Goodbye Meritocracy: The Ugly Truth Behind Private College Admission Consultants

by Kate Tan (15S03U)

‘Holistic’ has become an oft-heard buzzword in recent years, amidst mounting criticism against our academically-focused education system. Many grumble (not without cause) that the system overlooks other talents and qualities that should be encouraged and nurtured, not to mention the fact that the looming tuition industry adds a significant element of inequality. “Why can’t we have a more holistic way of looking at students?”, some protest. But as the US college application scene proves, ‘more holistic’ does not necessarily translate to ‘fairer’ for students.

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To Singaporean students who are used to being judged based largely on grades, with some sporting and artistic achievements as the icing on the cake, the US college application process can seem like a confusing mess. Even with a unified application system (the Common Application), the process still demands years of academic transcripts, recommendation letters, activity lists, achievements, standardised tests, and essay after essay after essay. Just to make it more complicated, some schools completely avoid the Common Application, choosing to use an independent application system with different deadlines. Then, there are other issues to consider, like applications for financial aid, the various early decision plans (all with their own fine prints), scholarships, how many colleges to apply for, and so on and so forth.

After reading that one paragraph, most potential US college applicants would likely feel a looming sense of dread, accompanied by a desperate need to ask for help. And some do — in the form of college admissions consultants. College admission consultants, or ‘Independent Educational Consultants’ (as several call themselves in order to be more discreet) provide services that help college applicants tackle the long list of tasks needed to hopefully attain admission into a prestigious university. Some consultants work with families from as early as 9th grade (Secondary 3), planning activities that youths should do during the next 4 years to help their applications stand out amongst the literal tens of thousands of applications to schools with single-digit acceptance rates, like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Others focus only on applicants for the upcoming cycle, advising clients on what colleges to aim for and how to craft an application that best sells them.

The industry is huge. It’s estimated that over a quarter of recent US college applicants hired a college admission consultant, and consultants are doing their best to stand out in the quickly expanding and competitive industry. Some consultants boast degrees from three or more of the top 50 colleges in the world, while others proudly display ‘thank you’ letters written by ex-clients who were admitted to their dream schools. Browsing some consultants’ websites can make you feel as though signing a contract would guarantee you a place in an Ivy League school, though none of them openly promise this.

While consultants might seem like the easy solution to the complicated mess that is the college application process, their services come at a high price. How high? From thousands of dollars to over five digits, it seems.

So what, you might ask. Sure, the costs are high, but that’s what you pay for the ability to increase your chances of getting into your dream school. Unfortunately, this booming industry is one of the main causes of growing inequality in the college application system. Those who can afford to do so often hire consultants, treating the expense as an investment, in the hope of boosting their application chances. Meanwhile, the vast majority struggle to get by with online forums and school counsellors as their sources of help.

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To find out more, I spoke to several alumni about their experiences working with private consultants. One alumnus studying at an Ivy League college admits, “I feel pretty guilty about it, actually. I didn’t really want to hire a consultant, but I really doubt my application would have been good enough to get me into [the school] without the editing and help my consultant gave me. But sometimes I think about my ex-schoolmates who didn’t have the privilege I did, and I wonder if they were more deserving than me, and if they would have been admitted if they’d had the same help [that I did].” Another alumnus is more cynical, saying simply, “Yes, it’s not fair, but that’s the way the world works. In America, it’s even worse. Those from poorer neighbourhoods and more disadvantaged schools don’t even have decent school counsellors to get advice from, and [they] sure can’t afford almost ten thousand dollars for a consultant.”

In recent years, the industry has thrived, quickly putting down roots in Asia, where many wealthy mainland Chinese and Indian families are able and willing to pay for such services. Consultants have been rumoured to charge more for Asian clients, for whom competition is stiffer and acceptance rates are much lower, as US colleges tend to limit the number of students from each country or region.

In Singapore, where acceptance rates to prestigious US colleges are extremely low, many applicants spread their hopes across universities in other regions. Accordingly, local consultants have expanded their services to cover Australian and UK universities. Some offer ‘Oxbridge packages’ that are supposedly tailored towards the two renowned universities, and others even offer consulting services for competitive local courses, such as Law and Medicine. Some innovative companies responded by diversifying into the test-taking industry, focusing on standardised tests such as the SATs and BMATs (tests required for US college applicants and UK medical school applicants respectively). More recently, the industry has even branched out into providing admissions consultancy for graduates aiming to get into esteemed Master’s courses, or medical and law schools in the USA. It seems, no matter the region or the context, the industry is willing and able to provide its services.

