Front-door entry into Ivy League

Overseas Education | Lisa Kao 13 Aug 2019

Earlier this year, the US college admissions bribery scandal has shocked the world, with 51 people pleading guilty, including famous businessmen and actors.

The main character involved in the incident, William Rick Singer, made use of the entrance exam test scores and fabrication of sports credentials to help paying parents get a better chance of getting into top American universities.

How did Singer work the system successfully? The scandal reveals secrets behind university entrance in the United States.

First, Singer was doing something with the university entrance exams - not only creating fake proof of learning disabilities to gain extra time for taking the exams, but also arranging someone to substitute the test taker.

Duc Luu, the founder and chief executive of The Edge, an admission consulting and academic tutoring center, has been examining the incident.

He noted in a talk in last month that unfair testing has been common, especially in SAT exams.

"SAT does not limit the time for adults to take the test, so many made photographs or memorized the test, and sold them for money."

Apart from faking the test, cheating on athletics achievements has been another way for Singer to help the kids to get into top schools illegally.

"An athlete recruit is a way to enter university with a lower score. The college coaches can submit a certain number of sports recruit names to the admissions office," said Luu, who was formerly in the recruitment side of Yale's fencing team.

"But the schools cannot put the kid in sports gear and test the kid on the track," he added.

"Instead they would invite the athlete to the campus and talk with him or her in person."

Singer made a fake resume, photoshopped a student's face onto photographs of another person taking part in the sport and bribed the universities' athletics coaches, allowing the student to have a more favorable record for admission.

The scandal shows that academic results and extracurricular activities are both important factors for determining students' entrance to the US universities - legally and illegally.

However, what defines good results? Luu said these are common questions among parents.

"You have to be in the top 10 percent locally, top five and one percent for China and Hong Kong to get into these top 15 schools," said Luu.

It means that students are expected to get IB 41, have nine to 12 AP, have GPA 34.75 to 4.0, have SAT results of 1,510 and ACT results of 35 in order to enter the top universities.

However, academic results are just basic entrance tickets. A place is not guaranteed even if one reaches the standard.

"Harvard received 40,000 applications for 1,800 places. Half of them are those who do not reach the academic requirement; but the other half are amazing kids with high GPA, qualified SAT, ACT scores."

This is where extra-curricular activities come into play. They make students stand out in the fierce competition.

"Parents always ask: what kind of instrument to play?" Luu said. "But there is no concrete answer to the question."

If the college's orchestra lacks a French horn player, an applicant talented in French horn would be favored. The level of talent in the activity matters more.

"The base level is being in a team. Then it would be better if the student is the star of the school, and even won an award at a city or state level. The fourth level would have leadership in the field."

Luu uses himself as an example. "I played chess, won a championship and became the chess captain."

When students own their own profile of extra-curricular success, grouping them and giving them unique identities becomes important.

Luu described it as a persona. "Persona is when I close my eyes, I see one sentence. And I know who exactly the kid is." It would give a special characteristic to the person and leave a deep impression on the admissions side.

He illustrated it with a case he helped with.

"He was a Chinese boy who studied maths, physics and economics. The first thing I did was to help the student to improve his ACT score to 35. Then I looked into his profile."

The student founded a Life Insurance club, worked with NGO Water Works for several years and was the captain of the frisbee team, winning a championship.

"His persona is then a national frisbee player, social entrepreneur, with strong emphasis on maths and economics." The boy went on to his desired degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

While students themselves play the main role in admission, parents can help a little. "Most said that it is five times easier to get in if their mum or dad is alumni," he noted.

And direct and open donations to the school are also allowed.

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