/ Truth, Lies, and… College Admissions

Truth, Lies, and… College Admissions

If the name Mackenzie Fierceton rings a bell, you probably read an article about her titled something like “Student Loses Rhodes Scholarship After Lying…” But, as the saying goes: “The plot thickens.” I’m going to do a post that uses her story to discuss some aspects of the college application process that are typically not talked about.

After college when I started helping students get into college, I was very surprised to hear from a well-respected independent college counselor that “college essays are not autobiographies; they belong to the genre of memoirs.” As Vivian Gornick, the acclaimed memoirist writes in Truth in Personal Narrative: “Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or historical narrative… What matters most to me [is] not the literalness of the situation, but the emotional truth of the story. What actually happened is only raw material; what matters is what the memoirist makes of what happened.”

If hearing that “college essays are memoirs, not autobiographies” and the implications of that statement make you want to throw up, well, then you feel exactly how I felt when I heard that. When I wrote my essays for college, I certainly had not written them in the genre of memoirs. But, it is within that setting in which emotional truth is truth that we find ourselves. I will not put a value judgment on that, but it is important to establish the setting before we dive into the plot.

Mackenzie Fierceton

I won’t give a full account of what happened, but the Chronicle of Education did a fantastic piece that you can read here.1 In short, Mackenzie claimed in her application to the University of Pennsylvania and later in her Rhodes Scholarship application that she was a low-income, first-generation applicant. Yet, after Mackenzie was interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2020 about her life and Rhodes Scholarship, an anonymous source reported to UPenn that her claims were not true.2 UPenn’s subsequent investigation determined that both her father and mother had attended college (and her mother had a medical degree and was a radiologist), and she had grown up in an affluent neighborhood and attended an elite private school. On those facts, UPenn said she lied about being low-income and first-generation — which it would appear she did. However, that’s not the full story. When she was 17, she collapsed at school in front of a teacher, was taken to the hospital, told police that her mother had thrown her down a flight of stairs and then continued to hit her, testified the same in court, and was moved into foster care where she bounced from family to family. According to UPenn’s website, students fit the definition of first-generation if they “have a strained or limited relationship with the person(s) in [their] family who hold(s) a bachelors degree.”3 Ok, so every high school student ever whose parents have a bachelors degree. Got it. But, in all seriousness, Mackenzie overwhelmingly fits that definition, and she was indeed in foster care and then supporting herself when she applied to college (so she also fit the definition of low-income when she applied).

UPenn’s Stated Definitions of First-Generation

UPenn’s investigation points to other falsities in her college essays: there are not corroborating medical records that her hair was caked in blood at the hospital (as she claimed in her essay), that she knew all the local police officers by name when she was a child because of the numerous times they were called to her home (which she has since admitted was an embellishment, but it’s true that welfare officials had visited her home when she was young), etc. Among the embellishments, however, her story of significant abuse seems credible: her 145-page diary that she turned over to police recounts that — even prior to her hospitalization — her home life was “physically, mentally, and emotionally lethal” and had written out pros and cons of turning her mother into the police for continued abuse.

So the story is complex. There are obvious embellishments. But most of the facts are likely true, and who’s to say that — especially if college essays are indeed in the genre of memoirs — that the emotional truth of them was a lie?

College Applications

Most of a college application is not fact-checked. A few aspects are verifiable: school attended, grades, test scores (if they are submitted), and teacher recommendations. The rest of the application is taken on trust, and — especially with the rise of holistic admissions — those other aspects have become more important. Among the other aspects that can have significant influence on a student’s admission chances but are not fact-checked: essays, extracurriculars, race and ethnicity, and pronouns and gender. The first two are not fact-checked because colleges don’t have the time or don’t take the time to do so. (And not only is the content of the essays not fact-checked but the essays might not even be written by the student themselves — try this google search if you want to see what I’m talking about.) The second two are not fact-checked for what are hopefully obvious reasons: how would you fact-check those? Some might say about race, “Just look at a picture.” But that is just not true that someone could tell from a picture, and the idea of other people trying to judge a person’s race is… let’s just say problematic (and I think would be both inaccurate and morally wrong to do).

