Looking for stories

If you are currently a student at an Ivy League or other elite university, or if you’re an adult who graduated from one, I’d love to hear about any of your classmates who were clearly not up to the task but well-connected enough to get in. (Best to leave their names out of it.) Hit the Contact Button or email me directly at benjamin@applywithsanity.com.

On the other hand, if you are/were at an elite university and never came across people who were sub-par but rich, I'd also love to hear that. Thanks!

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

About the admissions scandal

An interesting thing happened last Tuesday. 50 people—including a college admissions consultant, SAT and ACT test proctors, university coaches, and wealthy parents—were charged with mail fraud, wire fraud, honest services fraud, and racketeering. Here’s a good rundown of all the people involved. This has been big news this week, and I assume you already know about it.

All week, while I’ve been on family vacation for Spring Break, I’ve been reading and thinking about the scandal. What do I want to say to current and prospective clients? To their parents? To Apply with Sanity readers? I have several things I want to say.

What they did is both illegal and wrong. I want to say this first and say it clearly. Faking a learning disability to get extra time on standardized tests is wrong and illegal. Cheating on the SAT or ACT is wrong and probably illegal. Bribing people—especially using a charity to execute the bribe—to dishonestly get something of value is wrong and illegal. Lying on college applications and/or financial aid forms is wrong and illegal. I don’t think it’s a waste of anyone’s time or tax dollars to prosecute this case. This is a big deal. I’m glad they got caught, and I hope others doing similar things also get caught.

However, please keep in mind…

This case represents a tiny number. There are around 20 million college students, and this case deals with 45 of them. Even if it turns out to be bigger, even ten times bigger, it’s still a drop in the bucket. This case is not representative of how college admissions consultants work. It’s not representative of how athletic coaches work. It’s not representative of how parents work. The story is so sensational exactly because it’s so far from normal.

It’s hard to know what to think about the students involved. Very little has been written about the students, and I don’t think any of them have made a public statement yet. Since their parents are charged with a crime and there’s an ongoing case, I doubt any of them will. Apparently a few of the students had no idea what was going on. In one of the recorded phone conversations, Rick Singer assured a father that his daughter wouldn’t know her test scores were fraudulent. It’s hard to believe, though, that none of the students knew what was going on.

Remember that it’s entirely conceivable they would get accepted without the bribes. I haven’t seen anything yet showing the kids were horrible students or slow thinkers. All the schools involved have very low acceptance rates—under 20%. These colleges get more qualified applicants than they can take, and they have to deny students who would do just fine. For these schools, it’s not a good assumption that didn’t get in means couldn’t get in. That’s true for anyone applying to U.S.C., Yale, Stanford, or Wake Forest. What these parents wanted and paid for was guaranteed acceptance to the schools. Because of the low acceptance rate and quality of the applicant pool, nobody has guaranteed acceptance to those schools. At least they’re not supposed to.

I see a silver lining in this. There’s a general assumption out there—you’ve probably seen it in the news this week—that wealthy parents have a perfectly legal way of bribing colleges to take their students: making donations to the college. While I can’t guarantee that a donation never helped an applicant, I do know that it doesn’t generally work this way. Elite colleges are rich colleges. Yale’s endowment is almost 30 billion dollars. Even a few million dollars isn’t worth it to them to take on a student who isn’t going to do well. Plus, Yale expects that any of their graduates can go on to make lots of money, so the prospect of future donations doesn’t really stand out to them. I talked this weekend with a friend of mine who works in fundraising for a university (not Yale). He told me “actually it’s much easier to make the call to a big donor and say sorry, Timmy didn’t qualify than it is a year later to call and say sorry, Timmy flunked out, or sorry, Timmy’s in jail.”

A few years ago the Washington Post ran a story about the “watch list” the advancement office at UVa keeps about big donors and their kids or grandkids who are applying. And while the advancement office did want the admissions office to be aware of the donations, the actual requests were pretty boring:

The 2011 list, for example, shows that one hopeful was initially marked as denied. Then an advancement officer scribbled a handwritten note on the tracking file: “$500k.” A typed notation said “must be on WL,” for wait list. A final handwritten note urged, “if at all possible A,” for accepted. The final decision on the applicant was not shown.

$500,000 for a courtesy wait list spot doesn’t make financial sense.

What I see as the silver lining in this week’s news is more evidence that donations are not bribes. Part of Singer’s sales pitch to the parents is that donations-as-bribes don’t work. In one phone call, he told a father that using the institutional advancement (i.e. big donations) “back door” doesn’t guarantee anything: “they’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee."

