Reflections on the Varsity Blues Documentary

Last week, Netflix released a documentary on the Varsity Blues admissions scandal (see the trailer here), and in light of both this documentary and our position as college counselors, we thought it best to reflect on the matter. This is somewhat different than most of our blog posts, but fear not, advice on all things high school and college admissions-related will return next week.

In this post we’ll talk about some of the ethical considerations of college consulting, and how we address them at Ivy Scholars. We’ll also reflect on some of what was covered in the Varsity Blues documentary.

At All Costs

At its core, the Varsity Blues scandal was caused by parents who wanted their children to get into college, no matter the material or moral cost. An increasing amount of societal importance and pressure has been put on college. Not just on going to college, but on going to the right college, so you can make the right kind of connections and have the right kind of life.

There is nothing wrong with wanting your children to be successful, and to lead good and fulfilling lives. It is one of the oldest and most basic human desires, and one we see every day here at Ivy Scholars. Indeed, this is often a noble goal, one which drives parents to give their children lives they never had. At its best, this is a noble pursuit, at its worst, it causes scandals like the one we saw.

This can be a fine line to walk, especially for those who are unwary. The distinction comes when you cross over from helping to putting a thumb on the scale directly. There is some nuance here, so we’ll detail our own ethics policy at Ivy Scholars, which guides how we help students, and more importantly, what we don’t do.

Our Ethics Policy

At Ivy Scholars, we seek to be guides in the college admissions process. Like guides through the wilderness or climbing a mountain, we can show you the way, and help you avoid the worst of the perils and pitfalls. In the end, however, you make the climb yourself; we cannot carry you, nor do the work for you.

Thus, when we help students with their college applications, we seek to point them in the right direction, and give them guidance when applying. We teach how to build proper prose, but do not write essays for students. We know what activities colleges like to see, but do not help our students lie about or embellish their accomplishments. We help students study for tests, but do not take the tests in their stead.

This is reflected in our article on college admissions as a field. We know the way, and we can show it to students, but in the end, they have to do the work. That is how we maintain an ethical standard. This is better not only for us, but for students and parents as well.

Putting legal and moral considerations aside for a moment, students who need underhanded methods to enroll in a top college likely won’t do well there. These colleges are bastions of learning, and this is exemplified through rigorous courses, and high expectations for academic performance. 40 hours of reading and problem sets outside of class is the norm, not the exception.

While getting students in through underhanded means may benefit them in the short term, many will have trouble coping with what is required of them, and will not do well. Most admissions companies know this, and few will go to the lengths Rick Singer did in finding side doors to college admissions.

The Trouble With Colleges

While the bulk of the blame for the admissions scandal should be, and is, laid at the feet of those who actively cheated the system, top colleges themselves are not blameless.

There are two ways that top colleges failed students and parents in this admissions scandal. The first is by promoting brand and prestige above all, and the second is by relaxing standards for admissions in the first place.

The top schools are and remain the top schools due to prestige alone. Not one of the college ranking lists measures the caliber of academic instruction, indeed, there is no reasonable way to measure this. Instead the ratings twist and purport, and come out with a list that looks correct because everyone expects it to look like that. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford is on top. The Ivy+ colleges round out the top ten. Private schools are almost universally ranked higher than public ones. 

Colleges care deeply about these rankings, though they pretend not to. Colleges themselves are one of the largest drivers of increasing application rates, and the ensuing arms race as high school students feel forced to compete with an ever widening and more-qualified crowd, seeking to distinguish themselves from the throngs of thousands.

WIth this ever increasing feeling of pressure, and the sense that if you don’t go to a top school, all the effort was for nothing, the decision to cheat becomes a siren song for some parents, who will do anything to get their kids ahead.

This is compounded by another factor at universities, the belief, often true, that admissions are inherently unfair. While some categorizations of bias in admissions are unfair (see our article on Asian-American discrimination), others are more pressing, notably athletics and legacy admissions.

While admissions standards are not necessarily lowered for athletic recruits and legacy students, they often are, and the both groups receive considerable admissions advantages at top schools. Indeed, it was by manipulating this very system that the Varsity Blues scandal became so large. If colleges want to properly affirm that admissions processes are equitable, and nip the next admissions scandal in the bud, then they need to reform how admissions works for these groups.

Final Thoughts on Varsity Blues

College admissions are stressful, and some try to deal with that stress by looking for guarantees, no matter the cost. We don’t give guarantees; we know better than that. There is risk associated with every activity, all we can do is minimize it, and illuminate it, and help you understand the risks, and take them deliberately. We cannot offer guarantees; there is no such thing as certain in elite college admissions.

To that end, we advise you to be wary of anyone who offers you guarantees or makes an offer that seems too good to be true, as these offers often are, in fact, too good to be true. If you are worried about your college admissions journey and want to know how we can ethically help your child on that path, schedule a free consultation, we’re always happy to hear from you.

