Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer (pub date 9/18/12)
“Harvard does not stand for fame, fortune, or even intelligence. When the university proclaims its own highest value, it embraces truth.”
We all love a good con story. Because just as much as it is fun to pass judgment on a person trying to get something for nothing, it’s equally fun to hear about just how they did it. Conning Harvard is a play-by-play account of how a crafty young man from Delaware faked his way into the prestigious university and took thousands of dollars worth of scholarships and prizes that he didn’t earn.
Adam Wheeler was an average kid from a regular family who dreamt of something bigger. The book describes him as a perfectionist who pressured himself to achieve flawless grades. But rather than rely on his own talents, Wheeler built his academic career on lies and forgeries. Even before getting into Harvard, Wheeler got accepted to Bowdoin College with fake SAT scores and plagiarized entrance essays. After two years at Bowdoin, he decided to set his sights on the Ivy League.
With more fake test scores, falsified credentials, and transcripts from schools he never even attended, Wheeler won acceptance to the ultra-selective Harvard University, a school that receives about 30,000 applications every year. Then while attending Harvard, Wheeler continued to plagiarize and lie his way through his coursework. He even became so bold as to apply for the famed Rhodes scholarship, an action that would lead to his undoing.
With unbelievable attention to detail, fellow Harvard student and “Harvard Crimson” reporter Julie Zauzmer describes every step Wheeler took to get into the university. Every fake test score, every plagiarized essay, every edited recommendation letter, is laid out in this book. Included are quotes from several of Wheeler’s teachers and friends, as well as a few photocopies of Wheeler’s falsified transcripts.
While Conning Harvard is definitely worth reading, I have to say that the writing style is cumbersome at times. The book often reads like a college thesis, with long sentences and too many parantheticals. While the subject is fascinating, the writing lacks dramatic flair. Also, there were some details that could have been excised in my opinion. Some information, like the number of people who attended Wheeler’s high school (mentioned multiple times), as well as pages and pages of minutiae about the Harvard application process, slowed down the flow of the book and should have been cut or whittled down.
Despite these technical issues, I would recommend Conning Harvard to anyone who enjoys a good con or heist story. What makes Wheeler’s story so compelling is the different ways in which people perceive his actions. Some see him as purely a cheat and a liar who got what he deserved, while others were a little happy to see the elitest university suffer public embarrassment. Read the book and tell me what you think!