‘Conning Harvard’ chronicles a student’s deceitful admission
By Erin O’Neil
Published on Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Current Harvard University student and managing editor of The Harvard Crimson Julie Zauzmer’s new book “Conning Harvard” chronicles the deceptive escapades of Harvard student Adam Wheeler.
Wheeler, who pleaded guilty to 20 counts of larceny in 2010, faked his way into multiple top-tier schools before he was ultimately discovered mere minutes before he would have received a Rhodes Scholar endorsement. The release of the book also coincides with the present Harvard cheating scandal, in which 125 students taking “Introduction to Congress” are currently being investigated for wrongly sharing answers on a final exam.
As a student reading this book, I initially had no idea the extent to which one could even beat the college application system. I am always concerned with accidental plagiarism and understand the ease of doing so that has accompanied the internet boom. As a result, I naturally expected the culprit to be some kind of tech genius, a programming nerd that somehow managed to outsmart the College Board database and hack into school records.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With the exception of a tantalizing prologue, Zauzmer begins right at the beginning, when Wheeler was just an average high school student, who couldn’t get good enough grades to get into Bowdoin College. He needed strong credentials, and apparently no one ever told him that the books filled with sample exemplary college essays weren’t meant to be copied and pasted directly into the common application. What began with a Bowdoin acceptance would soon snowball into a landslide of faked grades, self-written recommendations and fictitious classes.
The incredibly detailed research conducted by Zauzmer exposes an incredible amount of these untruths, however small, and these hidden treasures truly add spice to the meat of the story.
The fact that Wheeler’s physics teacher, for instance, did not wear khaki pants, drink coffee or even particularly like Wheeler helps breathe life into what could have been a 200 page-long list of lies.
The story of Wheeler’s misdeeds also includes enough social tidbits, supposed dialogue and dramatic syntax to keep the book moving. The book's detailed description of the Harvard admissions office — complete with its shrine to last-ditch-effort gifts that hopeful high school students have sent in over the years — was particularly enjoyable to read.
Zauzmer’s fact-disguised-as-fiction style is mildly reminiscent of novelist Erik Larson’s style, and the book lags only during long-winded explanations of the latest security measures for paper transcripts and the growing business model of Turnitin.com, disrupting the urgent and suspenseful pace. I voraciously followed Wheeler as he continually upped the ante with every new application, waiting vindictively for his moment of truth.
Even more shocking than Wheeler’s plagiarism and outright lies were the blatant errors that went unnoticed by the admissions office at Harvard. A faked Phillips Academy Andover transcript with wrong classes and the names of Bowdoin professors for references, for instance, was never verified.
The College Board student report personally mailed in by Wheeler himself — featuring 16 perfect scores on AP tests and a perfect mark on the SAT — was similarly never looked at with suspicion. During Wheeler’s time at Harvard, not once did a faculty member notice the incorrect crest on his transcript until it was too late.
As a peer of Wheeler’s at Harvard, it seems fair that Zauzmer couldn’t resist a few digs here and there while writing about Wheeler’s time at the school. The book is dedicated, for example, to “all those who uphold Harvard’s standards,” and the book notes somewhat smugly the fact that Wheeler earned a D+ in deductive logic, which was the only class he took in which he was forced to submit his own work, landing him on academic probation.
Zauzmer’s discontent with Wheeler is, of course, understandable. Wheeler did, after all, almost get away with a Harvard degree built on everyone’s work but his own. The sting of indignation that I expected Zauzmer to exhume from her research and findings, however, was largely absent. His demise is handled particularly judiciously but nevertheless captures Wheeler’s mental instability and dishonest compulsions as he faced legal action.
I read the last pages on Wheeler’s trials with mixed feelings of disgust and begrudging respect. It is the miraculous string of oversights, trust and sheer luck that held my astonished interest through most of the novel.
It seems that truth really is stranger than fiction, even when based on lies.