WE LIVE IN A TOWN OF OVERACHIEVERS, and many of them don’t even have a driver’s license yet. But now that the college application season is well underway, where do parents draw the line between being supporters and saboteurs? The ripple effect of Operation Varsity Blues runs deep: How did we get here? Who’s pulling the strings? And when the stakes are so high, with so few spots in the “admit” pile, how do we remember what really matters?
It played out like a Greek tragedy: The scrappy, sexy moguls who never went to college but hit it big, who doctored their daughters’ applications in an effort to best their own lackluster educations with designer diplomas, wind up ruining their children’s lives (and Sephora careers!) and bringing down their own empire. We’ve all read the stories of high-profile parents like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who were willing to break the law to engineer their already privileged kids into elite schools. It’s an admissions scandal scarlet letter A they will wear their entire lives, and for many of the children involved, whether complicit or not, a shadowy source of shame.
It’s easy to gawk at those who have fallen from grace in an attempt to game the system, bug-eyed at their blatantly unethical behavior. What’s harder is wrapping our heads around the bigger picture: How these Page Six pariahs are symptomatic of a subtler, more fundamental and universal pressure to which millions of well-meaning parents are prone.
It looks something like this: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Opportunities. “We’ve actually had an uptick in calls since Operation Varsity Blues,” says Anne-Marie Hesser, a college consultant with Greenwich Education Group (GEG). “A lot of people out there didn’t even know that college consulting services existed. To be clear, unlike the unaccredited ringleader at the nexus of the scandal, our consultants have professional credentials, such as the IECA [Independent Educational Consultants Association], and our students get in through the front door.”
The demand for high quality college counseling services like GEG is stronger than ever in affluent communities such as ours, particularly among families of students who attend large public high schools where advisors’ caseloads are too heavy to offer individualized attention. “College is a massive financial investment, so you can’t just go on gut,” says Hesser. “It has to be a more thorough, data-driven process. Helping parents and students get honest with themselves about identifying strengths and weaknesses is part of that process, because you don’t want to set a kid up for failure in college.”
Some parents aren’t getting the memo. GEG recently fielded a call from a father who crassly asked them to “make calls” on behalf of his child; he was promptly turned away. Inappropriate asks like this one often stem from an entitled “shortcut me” mentality, an obsession with keeping up with the Joneses and a narcissistic need for validation via their child’s name-brand accomplishments.
“It’s the parents who often have a harder time stomaching the news that their child may be eighth or ninth on the list of fifteen applicants from their class who are applying to the same first-choice school,” says one tristate area admissions advisor at a top prep school, who prefers not to be named. He remembers getting reamed out by an Ivy League dad who blew up when his kid didn’t make the cut at his alma mater, despite the fact that the advisor discouraged the son from applying for early decision after factoring his chances of getting in.
“There’s a transactional element among parents who have put their children in elite schools for X amount of years and come sophomore year, they’re thinking, Okay, what are we going to get out of this?” says the advisor, who was pressured (unsuccessfully) by the same dad to call a handful of other college admissions offices to promise each was his son’s first choice, so he’d get bumped off the wait list at one of them.
Unfortunately, these stories are as ubiquitous as pizza in a freshman dorm. That’s precisely why colleges are banning the concept of an advocate in the admissions process. It has become a pushy parent’s last attempt at leverage, and it goes something like this: I’d like you to advocate for my son at X and Y and Z school, because we’re disappointed he didn’t get into A or B, school and we’ve earned the right, through our tuition dollars, for you to fix the problem. “Not only does it lower the credibility of the college counselor with universities by asking him or her to lobby multiple schools simultaneously,” says the advisor, “it becomes more about the parent than the student’s own initiative.”
For those parents who think they haven’t gone off the rails (yet), be warned. A well-meaning, “Why aren’t you looking at Duke?” from Mom or Dad can set off an avalanche of stress in a teen who already feels little agency in an already daunting admissions process. Even those innocent visits to your alma mater for football games, complete with branded swag and chanting pride, can turn into an unspoken, follow-in-my-footsteps indoctrination. One mother of a sophomore called up GEG, eager to jumpstart the college advising process a year early. “She kept saying, ‘When I apply him to college…’ This is when you know it’s trouble, when they refer to the process in the royal ‘we,’” says Hesser. “I get it. When you’re writing the check you should have a say in this, but this has to be their choice because if it’s not their choice, painfully, it will be their failure.”
