Here’s the high-priced advice college applicants buy that doesn’t trigger the FBI


Porcelain Pencils by Katharine Morling

The FBI just announced a sting operation that caught 50 rich and famous parents paying millions of dollars to bribe and cheat to get their under-qualified kids into top colleges (and, mysteriously, some not-top colleges). Last year a magnet school in Louisiana, which had been celebrated for getting poor minority students into top schools year after year, admitted to lying and cheating to get the kids in.

I’ve been convinced that the college system is broken for a while, so I spent a good part of last year interviewing high-priced college consultants (many who are former staff on admissions committees to top-flight schools). My goal was to figure out what sort of advice these consultants give parents. I didn’t receive any illegal advice, but I was shocked by how many corners you can cut without breaking any rules.

Here are some tips I learned:

Move to Wyoming. Colleges work hard to get students from each state. And standards are lower for states with sparse populations. Brown University has an 8% acceptance rate but a 30% acceptance rate from Montana. And colleges are shying away from racial diversity and focusing on diversity of backgrounds. So if you can’t move to Wyoming or Montana, at least go somewhere rural.

Hide your ethnicity. If your name is Jose Gonzales, let the admission committee assume you’re one of the rare qualified hispanic males applying to their school. If you are Asian but your name doesn’t reveal it, consider that Asians need to score much higher than white kids to get into top schools before checking any extra boxes.

Play beach volleyball. There are hundreds of schools with varsity beach volleyball teams including Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA. Give it a try. Seriously. There are no national high school rankings, few club teams, and you don’t even have to be tall. Most cities with sand have free beach volleyball in the evenings. Even in the North. Play enough to know the basics. Then contact recruiters who have no idea how to find sand players. This is not cheating. It’s playing by the rules.

Play violin. So many kids play string instruments that colleges don’t think of it as a hook anymore unless you have some remarkable achievement as a string player. Luckily you can enter this international competition and, for just $600, everyone’s a winner and then everyone gets to perform at the winner’s recital at Carnegie Hall.

Study literature. Colleges need to make sure they have students for their tenured teachers in humanities. It’s a serious problem because so many kids are choosing STEM majors instead. So tell the college you’re planning to study literature. Write your essay about Proust. And then there’s no rule that says you can’t change majors after you start college.

Start a company. So many kids start companies that now admissions officers expect you to report how much your company earned. This is not difficult, even for non-millionaires. Learn to post earnings the same way startup founders post earning: high growth no profits. You’ll be like a pro—on the cusp of VC funding.

Hire a scientist. The wait list for high schoolers to do volunteer work in a lab or hospital environment is more than two years in in some cities. But you can hire a professor at a major university to do a science experiment with your kid and then write a recommendation to colleges. No waiting!

Homeschool. Stanford accepted 5% of applicants but 27% of homeschoolers. This disparity is because homeschooling gives kids more time to cater to the arcane admission system that colleges set up. Most of what colleges want to see on an application doesn’t happen in school, so why bother being there?

Put a science lab in your bedroom. Wait. No. Don’t. Because the Siemens Science Competition (formerly Westinghouse, then Intel) was shut down because all the kids who were winning had access to their parents’ labs at major universities. Siemens said they thought there were more effective ways for them to promote learning. And then Siemens started giving scholarships to disadvantaged kids.

Yes, we are all outraged about the lengths people will go to get their kids into colleges they don’t deserve to attend. But the truth is that parents are scared. They’re scared that they are not doing enough to help their kid become a successful adult. This is why we want to know what other parents are doing. We want to know what our options are.

If we weren’t so stressed about how to raise our kids we wouldn’t be so outraged that other people are cheating.

And actually, the workplace is just like college admissions. You learn the rules and use them to your advantage. So teach your kids when they’re young that the higher the stakes the game is, the more arcane the rules are. And the more arcane the rules, the more likely it is that you can find a backdoor route to the top.

But pretending the system is a meritocracy encourages more discrimination, so says economist Robert Frank. And belief that one has succeeded inside a meritocracy leads to more self-congratulatory, selfish behavior. Frank says people who accept that all of life is about skill and luck are much more likely to be thankful and therefore more generous.

Bottom line: Gaming the system is a great idea, but you can’t game the system if you don’t have good grades. Hard work counts, too. So raise a kid who has gratitude. Because when it comes to being a happy person, having gratitude is much more important than having a fancy diploma.

