Do Prospective Students Have to Lie in Essays to Get Into College?

Blowing up the internet is a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Suzy Lee Weiss, a high school senior from Pittsburgh. In her article, Weiss asserts that college admissions committees don't care about you unless you have “nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms,” as well as racial diversity. So, when she didn't get into the “name-brand” schools of her dreams, she blames her supposedly overly-lax parents' “[giving] up on parenting” her.

On that point, if you blame your parents for your “dearth of hobbies,” yet felt that the colleges you were considering would want to see them, why didn't you make the effort to dedicate your time to them?

Anyway, opinions on the article vary — maybe it's simply satire gone horribly wrong, or a rant better started with “Dear Diary." I personally think it's a critique of affirmative action failed by poor turns of phrase coupled to the author's own privileged biases. After all, the Supreme Court is deciding two cases this term on affirmative action, and given the political leanings of the Wall Street Journal, it wouldn't be surprising to see them run an op-ed on how affirmative action supposedly ruins the educational opportunities of the privileged parts of the teenage population.

But where many saw Weiss' ideas about gaming the system as ridiculous, it smacked this pundit not of satire, but of reality. In high school, I and most of my acquaintances aimed for the best colleges in the country, and the vast majority of us ended up going to fantastic schools. Only problem is, some told me about how they had engaged in the kind of deception Weiss talks about. For example, one acquaintance of mine falsely claimed to be bisexual, and another claimed to have invented a save-the-animals charity (just like Weiss imagines). One even claimed to be the valedictorian of a school that didn't rank its students. Most commonly discussed was the practice of claiming ethnic backgrounds students didn't have — but never Asian, since apparently the over achievement of all Asians made them even less desirable than whites.

Nevertheless, I didn't see any value in lying on my application, even though I'm what some may consider the least “diverse” person alive: an upper-middle-class, heterosexual, cisgendered white male. As I saw it, if what I had done in high school couldn't get me in, chances were I weren't cut out for that particular school.

I don't know if the lies I heard about helped gain students their college admissions. I also don't know if these liars are representative of a growing fraction among my academic or socioeconomic cohort. Maybe their lies were extremely transparent to admissions officers and consequently ignored or punished. But come December or March, these students were all admitted by some of the top-ranked schools in the country.

Writing about yourself in the most positive yet truthful way you can is to be expected. I smooth over my resume as much as the next guy, but I don't lie on it. Such lies trivialize the incredibly awesome work that people actually do. 

Would lying on applications stop if colleges cared less about achievement and leadership as opposed to some other measure of academic skill and ability to contribute to the campus community? Are high schoolers going to lie more often to stand out in an ever-growing population trying for a stagnant number of spots in college classes?

I don't know — I leave these question to the crowd-sourcing brain of PolicyMic. What's certain is that the likelihood of getting a top-tier admissions has decreased and may decrease further. To college applicants, desperate times may call for desperate measures, truthful or not.