Self-reported activities section of the Common App

But, trust is typically a two-way street, so most students are likely to be honest because they will reciprocate the honesty and transparency in admissions that colleges have shown to them. Something feels off about that last sentence…

Transparency from Colleges

In 2020, over 400 colleges signed a NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) pledge that they would “not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score… [and] a student-centered, holistic approach to admission will not disadvantage any student without a test score.”4

How did that pledge go?

Here are some of the colleges that signed the pledge:

  • Emory: 230% higher admission rate for students who submitted test scores
  • Georgia Tech: 220% higher
  • Colgate: 220% higher
  • University of Virginia: 200% higher5

One PR release from Fordham comes to mind in particular: “We are truly test-optional for all of our programs… approximately 64% of applicants did not submit testing… approximately 58% of students were admitted without testing.” (Fordham itself put that part in red — I didn’t add that emphasis.) They sound truly test-optional, though, right? Here’s the thing: let’s first assume that the submitters (students who submitted test scores) and non-submitters (students who did not submit test scores) are equivalent applicant pools except for the presence or absence of test scores (unlikely to be true, but we’ll get to that). If the two groups were otherwise equal, then if 64% of applicants were non-submitters, then 64% of admitted students (not 58%) should have been non-submitters. That might not seem like a big difference, but when you do the math with their admission numbers, the chance of admission for submitters was 67.7% and the chance of admission for non-submitters was 52.3%. A 15.4% difference.

But, these groups are unlikely to be exactly equivalent except for test scores. How might they be different? One could assume that the non-submitters are just less qualified overall than the submitters (that the submitters not only submitted test scores but also had higher grades and other qualifications, so naturally they were admitted at higher rates). Unfortunately, Fordham doesn’t provide that data (again lack of transparency for how applicants are actually assessed), but other studies tell us the exact opposite story.6

In fact, non-submitters are likely to have a higher GPA than submitters. So, if the non-submitters have higher GPAs and test scores do not give an advantage, then the non-submitters should have been getting in at a higher rate than submitters — not at a 15.4% lower rate. Instead, it seems that at Fordham, Higher grades + No Test scores = Lower admit rate. Lower grades + With test scores = Higher admit rate.

Maybe worse, though, is that submitters received scholarships at a 56% higher rate at Fordham. But, take their word for it, they are truly test-optional, even when the data in the very same press release makes this assertion doubtful at best.

Fordham – Truly Test-Optional

Which brings us back to transparency.

Do you feel like colleges are honest and transparent, especially in their admissions process? I don’t. And I doubt there is anyone who feels that they are.

Two Wrongs…

Do not lie on your college applications. It’s wrong. If you feel like it’s unfair that colleges can embellish but you can’t, I think you’re correct in feeling that way. But that does not mean that you should lie in return. And there are those colleges, especially those with leverage, that speak the truth (well, sometimes).

For instance, on its website, Harvard takes an extraordinarily honest stance (it’s only extraordinary that they’re honest because other colleges are not) about how it uses standardized testing: “SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades…” So, not less important than grades but still helpful, not equally helpful. Test scores are actually better predictors.

This makes a lot of sense, especially for selective colleges. According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA, in 2019, 68.1% of students in the U.S. who matriculate to a university had A+, A, or A- averages in high school (an over three-fold increase from the 21.8% who had those GPA averages in 1966 — that’s a lot of grade inflation). Could 68.1% of students in the U.S. going to a university do well at Harvard? Probably not. So it makes perfect sense that test scores would better predict success in college (especially at selective colleges) when there has been so much grade inflation in the U.S. that an “A” literally means average now — how could you differentiate between students’ academic achievements when more than half of them look almost identical from a GPA perspective? Unless you have intimate knowledge of the more than 25,000 high schools in the U.S., the homeschool program a student took, and the innumerable high schools of international students, you can’t accurately assess academic achievement with GPA if you don’t have test scores (at least some type of test scores — even if not SAT/ACT scores, AP scores are useful for colleges to get some objective insight into a student’s academic achievements).

