“Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and other executives are among 50 wealthy people charged in the largest college cheating scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Those indicted in the investigation, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” allegedly paid bribes of up to $6.5 million to get their children into elite colleges, including Yale, Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Southern California.” (ABC News)
These well to-do’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars to get their children into America’s elite institutions, from bribing athletics coaches to writing falsified letters of recommendation. In addition, some parents paid SAT exam proctors revise their multiple choice answers to boost their scores, while others paid someone else $10,000 just to take the SAT for their daughters.
But perhaps a culprit to blame is the manner in which the college admissions process is conducted in our country. Not just about the rich and privileged, but an inequality that spans across race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, and political backgrounds. When it comes to college admissions, the root of the inequality lies in a system that favors the rich and wealthy, underrepresented minority groups, athletes, legacies of parents who attended the university (especially wealthy donors), and the children from backgrounds of higher authority, like children of US politicians.
In a utopian society, I believe that elite education should not be an entitlement, but a meritocratic opportunity honored fair and square. But our education system isn’t fair in the first place. As a college consultant who has helped students admitted to the top universities, I know this scandal is more than just about privilege or race. It’s about the inherent flaws in our education system that need to be fixed.
Perhaps we should adapt the UK system where equality is more based on merit. For example, in the UK system, you are expected to perform well on a series of exams such as the A Levels, a high level exam known as the MAT, and finally an on campus in-person interview with the admissions committee where they challenge your academic and intellectual skillset. Very few soft factors such as race, ethnicity, unique personalities, or socioeconomic status are considered.
That seems like a much more fair process than what we have in the US system today, where students are judged by not only their academic profile but also softer factors like essays, ethnicity, income background, and an informal interview. The student’s personality has to shine, or mimick a culture that shares common values we are trained to approve of through the influence of media while in the process neglecting other backgrounds that are necessary to increase diversity in the first place.
For example, universities prefer to accept a student who has studied Roman Classics, a largely Westernized subject, rather than a strong student in math and science who also happens to be Asian. Are we really improving diversity, as these schools tend to claim to achieve? If you spawn an essay writing contest where the student has to act as “Western,” or “WASP,” or whatever culture that aims to stereotype the persona that admissions officers subconsciously want every student to mimic, aren’t we created a more segregated, rather than diverse, society by adhering to the values of Western culture that the media portrays?
We need to revamp our education system so that it plays a greater role toward the advancement of human knowledge and progress rather than a system that creates social, income, and ethnic class divide within our society. The divisive effects have stunted the growth in our country – the U.S. lags behind many other world countries including China, Japan, and Russia in the math, sciences, and engineering, for example.
The fact that these parents were willing to shore up millions of dollars to help their children get into these speaks volumes to the demand for these higher elite institutions, which have come to play an increasingly disruptive role within higher education, and fundamentally, our society. The great lengths that these privileged families were willing to undergo to secure their children an elite education shows that the value of these degrees cannot be understated.
It’s as if you get a head start in life. A degree from Stanford or Yale means you have higher employment opportunities, easier access to venture capital, and a lifelong connections with ambitious, successful colleagues who may one day propel your career and overall state of well being. From income inequality due to the higher employment prospects of these degrees to the lawsuit against affirmative action that put Asian Americans at an advantage, the admissions process of these universities have caused more harm than good.
From a long-term perspective, however, I recognize that these higher institutions will continue to encounter difficulty, not only by backlash given the the unfairness and inequity of the current admissions process, but also by the huge advancements of Internet education. The digital revolution, while as some have argued that it certainly has caused its fair share of income inequality, has also given us equal access to education and a superb quality of delivery of content that spearheads the universal dispersement of knowledge.
One day, these higher institutions may lose their luster as online education gains its foothold. But that is not going to happen anytime soon, at least not quite in our generation given by the ultra competitive desire among students and parents to get accepted in our nation’s most elite universities. And as long as higher education survives, the college admissions process seriously needs some reconsideration, and evaluated to establish merit-based solutions to uphold the values that institutions of higher learning are expected of – the purest pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of society.
The essay or personal statement is the most important part of the college admissions process. There are tens of thousands of high achieving students with 4.0 GPA’s, 1600 SAT scores, strong leadership and community service activities, and awards from regional and national competitions to boast.
But there’s only a limited number of spots. What do you think separates one student from another, especially at the highest echelon?
I’ll give the answer – it’s no secret. It’s the personal statement – without a doubt. It’s the one factor that will differentiate you from the tens of thousands of applicants vying for a limited number of spots.
I will begin by stating that the personal statement that you write will be highly dependent on who you are as a person and your background – including your ethnicity, demographics, socioeconomic background, extracurricular involvement, and even your gender. I take all of this into account when I work with my students to help draft a powerful personal statement.
There are certainly many pitfalls that I’ve seen students make. Some will write an essay that ends up being a laundry list of their accomplishments. Others will write an essay that simply doesn’t let them stand out. I’ll give you one example: an Asian American student who writes an essay simply about his/her intellectual curiosity about math/science without much else is literally shooting themselves in the leg.
Why? Because there’s tons of strong Asian American applicants who are strong in math/science.
The Ivy Leagues are looking for critical thinkers, and the essay needs to show your level of introspection and how you think about and approach the world around you – and how a particular experience shaped your perspective. This is key.
How you write the personal statement is just as important as what you write about. There’s a reason why some books are New York Times bestsellers year after year – it’s because of how the writing keeps the reader engaged and captures their attention while getting across a powerful message that resonates with the reader.
That’s what your personal statement should be – creative yet humble, one with flair yet introspective, and one that is deeply personal yet enables your personality to surface.
And if you can achieve that, you’ve got a winning personal statement – and a shot at the Ivy League.