The college-admissions scandal that led to federal bribery charges against dozens of parents last week unfolded at selective universities that pride themselves on “holistic” evaluations of their applicants. This process typically means that several admissions officers review a file and consider factors beyond grades and test scores, often intangible qualities that aren’t quantifiable and are usually gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations. This approach is nearly ubiquitous among selective schools.
Given this scrutiny of applications, among the questions raised following the Justice Department probe is how the actions of a few rogue coaches and SAT proctors could go totally undetected in these admissions offices. How did the alleged cheater not get caught?
Over the past four months, I have sat with admissions readers and committees at three selective colleges as they chose this fall’s freshman class, as part of research for a book I am writing about the inner workings of the admissions business. (None of the three schools I’m following for the book was named in the investigation.) While readers—as the people who review applications are called—would sometimes raise questions about absent pieces of information or other inconsistencies, the issues were usually minor: unfamiliar acronyms, missing scores for AP tests, or a recommendation that mentioned a school club not listed elsewhere in the file. Even in those cases, the readers usually didn’t have time to search the internet for additional information, so they moved on, assuming, perhaps, that these were oversights and nothing more.