32 replies
  1. funkright
    funkright says:

    Great article. Much appreciated. Kid going through the acceptance process right now, but in Canada. Where it seems the applicants ‘self select’ before evening applying, i.e. they know they won’t get accepted at certain universities so they don’t apply. (unlike the USA where it seems students apply to dozens of schools), thus raising the overall acceptance rate at top tier Canadian schools (UBC, one of the top 30 schools globally accepts 51% of it’s applicants vs similar US schools that are sub 10 or even 5%). Grades definitely count, but only those in 11th and 12th grade (9 and 10 grades are never looked at). My kid has been accepted to 3 of the top 5 schools in the country, probably wouldn’t of had a snowballs chance in hell down south (nor could we even dream of affording it). Anyways, thanks again.

  2. Eric Edberg
    Eric Edberg says:

    Oh my gosh. Violin is fine, but f you want a really good music scholarship, it’s VIOLA or double bass. (Violas are much easier to lug about.) Or bassoon. Or have a low male voice (you have to win the genetic lottery for that one, unfortunately).

    Helps to get really good at playing, too. Then you can get a fantastic scholarship!

    (I’m a music professor.)

    Great post.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Tell me more about studying music in college. My son’s principal instrument is viola, and we expect he will reach the top orchestra at conservatory prep this year or next. His singing range starts very low (he’s one of the few 14 year old boys who doesn’t have to transpose the bass part up. Of course, he’s too young to know where his tessitura will be, so one can’t really call him a bass). He also plays jazz bass, sings a cappella, and beatboxes.

      He wants to major in music at a liberal arts college, rather than go to a conservatory. That’s as good a compromise with non-musical opportunities he can make right now. Lin Manuel has a BA from Wesleyan, so my fellow can see the virtues. We hope to talk him into a math minor later on (he’s a math geek too).

      So what’s a good place for a kid like that?

      I know that “top” colleges have so many applicants with straight As, perfect SATs, etc. that they could fill their Freshman classes several times over. Do some colleges actually seek out musicians?

      • Eric Edberg
        Eric Edberg says:

        Oh, yes, if there’s a substantial music program there are up to full merit-based scholarships available for music majors. Then there are also smaller scholarships available for non-majors in many places. (I’m just retiring from 30+ years as a cello professor at a liberal arts college with a School of Music).

        Viola and double bass are the two instruments that many schools tend to be short on. In giving out merit-based scholarships, and sometimes in making admission decisions,the administration is looking at what is needed to fill out the orchestra and the studio for each instrument. Generally, more violas are needed than double basses. Some years the school needs to bring in a lot of players on a particular instrument, some years they may not need anyone. So the scholarship availability fluctuates with need.

        The same thing happens with voice ranges. There are a lot of sopranos, and so big scholarships for them are less common. It’s harder, in general, to recruit tenors, and often baritones and basses will find they are in a seller’s market with schools competing to give them scholarships. (And more and more some schools will get into a minor bidding war for a highly accomplished player or singer in an area of need.)

        In the Midwest, look at places like Baldwin-Wallace, DePauw, Lawrence Oberlin and St. Olaf (the latter is so popular with singers that it may be tougher to get a voice scholarship).

        You don’t have to have a straight-A average to get into a good liberal arts college. Especially if you are academically play an instrument well, or sing in a voice range, that the school needs that year.

        Feel free to email me if I can be of further assistance. (If you google my name my website and blog posts should come right up.)

  3. Maria Miccoli
    Maria Miccoli says:

    My daughter and my son-in-law make almost the same amount. My daughter was home schooled, then obtained her EMS certificate and her 911 operator certificate. After a couple of years working in a hospital as a porter making $18/hour at 19 years of age, she was accepted for a Respiratory Therapy 2 year program. She works in Home Health Care now. She had experience and education. She gets her weekends and evenings off and the company gave her a salary, car, cell phone. She is debt free. On her own time, she now is taking occasional university classes to obtain her Bachelor of Science Degree for the love of learning. She pays for the classes as she takes them.

    (Alberta promotes getting certified in career fields rather than just a college degree due to labor shortages and the rate of pay can be quite sizable).

    My son-in-law studied at a local university which was more economical and obtained his Masters degree in Engineering. He was a student when they met. When he graduated, he found a job immediately in his field, payed off his school loans within the first couple of years, bought the car he always wanted but paid half price as it was second hand.

    The only debt left is a house they are paying off making extra payments.

    There is no status issues, they do not wear name brands, they are thrifty, they pack lunches. They each have their own hobbies and sports which they enjoy. They have 2 cats and 2 dogs. They take vacations in different parts of the world.

    They are happy.

    With online universities, they can attend classes anywhere in the world for a fraction of the cost. What about networking? That too can be done online and in Meetups.

    “Prestigious” universities have pulled the wool over our eyes and really snowed us to believing that somehow their education is better…I did my research, their programs are often outdated.

