We know how scary the college admissions process can be, for both the applicant and his or her parents. But having spent the past year and a half covering the Varsity Blues college admissions cheating scandal, we also know that getting too caught up in the drama of who’s getting in where, and focusing too much on particular name-brand schools, can lead to devastating disappointment–or worse. Jennifer Levitz and I detail all that and more in our new book UNACCEPTABLE: Greed, Privilege and the Making of the College Admissions Scandal
More than two dozen parents in that case have pleaded guilty to felonies. Some admitted to paying a corrupt admissions counselor to rig their kids’ SAT or ACT scores, while others helped bribe college coaches and pitched their teens as star athletes, even if they didn’t play the sport.
In some cases, mom and dad wanted to boost their kids’ odds of admission to selective colleges so much that they did both.
The stories of Felicity Huffman, Lori Loughlin and others are salacious, juicy and shocking. They are also important cautionary tales. Here are four major takeaways to learn from their mistakes.
Four takeaways from the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal
1. Broaden Your Horizons
Insularity can easily warp one’s perspective, making it seem standard practice in some circles to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for SAT prep tutors or tens of thousands a year for tuition at private schools. Or like there are only a few dozen acceptable college destinations.
If it’s a good fit for your teen, that’s all that matters. So what if it’s not an Ivy? So what if Naviance doesn’t show 14 other students from last year who got in?
If the mothers and fathers drawn to Rick Singer (the mastermind behind the college admissions scandal) had broadened their lenses, they would’ve found many strong schools with far greater admissions odds and plenty of opportunity for postgraduate success.
Virginia Tech, for example, accepted 70% of applicants for the fall 2019 freshman class, while Southern Methodist took just under half of those who sought admission.
If a school is more selective, it may just mean the school had an aggressive recruiting campaign to lure more applicants, and then reject a higher share of them. That doesn’t make it a “better” institution.
2. Let Your Teen Drive the Process
Be honest: You may, at least deep down, be a little more impressed with someone who has a fancy pedigree or who holds a degree from a certain type of school. But put those feelings aside. Your child’s college journey isn’t about you, or your judgment of what makes a “good” school. It isn’t about assuaging your ego or checking a box for your family.
At least it shouldn’t be, because such an outlook just heaps extra anxiety on already stressed teens. That’s what Matteo Sloane, whose dad was convicted of falsely portraying his son as an athletic recruit to get the teen into the University of Southern California, told us.
Matteo went to a tony Los Angeles private school, his grades were on the upswing, he participated in extracurricular activities, and the pressure from his and his peers’ parents just kept building. Matteo called it “gross.”
If your daughter’s eyes glaze over every time you bring up certain selective schools for the umpteenth time, or a door slams when you ask about how the SAT prep is going, or your son shuts down when you probe him yet again about where the expected valedictorian is applying, you may be veering into gross territory.
Matteo said he wished he had more breathing room, more ability to run his own college search. Since the scandal he has claimed some more agency — including by speaking to us for our book and coverage of the case in The Wall Street Journal.
Let your teen explore and discover and weigh pros and cons, with you there as a loving source of wisdom and guidance. Watch for what makes their eyes sparkle, their voices rise up in excitement.
Remind them that college is a start, not an endgame–and remind yourself of that, too. Some teens leave high school with a clear focus on the future; others blossom later, their passions ignited in the biology lab of a good state school, or in a lively economics class in a small school in the midwest.
Most of all, let them know you believe in them.
3. Test Scores Don’t Matter Very Much, If At All
Some families who worked with Rick Singer went to outrageous lengths to boost their teen’s ACT score by a couple of points, or SAT by a couple hundred. There was testing for learning differences, submitting requests for extra time, cross-country flights, cover stories about family obligations or poorly- timed college visits.
One mother even set her son up with a practice test in his bedroom when he was home sick, keeping time for each section — and mailed it to Singer — so her boy wouldn’t catch on that there was anything fishy happening.
Yet ask an admissions director at nearly any school and they’ll say pretty much nobody is admitted, or rejected, just because of a test score. Academic records are by far the most important element of the application for most candidates — scores generally just support what they already knew.
And now, with the pandemic accelerating a push toward test-optional admissions (in which the school will look at scores if sent but not penalize applicants if they don’t include SAT or ACT results), scores matter even less.
About two-thirds of four-year colleges have gone test-optional, at least for this year during the public health crisis. Some are even test-blind now, meaning even if you do send a perfect 1600 or 36 score, they won’t pay any attention to it.
Having a teen cram for the test, spending thousands on tutors, traveling long distances to find an open testing center, just isn’t worth it. And cheating certainly isn’t.
4. Believe in Your Teen’s Resilience
The admissions process can hold valuable life lessons about accepting limitations, advocating for oneself and learning that life is not always fair. But the parents in the admissions scandal often sold their kids short, not trusting they could handle their futures or tolerate disappointment.
Tom Hudnut, a former longtime head of the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, says the kids generally survived rejection better than their parents, even when they were turned away from their dream schools. They bounced back, he says, “while their parents donned metaphoric sackcloth and ashes” in despair. The parents often “had no faith in their children’s resilience.”
Trying to shield your children from failure only sets them up for disaster when they eventually do fall short of a goal, at age 18 or 21 or 35.
Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz are co-authors of UNACCEPTABLE: Greed, Privilege and the Making of the College Admissions Scandal, published in July, 2020, by Penguin/Portfolio.
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