Varsity Blues scandal | A closer look at the college application process

Last week, our collective jaws dropped as the latest college admissions scandal unfolded. To recap, the Department of Justice charged 50 people in a massive college admission cheating scheme that involved a college counselor, coaches at prestigious schools, parents (including some from the Bay Area), and others.

While we all love a good scandal — what will Olivia Jade do now? — we need to refocus and have real conversations about admissions. The families implicated in this scandal represent just a tiny fraction of all college applicants, but the fact remains that the college admissions process has never pretended to be fair.

Colleges are not bound to accept only the best and brightest. They’re looking to admit a “well-rounded class” that is representative of a diverse society: students with different talents, interests, backgrounds, and, yes, connections and money.

In 2014, Kaplan Test Prep surveyed admissions officials at 400 top universities and asked if the admissions process is rigged in favor of the well-connected applicant. One hundred replied to the survey and 25 percent of those said that they had felt pressure to admit students who didn’t meet their school’s acceptance criteria because of who they were connected to. “The acceptance of applicants whose qualifications may take a back seat to their connections is an open secret in the college admissions process, and our results show that it’s not uncommon,” said Seppy Basili, Kaplan vice president of college admissions and K-12 programs.

The survey also revealed that legacy applicants had a 16 percent higher acceptance rate than their peers.

Donations to universities, which are tax deductible, are another way to grease the wheels. Here’s an actual bit of marketing from an Ivy-focused college advising firm: “Donations to colleges can certainly impact admissions decisions. We’re often asked at Ivy Coach what amount of money will help your child gain admission to a highly selective college.” Yes, there is an amount, which they’ll reveal once you’re working with them.

So, what can parents do on this not-so-even playing field? Focus on what’s important: Celebrate hard work and achievement, whether it be academic diligence, athletic perseverance, or both. Understand that every kid will have their own path. Encourage those who are finding their way and support those who have struggled. Don’t push your kids into colleges that demand a work ethic your student doesn’t have. Let your student take full pride in their work and be fully invested in their path. Make sure your student strives for their own goals, not yours. Accept that your kid may have goals vastly different than those you hold for them. And finally, listen to your kids: Olivia Jade never wanted to go to college in the first place.

Ulla Smit is a Piedmont resident, parent of four PHS graduates and a college counselor.

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