The Case Against Empty Promises in Fancy Envelopes

A few years ago, I received an email from an acquaintance’s son. He had been “nominated” for an “Ambassador” program promising a cultural and educational experience traveling through Europe for 3 weeks. This young man was looking for donations from friends and family towards the cost of his trip- which was over $5000. Again, a few weeks ago, a student client asked me about a Leadership program for which he was “nominated” by a “teacher or counselor” (according to the letter) at his school. Again, the program promised a leadership experience at the low cost of $3200.

Both of these young men are outstanding students, athletes, and leaders. Both young men are community oriented; both deserve recognition for their achievements. Neither should go on these trips.

Why? Because they are sales pitches.


A recent NY TIMES article on one such organization (NYLC) spells it out; although some of these programs afford their participants great travel and sightseeing opportunity, they are, by no means, selective or competitive, nor do admissions offices look at them as anything but vacation opportunities at the least, and a quasi-summer school opportunity at the best. Other programs offer recognition through paid-for membership and publications with no travel but with the appearance of selectivity: google NSHSS and see what pops.

So how can parents and students who are inundated with fancy envelopes and congratulatory letters tell the difference between a resume worthy membership or experience, or a scam?

Here are some guidelines:

1. If the organization’s title is similar to a well-respected organization, such as National Honor Society, but does not have the same standards of admission or qualification, you may want to reconsider sending that check.

2. If your summer enrichment program is taught by Professors other than those who are affiliated with the school at which the program is offered, you may want to reconsider. In other words, if you are paying for an enrichment program at South Succotash University, make sure that the program is taught by South Succotash professors. (While you are at it, see if your HS will give you credit for the programming, or if it is taught for college credit.)

3. Check with the Better Business Bureau or Attorney General’s Office in the state in which the company is located to see if there are complaints or lawsuits against them.

4. If the program’s benefits seem as vague as their admissions standards, you may want to reconsider.

5. Is the company affiliated with a reputable charity, organization, or school? If it is an autonomous organization, you may want to check its bona fides before you consider.

6. Does the organization state that it is a not-for profit? If so, consider looking at its ratings on a charity ranking site, such as Charity navigator ( or Independent Charities of America (

7. Does the letter mention who nominated you? Many of these companies use the word “nominate” loosely. For the vast majority of them, they buy student lists from other organizations- summer camps, college board, the government. Don’t be fooled by the word “nominated” or “honor.” If it looks like a business transaction, and sounds like a business transaction, chances are…

8. Does the organization use a “time share technique” to sell you their services? Come to the meeting at the local conference center and listen to our sale spiel. Act Now! Space is limited! You don’t want your child left out, left behind, missing this opportunity! Sign up now and save 10%!

Don’t Be Fooled by the Fancy Envelope

There is nothing wrong with sending your child on a summer trip which explores the world around him. There is also nothing wrong with seeking like-minded students in an enrichment program. However, these programs do not help your child gain admission to a school nor are they resume or essay worthy. I am not telling you to not send your child on these trips. I am telling you to know that these should not be used as awards, honors, interview topics or resume bullets. (Truly competitive, well established, selective programs are not the same as these vacations and can be mentioned in applications. I will speak about these in a later blog )

Don’t be fooled by the fancy envelope. Some of these envelopes can cost you upwards of $8000; that’s $8000 which could be used towards their college education- and that piece of parchment is actually worth something.

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