People will do just about anything to get into the college of their choice. When grades, extracurriculars, and life experiences are enough, some students will resort to nefarious means in order to reach their goal. Fortunately, their effort is mostly in vain. Unfortunately, there are thousands of admissions officers across the country that have to sit through these fruitless attempts by students (and their parents) trying to fudge their way into a good school.
Just take it from the people in the following stories who had to sit through the countless hours of interviews, phone calls, pleas, bribes, and threats from families who didn't understand the meaning of the word "no." All of these stories are maddening, but thankfully, most have a happy ending. As always, all posts have been edited for clarity.
"I worked in admissions for a Russell Group University in the UK. As part of this, I also worked the clearing lines, which is where mostly sad students who didn’t get as good grades as they expected and occasionally happy students who did better, compete for leftover places. Some stories:
I could go on forever. I hated that job.
A woman was rejected from a Masters course and wanted to know why - because she had applied to the Masters of Science in chemistry and her Bachelor's was in history and she hadn’t even attached a personal statement. She then said, ‘I bet you don’t even understand what it’s like to be at university, working in the lowly admin job you do,' to which I explained I had a Bachelor's from a Russell Group myself, and was due to start my Masters in September.
A guy rang me from Ghana and I rejected him for a law degree. He then said I was cursed for eternity and hoped I would die in childbirth.
I tried to delicately explain to a dad that the BTEC qualification (an equivalent to the A-level that isn’t typically accepted for more competitive courses like medicine and law) wasn’t accepted for veterinary. The issue is, it’s a more practical, vocational qualification and not very academic so it doesn’t really suit for these courses. I essentially had to say his son wasn’t clever enough (or hadn’t picked the right qualification to do to prove that). He then said I was a stupid woman and put the phone down on me.
After stating I couldn’t offer a guy a place on economics because we needed AAA and he had BBC, he passed the phone to his mother who said, ‘Cut he was part of the hockey team, and I think you clearly need the applicants so you would be at a loss if you didn’t have him.' No, love, we don’t need your bratty kid all that bad.
A mother threatened to find where I live and cut off my legs because I wouldn’t offer her son a place on our medicine course (medicine applications in the UK have a very strict procedure and no you can’t just call in). I nearly cried with how vile she was to me. Anyway, I found their address and sent them an envelope that Just said ‘Get bent’ on the back."
"I worked in a very religious private school's admissions department for a few weeks, filing applications. The parents had to write a letter about their child and why the school would suit them.
I'll always remember the man who wrote three pages about how successful a business man he was, how he owned several businesses, how good he was at the school's main sport and then attached a large check to the last page. Not a word about the kid.
What I remember most?
The rejection letter from the principal with a thinly veiled insinuation that bribery was immoral and not acceptable at this school."
"I got to interview some students for a special program in my undergrad. It was highly competitive and lots of people wanted in.
A young woman comes in. I offer her a seat.
Her: 'I’d prefer to stand. This won’t take long.'
Me: 'It won’t?'
Her: 'No, my dad is the dean of (one of the colleges) and my mom is one of the professors who established this program. I’m getting in.'
I emphasized that she really should take a seat. She refused again. So I say, 'Hey, this interview, me approving you, is part of the process. You have to do well in this to get in.'
'You’ll say I did well or my parents will make your life a living nightmare.'
Her parents had zero impact on anything in my life and I told her as much. After articulating this to her I said, 'I’m going to give you a chance to walk out the door and restart this interview. Fresh start.'
She lost it and yelled at me. For like five minutes. I filled out the interview sheet with direct quotes from her tantrum.
She didn’t get in. A few days after decisions were made, I got an email from her father who was, in fact, a dean. He asked me to come in and 'have a chat' with him. It was totally a request. I went to talk to him. When I went to see him, he had a copy of the interview sheet where I had several direct quotes from his daughter. Some of the quotes were awful and directed at me, my family, and basically everything she could hit on. He apologized profusely for his daughter and asked if she could redo the interview. He was leaning on me a bit at this point. I told him that choices had already been made and she was not selected.
The whole thing was mind blowing. She was so entitled."
"I work at an admission office of a top-40 liberal arts college - although I am a student, I read applications, conduct interviews, and vote on the incoming class. It's a pretty excellent job.
In my 50-something interviews that I've done thus far, the hands down most ridiculous was the mother who kept insisting that her daughter and I would make 'such an amazing couple when she gets to campus' and who tried to give me her daughter's cell phone number. I am 21. I'm not about that life.
I've had parents ask, straight up, 'How much do I have to donate?' I've gotten three page, handwritten thank you notes from interviewees. People send chocolates and treats to the office on a fairly regular basis, always with first and last names attached. 'Thanks for the great tour and visit! Sincerely, John Doe, dob 1/1/96.'
We're more likely to put that in your file as a red flag than as a bump."
"I was a medical school interview coach, earning some extra money through med school. Some applicants were great, others were what you'd expect from kids whose parents are paying a tutor to teach them how to act normal.
Our med school interviews are easy to pass, but difficult to do well in. They involve generic questions like your passion or interests, ethical scenarios, decision-making questions, knowledge of healthcare topics, etc. There have been memorable answers to mock questions.
