Sorry, Wren, but this kind of thing shouldn’t be a surprising moment to anyone going through the process. It is very discouraging and can be divisive. Competition like that can really change people. We always tried to assume the best and believe that the kids like you describe had unseen gifts or achievements of which we were unaware. But the cheating that plagues schools like ours easily lends itself to “embellishments” on applications- we saw it on a small scale at awards ceremonies and honor society induction-type things (where it was often brazenly public), but know it is common on college apps. And no one checks, not the school counselors, advisors, or the college admission people. There were some very good schools our DD crossed off her list because of the classmates she saw admitted and/or matriculating there.

My advice is to be supportive and continually remind your kid of their strengths, values, and the goal(s) they are working towards, and forget about the kid two seats down from them. It can be very, very difficult.