A true story about an undergrad who bluffed his way into Harvard

Con artist faked his way into the Ivy League

Darren McCollester/GETTY IMAGES

By the time he reached his senior year at Harvard, Adam Wheeler had won the top undergraduate essay prize, an award for the best essay on Shakespeare and a grant for summer study at Oxford. He accomplished this through diligent research, ingenuity and a skill they don’t teach in college: adapting others’ work to pass off as your own.

Zauzmer, now a senior herself, started covering Wheeler’s story for the Harvard Crimson when word got out, in May 2010, that he’d plagiarized his applications for Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships. Here, she traces the breadth and depth of his fraud, which started with his successful application, as a Delaware high school student, to Bowdoin College in Maine. She details how he transferred to Harvard by meticulously forging transcripts and SAT score reports, doctoring letters of recommendation and creatively reupholstering his resumé. From there, he derived his much-lauded essays from the more obscure publications of experts.

In the end, he veered too close to home by recycling the words of star Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt; one can’t fault Wheeler for lacking chutzpah. In fact, it’s possible to admire his devious resourcefulness, although he remains a cipher, never having submitted to interviews. Zauzmer uses her own college credentials to paint the other side of the picture, giving us access to the officers and professors Wheeler duped. The book’s most compelling chapter describes Harvard’s manic admissions office, with its “makeshift shrine to the kookiest submissions of all time,” and explains how Wheeler’s elaborately fictionalized application passed muster where less ambitious fakes are routinely caught.

Zauzmer thoroughly unravels Wheeler’s deceptions, doing the work her university no doubt wishes it had done earlier. This book leaves us with a powerful sense of irony: in an age where information is easier to obtain than ever, authoritative-sounding bluster often passes as the truth, and even the most prestigious institutes of higher learning are vulnerable. It also suggests that if you’re trying to bamboozle big thinkers, it’s best to make your bluffs big too.

Visit the Maclean’s Bookmarked blog for news and reviews on all things literary

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.