The College Admissions Scandal is infuriating. Amoral consultants, mercenary test takers, corrupt college coaches, scheming celebrities, complicit, privileged and entitled children conspired. Records were forged, bribes were paid, and privileged kids received acceptances they neither earned nor in some cases even seemed to want.
The shade is everywhere, and I threw some too. My initial reaction was schadenfreude. I’m sorry for that, because after reflecting I believe that these crimes may have been motivated by more ignorance than many may realize, and that while neither Singer nor the parents deserve much sympathy, the kids do.
First, I’m going to start with the cast of characters, none of whom seemed to understand either what makes an applicant competitive or the application process. Second, I’m going to walk through what colleges actually want from applicants and why. Third, I’m going to make the case that Olivia Jade was potentially a far more competitive candidate than many folks realize, and that she was cheated by not being presented honestly.
Finally, I’m going to touch on transfers, and why the hyper-focus and ulcer inducing anxiety of getting accepted to “the right school” out of high school really needn’t exist. In short, you don’t get one chance to get into the school of you dreams, you get three, and it’s normal for your chances improve with each successive attempt.
I. The Cast
William Singer (the incompetent scammer)
There’s no denying that Singer was corrupt. He set up a fake charitable organization, paid millions of dollars in bribes, hired adults to pose as children taking tests and convinced parents to make their kids feign athletic abilities that didn’t exist.
More ridiculous is that as an educational consultant Singer was incompetent, because he displayed zero understanding of what colleges actually want. Olivia Jade was potentially a very strong candidate. But Singer convinced both her and her parents that she was weak, and that it was necessary to break the law to get her into USC. Whether Singer himself believed this we do not know, but he spread this belief to both parents and children, and they suffered for it.
The Giannullis (the ignorant parents)
The Giannullis (probably) aren’t innocent. They (allegedly) committed many serious crimes. I don’t know their reasoning, but I would bet that they believed Singer’s song: that the right (only) way to get Olivia Jade into USC was the illegal way.
Neither of the Giannullis attended college, so it’s possible neither had any understanding of the admissions process. Their kids weren’t legacies, and they weren’t “connected” in the educational world. So they hired a consultant. And this was the result:
On or about April 22, 2016, GIANNULLI, copying LOUGHLIN, sent an e-mail to CW-1, noting:
“We just met with [our older daughter’s] college counselor this am. I’d like to maybe sit with you after your session with the girls as I have some concerns and want to fully understand the game plan and make sure we have a roadmap for success as it relates to [our daughter] and getting her into a school other than ASU! “
CW-1 responded, “If you want [U]SC I have the game plan ready to go into motion. Call me to discuss.”
In an e-mail on or about July 24, 2016, CW-1 advised GIANNULLI that his older daughter’s academic qualifications were at or just below the “low end” of USC’s admission standards. Thereafter, the GIANNULLIS agreed with CW-1 to use bribes to facilitate her admission to USC as a recruited crew coxswain, even though she did not row competitively or otherwise participate in crew.
I don’t have much sympathy for the parents. They were suckered by a scammer, but they’re (probably) still guilty as hell.
Isabella Rose and Olivia Jade (the naïve children)
Both girls have been lambasted in the media as poster children for entitlement and privilege. Both were complicit in the scandal, as both lied about being involved in crew.
But consider this: at age seventeen first Isabella Rose and later Olivia Jade were told to lie by the parents they loved and admired, because the super expensive educational consultant who their parents had hired told the Giannullis to lie.
How many kids would be able to resist that kind of pressure? Seventeen-year-olds make stupid, half-brained decisions all the time. That’s a natural part of being seventeen.
Potentially more damaging, I think it’s safe to assume that the girls were led to believe that they couldn’t get in honestly. Imagine how devastating it must have been to hear your parents say, “you’re not good enough.” Even worse, that likely wasn’t true.
From this point forward I’m going to challenge that belief, both for Olivia Jade and for all of those other students out there who’ve been wrongly convinced they’re not good enough. I’m going to focus on the case for Olivia Jade because there’s a great deal of information available about her, and because she’s been the target of the most damaging shade.
II. What Schools Want, and Why
Schools heavily weigh academic performance. In 2017 USC’s admitted applicant pool had an average SAT score of 1390 and an average GPA of 3.73. All very well, but grades and scores aren’t enough to earn an acceptance. To earn admission, you need more than just grades and scores.
What else you ask? USC is happy to tell us:
“Let your passions shine through in the application! Numbers do not tell the whole story; rather we really want to get to know the person behind the application, and writing about what is important to you will really allow us to do just that.”
—Sam Williams, Assistant Director of Admission
It’s no secret that passion is the Holy Grail of college admissions. Every school wants passion. The words “passion” and “passionate” reappear so frequently in college admissions that it’s become a joke:
Mom leans over your left shoulder. Dad points at your screen. “Use ‘passion,’ college officers love that word,” says Mom, while Dad takes your mouse and edits your resume.
But what is passion, this key to the kingdom of higher education? Wannabe Yale Mom thinks passion is a word that “college officers love.” ‘Mom’ is also dead wrong.
The word passion has zero value. College officers don’t care if you say you have passion, they want you to demonstrate your passion. Before doing so you must first understand 1) what passion is, and 2) how to successfully display it.
Schools Want Passion
While passion is often confused with interest, the two are as different as day and a black hole. Interest is what you like and want: your hopes and dreams are interests. In the application game interest has zero value.