In terms of pretentious, I asked one guy what his hobbies were and he said he loved Armani suits and buying expensive coffee blends. Not a great answer, but what killed it was that he began describing 'the smoothness of the bean' and licking and smacking his lips together in wet squelching noises.
Another applicant's dad was a successful surgeon, so he argued in his answers, 'I basically already know how to be a doctor, through osmosis.' He'd failed the entrance exam seven times and his dad opened a lot of doors for him, getting him research editor positions. There were complex family dynamics. He would say really inappropriate things like, 'When I'm a doctor, I can buy and sell you and all your friends,' and, 'All I have to do is pass this stupid exam and interview and my dad will get me a spot in the training program, you'll be struggling for years.' He'd then flip to complaining for half an hour about how his sister gets treated like a 'princess,' and call me at 10 pm 'just to talk.'
I declined further sessions but was pretty sympathetic, to be honest. Whenever his dad called to arrange sessions and materials, he was very pejorative toward his son. I had trouble hearing him during one of the phone calls because of background noise until he stepped outside. I later found out that he had been calling me, a tutor, during his son's graduation ceremony. He missed his son going on stage to receive his diploma because he was arranging a booking time with me. It placed a lot of his son's defensive behavior in context.
And no, he has not been accepted into a med school. That was two years ago and he emailed only a few weeks ago to request access to my Google Drive to brush up on some things. I granted it because when your answer to a conflict in teamwork question is, 'I'd tell them I'm sorry that they're wrong,' no amount of Microsoft Word documents will change your performance.
Quite a significant percentage of my cohorts had parents who were doctors, and the running joke was that all their parents, especially the surgeons, had tried to dissuade them from medical school or at least consider multiple options. Their parents know about the poor work-life balance and stress that comes from this field, and wanted their kids to pursue whatever career makes them happy.
In contrast, none of the helicopter parents who hired me to push their kids into medicine were doctors. They were tiger moms and dads from totally different fields. All anecdotal, of course. What all these parents had in common is that they wanted what they thought was best for their children."
"A longtime friend's mother reviews applications at an elite college. I saw her recently and she was telling us about some of the essays. One was from a girl who clearly came from a background of great privilege. She described a day of shopping and dining at swanky places with her parents in the big city one day. At the end of the day, they came across a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk begging for money or food. She initially passed him by ... but then, THEN, seeing the American flag flying on the corner up ahead on the next block, remembered 'What this great country of ours was built on, as well as what life is truly about' and went back to give this homeless person her restaurant leftovers.
All described with much self congratulation. I'm paraphrasing a lot of it, but the part in quotes is exact (and will likely be repeated for some time to come, accompanied by chuckling, by my friend and me). The country was built on, and life itself is about, giving a homeless person your half-eaten burger and fries.
The applicant was indeed offered admission. Also, this school is known as pretty far left and not especially likely to get excited about the 'Murican flag and its power to inspire, so weird thing to bring up, but she did get in, so... When my friend's mom told this story, I tried to think of the total lack of perspective I had at 18 to give her a pass and not judge. I couldn't, though. I judged.
In fairness, I imagine I'd cringe if I saw my college application essays and I do not intend to ever look for copies of them."
"I reviewed an application from someone with test scores and grades in the upper percentiles of the school's average. As long as the essay was inoffensive and decent, we would let him in. But his essay was easily the most awful thing I had ever read to the point where I assumed that he was trying to sabotage his application. However, after we rejected him, he (not his parents) called the school complaining and sent an appeal begging for acceptance.
His essay started out ok. The first paragraph he talked about why he chose this school (that was the prompt) and what he hoped to achieve in his time in college. So far so good. But then it got weird.
He talked about how he wanted to stop discrimination (the applicant was white) and how he saw racism for the first time in middle school kickball. Whenever a black kid would come up to bat, all of the outfielders would spread out. The applicant described this as 'systemic racism' and his way of solving it was to kick the ball farther than any black person on his team, which he did. First of all, the whole racism topic came out of nowhere and the story didn't tie into anything.
After this, he started talking about his favorite podcasts, even mentioning some by name. 'If you want to know more about my personality, just listen to this podcast and you'll get a better understand of who I am as a person.'
He closed the paper by saying, 'I would like to close this paper with a quote,' which I thought was a joke because there was nothing left on the page, just that single sentence. Apparently, he just hit enter on his keyboard a bunch of times because on the next page was the 'quote' that he wanted to close the essay with. It was a full page long manuscript of a Richard Pryor comedy routine about going to Africa for the first time. Yes he kept all of the n-words in the routine, and even went so far as to replace all of the 'soft r's' with 'hard r's' for no apparent reason.
At the end were three links to the podcast that he mentioned which I didn't listen to because the essay was printed out when I read it so I couldn't click the links."
"I used to work in admissions and we had a long list of weird stuff.
