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03.14.10

More College Admissions Secrets

Faking their ethnicities, sending bribes, stalking admissions officers' parents—students are trying everything to get in this year, and some of it is actually working.

As college applicants and their parents patiently wait for that fat (or thin) envelope to arrive in their mailbox come early April, The Daily Beast gets the dirt from admissions officers, guidance counselors, and private consultants about what students are doing to get in this year, and how applicants can dodge the traps that snare even the smartest kids.

Should You Fudge Your Ethnicity?
“One of my students this year has a vaguely Hispanic name but is literally the whitest girl you’ve ever met. Her mother straight out asked, ‘If we mark she’s Latino on the application, is that something that they would ever challenge?’ I told her honestly my best guess, which was no. And, if early admissions are any indication, it seemed to work.” — Private school guidance counselor in the South and former Ivy League admission officer

Don’t Act Crazy
“The boldest move I ever saw was a New York parent who somehow figured out that my mother lived in a suburb not far from her own. She showed up at my mom’s door to pitch her son, complete with a PowerPoint and everything. Flowers, cookies, the works. What would possess her to do such a thing?”— Former Ivy League admission officer

Grease Some Palms, If You Dare…
“Our admissions dean jokingly calls our [school] president Mr. Maître d’. As in, if a donor slips him a few bills, he’ll miraculously find them a spot in a totally packed restaurant. Of course before, those bills had to be enough to build a new cafeteria. Now it feels like they barely have to cover dinner at the cafeteria. It’s gross.”— Southern university admission officer

…Just Don’t Be Too Obvious About It
“About three years ago, the admissions dean left work one day and found a note under his windshield wiper that had a phone number and simply read, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be driving a Mercedes?’ That stuff only happens once in a blue moon, but really, that’s how not to get off a waiting list.”— Ivy League admission officer

“We just fired the work-study clerk in our office because a parent tried to pay him $500 to mark an applicant’s application on time when it was several days late. Unfortunately for him, the parent mailed a check to the office and someone else opened the envelope first.”— Elite Midwestern college enrollment director

Humility Helps
“Make yourself likeable. We’re not that far into our application reading, and I’m so tired of reading about 15-year-olds going to Tanzania to save the chimps or whatever. It is so obvious. My dream is to tell some parent, do you understand that I will never get to go to Tanzania on my lousy salary?”— Elite Midwestern college enrollment director

Suck Up To the Right Person
“Absolutely the most shameful thing I’ve done involves an article I wrote for my own college paper about loving gourmet chocolates. Of course, Google my name and it comes up—which is exactly what one dad did a few years ago. For months, I got a box of lovely chocolates in the mail about once a week with a note that read something like, ‘Sweets for you, be sweet to whatever was his kid’s name.’ I wasn’t technically violating any rules because, in my office, you don’t have to return food gifts as long as you share them with the whole office, but it added up to many, many pounds of chocolate. Here’s the rub, though: I wasn’t even this kid’s admission counselor—I never even saw his application. He didn’t get in either. The father kept calling me, trying to get an explanation. Then a few weeks later he mailed me an invoice for about $2,000 worth of chocolate. I have never been so embarrassed.”— Mid-Atlantic private university admission officer

Talk About Yourself, Not Just Your Achievements
“My best advice is don’t write a boring essay. Sometimes I just read a first sentence like, ‘This one time I changed the world with my church group by playing the tambourine in Costa Rica…’ and I put that file directly into the ‘to be considered much later’ back-burner pile. Tell me who you actually are, and it is such a welcome change.”— Midwestern public university admission officer

Paying in Full Could Give You an Edge
“I can only speak for my own office, but applicants who can afford full tuition are definitely getting a closer look this year, even if there are financial-aid cases who have better grades or test scores. That’s simply the reality of our times.”— East Coast liberal arts college admission officer

Make Sure Your Genealogy Is in Order
“When I’d only been in admissions a few months, I was shocked to find myself sitting in a meeting where my boss suggested we needed to go to her boss (the admissions dean) and tell him we were only going to consider accepting donors’ immediate family. No more nephews or cousins or ‘family friends.’ Apparently one of these kids had literally never bothered to show up for class and it irked my boss. ‘We don’t want to accept applicants who are going to fail here,’ she said. As if direct descendents are all just stellar.”— Former Ivy League admission officer