    Meanwhile, for those who want to go to a real university or have their children go to a real university. Tennessee just announced it’s free for adults.

    As for myself, I have worked next to people with 2 college degrees who made as much as I did. They were burdened by the high debt. I didn’t have that problem.

    I think those people who are scared and who were indicted are the same ones who were victims of Bernie Madoff. They are very gullible.

    But then again… like in business, it’s how you interpret metrics.

  4. CodeCarry
    CodeCarry says:

    Great Article I think those individuals who are terrified and who were prosecuted are similar ones who were casualties of Bernie Madoff. They are truly naïve.

    • Jack
      Jack says:

      I disagree. They knew what they were doing. The monies were paid to KWF as a charitable donation. KWF is organized as 501(c)(3), so the donations are tax deductible. Someone a from high tax location (e.g. NYC or California) would have receive a tax refund for at least 50% of the donation value.

  5. carol of kensington
    carol of kensington says:

    I really love you, you’re amazing. Thank you for this. I’m not sure why it made me cry.

  6. Kim
    Kim says:

    I definitely got a version of the “major in literature” advice when I reapplied to a top US university as a transfer student. A distant family friend in the admissions office looked at my application and advised I declare my major in French literature – as I am fluent in French and I presume they needed more French students in the department. After being accepted, I ended up double majoring in French and Government, my original intent (and the schools most popular major/renowned department). Wish I’d gotten that advice the first time around!

    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      You don’t have to move to Wyoming (North Dakota is actually the go-to state when admissions officers talk about geography). You just need to apply to schools IN Wyoming (or the midwest etc) if you’re from the coasts.

  7. Amy
    Amy says:

    Inaccurate homeschool information. The Stanford statistic was from 2000 (accepted 9 of 35). That was a tiny sample and it was 20 years ago! Their acceptance rate back in those days was 15% and now it is 5%.

    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      Agreed, Amy. That is such outdated and misleading information. As a college admissions consultant who works exclusively with homeschoolers, I’m very frustrated by the myth of colleges wanting/recruiting homeschoolers. It’s simply not true. Of course, just like any other type of student, it’s what kids do with their freedom and flexibility. To simply tell homeschoolers that their kids have a better shot at colleges b/c homeschooling is a hook (and to link to an old post with old and misleading information) is wrong. Penelope, you’re well regarded among homeschoolers. Consider taking that info down. In light of what’s happening in the college admissions world, the more honest and transparent we can be (especially when homeschoolers feel enough overwhelm with the responsibility of getting their kids into college), the better our contribution is to an already enigmatic system.

  8. Sheela Clary
    Sheela Clary says:

    How about live where you want and run run run as fast as you can away from this stupid unjust, unamerican con game we call a meritocratic higher education system? Growth industries mostly don’t require much in the way of higher ed from what I see. The Yale bumper sticker, what does it do for you apart from not clash with your Mercedes? The only big professional impact elite schools have are on low income first gen kids. My college drop out husband earns more as a contractor than me with my tufts, and my sister and brother in law with their Harvard degrees, combined.

  9. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    There is hope for a happy life even without a prestigious UG degree. There is hope for gainful employment without a prestigious UG degree.

    All the 30-somethings I know who pursued the “prestige” route are suffering from anxiety and depression. These schools are a racket and are not a pathway to peace, even if kids end up making big bucks.

  10. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I agree with your bottom line assessment of raising a kid who has gratitude. As for searching for a school, I would recommend doing a lot of research and looking for a good fit. Everybody has a different idea of what constitutes a good fit. There are many metrics to consider such as campus environment (including large and small, rural and urban), majors offered, faculty and administration composition, alumni careers and their success rate, etc.
    I’m not captivated by Ivy League. They have their place and are obviously very good schools but not the best choice for everyone for several reasons including cost. One of my nieces was accepted at Cornell. She got scholarship money but not enough so she went to a SUNY school. She paid off her student loans within a year and she’s happy with her career. Another niece was waitlisted at Dartmouth. She ended up with a full scholarship at another college where she’ll be graduating in three years instead of four. And she has already been accepted for a masters program which is a continuation of her undergraduate degree. Now I have another niece who has her sights on Harvard. I don’t know why. Maybe it will be somewhere else once she starts making her applications. I like this post very much as it has many good suggestions. However, I think what is most important is knowing why you want to go to college and knowing why a particular college is best for you.

  11. Jana
    Jana says:

    “Because when it comes to being a happy person, having gratitude is much more important than having a fancy diploma.”


  12. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    I think the cheating parents have too much vanity.

    I don’t imagine a spirited student as being vain, but I do imagine her finding studious peers and discovering worthy courses where ever she attends.