Because admissions is so secretive, it’s hard to convince people that the wealthy don’t just buy their way into elite colleges. They don’t. And this crazy case gives some more evidence: why pay a million dollars in illegal bribes if a legal million dollar donation would do the trick? There are ways that wealthy families get an advantage in college admissions, and that will be this Thursday’s blog post topic. But for the most part, donations aren’t the legal bribes we often think they are.

So does this case worry me? Has it prompted me to do any soul searching as an Independent Educational Consultant? Does this change the way I think about things? Honestly, no. This wild and weird outlier has little relation to the everyday workings of college admissions. I’m glad they got caught, and I hope they are punished. But this isn’t normal. I know that some people smuggle drugs in pineapples, but it doesn’t change the way I think of fruit. I also know that some people cheat on college applications, but it doesn’t change the way I think of admissions.

Well, there are two aspects of this that do bother me. One is that some of the students were asked to fake learning disabilities in order to get extra time on ACT or SAT tests and to get the students into a testing room alone with the bribed proctor. If this case erodes trust in accommodations for students who truly need them, then that’s really bad. If it makes kids with legitimate needs have to jump through extra hoops or be denied services or accommodations because they’re not trusted, that is very, very bad. If you find yourself suspecting that someone is a cheat just because they have accommodations, please stop yourself immediately.

What worries me even more is a cynical view that cheating is normal, and that you have to cheat to get accepted to a good college. I think of this as the “Lance Armstrong defense.” Even as Armstrong was admitting to doping to win the Tour de France seven times, he still maintained that he wasn’t cheating, because he knew that all the other top riders were doping. He told Oprah Winfrey “I kept hearing I'm a drug cheat, I'm a cheat, I'm a cheater. I went in and just looked up the definition of cheat and the definition of cheat is to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don't have. I didn't view it that way. I viewed it as a level playing field.” If enough high school students come to believe that cheating is normal, and that you have to cheat not to get ahead, but just to have a level playing field because everyone else cheats, then that will eventually destroy the whole system. We can’t have that. And we don’t need that—most students don’t cheat to get into college, and there’s no good reason why they’d have to cheat.

I’m an associate member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. Here is IECA’s statement on the scandal, which is worth reading.

Thanks for reading! Come back Thursday for more about wealth, privilege, and admissions. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like on Facebook and Twitter, and get the monthly newsletter. I love mail: comments and questions are welcome and appreciated.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track user data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. A like, follow, or share mean the world to me. Thank you!

Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring

Grace is still waiting

Grace has kept herself busy. She’s preparing for her last high school musical; she’s preparing for three AP exams; she’s getting lots of email, snail mail, and phone calls from colleges. However, it’s been a slow month in terms of moving her toward a decision about where she’ll be next year. Read the full interview below.

Meet the Class gets updated each month from September to May. Each installment features an interview about both the facts and the feelings of where the student is in the process.

Interviews may be edited lightly for clarity and grammar. Names may be changed to protect privacy. 


I think I completely mis-understood what you told me about Fordham. When you said they'd "deferred you to April," I took that to mean you got wait-listed until after April, but you really just meant that the Early Action application got deferred to the regular application pool, right?

Yes!  That is what happened.  So as for Fordham...I am still waiting.

What about Boston University, NYU, or Rutgers? 

I have not heard from any other college since last month. I expect they will all come in at once.

Have you officially told anybody "no" yet? Is there still a chance for Adelphi, Marymount Manhattan, or SUNY Purchase? (I assume Stony Brook doesn't have a chance to get you.)

I have not officially told any college that I am not going, but I know that I have to do that this month.  My mail from them has changed from “Congratulations!”  to “Please let us know.”  I get that they need a firm answer, so they can offer my slot to someone else. I will be doing this soon.

It seems like you've still got a lot of options left on the table. How does that make you feel? Is that empowering to know there's still a lot of ways this can go? Or does it make you a little anxious? Both? What's your state of mind right now concerning the next six or seven months before you begin college...wherever that will be?

It feels great to know all my options are still open, but I know I have to make a choice soon.  As for the next 6-7 months, well that makes me a little anxious.  I have a job set up for the summer so that I can make some money before I leave for school. As for high school, I just want it over….some of the assigned work seems tedious.  I have 3 AP exams in May and that makes me nervous!

Have you gone to the accepted student event at Hofstra yet? If so, how was it? What questions did it answer for you? What questions did it raise? Have you got any other visits planned right now?

I will go to an accepted students’ day for Hofstra in April, after the musical is over.  I am so busy right now, with Drama Club, I just have no time!

