Welcome to Scam Academy, where you'll find stories of schemes and cheats from within the high schools and colleges of America. If you cheated and want to share how you did it and why, please email Senior Staff Writer Allie Conti: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, we hear from a 20-year-old from a small town in the Midwest who managed to get into a good school—and then was recruited by a consulting company to help much richer kids fake their way in.
I got contacted by this company on LinkedIn about three years ago, when I was about to enter my freshman year at a top-10 school. I guess they could see I was from butt-fuck Illinois—that I wasn't a stellar, impressive East Coast prep school kid. They said, "You have no talent and no connections?" I told them my test scores weren't even that good, but I was really good at writing essays.
They said I could make a lot of money doing just that, which I opted to do out of my dorm for about two years, because the tuition where I go is about $50,000 a year. I have no idea what people were paying for this service, but I got $.10 a word for the essays, and $50 an hour to talk on the phone, which is more money than I had ever seen. I was willing to bite the bullet and do something that was a little bit sketch but ultimately legal so I wouldn't have to take out loans. It turned out to be a very fine line.
It was explained to me at first that we were a full-service consulting firm, and essays ended up being only a minor portion of the job. I worked with a total of about 15 kids, and I had to be on-call all the time. It was very demanding: For instance, one time I was in the hospital and got a bunch of angry emails from my supervisor about not being available.
A lot of what we did is write Common Apps and sort out how we were going to make these students look good. The tough part was that this sometimes involved fabricating activities, or for lack of a better word, "passions."
The fact of the matter is that these kids don't have passions, so they are trying to do what others did with the test scores and buy their way in. Trying to fake passion is hard. It's upsetting that people would pay good money rather than trying to cultivate it themselves.
For instance, there was a kid who ran a 5K for a hospital that was near the school he wanted to go to—a very elite school. I spun that to say he was involved in volunteering at that hospital. They really don't check that kind of stuff, as long as it’s somewhat believable. If I said he had four patents for cancer treatments, then, yeah [they would check it]. Another person—this one was a doozy: So they have little soap-box rocket kits on Amazon, and we had him build one that was the size of his forearm. We made it seem like he had started this aerospace club at this school and was super passionate about engineering. We said in his application materials that he had built this thing in his spare time, but he really just had to click a couple of pieces together.
For the most part, these were prep school students. Their parents had shelled out a lot of money to get their ACT scores up to 35s or 36s. But they didn't do any activities or sports or were just generally dull. We had people as young as freshmen, and we would try to get them into summer camps with professors in their major, or tell them they needed to do Model UN and debate that year, and try to get in a leadership position the following year, and then be the president of at least one group by the time they were a junior. I would push kids into sports where it was easier to get a varsity letter, like endurance sports and swimming. Junior varsity for a lot of these schools is a joke—it's only about four to six hours a week.
I swam for 15 years and was very good at it. I became president of my school's National Honor Society, had the best test scores in our district, and spoke at our graduation. I did these things through hard work—not because my parents paid for it.
Like I said, I didn't come from a whole heck of a lot. My school didn't really have STEM. I had to teach myself a lot of AP classes so I could take those tests. We didn't really have clubs. I'd have clients tell me that their school had something like 50 student clubs for 100 kids, but that they didn't want to join any of them, because they weren't interested. I would hang up and I would cry my eyes out, because I would have killed for any of those things. Not everyone gets all of these experiences—just freaking pick one. It really, really stung.
After two years, I just couldn't look in the mirror anymore. I felt like I was selling out people like me—people from smaller towns who were working hard to get into those schools. We didn't really have SAT subject tests where I grew up, so I couldn't take them, which prevented me from applying to certain schools. The idea of moving the finish line closer for rich people was just contributing to the problem of classism in college admissions. Five of the students I worked with were seniors when I still worked at the company, so I know what happened to them: They all got into top-five schools. I could theoretically look up what became of my younger clients, but I'm not sure I could bear it.
The above has been edited and condensed for clarity. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.