Isabel Thottam

by Isabel Thottam

In March, the college admission scandal broke headway as federal prosecutors charged 50 individuals who were engaged in a criminal scheme to secure admission for their children into prestigious universities — Yale, Stanford, and Georgetown, to name a few. At the head of the scheme was a man named William Singer, a college counselor with a consulting business. He assisted the families with bribing coaches to lie about a student’s athletic status and corrupting test monitors to create false exam scores.

We’ve always known there were flaws in the college admission process, but over time not much has changed. Recent data conducted by Pew Research Center indicates that, while U.S. colleges are actually admitting more students, they are not admitting enough to keep up with the volume of applications they are receiving.  Furthermore, with more students earning A-averages and completing high school, the application process is far more competitive — which means it’s harder to distinguish between applicants.

Administrators, teachers, counselors, directors, and advisors need to be questioning whether or not the college application process is fair. More students want access to higher education, which is great, but how do we make the playing field fair for everyone who wants in? The current overall process is not working; but it’s not totally broken, either. There are areas of improvement, and some schools are already making changes. In this article, we’ll dive into the following:

  • What are the imperfections of the college admission process?
  • Whom does the current admissions process affect?
  • How can we improve or redesign the application process?

The imperfections of the college admission process

It’s not a big secret that college admissions has always been a flawed process. After some discussions with colleagues, academics, and those who have applied to college, I’ve determined a few key flaws to highlight:

  • Test scores can too easily be manipulated
  • Extracurricular activities or achievements can be fabricated or exaggerated
  • Essays can be bought or plagiarized
  • High application fees 
  • Racial and economic inequality

Fabrication, exaggeration and manipulation

We live in a highly digital and intelligent world. Yes, we have the tools to detect plagiarism and cheating, but it’s not perfect. Once someone finds a weakness in the system, it’s easy to manipulate. Nowadays, you can find and buy essays online, or pay someone to do your homework and even take a test for you. There are ways around the system, and we know this because we know it happens.

The biggest issue at play here is the scoring system for the SAT and ACT standardized tests. These scores are used to help determine students’ overall academic performance in relation to the national applicant pool. While its intention is to be fair, the fact that test scores can be too easily fabricated is problematic because of how much weight these scores hold in the academic application process.

In the case of the high-profile college admissions scandal, there were three ways the parents and Singer were able to compromise standardized test scores: someone took the tests in place of someone else; a bribed test monitor would assist the students in choosing the correct answers; or the monitor would change the answers after reviewing them. 

Furthermore, learning is different for everyone — there can be a student that can score high on a test, yet fail an oral or written presentation, and vice versa. Also, college applications have very vague essay questions or ask for a general personal statement, which makes expressing your personality difficult and doesn’t give the admissions team a very clear picture of the applicant.

So one has to question: just how much weight do numeric values from test scores carry? Is it fair to either rule someone out based on said scores, or to allow it be the deal breaker when deciding between prospective students? If these scores can easily be bought or fabricated, how does that factor into their merit on an application? It’s easier to fabricate test scores and plagiarize essays than it is to succeed in a personal interview, so how do we make the process more subjective?

High application fees

The college application process is expensive, especially if you apply to more than one school. Most students apply to anywhere from one to fifteen colleges, sometimes more. The more schools you apply to, the more options you have; but, then again, the more applications a given school receives, the harder it becomes to make acceptance decisions. 

The national average fee is $43 to apply to college. The cost of applying to an elite school such as Stanford University is $90. Depending on how many schools a student applies to, it can be quite costly just to send in the applications. While these fees can be waived for low-income students who apply for financial aid, when you add other costs such as the registration fee for taking the ACT or SAT, and consider travel costs for campus tours, the entire application process can become prohibitively expensive for many, and might deter many lower-income people from applying.

Overall, the college admission process seems to be flawed due to economic inequality, because it appears true that the wealthier you are, the better chance you have of being able to afford to apply, actually get accepted, and to pay tuition.

Paying Debt

Whom does the admissions process affect?

The admission process is not totally broken; rather, it’s our society values that are. We put so much pressure on young people to not only go to college, but also go to one with higher merit. When degrees from certain institutions have a higher value than others, it creates pressure to seek admittance to more expensive, more elite schools — which unfortunately affects both the college admission process, and the students as a whole. 

This is where economic and racial inequality comes into play because many hard-working, deserving, but less fortunate students are either rejected, or have to work twice as hard to no avail against their privileged counterparts.

Economic inequality

Income level plays too much of a role in the college admissions process already: high application fees, registration fees for tests, rising tuition costs, etc. Students from low-income households are more likely to be holding a part-time job while also attending school, which can play a role in putting these students behind. 

Students from wealthier backgrounds can afford to take standardized tests multiple times, as well as enroll in courses that help them prepare for the tests. Moreover, wealthier people have more options in terms of what schools they can attend, and what schools they can even visit. 

Students from a lower-income family are also likely to be the first in their family to attend school. It’s easier to get accepted into college if you are a legacy-applicant, meaning one of your parents or a family member attended the school. An analysis of Harvard’s admission process discovered a 34% acceptance rate of legacy applicants from 2009 to 2015, which is five times higher than the acceptance rate for non-legacy applicants over the same period. 