I assume high school is still going well, especially theater? Does it feel like it's winding down yet?

Theater is ramping up!  We have 3 weeks until the musical and I am the lead. We are spending hours every day after school.  

I'm curious about all the ways that colleges--especially the ones you applied to--have communicated with you. Has it been mostly email? Do they send texts? Old-fashioned mail? Have you seen them pop up in your social media feeds in a way that makes it clear they're targeting you? How do you prefer to interact with colleges you're interested in?

It is a combination of e-mail and snail mail, for the colleges I have applied to. They send an email every week and usually a postcard. The emails discuss the advantage of their college over others and the postcards are a combination of :  “Don’t  forget us” and “Have you made a decision.”  The colleges I have not applied to send emails and 2 colleges in particular are sending 3-4 emails a week. I am puzzled by that.  One college that I did not apply to has left multiple telephone messages on our home phone.  It is not a robo-caller, it is an actual person. I keep wondering how they picked me, how they got our number, and why they keep calling.

Thanks for reading! If you have college admissions questions for Grace, leave a comment or email me. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, or get the monthly newsletter

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track user data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. But a like, follow, or share mean the world to me. Thank you!

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

What to do with all that mail you're getting

In the past two weeks I’ve had several people ask me about all the mail they’re receiving from colleges. If you’re a senior who has already sent out all your applications, then be assured that the mail will dry up soon if it hasn't already. Universities know what year you graduate high school, so they know to stop sending you materials.

And for the rest of you, 9th through 11th grade? What are you supposed to do with all that mail?

But first: why do they even send mail? Don’t they know that this is the 21st century? Who looks at mail? Strangely, the fact that nobody gets much physical mail any more makes schools more likely to use physical mail, because it’s a novelty. They can and do use emails, texts, and social media to send their message. They also use the same “big data” and semi-creepy targeted marketing that everyone else uses. But old fashioned mail has a few advantages. It stands out from all the email you get, because it isn’t an email. Plus, they can get more information into a quick glance. In your email inbox, you probably only see who the email is from and what the subject line is. That’s easy to ignore. But with mail, they can get you to see the school name, and a photo, and a logo, and some other message—even if you don’t open the envelope. Plus, you have to physically handle it, which gives it more power over your memory than just looking at it on a screen.

Also, you probably don’t give your family access to your email inbox or texts. So if you ignore an email, nobody sees it. But you can ignore your physical mail…and it might still get seen by your parents. Or your siblings. Or visitors to your house.

How did they find you? Where did they get your address to begin with? The short answer is probably the PSAT. Also the SAT and ACT, but if you’re getting mail in your sophomore year it’s likely from the PSAT. When you take those tests, you fill out a lot of survey information that has nothing to do with the test: geographic and demographic information, your intended major, your religious preference, your parents’ level of education, all kinds of stuff. You are also asked someplace in the paperwork if you will allow them to share that information with colleges so they can reach out to you. If you checked the Yes box, and most people do, then all that information is sold to colleges and universities for marketing. You can get details about what kind of information the College Board shares here, and here is the privacy policy for the ACT. It can be an interesting game to try to figure out what about your profile got you on a list they were willing to pay for, but it’s impossible to know.

So what should you do with all that mail?

Look for what stands out. After you’ve looked at 10 or 20 of these, you’ll notice patterns. You’ll see an arial photo of the school, and the campus will be suspiciously empty. You’ll see students walking down a sidewalk, carrying backpacks. You’ll see a suspiciously diverse and balanced group of smiling students (sometimes really suspicious). There’s a professor standing at the front of a large lecture hall, speaking to attentive students (suspiciously, none of those students are watching Netflix or struggling to stay awake). You’ll quickly learn that none of these photos are interesting or tell you anything about the school. But once you know that, you can scan for things that do actually stand out. If something seems different about a brochure, stop to look more closely.

Look for what they want to emphasize. Colleges know they have to put more on their brochure than “We’re the best!” But they haven’t got room to put everything about the school. So they choose what they think is most important for right now, and you should pay attention to that. What are they pushing? Study abroad? Post-graduation job prospects? A special curriculum? Internship opportunities? Arts? Athletics? There’s something they really want to emphasize. Look for that and see how well it resonates with you.

To decide if you want to keep the mail, do a quick assessment of the school using your College Mission Statement. If you don’t have a College Mission Statement yet, then don’t throw anything away until you do. Here’s an explanation of how to write one. If you do have a College Mission Statement, then see how well the school stacks up against what you want based on what’s in the brochure. That should be the criteria for what mail you keep: how well it seems to fit with what you’re looking for. Ignoring schools just because you’ve never heard of them is a waste, as is keeping mail from schools that don’t fit what you’re looking for but have appealing photos or name recognition.