    When spirited students a regional gathering for, say, business competition, student journalist weekend conferences or athletics, I doubt the students themselves can tell the “not-good school” students from the “good school” ones.

    Come to think of it, outside of class time, vain students with vain parents are probably the ones who will only do “student party” and will label as nerds their fellow students who do “meaning-of-life talk.”

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Kerry McDonald wrote a good article ( ) published yesterday on FEE titled ‘What Parents Can Really Do to Help Prepare Their Teens for Success’ where she touts part-time jobs, summer jobs, and entrepreneurship (as you pointed out with your ‘Start a company’ paragraph) over more academics and standard extracurricular activities.
    One paragraph in the above article really stood out to me – “Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.” It seems to me teenagers with job/entrepreneurial/business experience would stand out in comparison to other college applicants.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      In California, summer and after-school jobs aren’t really a thing for teens anymore. With the minimum wage set to ~$15 (this is good!) it doesn’t really make sense to hire such low-skilled employees.

      To get a kid a summer job, the parents basically need to create one for them. And it’s pretty clear which social class excels at this.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        Melissa, I get the impression you didn’t read the article. What does social class have to do with a kid getting a summer job? My first summer job long ago was at a high-end German restaurant as a busboy. My parents or my parent’s friends had nothing to do with me getting the job. It was me applying to various places like every other kid. And looking back, it was a great learning experience in a number of ways. It required me to dress appropriately in a pink shirt, black trousers, and bowtie. My direction was taken from the waiters and Maitre d’ and we all knew it was the customers that had to be satisfied especially as our tips depended on them and our hope they would be repeat customers and they would tell their friends about their good experience. The job allowed me to save money for the 10-speed I really wanted and which I bought – a Peugeot UO-8. So my low-skilled summer job taught me lessons I would have otherwise not learned. The money I earned and was able to save gave me a sense of empowerment as I met a goal I set out for myself. Now, as to how it helped me gain admission to the college I wanted to attend, that’s a question for the people who are part of college admissions. I have to believe, though, that my application to them in no way downplayed my summer jobs or the lessons I learned while doing them.

        • Bostonian
          Bostonian says:

          It’s a good article, Mark. Kerry McDonald frequently has insightful perspectives, though sometimes I find them a little too precious.

          I think the status anxiety caused, in part, by bringing up kids in a country with a failing middle class, has a lot to do with parents trying too hard to stack their kids’ portfolios. And that, as the article says, has a lot to do with the decline of the teen job.

          Another factor, which the previous poster alludes to, is the increased degree to which retail and food service jobs are taken by older, permanent employees, or employees on special visas.

          When I was a teenager I worked summers as a busboy or waiter on Cape Cod. We classmates all rented a big house together and came out of the summer with a substantial percentage of the yearly tuition.

          If you go to the same house today, it’s rented on air bnb for ten times the rate. And my old jobs are all occupied by “tourism students“ from Bulgaria.

          When I was younger, I worked in a sandwich shop. The guy in my local sandwich shop probably has grandchildren, and the other employees all look like fresher immigrants.

          Even my newspaper is delivered by an adult.

          So fond memories of summers past may not be so easy to pass on to our children.

          My son is looking forward to working summers, as a camp counselor. I did that as a teenager too. I hope that job doesn’t get professionalized too soon.

  14. Anya
    Anya says:

    I love your writing Penelope! So excited to read your blogs. However, on this issue I’m just so disturbed that us whites get to carry on our privilege. I’m a Greek girl from N MA whose parents worked their asses off to show us a better life. I went to Phillips Andover(on scholarship) and then needed a break. U mass was fantastic for me after a few years of travels. But we need to recognize that we are amongst the blessed few, like eddy Murphy’s very fun bus skit, on SNL, over 25 years ago… not much has changed, except how we speak.

  15. Entity Management
    Entity Management says:

    Great article! Personally, I think the pressure has ramped up considerably in one or two generations, and is way worse than today’s parents ever experienced. I also think these developments are impacting on the mental health of today’s young people. I hope that I will be able to relax about this topic when my kids are older (probably not).

  16. Eric C Wentworth
    Eric C Wentworth says:

    Many Gen Z kids are skipping the college route altogether. Higher education is largely a financial scam that creates decades of indebtedness for graduates, curtailing their life plans. There’s nothing more dispiriting that starting your career with tens of thousands of dollars of debt—and a job market where the employers stubbornly refuse to pay a living wage.

    Why are so many young people starting businesses? It’s because they are smart enough to see that “getting a job” at a company isn’t always the best route to financial success or career satisfaction.

Comments are closed.