The story of Mackenzie Firestone, the University of Pennsylvania student who lost the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship for allegedly falsifying details about her background in her application, went viral this week. But several experts told The Post that it’s not uncommon for high school students to extend the truth in their college entry essays to the attention of top schools.
Some children claim in their articles that they have “published” a novel or memoir, when in fact their parents have hired a self-publishing team to produce what looks like a legitimate book. Other teens will write about their “meaningful” volunteer work in developing countries, when their moms and dads funded trips abroad just so they could get college essay fodder. Now, some students go so far as to register their patents for research they never completed.
“There are Chinese companies that charge a few thousand dollars and will do everything they can for your child to file a scientific patent,” an education consultant told The Post, who did not want to be identified. “And admissions students are seeing a lot of them as competition for schools gets fiercer and students’ extracurricular opportunities run out during COVID.”
One of the most alarming cases of “student achievement fraud” included in admission packages is the sudden influx of fraudulent student patents, according to an Ivy League admissions official speaking at the September conference of the National Association of College Admission Counselors, a nonprofit organization that represents more than 25,000 educational professionals.
“Now when we see a student bragging about a patent, we’re all very vigilant,” said the education consultant who attended the Seattle conference.
Many professionals who help students prepare a 650-word personal essay component of the Common App, an app used by more than 1 million students applying to more than 800 U.S. colleges, say the most popular guided essay is how students overcome obstacles in their lives.
“Essentially, these schools push children to go through a trauma in their lives before they turn 17,” said one Manhattan-based teacher, adding that they worked with deserving students who had never faced major obstacles in life, and as the result could not compete with the schools Graduate school, such as Yale, Princeton, or Harvard.
“I had a female student from Queens who was an accomplished student but didn’t have any hitches,” the Manhattan-based teacher told The Post, adding that she called the admissions department at the “elite” college where the student wanted to apply and was told they would simply be skipped.
When a student wanted to write about his middle school trauma, his teacher took him off the topic and suggested he focus on how to help his brother by dealing with changes in a “loving and gentle way.” The teacher said that writing about inappropriateness in middle school is a very common topic.
“Perhaps everyone at one time or another has had trouble integrating into middle school,” the teacher said. “We needed to find a story that resonated with the admission person who has about 30 seconds to read an article.”
Frances Kweller, who runs Kweller Prep, a college advising and college counseling service in Manhattan and Queens, agreed that it’s nearly impossible to stand out.
“It’s very difficult being a normal student applying to college these days,” Koehler said.
“One thing we see a lot is kids digging deep for hardships,” added Ron Foley, a mathematics professor who runs Foley Prep Inc, a private and college prep tutoring service with several locations throughout New Jersey. “It forces children to think that hardship is the most interesting thing about them, and that may not be the case.”
In her essay submissions to Penn and Rhodes, the 24-year-old Fierceton claimed she would be the first in her family to attend college, giving her the “first generation” status so prized by many top colleges trying to recruit children from poor backgrounds. But, in fact, both her mother and grandfather attended college. Fierceton also made detailed allegations about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, but criminal charges were later dropped after authorities questioned the allegations.
As universities increasingly make standardized test scores optional in an effort to be fair and equitable, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, there is more focus on the personal essay component of a college application, Foley said.
“The irony of going for the elective test is that it opens the door to more hoaxes,” he told The Post.
He added that schools that receive up to 100,000 applications a year are under extreme pressure to check every detail in a student essay.
But even before the pandemic, students would have done anything to gain advantage. In 2016, a parent took to social media to complain about a friend of her son who had set up a charity in her name dedicated to the deaf.
The anonymous parent posted on an online forum set up by College Confidential, an educational consulting firm for users who ask questions about college admissions: “I registered it, created a website, logo, and business, but didn’t do anything with it.” The father went on to say that the student put the charity on her extracurricular list and was accepted into Stanford that year.
As schools increasingly seek diversity on their campuses, white students complain about their race in order to gain an advantage, according to a 2021 survey that found 34 percent of white students admitted to lying about being a racial minority. Of those students, 48 percent admitted to lying about being Native American and 75 percent of those who lied were accepted into schools of their choice, according to Intelligent, a Seattle-based company that provides educational resources to students in higher education.
Meanwhile, some legally disadvantaged students resist wading through their personal hardships and insist on being accepted on their merits. One college essay teacher told The Post how she urged a high school student to show her background to earn points.
“I worked with a student in the fall who was already experiencing difficulties – she immigrated to the United States as a child and lived and lived in real poverty,” the essay coach said. “But she was reluctant to take advantage of that because she didn’t want to be introduced to her.”