Friday, July 4, 2014

What happens if you're caught 'Conning Harvard': A cautionary tale

Adam B. Wheeler made headlines in 2010 when it was discovered that he had gained admission to Harvard under false pretenses. His prize-winning work was also faked.

This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 21, 2014.

"Conning Harvard" is the tale of Adam Wheeler, a student of middling capabilities who faked his way into Harvard University and nearly secured a treasured Rhodes Scholarship. The book was capably written by Julie Zauzmer (Harvard '13), an undergrad student reporter at the campus newspaper The Crimson. Zauzmer began reporting on the scandal when the story broke in 2010; the book was published at the beginning of her senior year.

Years ago, writer Ben Marcus warned a group of creative writing students at Brown University that there is no inherent drama in fictionalized accounts of the tense wait for a college acceptance letter. In "Conning Harvard," however, Zauzmer presents a counterexample to this rule. She successfully built a whole nonfiction book around one individual's college application process, and she made it interesting to follow.

Two years at Bowdoin College

Who was Adam Wheeler, really? To begin with, he graduated from Caesar Rodney, a public high school in Delaware. The SAT scores of students at that school were a little below the national average. Wheeler was a perfectionist and performed in the top 10 percent of his class, eking into the school's National Honor Society chapter.

When he filled out the "Common App," a system that can be used to apply to multiple colleges, he cut and pasted passages from the Harvard Crimson's "50 Successful Harvard Application Essays" and clicked the online signature to represent that the application was his "own work, factually true, and honestly presented." He applied to Bowdoin College, and, although his SAT scores weren't especially competitive for that school, he was accepted.

Arriving at Bowdoin in the Fall of 2005, he plagiarized a short passage for his personal statement of goals during his freshman year. In that statement, he claimed that grades were extremely important to him, yet in actuality, he was silent in classes and didn't attend professors' office hours; he was better known on campus for playing Ultimate Frisbee under the nickname "Fudge" on a team called "Stoned Clown." His studies were mainly in English classes. In the spring, he received a poetry prize after submitting a poem he did not write ("Hay" by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon).

He missed the deadlines for his final exams and papers and received an extension from a dean. That summer, he bulked up physically through weightlifting.

Entering his sophomore year, he was placed in a residence in which most students participated in the social organization of the house, but he merely lived there. That spring, he jumped into intermediate-level philosophy classes and was caught by Prof. Scott Sehon passing off sections of journal articles, without quotation marks or citations, as his personal responses to readings. After a hearing by the university, he was allowed to finish the semester but was told that he would face a one-semester suspension after that.

Applying to Harvard

Wheeler hadn't planned to return to Bowdoin, anyway. He'd already been pouring energy into writing a compelling 50-page work of fiction: an application to transfer to Harvard University.
Many students transfer from one college to another. In Wheeler's case, it is interesting because, instead of truthfully representing himself as a product of Caesar Rodney High School and Bowdoin College, he invented a wholly alternate life story.

He faked a four-year transcript from the prestigious Phillips Academy college prep school in Andover, Mass. - which he never attended - as well as a recommendation from someone at that school using text copied from a published book of sample recommendation letters. He claimed to have taken courses at MIT during his junior and senior years at Andover, and he faked a transcript of a freshman year at MIT, during which he supposedly received A's in six classes. (MIT does not even allow freshmen to take that many classes.) He outlandishly claimed that this freshman year featured writing prizes, two fellowships and a plan to teach a course at MIT that spring. If these lies were not brazen and astonishing enough, he forged SAT score reports, claiming perfect scores on the general exam as well as on numerous subject tests. Additionally, he forged perfect scores on no fewer than 16 AP tests.

His essays and personal statements were, unsurprisingly, also plagiarized. Zauzmer explains, sentence by sentence, how he concocted this "amalgamation" of academic language written by others. For a writing sample, he passed off poetry taken from Richard Kenney's "The Evolution of the Flightless Bird" as his own.

When a Harvard alum interviewed him in a Bowdoin College library, Wheeler pretended he had finished his MIT semester early and was temporarily working as a professor's research assistant at Bowdoin.

Although the acceptance rate for undergraduate transfer to Harvard from another school can be as low as 1 percent, Wheeler's impressive application got him in.

Two years at Harvard

After that point, the story of who Wheeler "really" was blends into the story of who he pretended to be. Although he'd actually completed his sophomore year at Bowdoin, he was pretending to have completed only his freshman year at MIT, and thus he planned to repeat his sophomore year at Harvard and spend a total of three years there.

Wheeler's introductory email to other transfer students used overwrought language such as "I am sententious, crypto-tendentious, slightly pedantic..." A graduate student described his academic work as stringing together sentences that sounded good: "a somewhat incoherent assembly of 25 really decent sentences." His grades during his first semester at Harvard put him on academic probation, but in his second year at Harvard - allegedly his "junior" year, but really his fourth year in college - he took 11 courses, somehow receiving all A's (only two "minuses" among them).

Submitting a chapter of the Cornell doctoral dissertation of Daniel Brayton under his own name, Wheeler won Harvard's top undergraduate writing award that came with a significant cash prize.

