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Joan Vennochi

A liar enabled

Adam Wheeler’s bold con hurt two reputations: his, and Harvard’s

By Joan Vennochi
December 30, 2010

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ADAM BUTLER Wheeler did his homework better than Harvard did.

The young con artist knew exactly how to grab the attention of the nation’s most selective college admissions committee.

He invented a fantasy resume, which included elite schools he never attended, a plethora of implausibly perfect test scores and a gushing but phony letter of recommendation from a faculty adviser he never met. He submitted a personal essay stuffed with overwrought psychobabble about the deficiency of undergraduate studies at MIT — where he falsely claimed to be enrolled. He added a short piece of prose about his parents’ divorce — which never occurred. It included a touching but entirely fictional reference to his mother showing him the letter his father wrote about his decision to leave her, and later letting it “flutter from my fingers to the carpet.’’

Eventually exposed as a liar and a cheat, Wheeler was sentenced to 10 years of probation after pleading guilty to larceny, identity fraud, and other charges. He was also ordered to pay restitution of $45,806 for the prize money, grants and financial aid he received as a result of his deceit.

But Harvard was exposed as well, as an institution easily fooled by what amounted to a caricature of an overly precious applicant. When high school kids compose symphonies in their down time and spend summers building homes for the dispossessed — all in hopes of impressing the Harvard admissions committee — shouldn’t the university that inspires so much awe try to verify the truth of what’s on those gilded resumes?

Jaded by a pool of super-human applicants with extraordinary talents and accomplishments, Harvard double-checked none of Wheeler’s false credentials. He was admitted as a transfer student, and likely would have graduated, if he didn’t take one fantastic step too many. He applied for Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships using a fake straight-A transcript and work he plagiarized from a Harvard professor. His actual grades included some A’s and B’s and a D, lending some credence to that old cliché — that the hardest thing about Harvard is getting in.

While Wheeler’s web of lies cannot be condoned, his story reveals a certain pathos.

At his public high school in Delaware, he was a good student, but not a stand-out. Acquaintances told The Globe he sat at the back of class, rarely participated, and often ate lunch alone in the classroom belonging to his father, a school teacher.

From high school, he went to Bowdoin College, where the process of personal reinvention began. He won an English department writing contest for a poem that later turned out to be plagiarized. After he was suspended for plagiarizing another essay, he started assembling the bogus transfer application that got him into Harvard.

In it, he posed as a first-year student at MIT with a straight-A grade point average, a perfect 1600 SAT score and the highest possible marks on 16 Advanced Placement exams. He also said he was a graduate of Phillips Academy, and included a fake recommendation letter from a counselor who described him as “by far the most intellectually gifted and at the same time so incredibly unaffected, insightful, truly genuine student’’ he ever encountered.

Since the Wheeler debacle, Harvard said it has taken steps to improve its process for screening applicants. According to its website, it admits “a small number of transfer students who present a clearly defined academic need for transfer, supported by both a proven record of achievement at the college level and strong faculty recommendations.’’

About 7 percent of roughly 30,000 applicants are admitted each year to the promised land that is Harvard’s freshman class. A few years ago, New York Times writer Michael Winerip, a Harvard graduate who helped interview applicants to his alma mater, wrote poignantly about the high school students who ended up among the 93 percent in the rejected pile.

“What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard?’’ mused Winerip. “Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake.’’

No wonder Wheeler’s application set off no alarms. Beyond the Harvard bubble, he would have sounded too good to be true.

Inside it, he sounded just special enough to be embraced.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.