Do I Have to Be a Celebrity or a Cheater to Get My Kid into College?

In the face of a college admissions cheating scandal, parents have a lot of questions. Here are some answers.

News broke this week about a surprising college admissions cheating scandal. Some of the wealthiest people in our country apparently used deceit to get their kids admitted to highly selective colleges. This story made national headlines because of the names involved – including actors William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, and Lori Laughlin. People also notice the famous schools caught up in the scandal – like Stanford, Yale, Georgetown, USC, University of Texas, and UCLA.

But for a College Prep Parent, the “headlines” of this story may instead be the frustration and anxiety it causes those who try to play by the rules. Could a college admissions cheater steal a spot from my college-bound kid? If I don’t want to cheat the system, does my kid stand a chance at college admissions?

As a guidance counselor, I expect questions like these from my parents as they read these disturbing news stories. So I wanted to respond here in the way I might respond to any one of them. More than usual, I’ll also point to other things we’ve written. They should help you and your child work toward arriving and thriving in college… even if you aren’t celebrities (or cheaters).

Hi College Prep Parent,

Thanks for reaching out after hearing that crazy news report. The truth is, anything extremely valuable (like a college education) will bring out people who try to game the system. But don’t despair! Here are things I would encourage you to remember about the college admissions reality.

College admissions offices are seeking students who will “make it,” not fake it.

It looks like the admission folks at some top-notch colleges were trying to let in the “best fits” as usual but were fooled about a handful of applicants’ credentials. Colleges are still looking to see if your kid fits their schools!

“I once heard an admissions rep announce to a large group of high school students, ‘We are not just looking for students to fill a freshman class. We are looking for students who will be able to graduate as seniors.’ While your student is busy planning for their future, colleges are busy planning for their own futures. … They want their incoming students to arrive and thrive.” (Read more)

From what I have heard so far about this story, admission committees got wrong information. Phony test scores and students wrongly classified as strong athletes formed the backbone of this college admissions scam. But the “bad actors” now face big consequences, and deserving students and accomplished athletes can continue to trust the college admissions system in general.

A few students cheated admissions – but many more students got in legitimately.

This scandal sounds like it involves a handful of colleges and athletic departments, but many more are not accused of anything. Furthermore, each of these schools had hundreds or thousands of students in each incoming class. It may anger us (rightly so!) for a few to cheat their way in, but numerous students got in the old fashioned way – by the same methods accessible to your student. College admissions cheating is not the norm. Far from it.

This is where you can remind your college-bound kid about what you’re building toward together: the day when they enter college not because they cheated college admissions, but because they deserve college admission.

“Our students take a big step toward college when they experience the satisfaction of becoming entitled to rewards that they earn. When they do, those tend to be the accomplishments that mean the most and can set them on the path to future success.” (Read more)

It’s hard to fake all the college admissions factors – and admissions officers are on guard for cheating.

Through the years, I have heard accusations of college admissions cheating from time to time. But this has nearly always involved isolated incidents of application essays written by someone besides the student, resumes padded with fake activities, or letters of recommendation written by people that knew the school well but knew the applicant very little.

But no one factor is usually responsible for a student gaining admission. Rather, a combination of factors will be responsible for your student getting admitted. Your kid’s legitimate scores are still important for the admission process – and the vast majority of the time, these scores get compared to other legitimate scores. The same is true with athletic achievements, leadership roles, volunteer work, and all other college resume components. It’s hard for college admissions cheaters to successfully fake each of these.

“Your college prep student’s story is still being written, to be read someday by a college admission officer.” (Read more)

What’s more, admissions committees are well aware of the aspects of an applicant’s file that can be deceitfully “tweaked.” It is not unusual for college reps to dig deeper if they sense any cause for concern. (Remember, they work with dozens or hundreds of students a year. So if anyone can spot fakes, they can!) A college admissions cheating scandal like this one will make them even warier of potential scams. That’s good news for your kid.

As you and your student walk forward in authenticity, the things your kid worked so hard to accomplish will be a pleasure to discuss with any admissions counselor who asks.

Don’t let college admissions cheating discourage your family.

You and your child should not be discouraged or surprised because a few bad people did bad things! This is one more great chance to encourage your kid to remain hard at work and not give up. This also provides another chance to trust God in the college prep process. No scandal has ever surprised Him.

“Encouragement is one of the greatest tasks that a College Prep Parent can perform. … When a student is extremely busy preparing for life beyond high school, they need a lot of things – but nothing more than encouragement. When a student is ‘stuck’ and not busy doing anything but worrying, they also need encouragement. And anywhere in between those extremes!” (Read more)

Help your kid take their best shot.

Colleges will still give your kid a shot to compete. Your student should give them all the information they ask for, give himself or herself their best chance in testing through thoughtful preparation, and build a college resume that convincingly shouts “Let me in!”

“The aim is to thoughtfully craft the resume to communicate the distinctives of the student. An honest resume can be a big help to an admissions committee if it accurately portrays someone’s high school years. At the very least, what is included in a resume shows how a student wants to be seen by the school.” (Read more)

Then whether your child is waiting to hear back from schools or has already gotten an admissions response, they will know they made their very best – honest – effort.

We’re all frustrated by college admissions cheating, but I hope these ideas have encouraged you. I’d love to answer any other college prep questions you have, and we’ll talk soon.


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