In terms of pretentiousness, there was a clear winner. I worked at a Christian university and we had this kid apply who wrote in his essay about how much he hated being at a secular community college and wanted to transfer. He mentioned how awful it was that his professor wore a Megadeth shirt with 'some sort of demon' on it. The pretentious part was that he said he felt like he couldn’t learn anything from a secular school - 'There are bits of truth to be found, but finding them is like looking for peanuts in elephant dung.' That’s a direct quote, we referenced it so much that everyone had it memorized.
Like dude. I’m a Christian too, but I’m not stupid enough to think I can’t learn math from someone who doesn’t share my beliefs.
There were lots of other great stories. One guy in his 40s claimed in his essay that he invented the M-16 and was a CIA operative. One tried to claim his terrible ACT score was actually his twin taking the test for him as a prank, but he refused to retake (we offered the 'residual' ACT which you could take for free on our campus for admissions, but the score couldn’t be used elsewhere).
Also: so many angry parents. I can’t even begin to name all of the angry moms I spoke to on the phone about why their kid didn’t get in. Like I’m sorry but a 12 on the ACT just isn’t going to cut it. Go to a community college, you’ll get a pretty good education for a fraction of the cost and then you can transfer!
One of the more uncomfortable aspects of the job was scholarships. There was a particular one we gave out a lot that was basically like a 'character' type of scholarship, where the counselors would basically get to know these kids a little better and see if they were good Christian kids. One aspect of that was that we asked the kids to send us a picture of themselves, basically so we could look at the file and remember who was who. Given the pretty clear 'We’re a Christian school, are you a good Christian?' aspect of the scholarship, it was downright bizarre how many 17-year-old girls sent us flirtatious/inappropriate pictures. We never got anything actually illegal, but a teenager sending a 25-year-old a picture of themselves in a bikini made me super uncomfortable."
"This is actually a difficult mom story. The student was a nice kid, with decent grades, so an easy admission, but with a very average scholarship. I could see from his application that they were very well off, and they didn’t even file the FAFSA, which is a telltale sign that they didn't need the help.
A while after I admitted the kid, the mom called me to ask for a higher scholarship. I asked her if her son retook the ACT/SAT since he submitted his application (the only reason why we’d reconsider a scholarship), and she said no. Okay, so there’s no reason for the scholarship committee (aka me) to review his scholarship then, and it’s obvious that she’s only asking for the bragging rights.
I was very nice about it, but I made it clear that we were not increasing her kid’s scholarship. She went off on me, telling me that clearly I must not have known the quality of private school he went to (which I am very familiar with) and that I didn't know how much money they have. Her reasoning was that they were rich, so we should give him a better scholarship and then they’ll donate money to the college. Not only did she pull the favorite line, 'Do you have any idea who we are?' but she also tried to bribe me with his family financing a new building on campus! Direct quote: 'I don’t think you understand me here, the school where my daughter goes to has a building named for us. Don’t you think (my university name) needs a new building on campus?'
It was the most bizarre and entitled conversation I’ve ever had with another human. Long story short, I didn’t bump his scholarship and the kid enrolled anyway."
"Oh boy. I wrote a horribly pretentious essay when I was applying for colleges. I really wanted to get into a particular one, so I tried REALLY hard on my application. They asked me to describe the difference between 'knowledge' and 'wisdom.'
I thought it would be so awesome to make up a parable and personify the two. 'Knowledge' couldn’t cross a river because he was too preoccupied with the scientific details of the water. 'Wisdom' got over just fine. I thought I was so incredibly unique and talented for doing this.
I definitely did not get accepted. I hope the admissions officers, whoever they are, got a good laugh out of the essay."
"I work in a university registrar's office. We keep a file with the most interesting things that have come through over the years.
A couple decades ago, we received a letter from a woman who had attended for a few semesters, done very poorly, then stopped attending. In her letter, she wanted to know how much it would cost her to have her grades changed and a diploma issued. Just straight up asked how much she could pay and implied that we had done it for someone she knew. The registrar at the time responded with a very polite letter saying that we couldn't do it because 'we are not in the business of SELLING degrees' and maybe she should look elsewhere.
That's my favorite. But we get pretentious and entitled people who think they deserve special treatment every single day. I've literally heard the words, 'Do you know who I am?' multiple times. I've never once known who they were."
"I do question and answer in various forms for a two-year institution. We're reasonably lax about many things, but we don't make exceptions for deadlines.
On the eve of registration closing, this woman calls and says she 'really, really' needs to get in for the next term. I tell her I am sorry, but she hasn't sent us an application, so there was no way she'd get in on time. She waits a few seconds, and then asks if we make exceptions for medical reasons. We do, if it can be backed up by hospital documentation, and an application had already been submitted on time. She mumbles something under her breath then hangs up before I can ask her if she understands.
The next day, I get a call from a woman who claims she needs to register and she couldn't yesterday because she was in the hospital. I pass her on to my supervisor, because that's policy for exceptions. Seconds after I transfer the call, I realize it was the same woman from yesterday.
Two hours later, I find out that the woman had 'accidentally' overdosed on insulin injections, and went to the ER. She had faxed over discharge papers and all.
Before we could even accuse her of gaming the system, we had to say we couldn't make an exception, because she never submitted an application.
This woman nearly killed herself to try and get a medical exception."