Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: Cheating in College Admissions

Like any profession, if you work in college admissions long enough you have stories. Given that your target population falls in the very age range where their brains are still developing and some tend to make pretty poor choices, the stories can get pretty good. Thanks to “Operation Varsity Blues,” we’re all now familiar with how entire networks exist to help kids (and their parents, in particular) “cheat” the system. But what about the less blatant, less illegal, and more easily missed ways of cheating in college admissions? Often the result can be the same. An undeserved offer of admission, procured through untruthful means.

First, know this: college admissions offices try.

They know some kids cheat. They try to put systems into place to help mitigate the likelihood that one can get away with cheating in the application process, but it’s not a perfect system. Cheating happens, probably more often than anyone wants to admit. We know it, but we can’t stop it.

I was working on an application review team. We asked a question on our application that was in reference to some type of significant choice you made in your life that impacted who you were now. One kid actually “wrote” “The Road Not Taken” as his entire response to the question and, wait for it….signed his own name as the author!

In his defense, he was an international applicant and perhaps Robert Frost was not as widely studied or as popular in his country. Maybe he thought it would just sail on by unnoticed by the application reader. Unfortunately, not only was I familiar with Robert Frost, I had taught that poem back in my teacher days. He was not offered admission.

But in all honesty, I’m absolutely sure there were other students who submitted essays that I thought were fabulous but that were actually not penned by the applicant. I’m cynical by nature and I also enjoyed playing detective to try to “catch” the student. But I know even I missed some. You can buy essays. You can pay “tutors” to edit your essays to the point that they are no longer actually your words. Or you can just copy someone else’s essay and, chances are, the reader will never know. How would they?

Essays aren’t the only platform for cheating.

There were also multiple occasions where we “caught” kids misrepresenting their race on their applications. It’s true (and legal in most states) that race can be considered as one of many factors in admissions. Underrepresented students often receive a “perk” in the review process to assist universities with diversity efforts.

Because this is widely understood, we would sometimes see majority students misrepresenting their race/ethnicity in an effort take advantage of that perk. This one was even harder to “catch” because race/ethnicity can’t be proven. It’s technically just a question of how you identify. Unless you knew quite a bit about the applicant’s background and feelings of identity it would be difficult to prove a student was lying. Sometimes you knew it, but you couldn’t prove it.

Then you have the classic “change the F to a B” on the transcript move. This was a more popular form of cheating back when actual paper transcripts were sent from the student to the admissions office. This particular technique doesn’t work as well with the new technology. But the new technology allows for other, more sophisticated forms of cheating to creep into the process, especially as it relates to standardized testing.

AP Exam cheating

Consider the recent article in “Teen Vogue” that uncovers cheating during the online roll-out of the AP Exam during the COVID-19 quarantine. The article describes a complex cheating ring orchestrated by a group of teenage test-takers. The ring described, incidentally, was never caught. The students quoted in the article spoke on anonymity. Also keep in mind these kids only had a couple weeks notice that the test would even be online. In a few weeks time, they were smart enough to figure out how to outwit the College Board and cheat the system. If only they were as honest as they were smart.

Bottom line – there are lots of ways to cheat. Colleges know it. They hate it. They try to catch it. But here’s another reality: MOST kids don’t cheat.

When I was earning my MBA, we often referenced the Six Sigma approach. This concept is likely familiar to anyone who works in industry. And while I doubt many college admissions offices would reference Six Sigma in describing their approach to application review in relation to cheating, there are similarities.

RELATED: The Shakeup of Standardized Testing

In a nutshell, Six Sigma is a process performance review with a goal of having six sigma defects per million. You’re looking for essentially a 99.99966% success rate. Lofty, for sure. But the idea itself is central to almost every process in every business. You know you can’t catch all the defects, you know some will get by. But you don’t stop producing your product or conducting your business because it’s not perfect. You simply try to keep improving.

Don’t sweat the odds.

I like how Nick Sargent, an AP U.S. History teacher at Holmes High School in Kentucky summed up his feelings when interviewed for the “Teen Vogue” article. When asked about his thoughts regarding College Board moving forward with the online testing this year and colleges still awarding credit even realizing the testing system wasn’t perfect, he said, “If that means a small population of students gets college credit that shouldn’t and all my students who should receive college credit do,” he said, “then I can sleep easy.”

So yes, we know there are kids who cheat and we know some won’t get caught. Cheating in college admissions happens. They’ll receive undue rewards. Life ain’t fair. But let’s rest easy knowing also that the process does get it right MOST of the time. And while life isn’t always fair, it’s probably safe to say that your honest soul will rest easier at night than the souls of the cheaters.

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