OP-ED: Honesty is the Best Policy in College Admissions

By now you’ve heard about Operation:  Varsity Blues, the scandal that has rocked the world of college admissions. Fifty people–parents, college-prep executives, a college administrator, an exam proctor, two ACT/SAT administrators and nine coaches–were charged in what Department of Justice officials called the largest college cheating scandal it has ever prosecuted. The FBI alleges that parents paid up to $1.2 million to guarantee their children’s admission to their desired university.

Bribery, cheating, forgery, fraud and elaborate schemes involving photoshop and fake sports prowess, while not typical, do represent the extreme measures parents will go to to get their children into the “right” school. And it is indicative of just how far off course things have gotten.

It’s clear that the focus has moved away from matching universities to students’ needs and talents. Instead it’s about labels, status and bragging rights. These parents have resorted to breaking the law in order to manipulate the admissions process, mistakenly believing an elite college will guarantee a student’s success.

But how do we define success? And what is the message we send our kids when we lie and cheat to get our way?

The pressure on students is well-known and well-documented. Honors and AP classes, extracurricular clubs and activities, sports, jobs, community service. The four years of high school pass by in a blur of obligations designed to get them to the next goal–college. But the goal should be to enjoy those four years, develop skills and interests and then discover an institution where one can grow and learn.


“The admissions process is certainly flawed. It’s arduous and expensive and in dire need of an overhaul. But right now it’s the only system we’ve got. Rather than bribes and cheating, assistance should come in the form of de-stressing and simplifying.”


Alexandra Robbins, author of ​The Overachievers,​ writes, “Instead of focusing on a college ‘search’ to find the schools that will best fit a student, too many families are focusing on college ‘prep,’ molding the student to fit a school. This practice tells teenagers they aren’t good enough unless they get a certain acceptance letter, a harmful message that lingers long after the application process. And for what? Students aren’t automatically happier at selective schools. At Harvard, rates of attempted suicide are nearly twice the national rate​ ​for college students. Graduates of elite schools aren’t necessarily better off in the working world, either. In 2018, twice as many CEOs of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies graduated from Texas A&M as Harvard.”

The admissions process is certainly flawed. It’s arduous and expensive and in dire need of an overhaul. Unscrupulous individuals have clearly learned how to game the system. But right now it’s the only system we’ve got. Rather than bribes and cheating, assistance should come in the form of de-stressing and simplifying. The admissions process can be thoughtfully navigated so that the end result is a positive one. Students and parents can work together with honest professionals to help demystify the process, control the frenzy and take steps towards finding schools that are the right fit.

The lesson learned from this scandal is that by resorting to “any means necessary,” parents are ultimately hurting the very people they are trying to help–their children. Is breaking the law and buying your way in setting you up for a life of success or failure? Better to teach that Honesty Is The Best Policy, rather than Money Talks.

Carrie Tobias​ is a Wilton mom and the owner of Essay Owl, a college application essay editing service. She offers guidance on topic selection, writing, revising and proofreading. Visit​ ​the Essay Owl website​ for more information.