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What to make of the college admissions scandal?

We are starting a test-prep/college consulting blog! And what better way to enter the blogosphere than with a post to address the recent college consulting scandal that's been all over the news? Like many others, we are dismayed to learn that cheating and bribery were used by some to gain acceptance into some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. But is it surprising? The only thing that's really surprising is that the people involved in the scandal decided to pay millions of dollars to break the law when they could have donated that amount to the university itself and almost certainly had their children admitted legally (with the added bonus of having a hall or building named after them). But what does this all say about college admissions in general?

College admission is more competitive than ever. As with most ultra-competitive things, some people will look to cut corners. While most acts do not rise to the level of bribing college coaches and cheating on the ACT/SAT by paying off proctors, it is not uncommon for families to request extended time for the ACT/SAT when students don't really need it, for college consultants to write essays for students, and for students to put down activities and awards on their college applications that they've never participated in or won. The schools are often times all too keen to play a role in all this by encouraging teachers to give out more A's which leads to severe grade inflation. So, where does all that leave us?

Ironically, while much of this is done under the guise of helping the students' futures, the opposite couldn't be more true. There is no doubt that, for example, writing college application essays for students does a huge disservice to the students themselves. Writing personal narratives is supposed to be a cathartic experience that allows students to reflect on how they've grown and who they are. Similarly, what message does lying about extra-curricular activities send to the students except that it's okay to lie to get ahead? When parents pursue undeserved accommodations, does that not imply that they don't believe their children are capable of getting results without an unfair advantage?

When I think about the recent scandals, I feel sorry for the students who have been shortchanged by the people they are supposed to look up to. Even if a student is able to gain acceptance into a renown school without so much as knowing what colleges "they" are applying to, what reason is there to believe that they'll be successful in or after college? How can they, after all, when at every opportunity to overcome adversity, the adults who were supposed to help teach them perseverance and grit stripped them off valuable learning opportunities to develop these traits? Perhaps it is not surprising that 70% of rich families lose their wealth by the second generation, and 90% by the third.

Of course, it is tempting to want our most prized possessions to have the best opportunities in life. Furthermore, it is tempting to subconsciously equate our parenting abilities with the colleges that are our children are accepted into. After all, isn't seeing our little treasures off to college the culmination of parenting? And it doesn't hurt that everyone in our social circles will probably think, "Sarah went to Princeton. Her parents must have done something right!" The problem with that line of thinking is two fold: first, we, as parents are being selfish by living vicariously through our children and substituting our goals for theirs while, in the process, putting an enormous amount of pressure on them. Second, college was never meant to be the end goal. It was always meant to be a stepping stone for greater things to come.

While it is easy to become disheartened by recent developments, the truth of the matter is that the American college admissions system is still, by and large, one of the most fair systems in the world. The ACT and the SAT are still the "great equalizers." The children of immigrant parents often outperform other students by working harder in and outside of school. It is also not enough these days to apply with just strong test scores and grades. The students who are involved in extracurricular activities tend to get more favorable college admission results. The interviews help college filter out applicants who have weak communication skills. In short, the best way to into college is to be a hard-working individual with a strong personality who lives a fulfilling and engaging life. And isn't that the way it should be?

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