And indeed, the industry has been rumoured to offer more shady services. Taking advantage of a lack of regulation and often desperate clients, consultants have been known to offer advice or services that range from the morally questionable to the downright dubious. On online forums, parents and students share horror stories about their experiences, from consultants who tried to persuade their clients to forge results, to others who asked for down payments and then became uncontactable. On the other hand, some clients actively seek out consultants to write entire application essays that they then pass off as their own, an act that represents a blatant infringement of application integrity and policy.

Other ethically suspicious practices exist, such as some SAT tuition companies who are well-known for obtaining past SAT papers through dubious means and giving them to students to practise and memorise. This is especially effective because an SAT test is often used for US candidates once, before being used for international candidates on another testing date. Test scores have been withheld and even cancelled in past instances, due to allegations of cheating. In fact, such practices have had a more immediate impact than most of us know — in the recent SAT test (January 2015), candidates in Singapore and Hong Kong received a different test from the rest of the international candidates, apparently a move to prevent cheating in two of the countries where thousands of Mainland Chinese students travel to take the SATs.

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Regardless of which side of the industry we’re talking about, it is clear that the industry has significant impacts on education and its fairness. With the tuition industry and the college admission consultants industry, how long can meritocracy survive in education? Will all admissions and results end up being indirectly bought through consultants and tutors, in an educational landscape where money provides an irrevocable advantage that the less fortunate can never hope to attain?

Even so, many have come to realise that the college consulting industry isn’t the magical beanstalk that it promises to be. One alumnus shared, “I signed a contract with my consultant, but I quickly ended the contract when I realised that he took over 4 hours to edit my essay, charging me almost a thousand dollars for each essay, […] which I felt was ridiculous.”

Others doubt that the industry can successfully expand into other regions, as an alumnus studying in the UK discusses. “The US college application process is unique in that [US colleges] openly admit to looking at things like legacy status (whether the applicant has parents who were alumni). Systems like that of Oxbridge are much fairer, as they do their own set of tests and interviews that focus more on academic potential and interest, and it’s difficult for consultants to help people cheat their way through those.”

Nevertheless, with the ‘kiasuism’ in this country, the industry is likely to thrive. I write this article warily, because I know that this article may well encourage some to seek out the help of college admissions consultants. As one alumnus puts it succinctly, “Yes, it’s unfair. Yes, I may rationally, objectively, and morally object to it. But at the end of the day, if it’ll help me get into a good college, I’ll still do it.”

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Bringing this issue back into the local context, it seems as though there is no system that can withstand the demands of those looking for an easier way up, and those willing to provide it. Be it the grades-based PSLE system, the talents-based DSA system or the holistic US college application system, there will always be problems and gaps that undermine the entire foundation of the system. It’s a difficult balance to achieve — on one hand, a society that understands the importance of education will promote accessibility to education, hopefully leading to social mobility. But on the other hand, if we continue to treat education as the ultimate holy grail, pursuing educational attainments at all costs, there can be no system immune to these ‘shortcuts’ — and more importantly, no system where education is equally accessible to all.

That being said, what we can do is to eliminate  some of the advantages of hiring consultants, such as by increasing ready access to information that is currently peddled by these specialists. Some have already taken momentous efforts towards that, such as dedicated seniors and parents on online sites who have crafted guides for building college applications, shared tips for acing interviews, and compiled handy lists of deadlines for applicants (a local example is Red Bricks and Ivy, a website run by an ACSI alumnus). Within schools, simple but important efforts can be made to clarify the different application procedures for universities of different countries, making such information easily available.

Beyond that, the question of what we can do becomes an individual one, and indeed applies to the majority of us, whether we are taking tuition classes or thinking of hiring a consultant. It may be difficult to admit, but we are indeed supporting industries that we are privileged to enjoy, as those who can afford their services. Do we want to acknowledge our personal responsibility and take tangible action, at the risk of our selfish benefits? Or do we want to personally keep funding such industries for personal gain, at the expense of the core of meritocracy?

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