Theyre Not Fact-Checking: How Lies on College Applications Can Slip Through the Net
By Anemona Hartocollis
New York Times
December 16, 2018

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As college admissions become ever more competitive, with the most elite schools admitting only 4 percent or 5 percent of applicants, the pressure to exaggerate, embellish, lie and cheat on college applications has intensified, admissions officials say. The high-stakes process remains largely based on trust: Very little is done in the way of fact-checking, and on the few occasions officials do catch outright lies, they often do so by chance.

A recent New York Times investigation found that the leaders of T.M. Landry College Preparatory School, a private high school in Louisiana, doctored transcripts and fabricated up-from-hardship stories on college applications in a systematic effort to land students at selective universities. The revelations have highlighted critical vulnerabilities in the admissions process and cast doubts on a system that some officials and consultants say inadvertently invites exploitation.

In the Landry case, school officials made up tales drawn from racial stereotypes, with the aim of enhancing a students chances of admission. But universities that encourage students to write such hard-luck stories, experts say, share the blame.

There is an alignment of incentives to work the system, said Christopher Hunt, who runs College Essay Mentor, a consulting service. Landry is an extreme. Much more common is students, parents and school college counselors trying to figure out what admissions officers want and molding students lives and applications to the vision of success.

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Mainly, officials and counselors said, they look for inconsistencies. Do standardized test scores and grades match? Do certain words and phrases in an essay jump out as being in the vocabulary of an adult rather than a teenager? Are a students extracurricular activities too good to be true?

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The IRS audits some tax returns at random. If accepted students knew there were a chance of their applications being audited, that would reduce fraud.

The article mentions looking at whether standardized test scores and grades match. But Harvard and other selective schools have made SAT subject tests optional, reducing their ability to do this. Some schools do not require either the SAT or ACT or SAT subject tests.

High schools know who has played on their sports teams. They could make rosters easily available to admissions officers. They could also provide lists of who has had leadership positions in clubs.