Passion is the motivation that drives action. Without action, there’s no proof that your passion exists.
Passion requires proof
Again, saying that you have passion is a waste of breath. Passion requires proof to be credible. Proof of passion has four cornerstones – passion, action, commitment and achievement – collectively PACA. I’ve already touched on passion and action. Commitment is a regular pattern of action over time, in the face of adversity, despite lack of convenience.
If you’re not regular and consistent, then your claim to passion will be unconvincing.
The final cornerstone is achievement: what your passion, action and commitment yield. An achievement doesn’t have to be an award, or money, but it must be verifiable, and hence must exist outside of your own head (IOW your beliefs, opinions and feelings don’t count).
If you have no concrete achievements, then either your passion isn’t real, or your judgement is questionable.
Reveal Your Proof in Your Essay
A successful application convincingly demonstrates your passion, and the only available tool to accomplish this is the essay. (Disclaimer: If you’re one of those rare writers who regales readers regardless of topic, then write whatever you want. You’re golden. But the rest of us should probably write about passion.)
Your application is the story of you, so it can’t read like a series of unconnected episodes. Without the context provided by the essay, your application reveals what you did, but not why. If your essay delineates the motivations behind your activities, it reveals the hidden meaning within your history, and showcases your passion as the unifying theme of your application.
Passion Highlights Personality and Values
Do you favor being a team player or an individual contributor? Motivational or organizational? Philosophical or practical? Extroverted or introverted? Creative or analytical? A researcher? A teacher? Are you better at reading literature or people?
There is no heirarchy for personality traits. Admissions officials want all of them. To admissions officials the pool of qualified applicants is the salad bar, and a freshman class a salad. You have mostly lettuce, but without that critical variety of tomatoes, cucumbers, chickpeas, olives, anchovies, capers, and so on it’s boring. The more clearly you can identify yourself as a kalamata olive, the less likely you are to be mistaken for lettuce.
III. The Case for Olivia Jade
In 2017 Olivia Jade was a prolific vlogger and rising social media influencer who piloted one of YouTube’s Top 25 Lifestyle Channels. She began vlogging three years earlier at age 14, and regularly produced weekly content. She later established fanbases on both Instagram and Twitter, and now has over 1 million followers on each of the three platforms.
I watched a few of her videos, and frankly Olivia Jade is an easy sell. She has PACA to spare. She has an obvious passion for fashion, she acted on it with (for a teenager) clockwork regularity for several years, and became one of the youngest leaders in her chosen venue. In comparison to her peers with similar resources, both the volume of her efforts and the list of her accomplishments are extraordinary.
Her passion also reveals several personality traits. Olivia Jade is a teacher: many of her most popular posts are instructional. Her material isn’t academic, yet her communication skill is undeniable. She’s inspirational to her followers. She’s disciplined with a strong work ethic.
In discussing her application prospects, it’s quite possible these traits were downplayed. Most people lack the clinical distance to recognize how amazing they are. Unlike Singer, when I work with students, I usually begin with something like this:
“I know you’re better than you think you are, and when we’re finished you’ll agree. Because I’m not going to prove this to you. You are.”
Olivia Jade is a kalamata, and was cheated out of an opportunity to compete on the basis of her own merits. Somebody was convinced she wasn’t good enough, and so she was dishonestly repackaged into something she wasn’t. This was sick and wrong on so many levels. That’s truly tragic.
IV. Rejection is Just the Beginning
Despite everything I’ve discussed so far, Olivia Jade might still have been rejected by USC.
Let’s assume that despite her passion, Olivia Jade’s grades and scores were so far out of range for USC that she simply couldn’t make the cut. Or she was academically qualified, but there was a bumper crop of kalamatas at the salad bar, and USC can only take so many.
Olivia Jade would now enter Phase II. Enroll at another school, kick butt, and reapply to USC – twice if necessary. USC accepted 13.0% of applicants from high school last year, but accepted 24% of transfer applicants for sophomore and junior year. Assuming she had gone elsewhere and kicked butt, her probability of ultimately earning acceptance by Junior year rises from 13% to 50%.
While this might strike you as coldly theoretical, the reality is often better than the numbers above suggest. My students pursuing transfers don’t sit in a freezer between applications: they spend those next two years, reaching out and networking, building track records of demonstrated interest with their chosen school. Officially USC doesn’t track demonstrated interest, but unofficially no school is going to ignore a candidate who spends two years kicking ass (at another school) and taking names (at USC). Consider that a student who returns a third time is both half way to becoming an alum and likely to be an active one, and you can understand why this approach, while time consuming, is so effective.
Singer and the parents knew better, and deserve their fate. But the kids are a different story. No matter how complicit they may have been, all were at a stage of life noteworthy for less than flawless decision making, and were either blind-sided or heavily pressured by privileged parents on whom they should have been able to rely. Despite their obvious financial advantages, these kids don’t deserve to be tarred for the rest of their lives for terrible decisions that in most or maybe even all cases were not their own.
K. Mason Schecter is an Independent Educational Consultant focusing on test prep and applications support. Mr. Schecter has a BA from Columbia College in New York, and an MBA from The Wharton School. Mr. Schecter scored above the 99th percentile on his first attempt on every standardized test he has ever taken, including the PSAT, SAT, GMAT and LSAT.
Mr. Schecter also believes standardized tests and applications are both important and fundamentally ridiculous, and that most people freak out about this stuff way too much.