The recent national college admissions scandal has placed intense scrutiny on college admissions consultants and families that come from “privileged” backgrounds. As an independent educational consultant, parent, and first-generation college student from a low-income background, I’ve had the opportunity to gain perspectives from different angles.
Thought #1: William Singer was a Bernie Madoff, not an educational consultant
The “college consultant” in question was no more an educational consultant than Bernie Madoff was a financial advisor. They are both scam artists who preyed on others’ aspirations and desperation. What’s worse is we are still reading about “educational consultants” who are being questioned as experts in the media when their own practices are bordering on unethical with their students.
Ethical educational consultants guide students to figure out if college is right for them, help them identify and demonstrate their best qualities, and match them with schools that are not only a fit for them academically and personally, but also financially. Let’s not crucify the work that is really being done, because of some really shameful individuals.
Thought #2: College Donations are a Necessary Evil for Better or Worse
One of my clients told me, “My first college consultant encouraged my parents to make a donation to the school to help me get in. My parents and I were totally against this and refused to do it. I wanted to get in on my own.”
Conversations like this rock my world, because it's hard to believe that someone else in my industry would recommend something like that. But the truth is, it's not illegal--just borderline unethical.
On the flip side, I have learned through my work that students who donate or identify as “full-pay” on their applications do have a slight edge. Colleges need a “full-pay” student to balance out a “scholarship” student. College admissions aren’t proud of this and often remind educational consultants to encourage our “need” students to apply early to not only increase their chance of receiving money but also for admissions. At the same time, I will admit, my “privileged” clients do leverage this by identifying themselves as “not applying for financial aid” to increase their chances of being accepted.
This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but as the first student in my family to go to college, whose parents were a cook and nanny, I wouldn’t have been able to go to college in the first place without other people’s generous donations. Donations to the college or university are necessary--just not to someone’s individual pocket, as in the case of the college admissions scandal.
Donations are crucial because as much as I feel like the middle class gets the short end of the stick in all of this, students that come from low-income, less-educated backgrounds see the most benefit from attending elite colleges and universities. Having experienced it first-hand and personally met my donors, I know I would not have had the opportunities I had inside and outside of the classroom had I not attended an elite university, such as interning with a Fortune 100 company or studying abroad.
Thought #3: Colleges are Not As Unethical as the Scandal is Making them out to be
Having worked both in an athletic office and having helped student athletes apply for elite colleges and universities, I can tell you that what is being publicized does not happen at most schools. While working with a student who was being recruited for an athletic team at a top 10 university, I appreciated how the coach would say that “the review went smoothly with admissions” or how it was “likely” they would be admitted, but that it was never guaranteed, because the truth is, the decision isn’t up to the coach. It’s up to admissions.
From placing prospective students whose questionnaires indicated that their scores did not meet the threshold in a no-follow-up pile to hearing my classmate’s story of receiving a call from the admissions office about how they wouldn’t be able to accept his younger sibling despite his generous donations, I’ve personally witnessed universities stand their ground when it comes to academic expectations in the admissions process.
Thought #4: There’s Still an Army of Us Fighting the Good Fight in College Admissions
While it is not being publicized in the media right now, college admissions, high school counselors, and independent educational consultants are trying to work together to fight the good fight of increasing access and opportunities for students. When I visited Yale last summer, they talked about the students who came from the rural mid-west who were the first in their family of farmers to attend college. Many elite colleges shared how 25% of the students accepted were first-generation students.
While there is a small percentage of independent educational consultants who charge an obscene amount of money for their services, the majority of us charge a fraction of what is being publicized and also take on pro-bono clients, because we also want to level the playing field for those who are most disadvantaged.
Truth is, admissions may never be “fair.” However, there is a great deal of work being done to try to level the playing field...and sometimes it requires actions that can be seen as “unfair.” What we can do as parents though is help empower our teens throughout the process and help give them the best chance they can at a system whose improvements are still in progress.
Anna Ren is an independent college admissions consultant and the founder of Elite Advantage Prep. She is also co-host of the top 10 iTunes podcast on college admissions, College Admissions with Mark and Anna.
Wow! I bet you never thought you'd see this title for an article from a college admissions consultant.
I recently read an article about pushback to adding a Health course for a high school that some of my students attend. As a mom and IEC, I like to think that I get an insider perspective about the pros and cons of different competitive high schools in the area. I thought I had found a "perfect" one for my own kids one day based on the students I worked with from there. My students worked hard, but were genuinely grounded, thoughtful, and well-adjusted happy kids. Teachers were motivational and unique in the way they helped their students to delve further into topics of interest while offering consistent feedback along the way.
Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I read about the influx in suicide interventions both at the high school and middle school level for that district. I was saddened to say the least as parents pushed back that adding a health class to better teach students about the importance of not only physical but emotional and mental health would actually make the problem worse as it took away time that students could use for study hall to spend on homework or other items to catch up on.
So here's what I hate about the college admissions process-when parents and students can't recognize when enough is enough. I once asked a student what he changed to improve his grades from A's and B's to straight A's after his freshman year of high school.
"I just realized that if I give up sleep, then I can get everything done and get straight A's."
As a college admissions consultant, I am put in a difficult position as I try to counsel that while I respect his dedication and work, that sleep is an important component to helping our brains run efficiently.
The truth is, your child doesn't need to do everything their peers are doing to get into college. For some of my students, accelerated classes come easy to them and they can score A's in the class with minimal effort while their peers need to spend 2 to 3 hours a night on that course to get a B. By all means, a B is a great grade, but this behavior comes at a cost.
A student who used to spend their time pondering deep problems of the world and invest time in their intellectual interests is now is forced to operate like a robot to "compete" with their peers. While grades and scores are important, they are just the qualifier - they don't actually get the student accepted into college - especially at competitive elite universities.
So, whenever my student ask me about whether or not they should add something to their plate, we have a discussion to weigh the pros and cons and at what cost. This ranges from class selection to extracurricular activities. Sometimes there are better options out there and sometimes its okay to walk away.
We can stop the madness together. Let's help students make choices that are right for them. For many schools these days, college admissions is a holistic process. Let's help them shine within boundaries they feel comfortable stretching in.
After coming back from a very insightful IECA Conference in Los Angeles where I had the opportunity to speak and learn from college admissions representatives, one trait that they mentioned repeatedly was resilience.
Reading any article these days will tell you that stress, depression, anxiety, and suicide are at an all-time high at colleges across the country. Therefore, it is more important than ever to let students know that its okay to try new things, take on new challenges, struggle, but then figure out how to rise above.
Challenges can arise from taking on harder academic classes, but it can also just be setback they face personally. I've had students whose grades may have suffered due to being bullied at school or perhaps experiencing the loss of a loved one, but the key was they all came through the experience stronger. They learned to communicate the challenges they were having with their teachers and parents. They learned to ask for help and resources to help them overcome.
Tough situations teach us so much about a student's character. Are they humble enough to ask for help? And can they do it on their own instead of having their parents step in? Are they persistent enough to work through the problem? What attitude do they approach these difficult situations with? How creative and resourceful do they get with the solution?
Whether it is reflected in their letters of recommendation or additional information essay, it's a great opportunity to touch on an area that college admissions really cares about. After all, they are trying to create the best community they can and that means bringing on students that are not afraid to ask for help when they are struggling and it is common to struggle that first semester as students adapt to college life and being away from home.
While resilience is a key factor that is important for college admissions, I think it is a critical life skill for anyone. So, as they say, falling isn't bad as long as you pick yourself up.