My take on “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” as a fellow College Admissions Consultant

Hi! My name’s Mattie Culkin. I’m a private college consultant located in the Bay Area. I post here on Reddit and my website (CollegeWithMattie.com) about college admissions. I’m hopeful I’ll find some new readers interested in Rick Singer and “Operation Varsity Blues” after viewing the Netflix special that debuts today.

I haven’t viewed the Netflix doc yet, but I believe it covers a lot of the same information available in several different news journals going back to 2019. I’d like to offer today an inside take on the scandal that relies more on my personal experiences and understanding as a fellow college consultant. I’ll also be down in the comments, so feel free to ask me anything you’d like.

Isn’t the fact that my industry exists at all symptomatic of an unfair, corrupt system?

Kind of?

I’m not going to try and deflect criticisms about what I do in this piece. I’m extremely proud to call myself a college admissions consultant and know that I have been directly a part of helping amazing young people achieve their dreams in life.

The problem is that those amazing young people tend to come from a place of privilege, to begin with.

I suppose then the knock against consultants like me is that I help teenagers claim the spots over other, more deserving students who couldn’t afford my help.

And while that’s undoubtedly true, I think it’s more accurate that I help teenagers claim the spots over other students who hired consultants who weren’t as good as me.

26% of college applicants reported hiring an Independent Educational Consultant of some kind. That’s reported, which leads me to suspect that number may be even higher. This is also a survey of students with an 1150+ SAT. I primarily work with students applying to top-50 and specifically top-20 schools where an 1150 isn’t close to good enough. I would guess that the percentage of students receiving professional help who apply to top schools is much higher.

And then there’s the fact that consultants work. We’re not being paid to do nothing. Every one of us has our own magic formula, and some work more than others, but this is a very competitive field, and getting kids in is what’s best for business. It’s cynical, but I do not consider my competition other teenagers. I consider it other adults just like me who are doing whatever they can to find success for their clients.

This all leads to my belief that college consultants are behind the vast, vast majority of all students accepted to top schools. The fact that these top schools know this and don’t seem to care is where I’m just as stumped as you. It’s perhaps related to the fact that the easiest way to become a highly paid consultant yourself is to work at a top school and then go private, selling your secrets to the highest bidder.

Why did the parents agree to all of Rick’s schemes?

I’m going to go in a different way on this one. I think the current answer of “they were rich, so of course they were evil” is too easy.

I, too, work with affluent families. It’s the nature of the beast when you charge what a high-level consultant can charge. I do consultations where I chat with the potential family over Zoom. These are some of the most influential people in the world I’m talking to sometimes. And how do they act?

Overwhelmed, defeated, and terrified

The elite college admissions process is built to bring those who approach it to their knees. It is so deathly crucial for students and their families, yet so little public support is available. Imagine if all stock market data was hidden. Instead, you invested by company name alone, and then that money was in limbo until you sold. And only then would you know if you gained or lost, without any explanation how.

That’s how college admissions work. A team of nameless, faceless gatekeepers called “Admissions Officers” choose who does and doesn’t get in. Those officers answer to no one and are not required to follow any particular rules nor explain any decisions they make whatsoever.

But everyone knows that rules must exist. Powerful, successful people are used to being in control. They control their companies, their constituents, their fans. They’re also extremely hard working and competitive. Try to understand what an unbelievable blow it can be to these parents’ egos when it comes to college admissions—the very future of their child, and not a damn clue how to control the situation.

So that’s where consultants like me come in. My job is to figure out those rules and then devise a system to beat them.

So, I tell these parents what my system is. I’m a well-spoken guy and know what I’m doing, so it’s believable. But they have no idea if I’m right or not. They don’t even know what questions to ask me. The very mystique and secrecy of college admissions is what allows conmen like Rick Singer to prosper. Because the alternative options are so vague and unhelpful, people like me become the only ones these families think they can trust. It’s completely surreal to be on the line with someone who makes more in one week than I do in a year, only for him or her to have no questions or resistances for me. I go on and on about what I think we should do, and they just nod along.

It leads to a level of power that I did not expect entering this field and do not terribly enjoy, but it’s there, and I, like all consultants, am free to use it how I see fit.

I heavily doubt Singer brought up photoshopping students’ heads onto athletes’ bodies at the start. Instead, he lured families in with a standard sales pitch + a pertinent showroom of past successes. But when a kid’s SAT wasn’t going to be good enough, he gave the family a plan B. When the grades weren’t going to cut it, he offered a side door. My guess is as he became more confident, the bar for “not good enough” got higher and higher.

I know it’s fun to imagine Felicity Huffman and her husband smoking cigars and laughing about how they’ve played the rubes yet again. But that’s not how it happened. I bet they felt weird about the whole thing and didn’t like being a half-million-dollars lighter. But they were in bed with Singer, and everything else he’d done for them had worked so far. He told them it was fine, and it seemed like he was handling it. I guarantee they were desperately waiting for their daughter to get in so they could never think about any of this college bullshit again.

What about the kids?

They’re the ones I genuinely feel bad for in all of this.

I work with families over several years, from as early as 8th grade until May of senior year. I become the defacto source of information and guidance for them. I talk about the bizarre sense of power in this industry, and I feel it most when directly guiding students’ very lives.

Just as I refuse to believe most parents with Singer were mustache-twirling monsters, the students themselves were not lazy, entitled narcissists. A theme I find working with the elite’s children is that they take on most of the stressors and expectations of their parents but without the benefits. The teens I work with aren’t rich; they aren’t powerful; they haven’t made it in life. They’re insecure, overwhelmed young people trying to figure things out and fill their families’ massive expectations. Ya know, teenagers.

