Admissions

Survey Reveals Applicants' Feelings About Varsity Blues Scandal

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If you have been following the ongoing saga of the so-called "Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal, you'll know that more sentencings of charged violators will be taking place this week. The first to be sentenced was celebrity TV star Felicity Huffman, who will spend 14 days in prison beginning October 25.


As you no doubt already know, the scandal involves parents paying college officials bribes to have their children admitted to colleges, USC in particular, many times through the "side door" of sports coaches. The alleged ringleader for arranging these bribed admissions is Rick Singer, who is said to have obfuscated the bribes as donations to colleges through his foundation, which was created to facilitate the effectiveness of parental contributions.

This story has been raging in the media for many weeks and shows no sign of abating. Consequently, the effect on prospective college applicants has, in a number of cases, been to discourage them. Some applicants (and parents) have begun to see the college admissions process as innately corrupt and, according to the scandal evidence that has emerged, found themselves thinking, "How can I compete with applicants coming from families who can afford to buy their way into college?"

This is an unfortunate and perhaps irrational attitude, but one that is understandable in light of the circumstances. However, there is reason for optimism, based on a new survey that just came out yesterday. Russell Schaffer of Kaplan Test Prep wrote to me saying:

"... The fallout from Varsity Blues, the scandal that included wealthy and celebrity parents bribing college officials, coaches, and test proctors to help their kids get admitted to some of the country's most competitive colleges, is causing concern [among] students and admissions officers, according to two new Kaplan Test Prep surveys. Of the more than 300 aspiring college students polled, 57 percent say they are concerned that their spot at their top college choice might be given to a less qualified applicant because of who that applicant is connected to. And 23 percent say they personally know a college applicant who they believe was less qualified, but received preferential treatment in admissions because of family wealth or connections.

In a separate Kaplan survey of over 300 top colleges and universities across the United States — something the company has done annually for 15 years — admissions officers suggest that the corrupt practices exposed in Operation Varsity Blues are rare. Less than a quarter (24 percent) describe the illegal activities as common. Just 11 percent say they were ever pressured to accept an applicant who didn't meet their school's admissions requirement because of who that applicant was or to whom this applicant was connected. This represents a significant drop from the 25 percent who said they were pressured to do so when Kaplan first asked this question of admissions officers in 2014 ..."

That trend should be encouraging for those who are anxious about their chances for admission. Obviously, college admissions will never be 100 percent fair across the board, mainly due to the so-called "institutional priorities" that seek certain kinds of applicants to satisfy specific requirements that vary from year to year. Those requirements include diversity balances, athletic recruiting, development cases, and the always controversial legacy candidates, among other considerations.

As an overall percentage of admission decisions made every year, though, the number of Varsity Blues cases is miniscule. The intense media coverage, which could charitably be deemed a frenzy, has magnified their impact and spawned unnecessary angst.

Students Express Concern About Admissions

In the press release about this new survey, Kaplan offers an encouraging headline: College Applicants Are Concerned About Unfairness in Admissions, But Most Admissions Officers Say Widespread "Varsity Blues" Behavior is Uncommon. Here's a portion of that release:

… Said one high school student who planned to apply to only top colleges, "I know numerous people that have connections to my top school, whereas I do not. I am especially concerned because I have a greater SAT score than them, but they will have an upper hand and be admitted. I have seen it previously with friends and now I am concerned for myself." Another student showed less concern and expressed some optimism, saying, "In light of the admissions scandals, colleges will be more attentive and aware of these types of schemes. Also, considering a number of the parents who were caught and punished, I don't believe that this will be a large problem in the future."...

But despite admissions officers' sense that this is uncommon, 49 percent say the scandal may have done long term harm to the public image of the college admissions process; 37 percent don't think it has, while 14 percent aren't sure. When asked about how colleges can convince families that the admissions process is not "rigged" against them, admissions officers were largely unable to provide any specific policy prescriptions, but the theme of transparency was mentioned often. One admissions officers called the scandal a "wake-up call" for colleges to be more "ethical with all of their processes."

"Like most people, we were appalled at what was exposed as part of Operation Varsity Blues. We know firsthand from working with hundreds of thousands of students every year how much effort students put into their academics, and they should feel confident that they are being evaluated by college admissions officers based on their own merit and overall quality of their application," said Sam Pritchard, Kaplan's director of college prep programs. "While our survey finds that most students think they could be at risk of being kept out of their top college picks to the benefit of their well-connected peers, it is somewhat encouraging to know that the vast majority of colleges think these activities are uncommon and fewer report being pressured to accept unqualified applicants than in years past. Still, a lot more needs to be done to safeguard the process and restore integrity and trust. Applicants deserve better..."

That one phrase bears repeating: "... it is somewhat encouraging to know that the vast majority of colleges think these activities are uncommon and fewer report being pressured to accept unqualified applicants than in years past."

Filter out the Noise

As I mentioned above, even with the high profile of Operation Varsity Blues and the associated convictions and sentencings, there will always be some level of unfairness (some would call it "corruption") within the college admissions process. However, my advice to prospective collegians is to ignore the exaggerated media focus on the scandal.

Why do I say that? It's simple. All of this, or what remains of it, is completely beyond your control. There's nothing you can do, one way or the other, to change the course of how a college makes its admission decisions. What is completely within your control, though, is how you manage your academic, extracurricular and personal profiles. Do your best in the classroom, outside of school and in your overall life. These actions count, and in most cases they will be duly noted by the admission staffers who will read your applications and letters of recommendation.

Thus, I encourage you to concentrate on these foundational areas. The good news is that Operation Varsity Blues has aimed a bright spotlight into a formerly dark place and things are changing. For those of you who will be applying to college this fall and winter, you will be the beneficiaries of what should be one of the most objective and unbiased admission processes ever -- subject to those institutional priorities I mentioned.

The thing to do now is to get working on your application essays, if you haven't already done so, and tend the remaining details of your applications, all while you're doing your best academically and EC-wise. You'll be going through this process just once in your life at the undergraduate level so don't allow the noise of the VB scandal to interfere with your college process. Stay focused and good things will happen!