The film follows two fictional families angling to get their children into prestigious colleges. One set of parents is fixated on Stanford, where Danny, their son, stands a good chance of getting in: He is a “double legacy,” his dad boasts, meaning both of his parents went to the university. An acceptance letter is, at least according to his parents, his birthright.
Getting into Stanford won’t be easy, though, and Danny’s parents know it; they fret over his GPA and SAT score even more than Danny himself does. Stanford is one of those highly selective institutions that seems to get more selective each year. (The annual release of its admit numbers became such a spectacle that the university, in 2018, announced that it would no longer issue news releases about the data.)
But then something comes along that might save Danny from those daunting admissions numbers. When a group of parents is gathered over coffee, engaged in an anxious conversation about their children and college, one mom mentions the name Rick Singer.
Singer is one of the figures Lifetime dragged and dropped—name and all—into the movie from the actual Varsity Blues scandal. In real life, Singer orchestrated schemes to fabricate test scores and exaggerate students’ athletic abilities to get them admitted to selective colleges through “side doors”—such as those reserved for athletes—for a hefty price. The fictional Singer is not much different. He’s a master salesman in the film, convincing parents that he can discreetly provide them with a crucial admissions nudge.
Read: A scandal fit for a win-at-all-costs society.
The College Admissions Scandal also runs with the notion, backed up by the federal investigation, that overbearing parents, not their children, were the ones instigating the deception. At one point in the film, a mother persuades her daughter to take photos in front of a green screen to make it seem like she’s really a soccer player, as her application indicates. “It seems so easy—I’m surprised everybody doesn’t do it,” the daughter says, almost gleefully, before posing for the pictures. (Her mom replies that, well, not everybody has a quarter of a million dollars to spare.)
Other children in the movie are unaware of their parents’ machinations. In this regard, the film also hews closely to reality. In the transcript of one conversation released from the Varsity Blues investigation, one parent, who’s worried that her daughter will get suspicious, asks Singer, “How do you do this without telling the kids what you’re doing?” “Oh, in most cases,” Singer assures the parent, “none of the kids know.”
In telling this tale, The College Admissions Scandal frequently leaps ahead in time, fast-forwarding to the most dramatic points of what was otherwise a more drawn-out disaster for the families involved. One jump takes viewers to the testing rooms for students granted extra time on the SAT—securing additional time for students, even if they didn’t really need it, was a central part of Singer’s real-life cheating operation. There are jumps to the moments of bliss: One student gets into Yale, and another gets into Stanford. And of course there is a jump to the point in time when all the wrongdoing comes to light, with scenes of flashing police sirens and children fuming at parents.