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First of all - wow, what a talented writer. No wonder her clients have done so well.

Forgery of college admissions essays is rampant not just in China but also in the US (and I suspect in many other places), but actually the problem is really much worse than that. With the boom of the "college consultants" industry, professionals are essentially "forging" entire high school careers on behalf of their clients - telling them what classes to take, which clubs to join, where and how many hours they should volunteer, etc. The end result is that these clients look like amazingly productive students with a superhuman sense of self-initiative, whereas in reality these kids simply followed a script written by some adult their parents paid large sums of money for.




I was paid $50/hour for quite some time to do "marketing consulting" for a company started by a douchebag studying at Harvard. It was vaguely interesting work, and I over delivered on every expectation, but grew tired of his increasingly demanding explanations (pages long at times) of why I did what I did and who the market was. Those two questions were asked of me obsessively.

Eventually, after I told him I was sick of doing write ups that were completely unnecessary, he admitted he was taking a marketing class at Harvard. I was unknowingly doing all of his exercises, and he would turn my write ups in to the Professor. Apparently he got an A.


In a similar vein, one of my bosses at a major investment bank would gleefully tell interns about how, in undergrad, while working part-time for a Congressman, he would call up the Congressional Research Service and commission reports that he would later doctor up and hand in as term papers


Weren't you tempted to inform the professor?


I assume he was getting his degree in "management".


Please tell me you reported him to the professor?


What? That's a crazy story.


> With the boom of the "college consultants" industry, professionals are essentially "forging" entire high school careers on behalf of their clients - telling them what classes to take, which clubs to join, where and how many hours they should volunteer, etc.

I don't really get this perspective. If colleges are going to base admissions on amorphous things like what clubs someone joined, or what organizations they volunteered for, why shouldn't a student hire a consultant to navigate those waters? Is the student who hires a consultant to tell them what classes to take, or what clubs to join, or what organizations to volunteer for, and then follows through with those, less deserving of a spot than someone that happens to randomly fall upon the right combination of activities? Or, more to the point, has an uncle who went to an Ivy-league school that can give them the same advice?

If anything, admissions consultants level the playing field. Who else is going to tell a bright midwestern student that Ivy-league schools don't respect locally popular clubs like Future Farmers of America? Who else is going to tell a bright lower-income student that they should spend their summers "volunteering" in Africa instead of working all summer to make some spending money? The families with Ivy-league alums already know what boxes to check.


Idealistically, these aren't things that you're "supposed" to do. You're not supposed to live your life to get into good schools. Admissions counselors will tell you this explicitly. They want you to what you would normally do, and if you happen to be exceptional, they'll pick you. You should also never assume that you or your child actually has any business being academically exceptional. That's just statistical fact.

You're not supposed to prep for standardized tests, either. They're trying to function like IQ tests - a measure of who you are and your education as a whole, not how you studied. ACT and College Board have a wealth of data available, and have concluded that engaging in prep activities between sittings moves your score by at most a few points.

Of course, once it's a social expectation that children of elite parents will go to elite schools, they're willing to throw money at gaming the system. Though a natural consequence of the free market, it still feels distasteful.

Providing these sorts of services freely or cheaply as a charitable organization trying to help rural kids/new immigrant families get on their feet is one thing; charging many hundreds of dollars per hour to a clientele of investment bankers who need to impress their colleagues with their children's admissions is different.


That is absurd on at least two levels. First of all, I really do not get "you are not supposed to prep for standardized tests" attitude. You prepare for graded exams in school, if you prepare for them you get better grades. But, for some weird reason, I should not prepare for ACT, although that one is much more important for future? If I will train writing essays within 20 minutes I will get better score then if I do not. Why is a student that does not care about it in advance behaving "as supposed to" then the one who cares?

Is there any other culture in the world where you are "not supposed to" study for an important exam?

The clubs thing is ridiculous too. If my "natural" selection of clubs makes my admission to good school less likely, it is my natural response to adjust clubs selection. The ridiculous thing is basing admissions on fluff like that.