High SAT Scores Plus Low Grades Is a Deadly Combination
“I wish students understood what really makes a competitive application for the most selective colleges. I've seen time and again students with excellent standardized test scores and mediocre grades expect to have a reasonable chance of admission. The reality is, if s/he has no ‘hook’—for example, not a legacy, not underrepresented (with respect to ethnicity or geography), and not a recruited athlete—then the most selective colleges will reject the application. There are far too many applicants with excellent grades and excellent test scores— not to mention letters of recommendation, activities, and essays—to justify admitting a student with mediocre grades. Highly selective colleges will likely perceive these types of applicants as lazy: obviously very bright students who were not motivated to work hard in high school.”— Former Ivy League admission officer and current East Coast private college consultant

Elite Schools Aren’t Usually Sincere in Their Solicitations
“Top-tier schools practice highly selective admissions. However, when your acceptance rate is in the single-digits, you are really an office of denial, not admission. I think that there should be limits as to how much recruitment/encouragement admissions offices do if you are already denying over 90 percent of your applicants. I am sensitive to the amount of recruitment that top schools engage in, and the increasingly ‘strategic’ and marketing mentality that some schools have. When is too many applicants too many?— Mid-Atlantic private university admission officer

Don’t Write About Dad’s Layoff
“This is the first admission cycle where I am actually afraid for my own job due to our school’s financial problems. We’re technically need-blind, and when we read applications, we don’t even know yes or no on whether a student has applied for financial aid. But this year I am definitely much more cognizant of context clues. When I read an essay, for example, I judge to myself: Will this kid need just a few extra dollars or a full ride? I hate to be so judgmental but I just don’t want to be that counselor in my office who only puts forward full-ride kids this year.”— California university admission officer

Make Yourself the Hero of Your Essay
“I encourage kids to think of this whole process as storytelling, and regardless of what stories they tell, they need to be the ‘hero.’ It's fine to talk about your dad being a coke fiend or your stint in rehab with your favorite WB crush (I work with a lot of Beverly Hills and Malibu kids) but unless you end up as the ‘hero,’ then the essay will have done nothing to help you, and it's the one place you're guaranteed to have the opportunity to speak in the first person.”
Los Angeles private college consultant and former admission officer

Be Careful with Your Cut-and-Pastes
“In my book, the biggest mistake an applicant makes is when they answer the [essay] prompt from another school. It’s so apparent they’ve just cut and pasted from that school’s application. Why bother applying if you’re not going to edit the essay for our application?”— East Coast liberal arts college admissions dean

Think About Who’s Writing Your Recommendation
“Letters of recommendation are incredibly important. No, I don’t have time to read a dozen letters so don’t go crazy. But I do read the first few very closely. And I don’t know any U.S. senators very well so I don’t expect a 17-year-old to, either. I also, however, wouldn’t ask a teacher unless you know very well what they’re going to say. I just read a letter that basically said, this kid is brilliant but a total pain in the ass who belligerently blackmailed me to write this last-minute note on his behalf. Not so helpful.”— Ivy League admission officer

Ask the Burning Question
“My favorite parents are the straight-forward ones who ask directly: What does my kid have to do to get in here? Sure, some are talking money and we’re happy to send them to the development office and not give it a second thought. More often, however, it is how many community service hours should she have? What is your SAT cutoff? Should I spend my $65 to apply or am I wasting my money? There’s no formula here, ladies and gentlemen, but it is refreshing to talk to you.”— West Coast private college dean of admissions

Grades and SATs Have Never Been More Important
“My biggest fear this year is that we’re simply missing great kids. As a public university, we have a flood of applications and a hiring freeze, so no one is getting enough attention. I can’t stress how much grades and SATs are the factors we’re considering this year.”
West Coast director of admissions

Legacies Aren’t So Lucky Anymore
“I’ve started to feel a little bad for legacy kids and especially their parents. Yes, fine, when you went to boarding school 30 years ago, you could choose between Yale and Princeton and you barely filled out the application. It just doesn’t work that way anymore unless you’ve actually given to that alma mater since 1983 and a whole lot more than $50 a year. Right, and your teenager is a Jonas Brother.”— Guidance counselor at New England boarding school

Know the Game—and Accept Your Odds
“I feel like everyone knows the Ivy League game already. If you are a Hispanic woman who wants to study engineering or your parent died of cancer (and you have amazing grades and SATs) or you live in rural North Dakota, you’re getting in. If you’re a middle-class kid from Long Island who played lacrosse, good luck and here’s the address for Stony Brook [University].”
Private admission coach in New York and former Ivy League admission officer

Kathleen Kingsbury covers education for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Time magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.