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How Competitive is College Admissions? Enough to Tempt Parents to Behave Badly

The Chicago Tribune ran a story on Monday about the lengths to which some parents will go to get their darlings into college.  The whole process of selecting and applying to college is certainly stresseful.  And there is no doubt that the competition is fierce.


It’s also true that in some school communities, the competition is even more fierce.  At toney private schools in the East, for example, there may be 30 members of the 100 students in the graduating class who are all applying to Harvard or Tufts or both.  Clearly, no college will want to admit every student from that school who applies, even if every last one of them has perfect grades and a perfect test scores.  Colleges are social engineers, and to accept so many from one place would throw the community out of balance.


So, as this article describes, some parents are not holding back in their attempts to sandbag others’ kids in order to promote their own. Here are some examples of sandbagging from the article:


  • Anonymous notes to the admissions office recommending that they look at a rival’s Facebook page.
  • Phone calls suggesting that a student is lying about particular accomplishments or extracurricular involvements.
  • Newspaper clippings attesting to a student’s involvement in a crime or other bad behavior.


While this article does shed some light on how desperate a small number of parents (and their students) are to get into the most competitive colleges, the article does suggest that to focus on this sort of aberrant behavior only fans the fires of the fall admissions frenzy.


The article suggests that most admissions officers ignore these instances of parental interference, unless the letter is signed or unless it presents some sort of hard evidence–like the newspaper clipping.  The fact is that the practice of sandbagging other students is both rare and ineffective.  And if you read this article carefully, amid the sensationalist hype are some strong indications that the article’s headline bends reality in order to attract readers.


Here are some passages from the article that cool the hype.


College admissions officials said they do not track how many of these letters, calls or e-mails they receive and said they are unsure whether they’re getting more of them.


So is sandbagging becoming more common?  No data.  Admissions officials are “unsure” if the practice is increasing as competition increases.  Fact is, this practice has been going on for a long time.


“We see everything. Nothing shocks us anymore.”


So says the dean of admissions of Northwestern University.  Thus the article’s implication that sandbagging is a new phenomenon is misleading. Desperate and silly parents have been around for a long time.


…anonymous allegations typically get thrown in the trash. If the letters include specific allegations or a newspaper article detailing criminal activity, officials might follow up with a call to the applicants or their high schools.


Thus, sandbagging does not work.  Admissions officers are not stupid.  And they are also prudent.  So if they receive random messages written in crayon in unmarked envelopes, admissions people have a good laugh at the sandbagger’s expense and move on with their job.  Or they are careful to investigate specific allegations (which often turn up in teacher recommendations, anyway…either as the discreet but clear note at the bottom saying, “Call Me!”, or as a very weak letter of support).


The article also drops a little hint toward the end of the article that helps identify one of the sources of the problem, in general.  High schools generally do not put disciplinary information onto a transcript, nor do they report disciplinary actions to colleges in other ways.  This information is somehow deemed “private,” while the academic information is readily shared with college admissions officers.


In my mind, this is a huge problem.  It is also one of the reasons so many private consultants deal with families who arrive on our doorsteps with stories like this: “My daughter is really a great kid.  Of course, there was that one time she was busted for cocaine possession in Daytona Beach, and that time she was suspended for a week for selling marijuana–it was only a tiny amount.  We know you can help us tell her story in a way that will help cover for those minor infractions so she can get into the school of her dreams.”


I tell clients right up front that I will not be an accessory to a lie.  I will help the student explain the mistake, and if appropriate, help the contrite and apologetic young person explain past transgressions in terms of lessons learned and prospects for a better future.


While sandbagging is sleazy, I find it more sleazy–and much more common–that parents are totally comfortable with lying on behalf of their own child than they are willing to tear down someone else.  This finding is no consolation, to be sure.  But at least I keep my own conscience clear and my reputation intact.


Mark Montgomery

College Counselor






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