If a school looks interesting and seems to match your College Mission Statement, then follow up! Go online and get on their mailing list. (Yes, you’re obviously already on their mailing list, but get on the list of people who are truly interested. That’s a different list.) Spend some time looking over the website, and make sure you also check out any emails or other mail they send. A question that seniors often ask is “I’m applying to a school that considers demonstrated interest. How can I show that?” The absolute best way to demonstrate interest is to go back in time to your sophomore year and get on their mailing list and start opening their emails and checking out their website. Unfortunately that’s not possible. The next-best thing is to start following up with schools your sophomore year so you won’t be in that predicament later. Don’t wait until it’s getting too late—start to check out schools that you may be interested in learning more about. You can always change your mind and unsubscribe later. Brochures they send in the mail often have special URLs (that include your name) you can use to automatically let them know you’ve opened their mail and want to learn more.

Get rid of it. Some people will tell you to go ahead and keep all the mail, just in case. I’ve even seen people advise students to file away all the brochures in alphabetical order so they’ll be easier to find later. You don’t have the time or energy for that, and there’s really no reason to do that. If you follow up with a school, they’ll send you more, probably online but possibly through the mail. So you’re done with that physical brochure unless you want to show it to others—you can continue the conversation with the school online. If you’re not interested in following up with a school, there’s no need to keep all that trash. If things change and you want to know more about them later, you’ll be able to find it all online. So don’t dismiss physical mail, but do what you need to move most (or all) of it out of your house as quickly and efficiently as possible. But please recycle all that you can.

Thanks for reading! There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like on Facebook and Twitter, and get the monthly newsletter. I love mail: comments and questions are welcome and appreciated.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track user data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. A like, follow, or share mean the world to me. Thank you!

Photo by  Zoe Herring

Photo by Zoe Herring

Faulkner has checked back in

I didn’t hear back from Faulkner in January or most of February, and I was afraid I’d lost her. Fortunately, she checked in last week with some updates. She has a new frontrunner, and we’ll be hoping to hear more from her as news begins to come in!

Meet the Class gets updated each month from September to May. Each installment features an interview about both the facts and the feelings of where the student is in the process.

Interviews may be edited lightly for clarity and grammar. Names may be changed to protect privacy. 


What applications have you sent out? What's your list look like now? Are there any others you plan to send, or have you got them all?

I have sent Southern New Hampshire University, Tulane University, North Carolina State University, The George Washington University, and Kent State University. The last application I plan to send is for Michigan State University.

You're beginning your last semester of high school. What's your mindset around that? How does that feel?

I am excited about this new chapter in my life.

What's your best-case scenario? If you could wave the proverbial magic wand and have the entire college admissions process complete, what would be the outcome?

The best-case scenario is that I get accepted into Tulane University. If I could have the entire college admissions process complete, I would be at a fancy restaurant celebrating with my family.

How do you think the process is different for people with ADHD compared to people without? What specific challenges does it bring pertaining to college applications? What strategies for ADHD students are useful for you right now?

The only difference in college applications between people with ADHD and people without it is your answer to the section asking if you have a learning disability. The only challenges I faced with my college applications was finishing them in time. My strategy was to finish the writing section as soon as possible since it takes up the most time and you do not have to worry about it while finishing the other section of the applications.

Is there anything you'd tell your August self now that it's February?

I don't know what I would tell my August self.

What's the atmosphere like at your school? Now that applications are due and most Early Decision and Early Action notifications are out, has there been a change in your senior class? Tell me about that.

The atmosphere is very loud and rambunctious. There have been no changes to my senior classes.

Faulkner’s list:

Southern New Hampshire University (applied)

Tulane (applied)

N.C. State (applied)

George Washington University (applied)

Kent State (applied)

Michigan State

Thanks for reading! If you have college admissions questions for Faulkner, leave a comment or email me. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like on Facebook and Twitter, and get the monthly newsletter.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track user data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. A like, follow, or share mean the world to me. Thank you!

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Photo by Angela Elisabeth

Something to do over spring break

Something to do over spring break

Go on a practice college tour.

For many high school students, especially juniors, Spring Break is a popular time for college campus visits. I wouldn't necessarily call this "normal." Lots of students do it, yes. But lots of students don't do many--or any--visits until they're seniors and visit only schools they've already been admitted to. And plenty of students don't visit a college at all until they show up in the fall of their first year as students. What's "normal" is up to you and what you think is really best for you. While I don't recommend skipping college visits altogether, neither do I recommend going on big multi-campus trips just for the heck of it. 

