Confessions of a Recovering Admissions Officer

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Admissions & Student Aid, April 30, 2004

It broke my heart. In over three years as an admissions officer, thousands of essays read, only one ever made me cry.

I got my share of tear-jerkers–kids who wrote about the slings and arrows of horrible illnesses. Grandparents, siblings, beloved pets all died and were mourned. Sometimes the essays were raw and unprocessed, with language that stuttered and fumbled; sometimes rich in both emotion and cliché. After a while you got a little numb.

And then I read the one that made me cry.

It told a story, in breezy, unaffected manner, that went something like this: My mom died. I was a little kid, too young to understand, too young to miss her. Don’t feel sorry for me, I turned out just fine. But when I see a woman gently stroking the hair of her daughter, I know in a heartbeat what I am missing: a mother’s touch. It was gorgeously written, moving without being lugubrious, vivid and specific in its details, funny in expected right places.

It was the kind of essay that made you run from your office to find colleagues who would share and appreciate this amazing kid. My colleagues oohed and aahed. All except one.

“Can I borrow this for a minute?” she asked.

“Of course.” I was sure she wanted to make a copy for her files.

Instead, what she did was make a few phone calls, to seasoned admissions officers.

“Just as I suspected,” she marched back to announce. “This essay has been around. It was submitted by other applicants at other schools.”

It broke my heart.

Working in admissions, you know that students are trying as hard as they can to play the system, pulling out every available stop to get an edge. And why shouldn’t they? The competition is stiffer than the Donald’s comb-over. Even if they do everything “right,” there’s no guarantee that they’ll get in. When you’re recruiting, you know that they’re trying hard to impress you both with their accomplishments and their desire. You know that parents are paying consultants upward of $30,000 to help, taking off a year of work to manage the process of their children’s applying to colleges. You know that each kid has something special to offer, but that there are enough great kids to fill your first-year class by at least 200 percent. You know all this.

But to do your job—to do it well and to enjoy it—you have to believe. When you sign up to spend time traveling the country for a college or university—whether you see yourself as a sales rep, a cheerleader, a snake-oil salesman, a cult guru, or a professional marketer—you have to believe. You have to like talking to kids, getting them excited about the institution you represent. You have to believe that they are basically good and truthful.

Even as I watched the episode of the television show Felicity where the curly-locked, angst-ridden eponymous heroine discovered that her love interest, Ben, had invented a brother who died of cancer for his application essay, I pushed it out of my mind. “My” kids wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t bear to read cynically, and so I didn’t. And so my heart got broken.

Sometimes it was impossible not to spot deception. Like when the number of hours that applicants said they spent on various extracurricular activities exceeded the hours in a week. Like when his English teacher said that while he was a nice guy from a good family, the kid needed a lot of help with his reading and writing — and then you read his flawless essay and suspected that it had been written by his dad, or by one of his friends.

But generally, as an admissions officer, you read with an open mind and an open heart. You want—you need—to believe. While it’s easier to say no to an applicant, it’s more fun to say yes.

I try to remember that now that I have gone over to what I used to call the Dark Side. I am involved in helping kids put together their applications. I do that as a consultant, and I do it as a high-school track coach. It’s fun to hang out with teenagers. I hear a lot of frank talk from the kids. Since I have no real authority over them, they open up to me, especially if they want my help. I’ve learned some things.

Cheating. I rarely thought about it when I worked in admissions. Then one of my runners told me about a girl from her high school who had landed a prestigious merit scholarship — one with a large character-and-community-service component. The girl had cheated her way through school, and everyone knew it, students, teachers, administrators. Everyone but the college that awarded her the scholarship. I’ve heard about elaborate admissions scams from kids you’d think were too smart to want or need to cheat.

I used to think of the transcript as a fairly objective document in a subjective system of evaluations. Now I see kids wheedle and whine their grades up, by doing extra credit, by nagging and wearing down their taxed and tired teachers. On the other hand, I’ve also seen how those kids who hear different drummers march alone, unheralded by teachers and unappreciated by their peers, and how that can’t be found on a transcript. I’ve seen parents bully, hector, and harangue teachers (and coaches) in such a way that it is an act of saintly generosity not to hold it against the kid. Or an act of cowardice when the student is rewarded, simply because it is the path of least resistance.

When I was in admissions we looked for leadership and participation. I recently learned of a high school where every senior on the swim team is a captain. (There are schools with 34 valedictorians; why did having 13 swim captains surprise me?) I know more than one kid who is founder and president of a club with exactly one member. Students who show up for track practice once a week are no less quick to list their participation than those who show up every day. Key Club meetings are rarely held and sparsely attended. Or a Key Club will build an entire Habitat for Humanity house. National Honor Society is either a great honor or a joke. Much depends on your high school.

An alarming number of colleges ask, “Why us?” The truth is that most high-school students have no good idea why they are applying to the colleges they are applying to. The question is an invitation to armchair traveling. Students read guidebooks and visit Web sites, not campuses, and then they tell the lies they think the admissions offices want to hear. Some apply because they like the city they think the school is in. (As far as I can tell, geography is not a strong subject for many teenagers.) The answers to the question are as grueling to read as they were to write, and I wonder why colleges continue to ask for what they surely know is disingenuous filling of space.

What I’ve realized, looking at the process from the student’s perspective, is how unimaginative the applications are, how there is a rote form that is understood by everyone: These are the things that count; do them so you can list them. I appreciate MIT’s and Caltech’s applications, where, in addition to more-traditional essay questions, they ask students to fill a blank sheet of paper in whatever way they feel will represent them. Although it’s not surprising that those institutions, Meccas for techies, recognize that geeks may not express themselves best through language, it would be nice if others made the same nod toward creativity.

Lying, cheating, plagiarism, résumé-padding — in addition to drug and alcohol abuse — these are at risk of replacing baseball as our national pastimes. Why should we expect high-school students who read the newspaper to hold themselves to a higher standard than Martha, Barry, Ken, or the U.S. government? Besides, if they told the whole unvarnished truth, would we reward or penalize them?

Spending time with high-school students, I also witness the time-consuming activities that were never listed on the applications I used to read: SAT prep classes can take up to 10 hours a week. Visiting grandma can be a huge time drain, as can mowing the lawn or making dinner for little brother. You’re in high school, so you want to look good. You run, lift weights, and shop. Spending time with friends, family, doing homeworkyou don’t get any credit for putting those down in the white space of your application. Pity the students who are made to believe that there should be no white space, either on their application forms or in their lives.

Recently, one of my runners said he thinks having a girlfriend should be considered an extracurricular activity. The former college-admissions officer in me scoffed and sneered. But my inner coach sang when I heard him talk about how much he’s had to learn just by being in a relationship: how he has grown in understanding not only himself but the challenges of trying to communicate emotion; the excitement and terror of “young love” (as he calls it); the joy and anxieties of trying to integrate into another person’s family. It’s certainly a more meaningful activity than Key Club, he said.

How much better would it be for him to write about that than, say, to kill off, fictively, a mother who’s alive and well? How would I have responded if a student like him had filled his application with the truth about how he spent his time: thinking, wondering, talking, dreaming? That kind of application — well, that could break your heart.