January 11, 2013 11:29:28 AM
An acceptance into Harvard is a dream scholastic achievement. Naturally, it isn't easy to do. Students who bother to apply because they think their records show that they have a chance at acceptance are probably pretty bright to begin with, but even so, in 2016 there were 30,000 applications, of which 5.6% were accepted for admission. It's not a matter of having merely a good academic record in your application; it helps if you can show you had a scientific or athletic breakthrough, or wrote a concerto, or reformed a community. The admissions office takes all this into consideration, and it must be a huge task each year to sift through all those applications. It cannot be done perfectly, of course, and someone with enough cleverness might game the system and gain an undeserved admission. Adam Wheeler was more than clever enough. He not only got a fraudulent transfer to Harvard, but he got various grants and an academic trip to England and literary prizes, all based on imaginary transcripts and plagiarized papers. His is an astonishing story of impudent and deceitful entitlement which came to light only a couple of years ago, and is recounted in Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way into the Ivy League (Lyons Press) by Julie Zauzmer. The author is herself a senior at Harvard, managing editor of The Harvard Crimson, who began reporting on Wheeler for the paper when his story broke in 2010. It is a meticulous account of each piece of the deception, and Wheeler's final downfall.
Wheeler was a high school student in Delaware, and applied for Bowdoin College based on his decent grades, and also based upon plagiarized essays. He got these from a book published by The Harvard Crimson itself; he wasn't applying yet to Harvard, but stealing from 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays allowed him to expand upon, for instance, his rock-climbing and rappelling experience, the lessons he learned from his grandfather playing chess, and his passion for model railroading. That he had no such experiences didn't matter to him. He checked the box that said everything on his application was true, and got right in. Then even when he got a softball questionnaire that asked about his academic goals, he plagiarized an answer. He was quiet in class, but his written assignments were often impressive, and he even won the Llewellyn Poetry Prize. His poem was actually written by a poet who had thirty published books to his name, but no one noticed. He did come under suspicion for plagiarism in one of his classes, but transferred before there could be any investigation.
He decided to transfer to Harvard, with an application he realized could not be stolen merely from previous student applications. Instead, he found articles by professors, Harvard professors some of them, and lifted them into what was supposed to be an academic essay of his own. There were complicated sentences with big words, and Wheeler strung them together so that they only made ostensible sense; the examples Zauzmer gives of "his" writing read to me something like the famous Sokal hoax. For the purposes of his Harvard application, he was not a high school student from Delaware, but a graduate of the prestigious Phillips Academy who had nearly perfect SAT scores, and he was transferring not from Bowdoin but from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had improbably discovered the love of literature that he wrote he wanted to pursue at Harvard. He was skillful with changing images in computer files, and with using correction fluid. He made errors that are glaring in hindsight, such as showing grades that he got in his first semester at MIT, when no starting student gets grades at that time but just a passing mark or no mark.
He did not, of course, stop plagiarizing just because he got into Harvard. He even plagiarized on assignments that were not subject to being graded. His academic performance was shaky at first, and then he stared getting As. He got a grant for a prestigious summer program in Oxford, England, using his standard cut and paste technique of essay composition. He won other financial prizes. He became less awkward socially, and he had student friends and roomies who were proud of his achievements.
In the end, Wheeler simply reached for one goal too many. In his senior year at Harvard, he applied for a Rhodes and a Fulbright scholarship. The application process is difficult, and the success rate small, but Wheeler probably thought he could repeat his previous pattern of plagiarism with his previous success. In his application, as in all his others, he claimed accomplishments he did not have. This time, he claimed to be co-writing books with faculty members and to have his own book contract. The faculty member who reviewed the application for the Rhodes Scholarship was at first impressed at the talent on show within it, and at the effusive praise of faculty about Wheeler's performance. But the reviewer was worried, not that Wheeler was lying about his book deals, but that Wheeler was simply too young and na´ve to be co-authoring or authoring his own books. He felt it was all "too much burden to place on shoulders so young." After that, the reviewer found some phrases that rang a bell, and he went on to confirm that they were lifted directly from essays a colleague had written.
When the reviewer met with Wheeler and handed him the nearly identical essays, Wheeler gave the flimsy excuse that they must have been files in his computer that he got mixed up. He was invited to attend the Administrative Board that would be reviewing the matter, but instead, withdrew from Harvard and went home. He started applications to other universities, using his old methods. Harvard learned just how deeply deceptive in many areas Wheeler had been, and it took steps to erase him from their rolls, as if he had never attended; this was not a cover-up, but the standard way of dealing with a dishonest student. Harvard did not have to take the next step: they took the matter to the police. It is conceivable that the university could have just kept quiet on the matter, and after all of Wheeler's deceptions, the eggheads in the Harvard administration would have been publicly embarrassed that he got as far as he did. To their credit, they must have thought that some short term embarrassment would be outweighed by a warning to anyone who wanted to repeat Wheeler's attempts.
Zauzmer's book winds up with legal proceedings, and with a mention of other plagiarism and academic fraud cases. Oddly, Wheeler, the main character in this intriguing book, does not get a personality profile here nor much description of what he was like as a person. The author didn't have access to interview him, although she talked with many of the academics that he duped. We get the hint that he was compulsively drawn to deception; but maybe he was just simply a liar. It is obvious that he was very bright, and there is no telling how well he could have done using his own words and accomplishments rather than borrowing those of others. Zauzmer has gone through his applications and essays to trace carefully the sources Wheeler used, and spends many pages explaining these details. It just may be that there isn't anything to Adam Wheeler except the elaborate tissues of lies he was able to put together so believably.