The Glossary: liberal arts college

The Glossary: liberal arts college

In my own practice I tend to talk about three main types of colleges: “liberal arts colleges” (I say “liberal arts schools” just as often), “big state schools,” and “national private universities.” There are no clear lines between the three, there’s plenty of overlap, and I’m leaving out some (like trade schools, art schools, and other specialized schools). But those three get me through most of my conversations just fine.

One of the most commonly used terms is liberal arts college. What does that mean?

Asking for more financial aid

Asking for more financial aid

Now is the season when acceptance letters begin to arrive for a lot of seniors, and with acceptances come financial aid packages. (Remember: you never know how much a university is going to cost you until you apply and get accepted.)

The bad news is that very few students receive "full ride" scholarship or aid packages that cover everything. The most-quoted number I could find was about 20,000 per year, or 0.3% of applicants, though that number is possibly outdated. The NCAA says about 2% of high school athletes get college scholarships.

The good news is that around 88% of students do get some sort of discount. If you get an aid offer that isn’t a full ride, you probably want more. You may need more, but needing and wanting can be different. How do you ask for more money?

The Glossary: gap year

The Glossary: gap year

The first time I heard a student tell me he was taking a gap year, I got the completely wrong idea. Having never heard the term before, I thought he was trying to find a way to say that he didn’t finish college applications and was going to have to try again the next year. Kind of like “in between jobs” is sometimes a euphemism for “unemployed,” I thought “gap year” was a euphemism for “didn’t get into college.” But I was wrong. Very wrong.

What are your chances of getting into your top college?

What are your chances of getting into your top college?

I’m tempted to explain that it doesn’t work that way. Nobody can quantify your “chances” of getting accepted to any particular university, least of all strangers on the internet who are mostly high school students like yourself. But I assume almost all the people asking for their chances understand that. Playing the “chance me” game isn’t rational, and it isn’t meant to be an accurate gauge of the probability of an acceptance. Instead, I believe most people do it to get validation, or to calm their fears, or to have an outsider bring them to more realistic expectations for themselves. It’s emotional, not rational. It’s a way to deal with your anxiety over college admissions.

Grace is staying focused

Grace is staying focused

Grace has got an acceptance and an scholarship from one of her top-choice colleges. She’s also waiting to hear back from another top-choice school. She’s got a few more acceptances as well. You might think Grace is relaxing and feeling pretty accomplished, but she knows there’s a few more months to go. Read the full interview below.

What to do when you get waitlisted

What to do when you get waitlisted

As regular admission decisions begin to go out, it’s time to think about what to do if the answer you get isn’t Yes or No, but Maybe.

First, let me say I’m sorry. Getting waitlisted sucks. In some ways a Maybe is worse than a No, because it keeps the suspense going and also starts to make logistical problems for you. Take a little time to be frustrated or angry or completely freaked out, but no more than a day or two. You’ve got to figure out what to do next.

The Glossary: gapping

The Glossary: gapping

Gapping is an informal financial aid term. It has to do with colleges offering less financial aid than they believe you need. After you fill out your FAFSA form (and possibly your CSS Profile), you will get a dollar amount called your E.F.C., or Expected Family Contribution. This is how much the government formula says your family should be expected to pay for college. The cost of a university, minus the EFC, is your need. If a university offers you less than your need in financial aid, then there is a gap. They’ve gapped you. You’ve been gapped. This is what gapping is all about.

Dear Harvard, this is how you could run an admissions lottery

Dear Harvard, this is how you could run an admissions lottery

Dear Harvard College Admissions,

As you’re quite aware, there have been increasing calls for you to try out an admissions lottery system. Calls like the one here, for example, and here and here and here and here. A lot of people think the most fair way to handle admissions for a program that is worth a whole lot but only has an acceptance rate under 5% is to literally leave it up to chance. No legacy admissions, no diversity goals, no athletic recruitment, no committee votes. This, they say, would guarantee true diversity by taking away all biases and loopholes.

I completely understand your reluctance to go in this direction.

Now it's time to give thanks

Now it's time to give thanks

For most seniors, the active part of school applications is winding down. You’ve sent out most, if not all, of your applications. Now you wait. While you wait to hear from schools and think about how to choose from your acceptances, take some time to write thank you notes. Write one to everyone who has done something for you along the way: teachers who wrote recommendation letters, counselors who sent off transcripts, college admissions personnel who answered questions, people who took time to interview you. Everybody. They gave some of their time to help you, and you should thank them if you haven't already.