If you want to go to college and you come from a low-income household, it’s far more difficult to get there compared to your wealthier peers.

Racial inequality

Despite affirmative action, statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that racial divides still exist in our education system. Even though overall enrollment has increased, it’s still higher at 42% for white students, compared to 39% for Hispanic students, and 36% for African-American students. 

And when diverse students of different economic backgrounds are accepted into schools, especially top tier institutions, their achievements are often questioned under the premise that they were accepted merely because the school wanted to diversify its student body.

Mark Stucker, co-host of the podcast Your College-Bound Kid, told The New York Times:

“This scandal exposed the fact that there is a misplaced emphasis on so-called affirmative action inequities, rather than privilege. That is the big travesty of college admission. People of means are able to tilt the system in their favor.”

The issue is problematic because some people question whether or not race should even play a role in the admission process. If applicants aren’t asked to report race, universities can try to make decisions based on merit. But, this still does not remove the income inequality aspect, which already gives an advantage to White and higher-income applicants. Racial inequality aside, when you break down all of the other flaws in the process, it still appears that the wealthier an applicant is, the more likely it is that he or she can go to college, and will be accepted into a high level school.

Student writing

How can we improve or redesign the application process?

How, then, do we create a fair process for admitting people from all over the world, from different socioeconomic levels?  How do we improve or redesign a system that has flaws designed to benefit those of a particular economic and racial background?

“In combination with the unfairness brought about by racial and economic inequality, the college application process can be a game that’s impossible to win for some hopeful students,” says Yi Yang from The New School Free Press. “In terms of race and class, we could opt for a merit based only system, but it will inevitably also be influenced by race and class as wealthier students will have access to more resources-tutors, libraries, etc. It’s impossible to change the admission system without reforming our entire society, which is too massive of a task for anyone to take on.”

So, what do we do? 

Be more transparent

Some colleges are already working toward a more subjective metric. Others are making test scores optional. But if high scores are going to be a factor, what does that mean for those who either do not submit scores or have low ones? The answer is transparency.

If a school posts its required scores or an average score and does in fact weed out applications based on test scores, it should be clear that it will not even consider an application whose scores do not meet those standards. If the score does not mean the applicant is automatically removed from consideration, then the school should list what the next determining factor will be (GPA, personal essay, etc.), so that students can better gauge what their chance of acceptance is before they apply.

If schools become more transparent about what they’re doing, students will be able to make a more informed decision about applying, which could save everyone time and money in the long run.  

Be more subjective

Another idea is to be more subjective and look at how interested an applicant actually is in attending. But how do we gauge that? If schools were to merely look at general interest as a factor by noting whether or not the student took a tour of the campus, then those students who cannot afford to visit the school are at a disadvantage. 

There needs to be a better way to get to know applicants on a more personal basis. Whether that’s asking for social media profiles so you can read into personality and general interest in college, or inviting students to do an in-person, virtual, or video interview, we need to find a way to get to know applicants beyond their paper trail.

What if we drew inspiration from the way companies hire? The general process is to conduct an interview, do a background and reference check, and utilize an applicant’s resume to gauge how relevant their prior jobs were to the position they are applying to. 

Of course, it’s impossible to do interviews with every single applicant, but we live in a fast-paced, digital age, with new technology offering potential ways to streamline this process without losing individuality. Start with creating more interesting essay questions or asking for more unique supplemental materials to help make the process more engaging for admissions, and expressive for students.

This issue will not be resolved overnight. It’s going to take work, and we might be looking to more elite schools to make the first move. But if we’ve learned anything from the recent admission scandal, it should be that our system is flawed. Higher education professionals need to be the ones to take action and work toward a more consistent and esteemed process. The good news is that more students want access to higher education — we just need to figure out how to actually accommodate this request so we can set everyone up for success.

About the author

Isabel Thottam

Isabel Thottam is a freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. A graduate from Emerson College, Isabel has self-published two books, “The Labradoodle Who Lost His Doodle,” and “Joy Comes In The Morning.” She writes on the topics of career, technology, sustainable food, mental health and has been published in Fast Company, Glassdoor,, Fortune, Edible Seattle, Paste Magazine, and more. In addition to writing, Isabel works for a small, family orchard in Washington State selling fruit!


Burch, Audra D.S., and Eligon, John. “‘What Does It Take?’: Admissions Scandal Is a Harsh Lesson in Racial Disparities.” The New York Times, 13 March. 2019.

Desilver, Drew. “A majority of U.S. colleges admit most students who apply.” Pew Research Center, 9 April. 2019. tank/2019/04/09/a-majority-of-u-s-colleges-admit-most-students-who- apply/

Moody, Josh. “55 Colleges With the Highest Application Fees.” U.S. News, 18 June. 2019. college/articles/colleges-with-the-highest-application-fees

Pierre, Jessicah. “The Real College Admissions Scandal.”, 21 March. 2019.

Selingo, Jeffrey. “The Two Most Important College-Admissions Criteria Now Mean Less.” The Atlantic, 25 May. 2018. admissions-gpa-sat-act/561167/

The New York Times. “College Admissions Scandal: Your Questions Answered.” The New York Times, 14 March. 2019. questions.html

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