“I challenge parents to take their own wants out of the equation,” says Andy Ramirez, director of college counseling at the Greenwich Country Day School, who has formerly served as director of college counseling at the Dalton School, associate director of college counseling at Princeton Day School, assistant dean of admissions at Princeton University and associate dean of admissions at Bowdoin College. Ramirez requires all of his student advisees to fill out a questionnaire at the start of their junior year. Once teens put pen to paper, he often finds that their ideas drastically diverge from their parents’. It also gives them an opportunity to be challenged beyond where they think they “must” go and consider where else they may be just as happy.
“If you tell me you want Columbia because you want to be in a big city and attend a mid-size school with a strong research department, I’ll challenge you to consider a handful of other excellent institutions that fit the same criteria,” Ramirez says. “If Columbia is still at the top of your list at the end, go for it, but you’ll be armed with a list of places that may be just as good a fit but more realistic.”
Given the fact that seemingly every year, colleges break record application numbers while average class sizes haven’t budged over the last three decades (with the exception of Yale, which has been increasing its class size by 15 percent over the past three years), casting a wider net is the norm. “Where students may have applied to three or four colleges in the past, they sometimes are putting seventeen, eighteen on their list,” says Ramirez. The problem is that all too often, students believe that there are only twenty-five schools that matter, which can have poor outcomes.
“I see many kids who are dead set on swinging for the fences, many times against what the college counselors suggest,” says Ramirez. More often than not, those students wind up in the deferred pile. Those who do make the cut may even find themselves struggling with a fit that doesn’t, well, fit. “Not everyone is cut out for the hyper-competitive academic environment of, say, Princeton,” says Ramirez. “When I worked there, we would tell students during admissions talks that we understand if the school isn’t right for them.”
Sure, with a dauntingly low admission rate, a school like Princeton can afford to turn away highly qualified kids in droves, but the takeaway is that there isn’t one be-all, end-all school. Ramirez says it over and over because he sees it over and over: There is not one path to greatness, and it doesn’t boil down to the bumper sticker on your car. “I will tell you that a kid who positively engages with his or her environment at a less selective school, who becomes the darling of his or her department, who is thriving and making connections on campus, is going to get into the competitive law school, the business school over the kid at an ultra-selective school who just cruised through and didn’t take advantage of his or her opportunities.”
FISHING FOR HOOKS
In our social media-saturated society, teens subconsciously know that self-packaging can lead to success. By extension, to get “likes” from an admissions committee, they better outshine their peers. “The kids, instead of approaching this as, ‘I am going to represent myself and hope that the college sees some worth and value in me,’ it’s ‘Let me represent myself in a way that’s going to give me some sort of leg up on others,’” says Bobby Walker Jr., CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich. That’s what he sees as the crux of the problem, which isn’t unlike the darker side of, say, Instagram. “You’re more worried about what other people are doing as opposed to simply presenting yourself.”
Walker remembers a conversation he had with one of his teen members two years ago. “She’s a good student, she’s not going to be top in her class in anything, but she’s a really good student who’s worked hard. She approached this whole college process and said, ‘You know, Bobby, I have no hooks.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘We all know that the college process is about who you know. All we ever talk about is this person has a family member who went here or their father works with this person who went there.’ She knew those weren’t guarantees. But she knew they were introductions. And so she asked me, this girl is seventeen, and she asks me, ‘So Bobby, what’s my hook? What’s gonna get me in? I grew up in Armstrong Court.’”
Walker goes on to say, “This young lady is thriving right now at the University of New Haven, loving it. But look at how she approached the whole process, feeling as if there was a system that already wasn’t necessarily going to benefit her in the end and that she would 100 percent have to stand completely on her own as a first-gen, low-income girl who is going to have to fight the system by herself. She felt a lot of her classmates already had people down in the trenches for them, or at least knew how to navigate this complicated world of college admissions, and what are the gains?”
Quite understandably, this paradigm can create a chip-on-my-shoulder resentment for kids weighing who has more of an advantage. Skewed perceptions create a hall of mirrors of finger pointing. “The poor kids think the rich kids have an advantage, the rich kids think the uber rich have more of one, and the rich kids feel the affirmative action kids have one over them, too,” says Walker. A hierarchy has even emerged regarding what hooks are most and least tolerable. According to the tristate advisor, people are most likely to accept bias toward recruited athletes, legacies and development (aka Daddy donated a building) acceptances, the underlying factor being that the public processes it as University Agenda.
“The times that I see the most aggression is the complaint from the parents of the white male who can’t get into his top choices, that women or people of color are taking the spot he deserved,” the advisor says. “I worry about the message some parents are sending to their kids when they voice these beliefs. Their words are going to stick with their kids and may unfortunately shape who they become, long after college.”