But I digress.

The point is that some colleges are telling the truth. Harvard is honest about which students can legitimately get in without test scores because those test scores are less likely to accurately reflect their academic achievements: those “students who have not attended well-resourced schools throughout their lives, who come from modest economic backgrounds or first-generation college families…” (Harvard’s Application Requirement Webpage). That’s accurate, and I think that’s the right thing to do to give this transparency. I applaud their honesty — on that webpage. Not so much on this other page of their website when Harvard says that “Students who do not submit test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process.” Ok then, perfectly transparent. As an applicant, I know exactly how I will be assessed.

Ask, and you shall receive

You still shouldn’t lie on your college applications. But, is it any wonder that some students do? That some students embellish? No. Unfortunately, there will always be those who lie to get ahead and who will see the lack of verification in college applications as a prime opportunity to do so. More unfortunately, however, I think that colleges are getting exactly what they ask for: they embellish their numbers and messaging to attract applicants and ask for “authenticity” in college applications, and what they get are embellished stories that really sound authentic. And it isn’t even primarily kids pushing embellished narratives; so often they are doing so under the (both paid and unpaid) advice of others — advice that might get them into college, might even help get them a Rhodes Scholarship, but that is still wrong to do.


Why would colleges allow unverified information to determine admission decisions and, in fact, move even more so in that direction by implementing test-optional policies? I think the primary reason is for ease of making admission decisions: it would be costly to verify many aspects of the application. But, a cynical part of me also wonders if they actually care about helping disadvantaged students or if they just want to report that they’re helping disadvantaged students. I don’t know. Maybe they honestly really do care if 10% of their students are first-generation students, or maybe they would just rather be able to report that 15% of their students are first-generation but have no idea if students were honest about self-reporting being first-generation?

Those who want test scores abolished tend to wax poetic about how test scores correlate with wealth. First off, yes, SAT and ACT scores do correlate with wealth, but the children of the wealthy, who disproportionately get better educations, will always then disproportionately perform better at exams that assess academic knowledge and skill. What the anti-testing crowd call “biased” just means “measuring academic preparedness.”7 (What should change is that all students get better educations.) Secondly, with great irony, those same people then promote “holistic admissions,” yet a 2021 study from Stanford found that college application essay content was found to be more strongly correlated to wealth than even SAT scores are.8 So those same people who want SAT and ACT scores abolished because the scores correlate with wealth then want to replace consideration of those scores with a greater consideration on college essays, which have an even higher correlation with wealth… If those people actually cared about bias, they would campaign to eliminate essays before eliminating test scores. And high school GPA too is correlated with wealth because there tends to be more grade inflation at wealthier high schools, and students with wealthy parents tend to have access to a more rigorous high school curriculum (honors and AP classes) and to more extracurricular activities, both of which help bolster their applications.9,10 The argument that the wealthy can afford test prep and thus GPA should be solely relied upon also feels hollow given that the wealthy can also afford and do employ tutors to help their children do well in school and get high GPAs. Given that high school grades, essays, extracurricular activities, and even length and quality of teacher recommendations correlate with wealth, should we remove all of those too?

The University of California’s 228-page faculty report found that SAT/ACT scores helped predict success at the university and that they do not harm disadvantaged students and recommended that the university not adopt a test-optional policy.11 Naturally, the University of California Board of Regents then voted despite its faculty’s own findings and recommendation to abolish consideration of the SAT and ACT. They are now permanently test-blind.

Excerpt from the University of California’s Report, p.7

Something seems off here.

If the test-optional movement and holistic admissions do not help disadvantaged students, then who does it help?

Follow the $$$

How cliche, but then again, how often accurate? Remember how Colgate made that pledge not to disadvantage students who do not submit test scores (but then also admitted test score submitting students at over twice the rate)? By complete coincidence, that same year that they went test-optional, they also had a 102.6% increase in applications. Dean of Admission, Tara Bubble, stated that their admissions department had been “strategically changing [their] operation for the past two years. This year is when all the stars came into alignment, and we’re seeing the benefit of it.”12 I thought the same thing: the alignment of the stars is definitely the explanation. Note to self: live by horoscopes.

