We were meeting with the family again about their daughter’s application to Stanford. I had already 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 an executive at the boutique 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 had already polished it to perfection during countless meetings. Plus, the student was exceptionally accomplished — and she was a legacy to boot. She was primed for Stanford, and further finessing her application was just theater. Yet it was exactly the kind of reassurance her parents were paying tens of thousands of dollars for. As they waited for my boss to deem their daughter’s package worthy of the school’s restrictive early-action application, they were anxious, even fearful. When she eventually gave the green light, their relief was palpable.
When I started in college admissions consulting nearly 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 the services of the first company I worked for 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 writing their children’s application essays themselves.
Knowing all this, I wasn’t at all surprised by the admissions scandal that broke this past week. Fifty people were charged with bribing coaches and exam proctors to help their children get into universities such as Stanford, UCLA and Wake Forest. Some went so far as to Photoshop their kids’ faces onto athletes’ bodies so they could be “recruited” for sports they didn’t actually play. “There will not be a separate college admissions system for the wealthy,” one prosecutor said.
This is a nice sentiment, but it’s built on an entirely false understanding of the ways things work, one I saw again and again during my time in admissions consulting: There already is a separate system of the wealthy. Like too many parents of young people I worked with, these adults were acting out of their own insecurities and greed. Getting into a good school clearly benefits their children, but I got the impression that some parents enjoyed the bragging rights that came from placing children into prestigious institutions, a tidy benefit of ostensibly chasing their kids’ best interests.
The myth of the elite university’s power played a role, too, of course. I’ve witnessed the genuine belief, among both students and parents, that without admission to an Ivy League or similarly ranked school, they will not succeed in life. This is a ridiculous notion but one that is often accepted blindly. One student I worked with attended a venerable prep school but 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 that he might not be ready for college and that 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?”
The system 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 not a contest of 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.
To those outside the system, the actions of these parents probably seem downright bizarre. But from the inside, it’s not all that strange. 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 rising wealth and shrinking acceptance rates, but also because of the fear of not achieving a certain 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.
One brilliant programmer I worked with had been recruited by Google more than once after winning several online code jams; the company didn’t realize he was still in high school. But he also had a C on his transcript from an ultracompetitive private high school in the Bay Area, which supposedly meant he couldn’t get into the universities his parents wanted him to attend. “I’m already a failure,” he told me. “I don’t even think I can get into college.”
Moments like these, equally frustrating and heartbreaking, were common. I tried to reassure students that there was a school 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, and it seemed to be that getting in was what mattered, along with the instant status that comes with a brand name school.
In my later 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 that high schoolers already face. I was also still catering to a privileged pool of students because they were the ones who could afford our services.
That student whose essay we had projected on the screen got into Stanford, of course, but I do wonder who wanted it more — the student or her parents? Though my 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 that 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly gave William Singer’s first name as Rick.