
The books don’t divulge any shady ploys, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that they are astoundingly — sometimes hilariously — unhelpful. They’re also filled with head-scratching prose, strangely macabre testimonials and one line that is so unintentionally funny, it’s begging for the meme treatment.
Here are five of the most ludicrous parts of the books.
His “secrets” are, well, not.
Book one is composed of 50 secrets that unfurl over 50 one-page chapters. These bombshells include: “Take the hard courses,” “Get a tutor!” “Follow application instructions” and “Visit schools.” The books seem like pretty good evidence of wrongdoing if only because Singer doesn’t appear to have any (legal) tips.
His testimonials are occasionally disturbing and sometimes dubious.
As “Getting In” goes along, Singer’s testimonials about the students he helped become increasingly dark. A few pages in, the story of “Whitney” seems fairly straightforward: She’s a kid with a learning disability who needs extra time on the SATs (really, though, unlike Huffman’s daughter, who allegedly used additional time to have her test corrected). But pretty soon we’re reading about a homeless kid whom Singer agrees to take on pro bono and a girl who’s a cutter and ends up at a wilderness rehab center.
Then there’s “Michael,” who’s described as “70 pounds overweight.” When he asks Singer for help getting into an Ivy League school, “I told him to hit the gym,” Singer writes. If a false equivalency between body fat and academic success isn’t bizarre enough, the description of Kunal — a genius who can’t decide what kind of science to pursue — gives a reader even more pause. Not only does the testimonial name the science academy Kunal created for inner-city kids (which is curiously nonexistent on Google, considering it “made such a huge impact” that it spread to other cities), but, according to the second book, “he’s studying [branch of science] at a prestigious university.”
That memorable extended metaphor about the eagle and the chicken.
There’s an old saying in Singer’s family: “We’re not raising chickens for Colonel Sanders; we’re raising eagles to fly.” In other words, “you’re supposed to grow up to soar on your own, not flap around in the dirt.” The problem comes when kids don’t live up to their potential: “What do you do if your GPA makes you look like an old hen?” he wonders.
Singer has solutions for such turkeys: study harder, go to the library more, get a tutor and “suck up to your teachers.” (Aside: He devotes an entire chapter to the “secret” of kissing up, advising that “the ultimate dirty trick is forging a relationship with the teacher nobody likes.”)
In any case, he ends the poultry chapter with the most poetic lines in the book: “On the ground, even an eagle can look like a chicken. It’s what happens in the sky that counts.” Indeed.
How little his advice aligns with what he allegedly did.
Hindsight changes how we read these books, making certain lines more laughable or troubling. But what’s especially strange is how his advice differs from the pointers he allegedly doled out to his one-percenter clients.
“Colleges know you’re padding your application, and they don’t like it,” Singer writes about kids who tout a list of extracurriculars that seems suspiciously long. But pretending to be on the crew team is okay, apparently.
He also claims that — “Psst. Lean in close. I’m going to tell you a dirty secret of college admissions” — universities don’t care much about SAT scores. That’s an odd assurance for someone who allegedly helped people cheat on their own exams. And he tries to discourage readers from aiming for top-tier schools. Perhaps he was just trying to eliminate the competition for his high-paying clients.
How dark and cynical his advice can be.
Anyone who advises teenagers to turn themselves into brands should be regarded with suspicion. How Singer suggests kids zero in on their personal brands is the stuff of nightmares. In one chapter, he tells his readers to imagine that they’re about to jump off a building to their death. “You have just a few seconds left to live, a few seconds in which you can shout one sentence to the listening crowed [sic] below,” he writes. “What do you say?” Another thought experiment finds the teenage reader unconscious in the ER following a car accident. Imagine that the hospital staff is rifling through your pockets to determine your identity, he suggests, and ask yourself what photo you hope they’ll find — and what photo you hope they don’t.
“Our hopes and fears are clues to who we are,” he writes. And there’s nothing wrong with being ashamed of something, he assures. In fact, in the chapter titled, “Dig Up the Bodies,” he explains that mining personal disaster can demonstrate how students have turned their lives around.
“If you acknowledge the bad parts of your life, you get to control them — you get to say, ‘Yes, I had this problem, but it taught me this . . . ,’ ” Singer writes. “That’s great branding.”
The books may be light on helpful advice, but they do potentially offer a glimpse of how Singer will try to spin his own bad decisions.