Does Crime Pay? The Varsity Blues College Admissions Scandal Says No

From the producer who brought us viral sensations like “Tiger King” and “Fyre,” director Chris Smith has turned his cinematic lens to the 2019 college admissions scandal in the new Netflix docu-drama “Operation Varsity Blues.” In between the melodrama and cliched reenactment of recorded phone conversations, however, are a few points worth discussing in the context of today’s college admissions landscape.

Authenticity Matters

While peeling back the layers of what made the Varsity Blues admissions scandal so sensational to the American public – images of rich elites going to prison, the galling entitlement exhibited by the parents, the complicity of coaches in cheating their institutions – one core element felt the most egregious: the dishonesty. Pretend to play water polo to be processed as a recruited athlete? No problem. Fake a learning disability to get more time on the SAT? Why not? What Rick Singer offered to parents and students was a game of fraud, which these families agreed to because they believed that it was the only way to gain admission to the college of their choice. And it is this flawed perspective still driving many families today, albeit on a much smaller scale, that we IECs who work in college counseling need to confront head on and actively combat.

In my work as an IEC, an Independent Educational Consultant, I’m lucky enough to work with wonderful students whose personalities run the gamut from nerdy robotics savants to head-in-the-clouds poets to nurturing outdoor leaders. My students are amazing! But they are all still susceptible to the pull of presenting a “beautified” version of themselves to colleges. Perhaps this is the zeitgeist of the Instagram-filtered times that we live in: self-presentation is increasingly manicured and manipulated, inflated and illusory – so much so that, in the extreme examples of the Varsity Blues scandal, students and parents found themselves unmoored from reality and ethics, crossing the line from “Instagram touch up” to outright fabrication.

But here is a reality check for families and students: college admissions readers are inured to this fakery. These experienced readers can smell the inflated resume and self-aggrandizement from a mile away, and it’s not appealing. Authenticity matters in college admissions, in everything from the essays to the activities list, not just because presenting yourself authentically is the moral thing to do, but also because it’s more effective. Win-Win.

Misrepresenting yourself in a college application does not “pay.” This is the message that high school guidance counselors, IECs, career coaches, test prep tutors, and all of us in the college counseling world should band together to promote!

Turn Down the Hype

Some of the most tragic elements of the Netflix documentary were the brief snapshots of high school students discussing the anxiety they feel about the college application process. That anxiety is real and pervasive, and educators need to work harder to counteract the toxic messaging that equates a college acceptance with a student’s worth. It is this fear that drives students (and parents) to take the unethical steps that were on full display in the Varsity Blues scandal. We, as counselors, must educate families about the need for honesty, for authentic representation, and discuss with more frequency how this authenticity will not only lead to better “results” (i.e. a more honest, compelling essay will be received better than a transparently padded personal hagiography), but this authenticity will also lead to less anxiety and improved mental health for our students.

There is something fundamentally freeing when you can say with conviction: “I did my best. This essay represents my hard work, my honest reflections, my curious observations about the world. And if colleges don’t accept me on the basis of that writing, well, at least I know I didn’t hold anything back.” It is liberating to experience this mindset shift, and it’s an experience that I hope more students will embrace.

To me, that is the best way to defeat the Rick Singers and the fraudsters of the elite education industry: by being authentic, by leaning in to your own unique identity, and thereby transcending the temptation of a society that suggests you need to misrepresent yourself to succeed.

Rachel Coleman is an IEC (independent education consultant) at and an active member of HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) who received her certificate in College Counseling from UCLA in 2016 and her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Stanford University in 2014. The best part of her job is working with students on their writing and empowering them to be effective communicators.