On Tuesday, nearly 50 people were charged in the largest college bribery admissions scandal ever prosecuted in this country. Parents — including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman — are accused of doing everything from bribing SAT and ACT test administrators to alter test scores to paying people to Photoshop their children’s heads onto athletes’ bodies. It apparently worked, securing their children entry into schools like Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, and the University of Southern California.
Parents — even if they aren’t former stars of a beloved ’90s sitcom or married to William H. Macy — can feel an extraordinary amount of pressure to get their children into what they believe is the best school. The wealthy, along with donating obscene amounts of money to institutions and having a leg-up with legacy admissions, also have the means to hire people to fully prepare their progeny and usher them through the process with individualized support starting early in high school.
The Cut spoke to four SAT tutors and college counselors about their experiences dealing with these college-crazed parents.
Anonymous College Counselor
I’m so not shocked by it. It’s black-and-white wrong, I don’t think it’s a gray area, but I’m not shocked. When I first started [in this field], you would never even consult an expert unless you wanted to go to an Ivy League school. Now I have so many parents who are just so overwhelmed by it, so while I definitely have some people who are very ruthless about wanting their kid in the best of the best, there are some people who are like “I just don’t want to mess this up, I have the means, so I’m just going to hire someone to think this through the process.”
The parenting around the college admissions process just brings out a bad side around a lot of people, and I think it’s complicated. There’s a lot of status wrapped up in it. I think parents feel very unsure “am I a good parent, am I not a good parent?” and, for a lot of people, saying “I sent my kid to Harvard” is a shorthand for good parenting. But I’ve been sitting in beautiful living rooms looking out on Park Avenue, where the kid is having a nervous breakdown, because there’s so much social pressure, especially in the communities I work in, the Upper East Side and Greenwich.
I have people who call me every single day, and they’re obsessed with it, and it’s unfortunate because I’m watching them suffer. But if they suggested something that’s unethical, I would just say no, don’t do something crazy. Colleges are not valuing these people as students but rather just marketing to them as pawns in their selectivity game that is creating this illusion that this is a system to hack, and you’re dumb if you play by the rules, because what are the rules? You put your name on a building and you can get in and we say that’s okay. The colleges are really greedy and that’s the truth, and everybody knows that. There should be some soul-searching in admissions offices about the culture they’re creating. They know this is not about merit, this is about the institutions themselves getting rich.
I have tons of parents that are very, very large financial supporters of these institutions, and the truth is, their kids get in. I still want them to have good applications. The first place my brain went with this scandal was this is so bad for these kids. Even if they never got caught, what are you teaching your kid here? The colleges teach you can buy your way in, so what do they expect?
Anonymous SAT Tutor
I work at an SAT tutoring company whose primary focus is to be a sort of boutique experience for parents coming in and thinking that there’s some kind of way to shortcut this whole process. Really baked in from the beginning in this environment and dynamic is the idea that there are people who have the expertise to give your child a leg up that is needed to get into college, any kind of college that you would want. And the truth is that that doesn’t really exist, we’re all overeducated, underemployed people who don’t have any certifications in this kind of thing. There are things that a person can convey to a child that will allow them to do better on the SATs, but this comes into conflict when there are parents who really believe this is a guarantee, that there is a certain amount of entitlement to some positive empirical success. Sometimes that doesn’t happen because a child doesn’t do their homework or doesn’t pay enough attention or doesn’t really have the grit to do what is necessary.
A former news anchor and her husband, they have a lacrosse bro high-school aged son. Last year, this child was having trouble in his tutoring, he wasn’t doing his homework and he took another diagnostic SAT and didn’t do very well. My boss was threatened with legal action by the parents because that wasn’t a result they were satisfied with.
My primary interaction with parents is sending monthly progress reports about their kid. I’ve been told that my reports are not full of numbers enough — a parent likes to see a 30 percent increase in deductive reasoning or whatever. It’s up to me to make the progress report dance enough for them, making sure that a pretty picture is always in front of the parents.
Anonymous College Counselor
When the news broke, it was surprising to me but it was also not surprising because there are certain parents who would do whatever it takes to get into name-brand schools. These are schools that have really low admit rates, it’s really tough to get in, and a lot of parents equate that with future success. I’ve seen a lot of parents care about it beyond that for their own reputation. It’s very clear because they talk about “good” colleges and “bad” colleges which, as college counselors, we don’t really participate in that kind of dichotomy. We’re talking about a college that’s a good fit, or a college that has a good academic environment for a student.
It’s pretty clear very early on if the parents’ goals are a little misaligned or if they’re a little misinformed because the other thing that happens is that colleges that maybe weren’t as hard to get into 20 years ago are now pretty selective. And so you’ll see a parent say “well, that school’s not very good, because when I was applying, they had a 60 percent admit rate.” From my perspective, yesterday’s news made it even more clear that the college admissions landscape has created an arms race. There are students who have to get better and better scores, and better and better grades, and do more interesting things, and even if you do all of those things, you might not get into your top choice. And if parents know about all that, and they’re wealthy, they want to find a patch for that. Like, “what can I do? How much do I have do pay?”
I’ve had parents and students who argue about what they should write for an essay topic. I think a lot of parents struggle with not having a lot of control over this process. I’ve read an essay where I’ve said for instance, “did you write this?” to the student. And they said “yeah … yeah … I did.” And I said, “did you … get some help from your mom on this essay?” And they’ll say “yeah, I mean, yeah, she looked it over.” But it’s very clear to me based on the student’s previous writing that they did not write it and it’s coming from the parent.
Parents are just trying to help, but they hold their hand and when the student gets to a real problem in college, they don’t really know how to handle it. I had a meeting once with a parent, and I said “I’m going to need this student to write their own essay from now on.” The parent got extremely offended and was very upset with me for even suggesting she had done that, but it was very clear to me that that was going on.
Amy Goodman, College Admissions Counselor at IvyWise
I think for parents a big issue for them is not just the American dream to go to college, but the “right” college is the American dream. They focus primarily on that “right” college, which causes a lot of anxiety on their student or teenager. A lot of those times, those “right” colleges are not realistic expectations. Parents are disappointed when they hear the realities and can’t grasp that they, at this stage in their life — especially a lot of them that have wealth and power — cannot provide that status for their child. As a result, sometimes parents take charge of the process and that’s when I see the most troubling situations, when they don’t let the students lead.
I’ve been in the admissions world for 24 years. The pressure is different now — with social media, parents can compare where their friends kids get in, versus where their child’s getting in. Someone just gave me this fantastic quote, which is: “comparison is the thief of joy.” I think that is a huge component of the pressure the students feel and the pressure the parents feel to get into the “right” dream college, rather than looking for the different fits that are out there.
I did have a parent very upset because their child did not get a perfect score on the SATs. Instead of getting a 1600, they got a 1590, and questioned whether or not they should retake the exam. And of course at IvyWise we said no, this is unnecessary. I once called one of my colleagues who works at an Ivy League school telling them that story — no names were shared in this exchange — and they said if they sat for that test again, they would question that student’s character. So I relayed that comment back to the person and she wanted me to promise that it was from an Ivy League admissions counselor. Even though I’m the expert, I’m still being questioned — and then I called the expert who reads the application, and yet I was questioned again by a parent saying “are you 100 percent sure this is an Ivy League admissions counselor?” They did not take the SAT again, per our suggestion. She did get into an Ivy League school without the perfect score.