The college admissions scandal of the past two weeks brought into the public eye something we’ve been aware of for a long time in the niche community of college advisors: there are a lot of sketchy counselors out there. In the rat race that is elite college admissions, it’s very easy for desperate parents to be talked into taking unethical and even illegal action, sometimes without realizing it or under the false pretense that “everyone does it.”
In the past, the strongest warning we’ve given parents is that working with these advisors is unethical, could backfire, won’t help your child in the long run, and robs your child and other children of a fair shot at admissions. What the scandal has revealed is that there can be very dire consequences for these actions, including public humiliation, criminal charges, fines, and possibly prison time for the parents, and suspension, expulsion, and/or a permanent academic question mark for the children (both future employers and the children themselves may wonder if they deserved to be admitted in the first place). Top colleges are taking immediate coordinated action to make sure that this type of thing never happens again, which means that they will be increasingly vigilant when it comes to anything that smells of cheating or fraud. This is particularly true for applicants coming from East Asia, since this type of unethical counseling is most prevalent in East Asia and the ringleader behind this entire scandal worked extensively with students from China.
Additionally, the scandal has sparked a broader conversation about the ethics of college admissions, especially as it relates to the so-called “back” and “side” doors into elite colleges.
The “front door.” This is for students who get in on merit. 99% of students go through this door. When you apply to college the normal way, you’re trying to get in through the front door along with millions of other students every year. You’re judged on your merit and on what you can contribute to each campus. This is the most unequivocally ethical way to get into a school.
Then there’s the “back door.” This is for students whose parents make massive gifts to a university (usually millions of dollars or more). These are completely legal and technically “ethical,” although that ethicality has been increasingly called into question, with the spotlight being shined on it from this scandal and the Harvard affirmative action lawsuit. This back door only benefits the ultra wealthy (since only billionaires can make the kinds of major gifts that influence admissions decisions).
Lastly, there’s the “side door.” The existence of this door has been very publicly confirmed through the scandal. The side door involves bribing officials, cheating on tests, or other unethical and illegal activity. Many sketchy private counselors (and particularly in East Asia, where they go unregulated and unchecked) try to get students in through this side door. This is not the door you want to go through for the multitude of reasons stated above. So what are some of the most common “side door” strategies counselors will employ, and how can you know if a counselor is going to act unethically when hiring them?
Below are things that not only could get you fined, expelled, or criminally convicted, but things that give a bad name to all Asian students and hurt everyone’s chances.
Here are the most common side door strategies counselors will employ:
- Bribing a standardized test officer or proctor. This form of cheating is unfortunately very common and has been the cause of SAT and ACT scandals in the past, which has resulted in a huge distrust by colleges of standardized test scores from international students. This can take many different forms but these are the most common:
- Correcting your answers after you take the test
- Letting someone else take the test for you
- Giving you the answers in advance
- Writing essays for students. College essays are the one opportunity for students to express themselves and to show their writing abilities. Unethical counselors will write essays for their students, which doesn’t do students any favors. First of all, if the essay doesn’t feel authentic it can call the legitimacy of the entire application into question and get the whole thing thrown out. This has become particularly risky lately because many colleges now require recorded video interviews with international applicants. Inconsistencies between that video and a student’s essays will mean an instant rejection and will undermine the applicant’s high school’s reputation for all future applicants as well. Second, colleges expect a certain level of quality and ability from students; if you cheat on an essay, it means you’re not ready to handle college level coursework.
- Making things up on your application that aren’t true. Many students fear that they don’t have anything that makes them interesting, and bad counselors reinforce this fear. Students sometimes “steal” life experiences from friends or even books/movies to try to make themselves more interesting. Admissions officers have a sense for these and have even received the same exact life story from two students at the same high school!
- Bribing a doctor to say you have a learning disorder so you can have extended time when taking standardized tests. This is an unfortunately common practice, which people sometimes paying thousands of dollars for. As with #1, this undermines trust in the scores of all international students.
Beyond being unethical and hurting honest applicants, these actions are unnecessary. Our students never do any of these things and still have incredibly strong admission results, with 88% getting admitted into their reach colleges. If you put in the hard work, there’s no reason you can’t get in through the front door.
When you’re looking for a college counselor, look out for the following red flags, which signal that they’re willing to use side doors and jeopardize your child’s future for their own personal and monetary gain:
- Admissions guarantees. No one playing by the rules — including college presidents or athletic coaches — can guarantee college admissions. Even being a professor at a school doesn’t give you a guarantee: a USC professor whose kids were applying to USC was caught in the latest scandal. Any advisor that promises you admission into a certain school is lying and/or doing something illegal.
- Promising to write your essays for you. We already mentioned this as one way that sketchy advisors operate. Edits and feedback are okay, but anyone who says they’ll write your essays for you is breaking a cardinal rule of the college application process.
- Charging an astronomical amount. We’ve seen people charge anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million. This is absurd and a waste of money. You can get incredibly high quality coaching for $30,000 or less. Anyone who tries to convince you that paying more is somehow worth it shouldn’t be trusted.
- Pricing schemes entirely based on admissions outcomes. Some companies will charge significantly more for admission to better schools. If companies are financially motivated to get your kid into a better school, they’re more likely to take desperate (including unethical or illegal) measures to get you in. We understand the instinct to want to motivate your counselor, and an outcomes-based bonus can be okay, but be very careful about pricing schemes based entirely around outcomes.
- Getting recruitment/placement fees from universities. A lot of lower-tier universities will pay international consultants to help them get applicants. This is improper for them to do in the U.S., but somehow not illegal for them to do abroad, presumably because many schools are desperate for foreigners’ tuition dollars to keep them afloat. This presents a huge conflict of interest and it’s not something that a consultant would disclose to you, which means you may be pushed toward universities that aren’t right for you simply because the consultant will make money from it. You should ask potential consultants if they do this (not that they’ll answer honestly). If they suggest obscure, low-ranked schools that don’t seem like a strong fit for you, this may be behind it.
- Anyone who doesn’t abide by the NACAC codes of ethics. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (“NACAC”) code of ethics is the gold standard for college advising rules, and is something all consultants, whether members of NACAC or not, should abide by. If you don’t know whether an advisor follows this code, ask.
The college admissions process is scary and daunting to navigate, and you want to make absolutely sure that your navigator is trustworthy and has your best interests at heart. In light of the scandal, the stakes of choosing the wrong person should be top of mind. Colleges will be spending millions to improve their ability to catch unethical and illegal players in the space and will cooperate with authorities like law enforcement agencies to bring unethical admission consultants and their clients to justice.
Though college advising is not our primary mission, we are happy to provide it to our students and to other exceptional students who think we’d be the right counselors for them. We pride ourselves on giving every student the best shot at getting in through the front door. As one parent put it this week, “This scandal shows that people are desperate for shortcuts when there really aren’t any. You guys are offering the best long-term solution.” Learn more about our program here and more about our mission to disrupt the college admissions industry (and more) here.