Wendy Y.
Below is my son's review. He was accepted to his dream Ivy League school!

From an admitted student's perspective, I am incredibly grateful to have met Sasha - he has been instrumental in helping me achieve my educational dreams (Ivy League), all while being an absolute joy (he's a walking encyclopedia, only funnier!) to work with.

Many people are dissuaded from seeking a college counselor because they think they can get into their desired college(s) either way. Honestly, going that route is a bit short-sighted and can jeopardize your odds of acceptances after years of hard work. The sad truth is, the American education system (even if you attend a fancy private school and ESPECIALLY if you go to a public school) doesn't really tell students how to write a compelling and authentic application. Going into the admissions process alone, without speaking with an advisor, is like going to court without a lawyer - you put yourself at a significant disadvantage because you don't have all the facts in front of you, or the help you need to negotiate the system.

That said, you need a good lawyer just like you need a good college counselor. And that's where Sasha distinguishes himself from the crowd of people claiming they'll get you into Harvard. I came to Sasha worried about and frankly dumbfounded by the college admissions process. I was unsure what to write about and how to go about drafting the essay that perfectly captured my passion, interests, and self. And I was highly skeptical that anyone could really help me. But, damn, did Sasha prove me wrong. From the beginning, Sasha amazed me with his understanding of the process, and ability to lend clarity and direction to me when I desperate needed it. After interviewing me about my background, experiences, activities, outlook, and vision, he helped me see qualities about myself I had not previously considered 'unique' or 'stand-out.' This process of understanding myself was so incredibly important in laying the groundwork for the essays I eventually wrote, and I'm certain I would've drafted boring, inauthentic essays without it.

Looking back, Sasha's talent is that he can see where your strengths lie, even when you don't see them. The truth is, although we don't always realize it, everyone has a unique story to tell. Sasha helped me see mine, and with his big-picture insight I was able to write the application that truly encapsulated my life and vision. He inspired me to dig deeper and write better, challenging me to revise and revise until my essays were the most passionate and authentic work I had ever written. As clichéd as that sounds, that's really what universities are looking for. In retrospect, it makes sense - in the real world passionate (not simply intelligent) individuals are the ones who make a difference in the world, and those are the individuals colleges would like to have associated with their brand.

In the end, I was accepted to the college of my dreams, a feat I could not have achieved without the direction Sasha lent to me. Essays (and the personal narrative you develop through your application) matter so much, and can literally make or break your application. I have seen so many of my 'qualified' friends receive rejections because they wrote contrived essays that didn't truly represent who they were; conversely, I have also seen so many friends with shorter resumes accepted because they were able to articulate their story in a genuinely passionate and authentic way - I fall into the latter category.

As a former admissions officer at Johns Hopkins, Sasha knows what types of essays jibe well with universities, an invaluable asset to have in the admissions process. He is responsive, flexible, creative, positive, and witty. For anyone who is serious about going into the college admissions process informed and prepared, I highly recommend Sasha.
Arda E.
I used Ivy Scholars to mainly help me with college applications. Within weeks of using this service, Sasha was able to simplify the already complex process. When it came to writing the Common App essay, Sasha didn’t just help with grammar and syntax, he brought my essays to life. Sasha also worked tirelessly to help solidify my extracurricular activities, including research and internship opportunities. Without his help, I would have never had an impressive resume.

Sasha is not only an extremely knowledgeable tutor, but also a genuine brother figure. His guidance, throughout my last two years of high school, was everything I needed to get me an acceptance letter from my dream schools (UC Berkeley, Tufts, Emory).

When it came to testing, Ivy Scholars worked like a charm. Sasha offered a very comprehensive plan when it came to completely acing my standardized tests. Without his test taking strategies I would have never gotten straight 5s on my AP tests and a 35 on the ACT.

Working with Sasha, I didn’t just become a good student, I became a genuine scholar.
Samson S.
We worked with Ivy Scholars during my son's senior year. I was concerned that we may be too late to take advantage of college advising but the Ivy Scholars team quickly and confidently directed us through the steps to ensure no deadlines were missed. Sasha's knowledge about schools, what they looked for in candidates, and how to maneuver the application process was invaluable. Mateo and Ryan worked with my son to help him create an essay that would get noticed and I am so appreciative he had their guidance.

Prior to securing Ivy Scholars, we tried using a less-expensive online service which was a terrible experience. As a parent, Ivy Scholars brought peace of mind to an area that was frankly overwhelming. This service was invaluable in the knowledge that we gained throughout the process. He has also met with my freshman daughter to provide guidance for her high school courses, career paths, extracurricular activities, and more.

Prior to signing with Ivy Scholars, I tried a less expensive online service and was very disappointed.

As a result of our work with Ivy Scholars, I am pleased to say that my son will be attending Stern Business School at New York University this fall! I highly recommend Ivy Scholars. Highly recommend!