Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (iStock)
Reporter

In 2007, Harvard University accepted a young man with stellar credentials: perfect scores on the SAT, five SAT subject tests and 16 AP exams; extracurricular activities ranging from Shakespeare plays to a Model U.N. to tutoring; and a talent for writing poetry.

Every item on that résumé was a lie.

Two years later, Adam Wheeler was caught. Instead of graduating from Harvard University, he went to prison for fraud, because he had used his doctored transcripts and test scores and plagiarized essays to rack up more than $45,000 in prizes, grants and financial aid. Wheeler’s face was plastered across the news for a brief time in 2010; he became a punchline on “Saturday Night Live” and the subject of jocund speculation about what actor should play him in the movie about his heist.

The college admissions system failed to catch Wheeler, for reasons I explored in my 2012 book about the case, “Conning Harvard.” And a decade after Wheeler was caught, last week’s explosive indictments charging admissions fraud suggest the gatekeepers to the nation’s most competitive colleges have failed to fully learn the lessons of the Wheeler case, and the cases that preceded it.

In the extraordinarily competitive environment of college admissions, cheating is woefully common, and college admissions officers are well aware of it. Students lie on their applications. They lie well before they get to the point of filling out an application, in high schools that have been turned into pressure cookers geared toward college admissions. In a survey of more than 40,000 high school students, 80 percent said they had copied someone else’s homework, and 59 percent said they had cheated on a test in the previous year.

If admissions officers wanted to systematically catch cheaters, they have numerous tools at their disposal. The high school transcripts that arrive in the mail in admissions offices are often printed on specially purchased tamper-proof paper, the kind that reveals it is the genuine article by showing hidden letters when you hold it up to the light or turning colors when you warm it with your breath. Despite these security features, the admissions officers I interviewed said that when they are madly rushing through stacks of applications that grow larger every year, as students apply to more and more schools, they seldom take the time to blow on a piece of paper.

Turnitin, the company known for checking students’ papers in high school and college, does a vastly better job spotting plagiarism electronically than any human reader. But the company’s Turnitin for Admissions product has been slow to catch on at the nation’s top schools. The schools that have adopted the practice of feeding every essay through the software find, on average, 5 percent of applicants have plagiarized their essays. (It is not just for college students — when Methodist ministry candidates were reviewed by Turnitin, the software found “a lot of plagiarism in the sermons.”)

Instead of utilizing technology, admissions officers told me while I was writing my book that they tend to rely on their gut instincts. If a student’s essay is stellar but his grades or SAT score are low, they might doubt he wrote the essay himself. In a rare case when a student’s extraordinary claim about her background seems fishy, an admissions officer might call up a guidance counselor or the person who wrote a letter of recommendation to see if it checks out.

What does relying on gut instinct mean? It means admissions officers are far more likely to suspect fraud from a certain type of kid. And it is not Adam Wheeler, and it is not the children of Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman, actresses charged in the new admissions scandal.

It is home-schoolers. It is rural students. It is students who are the first in their high school to apply to Harvard or Stanford or Yale. Admissions officers are most suspicious of transcripts they have never seen before. When they have a stack of 20 applications on their desk from the same prestigious prep school or public magnet school, they assume the 21st is highly likely to be legitimate. They assume they would notice if it were not.

But no one noticed when Wheeler, who actually graduated 47th out of 348 students in his public high school class in Delaware, said he went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., a school from which Harvard does indeed receive scores of transcripts. When the applications of children involved in the new scandal said they played water polo and rowed crew in Zip codes where plenty of other children play those sports and apply to these schools, no one bothered to look up whether they were truly on a team.

Foreign applicants tend to be subjected to the most scrutiny in the admissions office. And for good reason: A 2010 survey of 250 students from top Chinese high schools who were applying to colleges outside China found that about 90 percent of their applications included fake teacher recommendation letters. Seventy percent of the Chinese students said they or their paid college admissions consultants plagiarized their essays. Fifty percent said they faked transcripts. The problem is rampant, and American universities are wise to treat these applicants carefully.

But saving all the scrutiny for foreign students — and, more disturbingly, already potentially disadvantaged students — means one thing: Time and again, students who do not meet the admissions officers’ image of a cheater do cheat, and they do not get caught in time.

Esther Reed assumed three people’s identities to study at California State University at Fullerton, Columbia University and Harvard, fraudulently obtaining $100,000 in student loans. She ended up on the Secret Service’s list of 10 most-wanted fugitives in 2008 and was sentenced to four years in prison. James Hogue, a 31-year-old from Utah, passed himself off as a track star and enrolled at Princeton; once he served prison time for that fraud, he got hired as a security guard at a Harvard museum and stole more than $50,000 worth of gemstones. Akash Maharaj forged transcripts and enrolled at Yale. After Maharaj’s guilty plea for obtaining $31,000 in financial aid, the Yale Daily News quoted a fellow student’s highly unsettling reaction: “Didn’t we all exaggerate on our applications to some extent?”

Well, no, we did not. My friends and classmates at Harvard included brilliant, hard-working, deeply ethical people who got in on their own luck and merits. Whether they spent their high school years homeless or ensconced in the nation’s preeminent private schools, most were wholly committed to honesty.

But the Yale student’s quote underscores an all-too-common problem: Some students do lie on their applications, and admissions offices have not been fast enough to adapt. Procedures have gotten better since I wrote about Adam Wheeler’s fraud. Harvard stopped having student employees in the admissions office open the mail and throw away the envelopes without checking that an SAT score was actually mailed by the College Board or that a transcript from a California school was actually mailed from California. Stanford, which had accepted Wheeler three years after Harvard — at a time when he was claiming to be co-writing four books — promised to begin randomly auditing its applicant pool, a process it said would involve intensive fact-checks of selected applications.

Top-tier schools need to take a hard look at their defenses against fraud. These schools need to do whatever they can to anonymize and digitize the process — to take it out of the hands of humans, who are psychologically prone to bias and to belief in all sorts of plausible-looking lies.

As Steven Pinker, my psychology professor at Harvard, wisely wrote: “The Ivy admissions sweepstakes may be irrational, but the parents and teenagers who clamber to win it are not.” Harvard and its many peer schools are remarkable places — places where students and professors alike are the very best in a vast array of fields; where teenagers discuss ideas all night long, and research and write and innovate by day; where opportunities abound to learn just about anything you would like to learn, from the best people to learn it from.

Certainly, a student who goes to any college or no college at all can succeed with flying colors in almost any field, but a spot at an elite school is a prize worth winning. Which makes it all the more sad when the race is not fair.