Faking another application, claiming to have been a Harvard student all along and to have taken courses at Harvard Law School, and accompanying it with a nonsensically dense essay on T. S. Eliot, he was admitted to the Bread Loaf program at Oxford University in England in the summer after his junior year. He was awarded an even larger grant than he asked for.


Returning from Oxford, at the beginning of his senior year at Harvard in the Fall of 2009, Wheeler applied internally at Harvard for the extremely competitive Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. He presented the committee with a completely forged transcript from their own institution, claiming to have taken 34 classes over three years with a 3.99 GPA. He included three recommendations from Harvard professors; one written based upon a professor's favorable impression of his false resume; one that was partially altered; and one that was wholly fabricated. Although all of this could have been easily fact-checked, it was not what alerted the committee to his lies. Rather, Wheeler's fatal step was in his submission of a copy of his professor Stephen Greenblatt's work. The essay sounded strangely familiar to James Simpson, who recognized it as the work of his colleague that had been printed in a limited distribution booklet that he happened to still have on his shelf. Simpson's emergency alert to the review committee interrupted Wheeler's near-inclusion on the Rhodes Scholarship short list.

Wheeler declined to appear at his inevitable plagiarism hearing, announcing instead in a brief email to the dean that he was withdrawing from Harvard. Harvard officials soon realized that his transcripts were forged and that his recent undergraduate academic work was routinely plagiarized from other people's dissertations. Even the date of birth on his passport looked amiss.

Having returned home to Delaware, Wheeler thought an application to Yale would be his exit strategy, but this was not possible. Zauzmer explains that "Harvard made the admirable decision" to treat Wheeler's lies as criminal offenses, causing a public scandal but at least addressing the issue, rather than trying to cover up their own embarrassment over the turn of events. Wheeler was charged with 20 criminal counts: forging signatures, fabricating transcripts, and fraud that netted him over $45,000 in grants and financial aid. A sealed indictment enabled law enforcement to surprise him at his home in Delaware in May 2010. He was jailed for one week and released on bail. He pled guilty in December 2010, receiving a sentence of 10 years probation - banning him from appearing at Harvard, MIT and Andover or otherwise representing himself as a student at those institutions - and an order to pay restitution of all money fraudulently obtained and to seek psychological help.

Wheeler began working so that he could make the restitution payments. In July 2011, having lost his job, he applied - with no obvious purpose - for an unpaid part-time internship, for which he represented himself as a former Harvard student, thus violating the terms of his probation. A judge concluded he had a "mental illness" and that his lies displayed "an element of compulsivity."

As a young child, Wheeler had briefly suffered developmental delays after being shaken as a baby, but even with this knowledge, doctors couldn't identify anything wrong with him and "diagnosed" him simply as a remorseless liar. The judge sentenced him to one year in prison to be followed by mental health treatment.


Zauzmer says she wrote a "cautionary tale" in a climate of college admissions in which, across all colleges, plagiarism and lies can supposedly be found in 14 percent of essays, half of transcripts and nearly all recommendation letters.

It's hard to catch plagiarists. Harvard admissions does raise eyebrows at writing samples that seem "too good," especially relative to other grades and scores, but it's too time-consuming to fact-check every credential from every institution for every person. After all, Harvard received over 30,000 applications to the Class of 2016.

People who only want to claim a credential may just photocopy a diploma. Of people who, by contrast, pretend to be college students or gain admission by fraud, Zauzmer notes that they can be motivated by family pressure, narcissism or the desire for the college experience.

One observation that, had it been included, might have improved the book - although it surely would have upset some at her university - is that Wheeler leveraged a certain style of academic writing that can be so obfuscating that even scholars in the field won't admit to suspecting that a certain passage might be nonsense, not wishing to reveal themselves as unable to understand it. Wheeler was so good at fictionalizing his life and amalgamating passages, he might legitimately have become a novelist. That he chose fake literary criticism rather than honest creative writing, and that he succeeded for a long time in doing so, is a potentially damning indictment of English departments everywhere.

Zauzmer did not interview Wheeler himself or speculate about his deeper motivations. She interviewed people who knew him, but not his close friends or family. By the time the story broke, Wheeler was already in legal trouble. Her book is probably better off without introducing the confusion of whatever Wheeler's version of events might have been or however he might have rationalized his actions. The facts reported by others create a story that speaks for itself.

Zauzmer also avoids giving any strong recommendation about how to avoid passing through blatant fabrications like Wheeler's in the future. It is hard to imagine a solution. Students and faculty can't check the resume of even a small fraction of their colleagues. Besides, informal "resume checks" are notoriously slanted by the prejudice that one is likely to be unqualified based on race, gender or background, and in this regard, these "checks" serve more as social weapons than as quests for truth.

Perhaps a plagiarism check could be most efficiently achieved if it were centralized at the level of each student's Common App before the application is distributed to dozens of colleges. On the other hand, encouraging multiple reviewers downstream increases the likelihood that plagiarism will be detected. What ultimately caught Wheeler's lies at Bowdoin and Harvard was not a computer program, but professors who noticed that his work sounded too good or too familiar and who realized that they personally knew the real author. In other words, it was the attention and commitment of genuinely educated scholars - something for which there is still no substitute.

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