By Caroline Moore ’17
Over years, the once manageable college process has become a ruthless competition, fought with calculated gamesmanship and unethical practices. As colleges’ acceptance rates have fallen to as low as 3%, the frequency of immoral behavior executed by students, parents, and school administrations has skyrocketed. As one of the most impressive contenders in the ring, Taft boasts a 99% matriculation rate to some of the most competitive colleges and universities in the world. Although Taft’s top-grade teachers and college counselors as well as the generally high-achieving student body are all major causes for these impressive statistics, there is more at play that explains a Taft student’s success. While eating breakfast in Prentice during the peak of seniors’ application season, one may hear tales of the college process that sound more like war stories and less like lunch table chatter. After hearing about someone’s essay tutor that comes at a rate of $450 per hour, listening to how angry a friend was when they realized their parent made a spelling mistake while writing their college essay, and overhearing a peer admit that they lied about their extracurricular activities, I can’t help but wonder: What does it really take for a Taft student to triumph over his or her peers in the duel for admission?
Offenders of gamesmanship may think that their practices are justified because they’re “just playing the game” and “doing what everyone else is doing” because there isn’t a clear difference between what’s fair and what’s unethical. Ask any student at Taft and most will have a myriad of stories that tell of the elaborate college schemes devised by people they know. When asked to share her thoughts on the use of immoral conduct in the college process, India Burns ’17 expressed her frustration at one of the most fraudulent kinds of manipulation: when students cheat their way into getting extended time on standardized tests.
“It’s really common in New York City for kids’ parents to pay sketchy psychiatrists $10,000 to get them accommodations from the College Board and the ACT,” she says. “I know kids at Deerfield and Andover who don’t have any kind of learning disabilities and got near-perfect scores on standardized tests because they were given extra time.” Not only do these students receive an unfair advantage over their peers, but they also threaten the legitimacy of the standardized testing and its entire system. Because of the recent spike in the number of students that apply for extended time, the ACT and College Board have become extremely cautious as to whom they give accommodations to. The process to apply for extra time can take months, and many students with genuine learning disabilities will wait just to find that their requests are rejected. In this case, wealthy parents can pay for lawyers and psychiatrists that will help to appeal these rejections on their child’s behalf, but students of lower socioeconomic status are left without accommodations and unable to compete with their peers as a result.
Furthermore, the college process has not only become a competition of merit, but also a test of how much you are willing to pay for an acceptance letter. With the price of an SAT class, essay tutor, and a trip to build houses in Haiti for an essay topic, the cost of applying to college has become considerably more expensive than the $70 application fee. The widespread use of such expensive resources – especially among students of elite prep schools – fosters a corrupt system in which wealthier students have an unfair advantage over their peers. There is no doubt that this system blatantly discriminates against students from lower-income families, but is it unethical to participate in it? In the ruthless game of college admission, it can be argued that a student has every right to fight to win by resorting to any kind of method, ethical or not. While I can respect this argument, I find it impossible to believe that the end justifies the means. If you get into Harvard with the essay your mom wrote and a 36 on the ACT with your illegitimate use of extra time, then you probably don’t deserve to be at Harvard. While one must certainly strategize in some aspects of the college process, it is hard to justify what’s right and wrong when people use cutthroat behavior so often. The things that people will do to fight for admission leads us college-bound students to wonder: where do you draw the line between “playing the game” and cheating?