A school that explicitly stated they only want the kids of the upper classes could just say they want rich white kids, but they'd be savaged in the media for admitting the truth.

So instead there's tons of handwaving about how the most important predictor of success in life and in education is experience in the sailing club and the polo club and the chess club. Not because its true, but because mostly rich white kids are in those clubs so if you select those groups you'll get the "right" people wrt race and income.

The problem is someone fakes their social life and interests to get into school, if they make it they're going to be surrounded by a weird mix of genuine upper class kids who really did grow up enjoying sailing and playing polo, and a subgroup (perhaps too small to be self sustaining and supportive) of poseurs who don't care about that stuff other than a means to an end.

There is an analogy in software hiring practices. Obviously everyone knows from studies that higher IQ people are more successful. But implementing IQ tests is a legal minefield. Smart people can learn algos. So google does or used to torture applicants with algo questions. They're not looking for people who know all about red black trees or implying that all jobs there use algos, but are selecting people who passed the "IQ test that isn't an illegal IQ test" filter. "cargo cult" copycat companies who do almost the same but miss the intelligence test part, perhaps by asking brainteasers or similar tasks that don't require intelligence, are comical.

The moral of the story, is if you want to do something wrong or immoral or highly politically incorrect, you can get about the same outcome by playing games with overlapping venn diagrams and pretend that a right, moral, popular activity with a large overlap is what you "really" want. A large part of adult/older human cultural interaction is understanding when someone's talking exoterically or esoterically in order to respond correctly.


It's hard to see how this levels the playing field in practice. The "bright lower-income students" you mention don't have access to these expensive services.


These admissions consultants are a lot more attainable than the Ivy-league family members that would be able to give the same guidance.


The real problem is that they don't know the game, which is most of the battle.


Not necessarily true. I personally know 2 Ivy League grads from low income families who, through a combination of luck and high standardized test scores, lucked into a position of getting this kind of counseling. Lots of consultants do some amount of pro bono. Most poor kids wouldn't know to ask, though.


I would imagine it's a heck of a lot cheaper to hire a consultant than it is to live in an area with public schools that will "naturally" provide the opportunities required for a bright student to get into a great school.


Is the student who hires a consultant to tell them what classes to take, or what clubs to join, or what organizations to volunteer for, and then follows through with those, less deserving of a spot than someone that happens to randomly fall upon the right combination of activities?

Yes, I think that's the general idea. Ideally the criteria are kept secret of course. It's the same as picking employees who do open source or learnt Haskell in their spare time. You want people who independently make certain choices for reasons unrelated to getting a college place or a job, but the signal is much less useful when everyone knows that you are looking for it.


I think that's stupid, and gives an unfair advantage to people from more educated and/or connected backgrounds. Instead of blaming admissions consultants, I'd blame the colleges using these bullshit proxy metrics.


But that's really the case either way, it's possible that having known metrics gives an even greater advantage to those who are economically well off as violin tuition gets more expensive due to rising demand.

The most equitable solution would be to base admissions purely on grades but that isn't possible when you have grade inflation, because more people get straight As than there are places at top universities.


It's more than just grade inflation -- in high schools across the united states the quality of courses vary so much as to be incomparable. Suppose you and I are both taking the most advanced English classes our schools offer. If I get an A and you get a B, but you're in a high school with just 300 people in it and I'm in a high school with 3000 people, I have no idea which grade 'means' more.


Theoretically, those grades should "mean" the same, because they should be measures on an absolute scale. What matters ins the quality of the school, which is not directly tied to the number of students at it.


Agreed that the quality of the school is really the fundamental determiner of grades. In the original comment I considered adding in a suggestion that a larger school could support more levels of classes, but it felt clunky so I just left it out. Of course, schools can be good and bad for many reasons orthogonal to their size. A small school might be a magnet school drawing the top students of a larger area. Or it might be a rural area which has a hard time recruiting teachers.


