When I started in college admission the better part of a decade ago, I was stunned at how much parents were willing to pay for the promise of getting their children into an elite school.
We were meeting with the family again about their daughter’s application to Stanford. I already had edited at least a dozen versions of each of the three short essays the school required. Now, her application was projected onto a large screen, and the director of the boutique Silicon Valley college admissions company where I worked was instructing me to move commas and change the order of her activities to “strengthen” her profile.
This was a ridiculous and largely meaningless exercise because we already had polished it to perfection during countless meetings before. Plus, the student whose portfolio we were massaging was exceptionally accomplished — and she was a legacy to boot. She was primed for Stanford and further finessing her application was theater to me, yet it was exactly the kind of reassurance her parents were paying tens of thousands of dollars for. As they waited for the director to deem their daughter worthy of applying to the school under restrictive early action, they were anxious, even fearful. When she eventually gave the green light, their relief was palpable.
When I started in college admission the better part of a decade ago, I was stunned at how much parents were willing to pay for the promise of getting their children into an elite school. Even securing our services was motivated by scarcity and status: We took only a few dozen students a year and always ran a wait list. What surprised me even more was what some parents were willing to do on behalf of their kids, from forcing them into endless STEM activities and community service hours to defying all professional advice and writing their children’s application essays themselves.
Knowing all this, I wasn’t at all surprised by the latest admissions scandal that broke this past week. Fifty people, including the actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged with bribing coaches and exam proctors to help their children gain admission to universities such as Stanford, UCLA and Wake Forest. Some went so far as to photoshop their kids’ faces onto athletes’ bodies so they could get “recruited” for sports they didn’t actually play.
Regarding the recent arrests, one prosecutor stated, “There cannot be a separate college admissions system for the wealthy.” This is a nice sentiment, but it’s built on an entirely false premise, one I saw again and again during my own time in admissions consulting. Like too many of the parents of young people sith whom I worked, these adults were acting out of their own insecurities and greed, likely to bolster their own status and bragging rights at parties, all while claiming to be pursuing the best interests of their children.
The system is already broken and has been rigged for the wealthy and powerful for decades, even when no overt quid pro quo can be identified. The rich not only have money; they have social capital — the kind that fosters connections to university board members, big donors and those at the highest level of the administration, all of which are often leveraged in admissions. For the wealthy, getting into top schools is a contest not of true merit or character, but a way of gaming the system, with helicopter parents and overachieving teens at the helm, padding résumés and hiring tutors and private admissions counselors, including unscrupulous ones such as William Singer, who appears to be at the heart of the current debacle.
For those outside the system, the actions of these parents probably seem strange, if not downright bizarre. But from the inside, they simply don’t. The college admissions process elicits extreme levels of stress and panic, and college counseling has become a widespread industry, with the number of independent consultants increasing by as much as 400 percent between 2005 and 2018. This is not only because of increasing wealth and dwindling acceptance rates, but also because of the fear of not achieving a certain level of societal status and therefore, success. This mind-set potentially helps explain why famous actresses and professionals went to such lengths to cheat the system for their children.
I’ve witnessed firsthand the genuine belief, among students and parents alike, that without an acceptance to an Ivy League or similarly ranked school, they will not succeed in life. This is a ridiculous notion, but one that often was accepted blindly. One student I worked with, who attended a venerable prep school, was struggling academically, and the added pressure of college applications was too much — he stopped working on his essays and answering my emails. I told his parents he might not be ready for college, and a gap year could give him a chance to regroup. His father listened, and he was concerned, but he wanted to move forward with the process. Not long after, his son fell apart entirely and dropped out of school.
“What will we do?” his father said after it happened. “How can we get him back on track?”
Then there was the brilliant programmer. He had been recruited by Google more than once after winning several online code jams, as they didn’t realize he was still in high school. But he also had a C on his transcripts, which supposedly meant he couldn’t get into the schools his parents’ had dreamed of him attending.
“I’m already a failure,” he told me. “I don’t even think I can get into college.”
Equally frustrating and heartbreaking moments like these were common. I tried to reassure students there was a college for everyone, and often asked them what it was about elite universities that they believed would make such a difference in their lives. Most couldn’t tell me. It was all about brand name cache, not about programs offered or, more importantly, if the school was somewhere they could actually grow and thrive.
In my more recent years as a college adviser, I worked at a different company with a broader range of students, where this question of “best fit college” was front and center in our counseling services. We asked all of our students: What do you love to do? How are you pursuing those passions, and what kind of school will match those interests best? Though it was a supportive environment — and despite my best efforts — I felt at times that my involvement in the admissions machine was only feeding the stress and anxiety high-schoolers already face. I also still was catering to a privileged pool of students, since they could afford our services.
That student whose essay we’d projected on the screen got into Stanford, of course, but I do wonder who wanted it more, the student or her parents? Although additional details about the latest scandal are bound to come out, many outlets are reporting that most of the students themselves weren’t aware of what their parents were doing behind the scenes to get them admitted. If this is true, to me, it is one of the more telling details of the case, further affirming that too many parents push their kids for reasons that have relatively little to do with the kids themselves.
Though my own doubts ultimately carried me out of the counseling industry, I still think about the father whose son had collapsed under the pressure.
“Who will he be?” he asked after his son announced he wouldn’t be applying to any colleges, let alone elite ones.
I didn’t have an answer for him then, but now I would say: Why don’t you ask your son who he is right this moment, and then, if he’s willing to tell you — listen.