Admissions Ethics

"How has the college admissions process changed in the 30-something years that I have been helping students choose and apply to college?"

When I give talks or appear on radio shows, I typically point out how students are filling in more applications and that therefore it's harder to predict who will be admitted where. I talk about "yield"--the number of admitted students who actually matriculate. If Tommy applies to 14 colleges and is offered a spot at eight of them, there are seven schools where he doesn't show up. It's increasingly hard for those seven schools to make good predictions about the size of their first year classes.

The Common Application has its pluses, but allowing colleges to know who is likely to be on campus the following fall is not one of them. A generation ago, filling in an application by hand or with a typewriter was a commitment. Remember trying to line up your answers to "name," "address," and "phone number" on your portable selectric? Remember white out? Remember tearing up the mangled application and getting up the courage to write to the college to request another copy?

But the biggest change since I started advising families in 1983 is that parents no longer even pretend to be subtle about their perception of college admissions as an arms race. "Duke or Die!" is ingrained in both generations. Perhaps, as a result of the stress, parents don't even pretend to model ethical behavior in the admissions process.

Frankie, a good student, mentions that he was the treasurer of the Future Business Leaders of America Club at his private school.

"Write down that you were president," his unblinking mother says.

"But I wasn't president, mom," Frankie replies.

His mom continues: "How would they know?"

Of course, I found the above conversation horrifying. Poor Frankie, who now has to contradict his mother in order to fill in an accurate application. And poor Frankie's mom. What a burden it must be to believe that unless your child is admitted to Duke that his life will be lessened in some way. Imagine teaching your child that it's okay to lie.

I gently explained that independent counselors can not be part of a process that involves falsifying applications. Frankie's mom just looked at me. Maybe she was waiting for me to wink and say, "Just kidding." Maybe she thought I would ask her for more money. I can think of many meetings over the years that I have enjoyed more.

The good news is that there is a big win for families who are willing to go about the process of filling in applications in an appropriate way.

If you refuse to encourage your children to exaggerate, prevaricate, and fib on their applications, there is less likelihood that they will grow up to be criminal psychopaths arrested and imprisoned for stealing pension funds.

Kohlberg taught us about the stages of moral development. A young child might not steal a cookie for fear of getting caught. An older child might not steal a cookie considering that there might not be enough cookies for everyone. I would argue that Frankie's mom clearly wants all the cookies for herself.

Kids learn what they live. Model joy, acceptance. "Don't do things. Be things." Communicate that your kids will be okay if they go to Duke or some "lesser" school. Let your kids know that you believe in them because they have your good values and morals.

Kids who get screamed at learn how to get screamed at or how to scream. Abused kids learn how to be abused or how to abuse. And kids who are taught to lie learn how to lie. On the other hand, kids who are respected learn how to be respectful.

How do loving parents bring up healthy kids in a world overrun with people like Frankie's mom? Communicate to your kids at every opportunity: I love you for who you are, not for what you do. You are my beloved child whether you are admitted to this college or that. And in our family, behaving honorably is more important than being president of the Future Business Leaders of America.

10 thoughts on “Admissions Ethics

  1. Lorna

    This just happened to our family yesterday. This is a timely article. My daughter was rejected to her first choice private college and was told by her counselor “she would have no problem getting in this college” My daughter didn’t pump up her application with half truths or lies. We did have a college app specialist for her. Can we even find out why she was not accepted or is that not possible.
    She attends a well known college prep high school here in Santa Cruz. Thanks for letting me vent!!

    1. Fern

      Her counselor’s assurances were incorrect, but that does not mean it would have been better for her to lie. Even if lying did get her a better chance of acceptance into that college, that would only mean that she was accepted into a college that offers admission to a dishonest student, which would darken any celebration over that acceptance, and potentially compromise her attitudes toward her fellow students and ensuing behavior at college. It’s hard to celebrate better things ahead when you feel disappointment, but I hope you can continue to be proud of the fact that she insists on being honest. Good luck to your daughter.

  2. Gustavo Menendez Bernales

    One more of your magnificent articles. Thank you for the wisdom, inspiration and advice you provide us with. Congratulations!!!

  3. Fern

    My kids are off at college and beyond now, and I remember experiencing the same shock when casually conversing with their friends’ mothers (and sometimes fathers) , and they would drop a bomb similar to Frankie’s mom’s. Then, of course, awkward silence. I don’t know how we change these things, but they seem to be playing out in parallel in current presidential election politics, with candidates telling bold lies and then playing coy when called out. In other words, it is very hard for a parent to teach a child about right and wrong when the prevailing culture does little to reinforce those teachings, and they see “leaders” being rewarded for dishonesty in all forms.

    1. Devorah

      Hello David,

      I continue to enjoy your words. Always interesting, always humorous, and always relevant. This one really struck a nerve.

      Our therapeutic boarding school’s admissions director recommended to parents of one of my students three different educational consultants who were located in the student’s home-town. The parents chose the educational consultant from the list of three.

      On a conference call with said consultant and the student, the consultant stated emphatically as we were filling out the activities section of the CommonApp: “Just lie. Just lie. They (colleges) never check or verify!”! Needless to say, I was frantically waving my arms, emphatically shaking my head and silent screaming “NO”. The student ultimately submitted a full, varied list, all of it truthful and accurate.

      I asked our admissions director to delete the educational consultant from her list, stating I will never work with that consultant again.

      David, Thank you for what you do. You are a sublime writer.


  4. ines

    these are the result of a society that has lost its compass where everything has become relative and noting shocks but dishonesty, lying or cheating should not be ignored or tolerated. There is a right and wrong and we should insist on placing the 10 commandments on every class of every school in the USA and have our children and parents repeat 5 times a day.

    No joking…

  5. susan

    Great article David. You know only too well how my children managed to “get through” the process and are loving and productive human beings who now have children of their own. We have a 16 year old granddaughter that will be applying to colleges in the not too distant future and I’m hopefull she won’t be competeing with Frankie’s mom’s offspring!

  6. Tom C


    As much as I value what I learn from you and appreciate your humor, I respectfully disagree on one point. I served as a wet behind the ears admission officer at an Ivy League college back when you were still learning to ride a tricycle. I can assure you that Frankie’s mother was alive and well back then. At that time encountering this phenomenon with any frequency was confined to a very specific group of high pressure suburban public high schools mostly in the northeast corridor and greater Chicago. But the game was the same. In those particular high schools, the school counselors and administrators appeared to be complicit. In those days, we generally knew where else our applicants were applying, could collude with other colleges on financial aid packages, and more than a half dozen college applications from the same student was a serious indication of a student with emotional problems.

    While I no longer have such an active role in college admission, I currently see many more families who regard the college admission scene as a simple matter of enrolling in a nearby college where the student can save money by commuting and keep up with close family ties.

    I don’t doubt that Frankie’s mother exists and has has multiplied, but fortunately not all applicants are under her influence.


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