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The Growing Obsession of Getting into a Prestigious University

In March 2021 Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal aired on Netflix, a documentary bringing to light how parents were making substantial donations to get their children into top US universities. The documentary opened people’s eyes not only to the fraudulent workings of university admissions, in which coveted places can be secured at the right price, but also to the obsession people have with going to a prestigious university. Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale and MIT are known the world over. In the UK, Oxford and Cambridge maintain reputations for academic excellence and being among the oldest universities in the world. And other institutions such as Tsinghua University in China and the Indian Institutes of Technology are building reputations comparable to those of their western counterparts.

For some people Operation Varsity Blues stung a little too hard. The admissions process can become all consuming. From writing application essays to studying for standardized tests, it’s easy to fall into the proverbial ‘rabbit hole’ in which nothing else matters. The obsession extends to one’s social life; you stop meeting friends and quit going to the gym. Weekends are spent studying and the commute to and from work is a time to listen to admissions podcasts. When it’s time to take a rest, you find yourself visiting internet forums with communities of similarly obsessed candidates focusing their entire existence on getting into a prestigious university. The understanding that parents are fabricating learning difficulties for their children just so they can get more time to complete a test or someone, somewhere is making a generous donation to sway the admissions committee’s decisions can be a bitter pill to swallow.

Man studying at night

But the question is, why are people so obsessed in the first place?

One word. Status.

For many people, going to college is more about that stamp of approval about their capabilities than it is about getting an education. The obsession is fuelled by the aura of exclusivity exuded by the most prestigious universities. For the class of 2027, Harvard’s acceptance rate was 3.4%, admitting 1,942 students from a pool of 56,937 applicants. Yale’s acceptance rate was similarly selective at 4.35%, admitting 2,275 students from its highest ever number of 52,250 applicants.

And in a nod to the concept of helicopter parenting, some parents who are paying big bucks to get their children into the best universities could even be doing it for themselves, not for their children. For these parents, the status of having a kid going to a prestigious college likely holds considerable value. In an appearance-driven world where people strive for social media perfection, acceptance into a prestigious university is something that just has to be shared. LinkedIn in particular is a network in which a stream of users announce daily how they are “delighted and thrilled to announce” a promotion or a new job. It’s telling that these are called status updates.

While the obsession to get into a top university is fuelled by limited places and stiff competition among candidates, universities are competing with each other to raise their prestige. University endowments are a source of that prestige, with Harvard and Yale having enormous sums of $51.9 billion and $42.28 billion respectively. The competition for larger and larger endowments helps explain why some admissions committees willingly accept ‘generous’ donations from applicants’ parents. Then there are university rankings, produced annually by various organisations such as Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings. Each year, universities eagerly await their ranking placements, celebrating a higher position than before and looking for ways to improve if their ranking isn’t what they hoped for. Interestingly, an often used metric in determining ranking placements is the student-to-faculty ratio. The less students there are per member of faculty, the better; the rationale being that each teacher can give more attention and better quality teaching to each student. However this puts a financial strain on the university. Having to pay more staff and getting less tuition fees from students means a donation in the millions of dollars is often highly appreciated. At times it appears the conditions are just right for the admissions system to be abused.

Female student studying for university entrance exams

The obsession of getting into a prestigious university is so prevalent that it has spawned a genre of content on YouTube and TikTok, specifically college decision reactions in which numerous hopeful candidates record themselves experiencing the joy of acceptance or the heartbreak of rejection. The genre’s popularity likely stems from the relatability of the college admissions process, a particularly stressful period in which one can put so much effort into getting into their dream university, and for one’s life journey to be forever altered by a few lines in a university email.

The obsession has also spawned a full blown industry; the admissions consulting industry, which by some estimates has a global market size of $10 billion. Increasingly admissions consultants are being seen as a necessary requirement of the admissions process, and that applying to university without them leaves you at a considerable disadvantage. It is to be noted, however, that it isn’t cheap and often out of the budgets of many aspiring candidates. In Operation Varsity Blues, the archvillain admissions consultant Rick Singer outlines 3 options for an applicant to get into a prestigious university:

  • Front Door option: The candidate gets in on their own merit.
  • Back Door option: Donate a lot of money to the college. Amounts up to $50 million need to be donated for this option.
  • Side Door option: Pay Rick Singer up to $500,000 and he would bribe college coaches to recruit your kid under the guise of an athlete recruit.

Much like Rick Singer some consultants have positioned themselves as founts of knowledge capable of providing much-needed guidance that can can open the gates of the most prestigious universities. Some have developed quite the celebrity following such as the no-nonsense talking Sandy Kreisberg, otherwise known as the HBS Guru, who many aspiring Harvard Business School applicants take advice from.

Student studying at library

Ultimately the college admissions process is fraught with imperfections, one of the more controversial topics being legacy preference. From the university’s perspective, it establishes closer bonds between a particular family and the institution, thereby improving chances of more donations coming through. However, it also means some deserving candidates are denied admission in favour of others who had the right parents.

With high competition for places and the growing obsession to get into the best universities, it’s unsurprising some people will attempt to game the system, through carefully placed donations or more elaborate schemes. For example, two students taking the Law School Admissions Test in Hawaii in 1997 took it to another level. The students paid an accomplice to gain entry to an LSAT at the University of Southern California. The accomplice got in using a fake ID and when the test was being handed out, he took a copy and ran away through a back door. He was chased by the proctor but the accomplice took out a knife. The answers to the test were solved and then sent by pager to the two students in Hawaii. As California is 3 hours ahead of Hawaii, this would give everyone involved time to solve the questions and transmit the answers. But when the two students in Hawaii took their LSAT, the proctor there got suspicious when he noticed both of them looking at their pagers frequently. Both scored in the 99.99% percentile, which raised suspicions even further. They were soon found out and sentenced. The perplexing aspect of this story, if the whole thing wasn’t perplexing enough, is that the two students in Hawaii were good students. They didn’t need to cheat to get into law school.

While taking steps to give yourself an admissions advantage can help, as the story above shows, things can be taken too far, and one has to reconsider if the obsession to get into a top college is healthy.

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