Another piece of the parent-child problem is a generational disconnect: Admissions isn’t the same ball game for Millennials and Gen Z-ers as it was for their well-rounded Gen X parents, who may have sailed into top-tier schools back in the ’90s but would sink in today’s more competitive pool. For starters, being a Renaissance man or woman means little in the admissions world at the most selective colleges, unless you’ve spent the last four years crushing it as a classics virtuoso. The point? Pointy is in. It’s a term used to express students who deep dive into an area of interest that is so laser-focused, it vaults them above the rest, as opposed to simply being the proverbial well-rounded applicant who’s “pretty good” at a lot of things.
What if you’re a student who hasn’t found your passion yet? Hurry up, because everyone else is passionately pursuing theirs until 10 p.m. each night—and that’s before tackling those AP classes. It’s this kind of pressure that is causing students to take gap years in record numbers—and we’re not talking about bro trips to Australia. “These are therapeutic gap years,” says Ramirez. “I’ve spent many hours with colleagues who are college counselors, and we are all seeing the same thing. These kids felt such pressure just to get into these prestigious schools, and are reluctant to quickly jump back into pressure mode again, when the stakes are even higher.” Then there are the kids who matriculate right away, but crash and burn. Says a sophomore at Harvard who asked to remain anonymous, “I remember a guy in my dorm, a football player, he flew home first semester freshman year and never came back. A lot of people on campus have trouble coping with the pressure.”
How can students safeguard themselves from self-combustion during and after the admissions process? “I think it’s sitting down and doing a meaningful cost-benefit analysis of how you’re spending your time and making sure you’ve got the things that bring you enjoyment, and then figuring out the things that are going to benefit you the most academically in terms of what you would like to study moving forward,” says Hesser. “Ninety percent of the kids who come in here say they want to study business. When we dig deeper, many say they hate math but ‘want to make a lot of money.’ I think for them it’s just a reality that they know when they get out of college they need to get a job. Especially in the Fairfield County area, where 99 percent of the grown-ups work in finance.”
Hesser helps families by saying when necessary, “Listen, this is not a natural strength, not to say it couldn’t become a strength, but you need to be at a college where you’re going to have options if the business piece doesn’t work out.” And while most Millennials are beginning to grasp the fact that statistically, they may not be as well off as their parents, they still want to rise to the top, says Hesser. “We’ve been seeing
a trend of students seeking out schools with strong internship and co-op programs during the school year, like American and North-eastern. But every student’s needs are different.” Some want access to fencing facilities; others are looking for robust learning support programs. Students who have gone to large and impersonal high schools may thrive in a warm and fuzzy rural environment, and vice-versa.
Bottom line: The way parents can prep their teens for four happy, productive years is by preaching less and listening more. Ramirez urges parents to “use the college application process as an opportunity to get to know your children more deeply. Go on road trips with them, see what’s driving them, what’s standing out, what isn’t. Sit back and let your kids react to their college visits.” Colleges are providing more information than ever about their offerings through virtual tours, departmental tours and overnights called yield programs for accepted students, so each student can really engage with the campus.
“Kids are extremely intuitive and they’re going to make the right decision, if parents can get out of the way,” says Ramirez. “I always remind students that they have a lot more power than they think they do, so let’s exercise that.”
SATS, ACTS, OMG
Whether or not the SAT or ACT should carry such disproportionate weight on applications in our post-scandal world is up for debate. The reality is, standardized tests still count, and according to college advisors, colleges often see (and expect) higher scores coming out of communities like ours, where test prep is readily available.
Many college counselors suggest getting your feet wet with a practice test the summer after sophomore year, rather than waiting for junior year when stress levels are higher and workloads are heavier. For students who struggle with standardized tests, the good news is that more competitive schools are becoming test-optional, from the University of Chicago to Wesleyan, joining Bowdoin, Connecticut College, Wake Forest and others. Rumor has it the entire University of California system may go test-optional. For a list of all of the test-optional schools to date, go to fairtest.org.
Early Decision 2
Think of it as a hybrid of a first-choice and a safety. ED2 has the same binding commitment as Early Decision 1, but with a January application deadline and a February decision. If you get deferred or rejected from your ED 1 school, applying to another college ED 2 can boost your odds of admission. Here are schools currently offering ED 2.
Bryn Mawr College
Case Western Reserve
Claremont McKenna Colleges
College of the Atlantic
College of Wooster
Franklin & Marshall College
Harvey Mudd College
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Mount Holyoke College
New York University
Saint Olaf College
Sarah Lawrence College
University of Chicago
University of Miami
University of Richmond
Wake Forest University
Washington and Lee University