A few weeks ago, a fiftysomething friend of mine who had graduated from an elite Southern college sighed “If I applied today, I couldn’t get in.”
It’s a comment I hear a lot from friends who matriculated from top-tier schools like Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia twenty or thirty years ago. It’s a kind of FOMO on something that they didn’t actually miss out on. The children of these friends are now of college age or approaching it and as parents they’re coming to the conclusion that if they had to do it all over again today, they couldn’t get it done. As they guide their kids through college tours, admissions essays and ACT prep courses they’re seeing first hand that the college admissions process in the 21st Century is more intense and seemingly more competitive than it was in the 20th Century.
Then today news broke that various Hollywood actors, CEOs and others were among a group of some 50 suspects charged in a multimillion dollar college entrance scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed people to take tests, and paid off coaches and administrators to identify their kids as athletes, all as part of a scheme to get their sons and daughters into top colleges like Yale and Stanford. The Federal Bureau of Investigation sting reportedly was codenamed “Operation Varsity Blues.”
For years, complaints about gaming the college admissions system have been directed at the wrong students. Anyone who is black and went to an elite school probably felt the stares, maybe heard the whispers. There was always some crank somewhere saying that being a person of color gave us an unfair advantage getting into whichever elite school we were in. The talk was mean-spirited and misguided but we learned to brush it off like lint on a letter jacket. Now the world sees the scandal many of us always knew was there: how the super rich game the system to get into elite schools.
Earlier this year, Harvard announced that a record 43,330 students applied for admission to the Harvard College class of 2023, up 1.4 percent from the year before and marking the fifth straight year of increasing application numbers. For the class of 2022, Harvard admitted just 4.7 percent of the 42,749 who applied–way down from the roughly 20 percent acceptance rate when I got into Harvard in the 1980s.
With admissions rates so low, tensions about getting in are running high. These days, talking up your school around the house can feel like a form a child abuse. Even smart, talented kids with straight-As, seats on student government and rooms full of sports trophies might not get in to many top schools. Is it fair to talk up a possibility that might not happen for your kid? Is it right to push your kid towards a school that you couldn’t get into today? But if you don’t encourage kids to shoot for the top, are you selling them short?
This fear that that some elite college graduates have that they might not have what it takes to get into elite colleges today is what could be driving things like the latest alleged cheating scandal. Parents figure if they don’t have what it takes, maybe their kids don’t either–so instead of having faith in their children’s abilities, they turn to cheating on their behalf.
The important thing to remember is that the college admissions game is something of an illusion. Top colleges are admitting a smaller percentage of applicants, but students aren’t necessarily smarter or better than they were back in the day. Kids today apply to many more colleges than they did in decades past, and more international students are in the mix, so with the application pool growing, acceptances rates are shrinking.
But there’s no reason for despair. It’s certainly true that a student might not get their first choice–which may happen to be your alma mater–but if they’re truly an outstanding student, they’ll get their second choice, or their third or something down the line. There are a lot of great schools out there and a great student is likely to find a place somewhere.
Part of my new novel “Around Harvard Square” revolves around a scheme in which a rich student cheats his way through the Ivy League admissions process. When the scandal comes out, another character rages, “You’re so used to having so much that fairness feels like oppression and inheritance feels like achievement.”
Helicopter parents need to land and let their kids find their own way.
I’ve gone with my son to Harvard basketball games, and I took my daughter for a tour of the Harvard Lampoon castle. Not long ago we all paid a visit to my niece, who is living in the same freshman dorm at Harvard that I was assigned back in the 1980s. I got a lot out of my time at Harvard, but I’m not worrying about whether my kids will make it in, or whether I would make the cut if I applied today. I learned a lot at school, but my parents taught me one of my most important lessons before I left for Cambridge: have confidence in yourself. Acceptance isn’t just about getting in.
C.J. Farley is the author of the new novel “Around Harvard Square” (Akashic Books).