The photo my student posted on her finsta following the disclosure of the biggest college admissions scandal in history caught my eye. She had superimposed her smiling face atop a picture of an ivy league squash player. It was a crudely Photoshopped image, and that was the point. The caption read: “Harvard Class of 2024!”
I was glad this young woman could laugh about the scam that continues to capture national attention and fuel daily headlines. Everywhere I go, even if people don’t know I’m a college counselor, this scandal is a hot topic of conversation. Moms, Dads, high school students, and kids attending college all have something to say about it. Most people are seething and eager to see justice done. It’s not fair. It’s immoral. It’s not how it should be.
Needless to say, I agree that all of the individuals involved should be punished for cheating the system (and, apparently on their taxes). Many normal families do need help navigating the increasingly complex and anxiety-producing college testing, selection and application process, but Rick Singer, the person behind the scheme, chose to break the law to get his students into particular schools. There’s no grey area in this case. No one thinks the man is being unfairly treated. The outrage and ridicule is real and deserved.
The Scandal Highlights a Real Challenge
While much of the attention has been focused on the two actresses charged with various crimes, the case is important on many other levels. More than anything, it has affirmed all of our fears about college admission. With acceptance rates in the low single digits, it’s become so tough to get into top schools that some of the richest risk breaking laws to secure a spot for their kids at elite universities. And, as most articles highlight, the problem will only grow. Each year, more American students apply to the same schools. In addition, a larger number of foreign students are also applying, further ratcheting up the competition.
Why not just go to any old school? Why obsess about schools atop the US News & World Report college rankings? Many parents believe that attending an elite university is paramount, and often their children have adopted that worldview. Besides getting to know professors who can open doors to well-paid and illustrious careers, these institutions offer students the chance to meet hard-charging classmates. Together, this will help people build important network connections as they enter the workforce.
While everyone thinks of Harvard and Stanford-level schools as elite, it’s interesting to note that many institutions Singer targeted were not in the Ivy League or at that level, such as UT-Austin and Wake Forest. While both are great universities, acceptance had generally been considered easier to obtain. However, these schools have also gotten much tougher to get into for even high-performing students. For instance, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has received over 51% more applications during the past five years, while NYU has been flooded with 47% more in that same period, according to USA Today. Scarcity is a fact at many colleges, and everyone knows it. That reality leads to parents making terrible decisions, such as paying Singer to cheat the system for their children.
The Real Issue: The Harvard Case
Despite this, the Singer scandal is not what parents should be worried about the most. His outrageous behavior highlights an existing and growing problem. There is, however, another legal case that has the potential to have a massive, long-term impact on college admissions. Right now, Harvard is in the middle of a lawsuit about its admissions practices. The case, which many think the university is likely to lose, alleges that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans. Supposedly the university has quotas for various groups. Why? The goal it to achieve “racial balancing.” Instead of letting in as many Asian Americans as are qualified, the school accepts other black and Latino applicants with lower numbers in order to promote diversity.
Many believe that affirmative action is actually a huge positive for higher education because students benefit from diversity on campuses. In such an environment, the idea is that classroom discussions are far more vibrant and that there are more dynamic opportunities to learn as students from various backgrounds express varied points of view. At CK4U, we happen to think that schools with only the “smartest” students would be limiting.
Even if you are not a fan of affirmative action in principle, recognize that without some form of it, we’d have even fewer boys at almost every type of school but the engineering power houses. According to the U.S. Department of Education, total undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. in 2017 was 56.3% girls. That is a noticeable increase from 45.6% females at American colleges in 1970, and this trend is predicted to rise. College admissions, based off of testing and grades, is essentially built for girls. I often say, “smart girls are a dime a dozen.” That’s not meant to denigrate high-performing young women, it’s just a fact. A high school female with excellent grades and awesome SAT or ACT scores is just one among hundreds or thousands applying to any given school. As a result, elite colleges like Vanderbilt have to accept fewer girls who apply than boys in an effort to keep the gender ratio close (currently, it’s at 51% female). In 2017, even Brigham Young University admitted that it has given preference to male applicants. If colleges had to accept only those with the best numbers, boys as well as many other groups would be severely impacted.
As a college counselor for over 12 years, I, just like you, find the Singer story riveting. Yet, as we devour the next article that bashes the wealthy or pokes fun at misguided Hollywood parenting, remember not to forget the real issue: the overturning of college admissions that the Harvard’s case poses. A ruling against the university could not only negatively alter the atmosphere on campuses across the country, it would also likely raise the anxiety of parents and prospective college students even more. If that happens, the Singer scandal might just be the first of many of its kind.
We just wanted to take a moment to address the elephant in the room – the massive cheating scandal wrought by college counselor Rick Singer that has captured national attention and ensnared 50 people. We wanted to clarify what our goals are and the services we provide to assist our clients – which are all completely legal! We are saddened that another college counselor has broken the law so recklessly and damaged our profession.
Our goal is to help our students find colleges that offer the best fit for them both academically and socially. We assist our students in navigating the college process, and believe it can be an exciting time of exploration as they seek to find schools where they will thrive. We also work to reduce the stress associated with this period in their lives so that our students can relax and think clearly about their goals and aspirations. We want to help them feel empowered and in charge as they think about their future.
