Who is to Blame When Kids Lie On Their College Applications

When a college-bound teen fabricates a story about his mother dying for his personal statement, it’s time for us as a society to figure out what drives kids to tell these types of falsehoods.

That’s exactly what happened according to an article in The New York Times entitled ‘They’re Not Fact-Checking’: How Lies on College Applications Can Slip Through the Net. A student who was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania wrote his essay about his mother’s untimely death. When someone from the University called his home, his mother answered.

Let’s ask ourselves why. Why would a kid make up a story about his mother dying? There are several possible explanations. People lie. They do it all the time with no rational explanation. That is an immutable fact and nothing will change that. But, I have to assume that at least a segment of kids lie because they have been so weighed down by societal pressure, they can’t see another way.

Lying on common app
College student filling out application (Kaitlyn Baker/ Unsplash)

In the midst of my own high school senior’s application season, I can see what motivates the contrivance of falsehoods. Kids lie because it’s not enough to be an outstanding student. It’s not enough to be involved in tons of extra-curricular activities. It’s not enough to play an instrument well or be a great, albeit not recruitable, athlete. It’s not enough to be helpful, kind and mature. None of it is enough.

Our kids, at least those from a state like New Jersey, where high-achieving kids are a dime a dozen, are told that they need a “hook.” They are encouraged to “package” themselves and in so doing to find and illustrate to colleges the thing that distinguishes them.

As the Times article points out, even the questions on the Common Application themselves lead kids down a difficult path encouraging students, “to write about overcoming obstacles and to share ‘a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful’ that their application would be incomplete without it.” How many 17 year-olds do you know have overcome an obstacle so significant it warrants a 650 word essay?

If I had a nickel for every kid who despondently told me that they had nothing to write about in their personal statement, I’d be a wealthy woman. They tell me that they “aren’t interesting” or “nothing bad has happened to them.” They despair because they haven’t cured cancer or invented the next big thing. We adults understand that the essay need not be about anything “life altering” but that’s not the message kids are hearing.

They hear that if they haven’t overcome some enormous life obstacle, they are unworthy. They hear that it’s not okay to be a middle-of-the-road students with middle-of the-road pursuits. They hear that those 650 words must spin a tale so remarkable colleges will have no choice but to take them. Is it any wonder then that kids make up a narrative?

Although every kid is unique it’s impossible for all of them to have a “something” that sets them apart from the pack, consequently, the lying. While the lies themselves are disturbing it’s the reason that kids feel they need to lie that is even more troubling. And we are squarely to blame for the lying and then we are shocked by it. How do we temper all of our expectations and make our kids understand that it’s far better to be honest, to write a reflection of who you truly are and to wind up in a place where you truly belong?


Trying to be Perfect is Killing Our Teens and We’re to Blame

The Real Way Teens Should Respond on Their College Essays

About Helene Wingens

Helene Wingens has always been passionate about painting pictures with words. She graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in psychology and three years later from Boston University School of Law with a Juris Doctor. In a year long clerkship for an appellate judge Helene honed her writing skills by drafting weekly appellate memoranda. She practiced law until she practically perfected it and after taking a brief twenty year hiatus to raise her three children she began writing a personal blog Her essays have been published in: Scary Mommy, Kveller, The Forward, and Grown and Flown where she is Managing Editor. You can visit Helene's website here

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