But then I show up, and they know I’m the guy, and I’m nice to them. I explain what the plan is the best I can and tell them what to do. Then they do it. They are in my care, and it’s up to me not to do them harm.

As I understand it, the students themselves often weren’t even aware of the stunts Singer was pulling. I fully believe that. The reason is that I have come to understand that modern teenagers have a shockingly high aversion to cheating the system.

I see this with the essays I help students with. I’m a creative writer, and sometimes I go too far with the “creative” part. I use the term “based on a true story,” which is a euphemism for “if we say it happened this way, it will read better.” It’s a very grey area in college admissions. I stretch the truth all the time in my own writing. I imagine all high-level “non-fiction” writers do.

But where’s the line? I tend to find it whenever I go too far with a student. They always do the same thing: They kind of grit their teeth and pull their head back a bit and stare at me despondently. Sometimes they throw in an “um.” I’ve come to accept this as the universal teen symbol for, “I’m not comfortable with that,” and I back off. But what if I didn’t? What if I told them it was the only way to get into the school they dreamed of? That it was fine and that they just needed to trust me, and it would all work out?

Why did Rick Singer photoshop kids’ heads onto athletes’ bodies?

I’m going to be ignoring morals in this answer. Rick’s a bad guy. We all know that. What I’m more interested in discussing is the tactics he used and why he used them.

I have zero doubt that Mr. Singer was good at his job. He’d been doing it for over 25 years when caught. His former students seemed to like him. I doubt he started in this world doing all the things he did. But what Rick quickly came to understand is a problem every other college admissions consultant and I must face:

There is no ethical strategy to get a student with a sub-par application into elite schools.

That is at the core of everything Rick did. I doubt he built his “side door” strategy to get the best and brightest into Harvard and USC. It was kids with a 3.7 GPA or lower. Or 1380 SAT, or those who arrived to him late and lacked a compelling list of extracurriculars. Those kids have zero chance of making it to top schools on their own. I doubt their complete application is even read. It’s the nature of the process.

Grades are the bane of college consultants because they’re the single most crucial aspect of admission, yet we have little to no control over them. Rick tried. In a book he released in 2014, Singer writes openly about his support for academic tutors. He spends several pages explaining that there is no shame in being tutored as much as humanly necessary to get the grades you need. And, to be fair, I 100% agree.

He also talks about receiving a diagnosis for ADHD, dyslexia, or other conditions to get 2X time on tests. Again, he is trying to “be creative” in ways that allow students to trade money (testing is expensive) for a better grade.As someone with ADHD, I find this strategy offensive, but I also can’t help but note that whenever an otherwise bright, diligent student struggles in school, I begin to suspect they might want to get tested for their own benefit.

And then there’s standardized testing. This is where Rick thought he could gain a bigger edge. Surrogate test-taking and other forms of cheating are so pronounced worldwide thatthe SAT is banned in China.

Despite recent switches to test-optional, the average student needs roughly a 1520+ on the SAT to stand a real chance of admission. If they fail to do so, their chances of access to the most elite schools fall radically. Rick likely co-opted methods of cheating that he picked up from those who were already doing it.

And the athlete stuff? That was an incredibly logical endpoint once morals no longer existed. Athletic recruits are accepted to Harvard at a rate of 83% compared to the overall rate under 6%. They also somewhat bypass the admissions process entirely. Instead, athletes’ names tend to be slapped on a list and given to Admissions Officers. It’s not really their job to make heads or tales of said list. Instead, they scan the application to make sure there are no massive red flags and let them in. If these athletes are for sports that aren’t well-known? It makes it even harder for an Officer to make a judgment call regarding an applicant’s credibility.

You can see, then, why targeting this weak spot in admissions would prove so attractive to Rick. You can almost see his strategy evolve through those three sections. First, he discovered grey areas to help kids do better. Then he took on openly cheating for them. Then he built an original system to make all other forms of the application irrelevant.

This final system also allowed him to cash in. The more money Rick could get moving through him to these coaches, the more opportunities he had to take some off the top. How easy would it be to tell parents a coach wanted more than they did and keep the difference?

Are there more corrupt consultants like Rick Singer out there?

I don’t know any. My guess is yes but fewer than you’d think. But then I ask you, what constitutes corrupt?

Just as Admissions Officers work in private, so do consultants and families. I have a strict confidentiality policy with those I work with, and it is one of the very few aspects of my work parents seem confident grilling me on. An interesting wrinkle to college consulting is that it is rare to receive referrals from clients. The reason is that for a family to recommend you to a friend, they would first need to admit they hired you at all. Instead, I mostly get siblings and the occasional cousin. I like to say that the greatest magic trick consultants play is making it seem like we were never there at all.

But in that secrecy is incredible potential for abuse.

There are zero hurdles to become a college consultant—no classes to take or licenses to qualify for. You just call yourself one. There are organizations like the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) that theoretically provide rules and credibility. But it has been my experience that potential clients don’t know about these orgs and don’t care.

College consulting is also a profession that offers a sizable income, either as a standalone consultant or a large agency. Whether you like this industry or not, I promise you the demand is there. But the opposite of what I wrote about positive referrals is also true. Students only apply to college once, and if the source their family pays to help them doesn’t work out, that family is often loath to do much besides cut their losses and move on.

So that’s my take. There are many, many predatory consultants and firms in this industry. But unlike Rick Singer, most merely prey upon families instead of the college system itself. For every Felicity Huffman, 20 other families paid outrageous fees to a consultant or agency that either didn’t know what they were doing or actively took advantage of them to make as much money as possible. And the craziest part is, those families might not even know they were scammed.

For that is the danger when an entire industry opts to mask itself in darkness.

– Mattie

 

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