That, and because public school populations aren't nearly homogenous enough. See Canadian schools and UT for examples of grades not doing a good job keeping incoming student quality uniform (and necessitating remedial programs, which have their own issues).


"I'd blame the colleges using these bullshit proxy metrics."

And your alternative to this is? They're metrics for assessing candidates for a reason, you know. Sure, once they start getting gamed, they're no longer accurate, but that's a different discussion.


The metrics are bad even before the gaming. Take volunteer work, for example. In theory, they're selecting for people who show a concern for others. In reality, they emphasize organized, secular volunteer work. So they give points for the sort of stupid, futile service projects upper middle class kids do for photo-ops in Africa, but not points for taking care of aging family members, community involvement through the church, etc.

Moreover, they create a huge bias in favor of kids who can afford to spend their free time doing unpaid work, and against kids that need to work to earn a little extra spending money, or kids that need to help with the family business. We're not even talking about "poor" people here. The people hardest-hit by these policies are first-generation middle class people, who don't stand out with a sob story about how they grew up in poverty, but aren't in a position where they can do volunteer work and also have their parents buy them a car. Emphasizing these factors also creates a bias against immigrants. A lot of first-generation Americans just don't feel comfortable engaging in the community in that way.


I'd say it's part of the same discussion if colleges continue to use metrics after they have been gamed of predictive value and now measure something else.


Blame is not exclusive. In a chain of idiocy, you can point fingers at every idiot.

Hate the player and the game. Without players, there is no game.


I find these admissions games silly too but what process could you use that is ungameable and can filter or rank candidates?


Standardised tests administered in exam conditions.

Admittedly it's not a perfect system, but if the existing system is admission essays written by ghostwriters, I'd say it'd be an improvement.


Most kids still think the SATs are an IQ test. Rich kids know how much you need to prepare and often start years in advance.


Exactly but I see nothing wrong with this.

If universities are willing to accept students not based on merit but on a touching story, then they had it coming.

People who admit one to these universities in general are not alumni of that school, did not go through the same experience and are not experts in the subject one wants to study. It is ludicrous to expect them to differentiate good candidates from bad ones.

Also general criticism to above seems to be that it is not feasible to deal with all the applicants. That claim is bogus since Oxford and Cambridge professors are conducting multiple technical interviews with each candidate for centuries for both domestic and international students.

EDIT: Loving down voting without explanation for a reasonable opinion on the subject.


Oxford and Cambridge professors are conducting multiple technical interviews with each candidate for centuries for both domestic and international students.

And today C and O admit based on comprehensive objective tests just like almost all of the world's elite universities outside the USA.

US universities could avail themselves of that system, if their priority were academic quality or equality and fairness.


> And today C and O admit based on comprehensive objective tests just like almost all of the world's elite universities outside the USA.

Huh? Qualified students are invited for a subjective interview, and then based on the results of this about half of them are given offers.


The subjective interview is academic, not a tally of your social contacts and social class. Then the "offer" is conditional on your performance on comprehensive objective subject examinations. It would be vanishingly rare not to get an offer for A * A * A * A if one were capable of scoring that well and few offers that I've heard of are for less than AAA.

The US elite university admission system is mostly based on sports performance, personal relationships ('recommendations'), racial balance, obsequious classroom obedience ('grades'), pedigree (more of your school district than of your family, but both count), popularity in desirable cliques ('leadership'), and avoiding working class activities (farming and trade oriented clubs are very bad for your chances). Uniform national tests barely count at all at any stage.


> The subjective interview is academic, not a tally of your social contacts and social class.

Maybe, but I'm not sure how you can be so sure. It's an in-person conversation; class is very much apparent.

> It would be vanishingly rare not to get an offer for A * A * A * A if one were capable of scoring that well and few offers that I've heard of are for less than AAA.

When I went it was before A* was introduced, and the standard offer was AAB. But only about half of applicants got the offer; it was not "vanishingly rare" but quite common for someone to be rejected by Cambridge but go on to achieve AAA in the exams.


And there is a cottage industry in helping students perform well in those interviews its why public schools who know how the game is played do so well in getting their students into Oxbridge.