But the stars didn’t just align in Colgate’s favor. By complete coincidence, the application numbers also jumped at other highly selective colleges that instituted test-optional policies, and, because they didn’t increase their class sizes, those increased applications just meant the same number of students accepted but many more rejected.13 So those selective schools could become even more selective. Brown’s admit rate dropped by 20% from 6.9% admitted in 2020 to only 5.4% admitted in 2021, Columbia’s admit rate dropped by 39%, Yale’s by 29%, etc.

Holistic admissions has ushered in a golden age of admissions for colleges: they get more applications, their selectivity gets even greater which increases their prestige, and they get to accept who they want with even less transparency in the absence of test scores which are the only standardized and objective measure in the entire application process.

Even the less selective schools get to participate in the fun: they can accept full-pay students who would have had low test scores but now didn’t submit them, so they can get a full-pay student to help their bottom-line and avoid having that student’s SAT or ACT scores bring down their school’s reported average SAT and ACT score. It’s a win-win. Just not for disadvantaged students. “The vast majority of colleges consider an applicant’s finances at some point [in the application process]” (Selingo, 2021).14 Guess what? The correlation between an applicant’s finances and the applicant’s wealth is 100%. Nevermind that most colleges still also give a boost to legacies, children of faculty, recruited athletes, kids of large donors, etc — all of which are very highly correlated with wealth.

But, yes, let’s drop SAT and ACT scores from the application process because of the correlation to wealth… If colleges cared, they could always have accepted a more diverse class or disadvantaged students, even if those students had lower SAT and ACT scores. They didn’t have to wait for test-optional admissions to do that. And the data too suggests that going test-optional tends to barely increase the diversity of a class (in a study of 99 colleges, doing so increased diversity by… wait for it… 1%).15 So, again, the cynic in me: do colleges really care?

Maybe colleges do not have the moral high ground to pontificate to Mackenzie about her moral failing of embellishing the abuse she went through.

What now?

“A small fire can set a forest ablaze. The tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5, slightly paraphrased) What’s the point of this verse and chapter? That we really need to watch what we say because it has ramifications for who we are and who we will become (so, again, don’t lie on your college application). But I want to extend its meaning (hopefully not blasphemously). What you communicate to others can catch fire. A small fire can set a forest ablaze. What you say does not just have ramifications for your personal integrity but can have a massive influence on those around you and ramifications on the world.

So, maybe someone will read this and talk to someone else, and maybe something will change. It needs to change from colleges. It’s actually very doable to provide more objectivity and veracity in the college application process. Why not have a college counselor be required to sign off on a student’s college essays and application? At least then there would be someone else who has some familiarity with the student who might know what activities they are involved in and if the content of the essays was true and likely written by the student. Students could even be given unlimited time to write their essays but be required to do so in front of a webcam or have to write those essays in a supervised setting. Too much? I don’t see why it would be. Students have to write supervised essays all the time in school, on AP exams, etc. Why would an essay for college be entirely different? If we don’t put guardrails in place, then aren’t we just disadvantaging the honest students who (naively?) write their college essays as autobiographies instead of as memoirs? Aren’t colleges partly culpable for encouraging students to write about painful moments in their past, and then only punishing those whom they investigate after an anonymous source reports that student after an exceedingly rare newspaper interview? How many other Mackinzies are there who endured much less and fabricated much more?

You may think me a curmudgeon, but I am not. I am eternally optimistic. The truth is stronger than a lie. Stay strong. Stay good. Your integrity is more important than the school’s name on your diploma and, to be honest, more important too for your success. But that is not to diminish the value of a quality college education; as I have written about here, a college degree helps you earn more and live longer and in better health.16 And you can still get into great colleges the right way. Hard work still does pay off: those students with good grades and good test scores will continue to get accepted to colleges at higher rates.

Works Cited:

  5. Data compiled by Score At The Top
  14. SELINGO, J., 2021. WHO GETS IN AND WHY. [S.l.]: SCRIBNER. Page 211.

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