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Lessons Learned from the Cheating Scandal in College Admissions

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

It has been two years since the college admissions cheating scandal broke the news and put a spotlight on the admissions process. The recent release of the Netflix documentary "Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal" has brought the subject into the limelight again. There is a lot to digest in what we have since learned, including a lot of eyebrow-raising fraud.

But let us not forget the innocent victims, too. The high-performing, high-achieving, prospective college students who were denied access to an education, despite having the right amount of vigor to apply with authentic credentials. These students were robbed of their acceptance into many prestigious universities despite their hard work, qualifications and preparedness.

A statistic provided by the IECA in response to the scandal demonstrated the lack of proper guidance and training for students.” Access to college advising in high school is unequal across the country and particularly strained in urban and rural public high schools, where the average student-to-counselor ratio is 455:1 and more than 700:1 in some areas. This leaves school counselors overburdened and students under-resourced.” The ultimate goal of college admissions consulting is to provide equal opportunity to all potential students from any background or status.

Operation Varsity Blues placed a spotlight on the college admissions process, often described as “mysterious." College consultants are hired to exclusively assist with the college planning process and as with all things, there are some good actors and bad actors. Yet the risk of working with a consultant who compromises strict standards and ethics can land parents in jail. On that note, parents and students should be wary of the people they hire as consultants and be well-informed of the obligations and restrictions that credible consultants stand by.

Advice for Working with a Consultant

One of the most important aspects of working with college admissions consultants is knowing the roles of all parties involved. College consultants work with students to find the right career path, major, and college for their clients. They are not and should not be a placement agency, and they are not there to tell the client where they are going to go to college. That process is a two-way street, and students and parents should be expected to put in significant effort to help ensure success. The consultant’s job is to provide resources and guidance to students throughout the college application process, and the student’s job is to utilize those resources to complete applications, compose essays and complete the college admission process. A consultant agency should not function as the voucher to getting into a specific college. Rather they function alongside parents and students to assist in gathering resources and guiding potential so students can work to receive their acceptance due to everything they have put into the process.

Get Everything in Writing

Obtaining a contract is the key to starting any successful consultant/client relationship. Before any payment transactions, a written contract needs to be signed by both parties. Especially in the case of college admission consulting, this contract should lay out expectations, goals, and potential resources so that parents and students know exactly what services they will have access to and the work that will need to be put into the process. Having a written contract is a way of protecting students and parents and ensuring the agency will complete its services in a legitimate manner.

Look for Members in Professional Groups

Professional affiliations matter and there is a vetting process to be included with them. Parents should refer to professional organizations to ensure quality and respectable services are carried out. These organizations can be found locally or nationally. The number one reason to work with credible organizations is due to the quality they must maintain and the benchmark of operations that these reputable consulting organizations are subscribing to. Work with an organization with good standing to help ensure that you are getting the highest quality service. When considering an agency, the best way to vet their authenticity is to research and find out if they are a part of one of the many organizations.

The Independent Education Consultants Association (IECA) and National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) are onE of the many who strive to ensure credibility, legitimizing the consulting process through accountability. The IECA states its purpose as to ensure “that you will work with a professional who has proven expertise, is fully vetted and demonstrates the highest standards in education, training, ethics, and experience.” Many of these agencies have put out responses to the documentary emphasizing and urging ethical practices. Having transparency in the application and admission process is vital to help guarantee that clients are working with ethical and compassionate professionals. Being a part of one of these organizations ensures that consulting agencies are upholding these basic standards that ensure quality, lawful service. The importance of credible services not only affects the clients but also shows the various colleges applied to the integrity of the student and parents.

No Consultant Should Write the Essay

Students will ultimately be the ones attending classes at their universities. That is why it is so important for them to have hands-on experience in drafting and writing essays, whether it be for college or scholarship applications. Every aspect of the application process has to be student-led, not only for the college of choice to be able to hear the voice of their potential student but also for the students to gain useful experience while still having the guidance and resources from the consultant. This is also true for scholarship and financial aid applications. Working with these financial documents and real-world numbers helps give students a better opportunity to grasp the investment they are making toward their future and the importance of financial responsibility.

“Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.” – Ivan Illich

Quality agencies provide the settings in which students can truly learn and participate in creating their own future. While consults do provide essential instruction, there is intentionality to making sure the students are active participants. The potential knowledge students can gain from being a part of this process will stay with them. The resources and experience the students achieve through their consultant agency can be utilized not just in the application process but also while attending university and even is transferable to projects later in life.

No one can Guarantee Results

A consultant should never guarantee college admissions. Their job is not to lobby for clients, write essays, or use connections to get the students into certain universities. Doing so is not ethical and does little to help the students in the long run. Students gain valuable knowledge from filling out applications, writing essays, and attending workshops. The skills learned help put the students in a better position to succeed later in life, including gaining writing skills that can be used while attending their chosen university. The responsibilities given to the students will also help them learn valuable lessons in accountability, time management, and organization.

Esteemed author Henry Nouwen put it this way, “We cannot make it rain, but we can see to it that the rain falls on prepared soil.” While consultants cannot guarantee admission to a certain college, the groundwork put in by clients will help prepare students for any and all acceptances that come their way. It is never too early or late to start the process of preparing for the future, especially in the young lives of students. Consultant agencies assist in the process, functioning as supporters to aid clients at whatever stage they are in their scholarly experience.

Access College America can help provide not only resources and guidance for students but also for parents during what can be a complicated and stressful process. Attend one of our free college planning webinars, visit to prepare, apply and achieve.


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