I know that even back in the 70's our head of 6th form at a comprehensive helped the brighter students cram for Oxbridge - that was when you had to have a Latin O level to get in.


That's cool. I wish I had a headmaster who can prepare me for an interview in which I ended up discussing project euler questions, prolog, how jpeg works and how the way humans sort relate to how computers sort.

In maths interview, they give you an open question of some sort and want you to have a go at it. It's generally trivial and obscure so you cannot know the answer. How do you prepare for that?

It might work in history but simply not in STEM subjects.


Err its more the soft aspects and confidence and knowing the unwritten rules they are coaching - you no longer need basic Latin to go to Oxford or Cambridge.


Exactly but I see nothing wrong with this.

I'm sure those other applicants who were turned down in favor of these are fine with it as well


u must be a communist, right?


I'm not sure if you're joking or not but in case you're not this mindset is exactly what happened under communist regimes where children of the inner "party members" were given every advantage possible over their "prol" counterparts. But no, destroying an ecosystem you depend on in the long term and subsequently your future with it because some cynical foreign money-bags type holds out a few extra dollars they no doubt obtained through lucrative government connections is a great example of ... what is it you would call the counter-example of what you think the above poster is? A capitalist?


At a great risk of going back into the lands of negative rep, let me a) warmly welcome you here, and b) admit that I was, indeed, joking and quite sympathetic to the poster above me; cheers from Soviet Russia ;)


Yes, I am a communist for thinking that complete dishonesty in an admissions essay of all things is pitiful and wrong. Same goes towards those who had theirs heavily edited by family members/friends/consultants etc..


We have an extreme case of the merit system here in India. Students who are trying to get into the IITs are judged solely on a composite score of their IIT entrance test results + school final exam results.

There are many 'coaching centres' all over the place that aim to teach students how to crack the entrance test. Students pretty much spend 3 hrs/day at these coaching centres, and more during the weekends. When I was in school, you had to pass an entrance test just to get into these coaching centres. Now, they even target younger kids from 8th grade onwards.

Unfortunately, all of this just distorts meritocracy in a different way. Obviously, these coaching centres are very expensive, and their students come from families that can afford it. These students get upto 4 years of coaching to teach them to pass the entrance tests. A poor, but intelligent student (who probably attends a sub-par school) does not have access to facilities like this and is at a disadvantage compared to his/her less intelligent peers.


Whatever we do, the elite of a generation from now will consist largely of the children of the current elite. The path to the good life is challenging because there is a lot of competition, good advice and careful preparation help a lot in getting there, and the people in the best position to provide that advice and preparation are the ones who have already made it.

But I do think we can tune the parameters a bit. We can make sure that everyone has access to decent-to-good education, so the talented poor have a fighting chance. We can make the admissions based on some reasonable proxies of ability so the biggest boneheads among the sons of privilege get sorted out. And we can make the system as transparent as possible, so everyone knows what is expected.

With that in mind, I think the current system in the US fails pretty hard on the first criterion -- the worst schools are just awful. It could also improve on the third; what the elite colleges are looking for in admissions, such as "service", isn't at all obvious.

My sense is that the US has constructed a very complicated system that in the end delivers pretty much the standard result. A simpler, clearer system based on plain tests, such as India's, just might be a better solution in the end.


The big question then is how do they make out in real life afterwards compared to their honest brothers & sisters who also entered those same colleges and compared to those that didn't make the cut because of them.

At a guess, they'll do better in life than the ones that didn't make it but not as good as the ones that were honest and made it but I have zero proof for that. It's just that they will get some of the benefits from these colleges but not all of them while the group that didn't make it gets none.


> they'll do better in life than the ones that didn't make it but not as good as the ones that were honest and made it

If this is true, then less-than-deserving children will have successfully used their parents' wealth to artificially improve their station in life. Which means that our higher education system is helping to perpetuate class divides (even though it claims to be greatly interested in not doing so).


