The story of University of Pennsylvania student Mackenzie Fierceton, who lost a prestigious Rhodes scholarship for allegedly faking details about her background in her application, went viral this week. But many experts told The Post it’s not uncommon for high school students to stretch the truth on their college entrance essays to get noticed by top schools.
Some kids will claim in their essays that they “published” a novel or memoir, when in fact their parents have hired a self-publishing outfit 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 have funded the trips abroad just so they can have college essay fodder. Now, some students are even going so far as to register their own patents for research they have never completed.
“There are Chinese companies that charge a few thousand dollars and will do all the hard work for your child to register a scientific patent,” an education consultant who did not want to be identified told The Post. “And admissions folks are seeing a lot more of them as competition for schools becomes even more fierce and opportunities for extracurriculars dry up during COVID.”
The sudden influx of fraudulent student patents is one of the most worrying instances of “student accomplishment fraud” included in admissions packages, according to one Ivy League admissions officer speaking at the September conference of the National Association of College Admission Counsellors, a non-profit that represents more than 25,000 educational professionals.
“Now whenever we see a student bragging about a patent, we’re all hyper vigilant,” said the education consultant who attended the Seattle conference.
Many professionals who help students prepare the 650-word personal essay component of the Common App, an application used by more than one million students applying to over 800 US colleges, say the most popular essay prompt is how students overcome obstacles in their lives.
“Basically, these schools are pushing kids to have a trauma in their life before they’re 17,’” said one Manhattan-based tutor, adding that they have worked with deserving students who have never had huge obstacles in life, and as a result cannot compete for the top schools, such as Yale, Princeton or Harvard.
“I had a student from Queens who was a brilliant student but had never had any obstacles,” the Manhattan-based tutor told The Post, adding that she called the admissions department at an “elite” college where the student wanted to apply and was told that she would simply be passed over.
When one student wanted to write about the trauma he had experienced in middle school, his tutor steered him away from the topic and suggested he focus on how he had helped a trans sibling cope with changes in a “loving and kind way.” The tutor said that writing about not fitting in at middle school is too common a theme.
“Everyone at one time or another probably had trouble fitting into middle school,” said the tutor. “We needed to find a story that would resonate with an admissions person who has about 30 seconds to read an essay.”
Frances Kweller, who runs Kweller Prep, a tutoring and college counselling service in Manhattan and Queens, agreed it’s almost impossible to stand out.
“It’s very difficult to be a standard student applying to college these days,” Kweller said.
“The thing we see a lot is that kids are digging deep for hardship,” added Ron Foley, a math professor who runs Foley Prep Inc, a tutoring and college prep service which has several locations throughout New Jersey. “It forces kids to think that the hardship is the most interesting thing about them, and it may not be the case.”
In her essay applications to Penn and Rhodes, 24-year-old Fierceton claimed she would be the first in her family to go to college, giving her a “first-generation” status prized by many top colleges trying to recruit kids from poor backgrounds. But, in fact, both her mother and grandfather attended college. Fierceton also made detailed claims about abuse she had suffered at the hands of her mom, but criminal charges were later dropped after authorities had doubts about those allegations.
As universities increasingly make standardized test scores optional in an effort to be equitable and fair, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, there is an even greater emphasis on the personal essay component of the college application, Foley said.
“The irony of going ‘test optional’ is that it opens the door to more shenanigans,” he told The Post.
And schools receiving up to 100,000 applications per year are hard-pressed to check every detail in a student essay, he added.
But even before the pandemic, students would do anything to gain an edge. In 2016, one parent took to social media to complain about a friend of her son who created a charity in her name dedicated to the deaf.
“She registered it, made a website, logo, the works, but hasn’t done ANYTHING with it,” the unidentified parent posted on an online forum set up by College Confidential, an education consulting company for users asking questions about college admissions. The parent went on to say that the student put the charity on her list of extracurricular activities and was accepted to Stanford that year.
As schools increasingly seek diversity on their campuses, white students are fibbing about their ethnicity in order to get an edge, according to a 2021 survey which found that 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 the schools of their choice, according to Intelligent, a Seattle-based company that provides education resources for students in higher education.
Meanwhile, some legitimately underprivileged students resist dwelling on their personal hardships and insist upon being accepted on their merits. One college essay tutor told The Post how she urged a high school student to play up her background to win points.
“I worked with a student in the fall who actually had hardships — she immigrated to the US as a child and has seen and lived in real poverty,” the essay coach said. “But she was reluctant to capitalize on that because she didn’t want it to define her.”