For most kids, college applications mark the first time that they are asked to write about themselves in a personal statement. We know from admissions officers that nearly half of these essays are not read beyond the first paragraph. We endeavor to teach our students to write powerfully and to share compelling stories to keep readers interested. This is a learning process that can take some time, but we try to pose questions rather than re-writing so that each student can express themselves and truly put on the page what he or she wants to share.
Getting into college is way too stressful today, and anxiety is gripping many kids, so we work to alleviate that pressure. We want this to be an exciting period of discovery that can ignite creativity. We also try to lead our students to realize that there are many great college choices and not to fall in love with only one university. We also believe that our students should understand the competitive landscape and have a strategy which includes applying to a balanced list of colleges.
We look forward to helping each child accomplish their objectives and supporting families through the tumultuous time of applying to college. We would never cheat, lie or falsify an application. This would be illegal and damaging because it sends a clear message that we do not believe in our clients. Instead, we want to help our students to feel confident in themselves so that they can be happy and successful. We look forward to the journey!
Esther and Norma
Paige sat at her desk and stared at the mountain of assignments before her. Her blonde hair cascaded down her cheeks as her shoulders sank under the massive weight of work. Apart from the Bio test she had to prepare for, she had a French quiz to study for, an English paper to write, a page of problems to complete for her Pre-Calculus class and a chapter of her text book to read for U.S. history. All in a day’s work in Junior Year!
The workload wouldn’t be so awful if she didn’t feel so much pressure on a constant basis. If she did not do well in school, her GPA would plummet. Then, she would have little hope of getting into the school of her dreams, much less any college she would actually like to attend. She also had to raise her SAT score. That number had to be in the stratosphere. If she didn’t earn a good score, she would wind up in a miserable place. She was sure of it. Suddenly, she remembered the Greek character Sisyphus, who was forced to push an immense boulder up a steep hill—only for it to roll down once he neared the top. Sisyphus was forced to repeat this action for eternity, and that was just how she felt.
Instead of opening her book, Paige decided to check her phone. What was new on Instagram? She started scrolling through her feed and looked closely for a few of her friends, not to mention the prettiest girl in her class, Brooke. Her images always looked like sheer perfection. Brooke seemed to host and attend the most excellent parties, date the best-looking boyfriend, take the most luxurious trips, and hang out in all of the coolest places. Heavy sigh. Paige decided to post a quick story about the night’s misery—one more about the daily grind.
Afterwards, rather than cracking the books, Paige decided it was time for a snack and a shower. Next, she decided to paint her nails. Soon it was getting very late, and she realized that she had not done any work whatsoever. The anxiety continued to build.
Young women like Paige can follow a pattern like this for weeks. When the homework builds up over time, it can feel impossible to tackle it. Even a small part. Using this strategy of avoidance as a means of coping with anxiety is all too common. Unfortunately, the strategy only intensifies the stress students are trying to escape. One of the best ways to avoid a crippling situation like this is to address the issue directly.
First, don’t overload yourself. Consider all of your options when choosing classes and try to select a course load that is manageable. A lot of students ask if it is best to earn excellent grades in regular courses or to struggle in advanced classes. What’s really important is to seek balance so that you are not forced to shoulder too heavy a burden. You have to be realistic when assessing your strengths and weaknesses as you select your classes, and you need to stay focused on achieving a lofty GPA. You need to plan in advance, because throughout high school you want to at least be consistent or, better yet, increase academic challenge each year. You also want to earn strong year end grades or exhibit an upward trend.
Second, make an effort to quiet the noise in your life. When you are doing homework, put your phone aside. Cell phones are a huge distraction that absorb too much attention. It’s difficult to complete your work when there is so much happening on social media and so much contact with friends. When working on group projects or if you need help, your phone can be useful, but you must be able to turn it off as well. If you need some assistance in this area, some students find it helpful to hire an executive functioning coach to provide them with a structure and plan for getting assignments done.
Third, seek help from teachers. Often this involves meeting with your instructors to ask questions prior to tests or papers. When we became college counselors, one of our initial discoveries was that many top students met with their teachers regularly. Reaching out in this way not only lets your teachers know that you care, but it also allows you to build better relationships with individuals that can then write great recommendations—important for helping you achieve better outcomes.
Fourth, talk with a professional about your anxiety. If you are feeling overwhelmed, there are many experts to speak with, such as a school counselor or a therapist/psychiatrist from outside of school. Know that you are definitely not alone, and that seeking help for your anxiety is one of the most important ways you can not only feel better, but also advocate for yourself. it is important to distinguish between having an anxiety disorder and experiencing normal stress. Having a better sense of what you are dealing with will make it easier to navigate the ups and downs of high school. A seasoned professional can help you adopt the correct approach to address your situation effectively.
Fifth, develop a plan that works for you. Control the number of activities you include in your day and employ relaxation techniques to help you feel calmer. These may include rituals like sliding into the tub, playing mellow tunes, performing breathing exercises and, of course, exercise. It may seem like committing to playing a varsity sport will take up too much time, but competing may help you feel a lot happier and actually put you in the correct frame of mind to complete work. The effort involved in exercise can ease your mind and lift your spirits. Athletes often complete homework more quickly because they do not have time to procrastinate. They must be efficient.
High school is undoubtedly arduous, but college is the triumph you can savor after you overcome all of the obstacles along the way. Managing current challenges is your chance to gain a better understanding of yourself and to address the issues that can hold you back from enjoying new experiences in the future!
- Esther Book