Legacy admissions (which is alive and well at my alma mater) definitely helps to perpetuate this as well.


That's true, but legacy admissions is out in the open - universities acknowledge the existence of the practice. But the inequality created by ghostwriting and admissions coaching is particularly pernicious because it occurs through a system that the universities claim is meant and supposed to give everyone an equal shot.


Of course it does. Look at the price of tuition. That perpetuates class divides more than any other factor.


The top universities (such as those in the Ivy League) typically give full financial aid to any admitted student who comes from a middle or lower class socioeconomic background. The "tuition problem" primarily exists at mediocre private universities (as well as those public universities that have significantly hiked tuition in recent years) which depend on squeezing every last penny from their students.


This is absolutely true and often shocks applicants that I meet in alumni interviews (although some know it well). Most of the Ivy League offers a full ride (as an official policy) for students who come from families with <$100k/year in income. This is not merit-based, it's need-based. It's a nasty misconception of "anti-elitists" that the Ivy League is only for the rich (although as others have pointed out there are certainly legacy biases and donation biases that get some in + a need to have a certain percentage of paying students).


But then the students are still partitioned among those that needs to have elite grades to get in and those that can pay their way. Either it is a fair system or it is not -- there is no middle ground.

80% of American households earn less than $100k and if 80% of the students got their education for free that wouldn't work out well for the universities.


> 80% of American households earn less than $100k and if 80% of the students got their education for free that wouldn't work out well for the universities.

Actually, it would work out just fine (for top-tier universities). They can easily survive on the investment returns from their endowments, along with donations from wealthy alumni.


Then why don't they offer all their programs for free? It would be very good pr and they would get many more donations.


Because they don't have to? Their goal isn't to create good PR, its to cement themselves as a rite of passage for the wealthy, intelligent, and influential. They don't really care what the plebs think about them, they just want to make sure that the select few coming from lower or middle class backgrounds but have the abilities necessary to move up in society are interested in attending their school. And those people are generally aware of the financial aid situation, or will at least apply and then find out about the financial aid situation if they're accepted.

Also, removing the tuition would make them look cheap to their target audience. In reality, a significant majority of students do end up getting financial aid. It just has to be indirect, so it doesn't harm the school's reputation.


Not necessarily true. My family made about that amount, but went without some luxuries and saved for my (and my sister's) high school ($25k/yr) and college ($45k/yr). There were a few years where tuition+room+board for my sister and I was more than their after-tax income. And no, we don't have a large amount of wealth from a previous generation, my parents started near zero just a couple years before I was born. But we never got any financial aid. I had friends who's parents made more, but got 50% financial aid. The financial aid system would appear to be just another bullshit-gamed system.


I was speaking about a very specific financial aid situation present at several of the Ivy League universities - I don't understand why you would construe my comment to be applicable generally? Did you go to a school that specifically has a tuition is free for families with <100k/year policy?


> There were a few years where tuition+room+board for my sister and I was more than their after-tax income

I don't know anything about CMU's financial aid system, but in the Ivies, this situation certainly would not have occurred.


A few Ivy League universities offering full financial aid doesn't prevent the perpetuation of class divides. The other problem is that even at most Ivy League universities, a lot of this aid is in the form of loans, something that also favors the rich.


> The big question then is how do they make out in real life afterwards

I'm amazed this question is being asked. It's obvious that bullshitters do well.


>>> The big question then is how do they make out in real life afterwards

As they move up in life, they will move up in consultants, so long as they have access to the wealth necessary to pay for it.


While the college consultants certainly increased the number of such students, such students have always existed, at least in the past couple of decades.

I myself can't say that 100% of my extracurricular activities were free from wanting to look good for college applications. My GPA was definitely boosted by my somewhat misplaced desire to get into the best university I could possibly get into, rather than through a pure passion for learning. I totally kissed a teacher's butt in one class because 20% of the grade in that class was "participation", and was entirely based on how much said teacher liked you (she was subsequently let go -- private school). I sold my soul in order to get an A in that class.

And I'm definitely not an isolated case.




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