Character Counts in College Admission

It was during a presentation at a local library. I had just explained the early decision process, where a student applies to a college, usually in November, promising to attend if accepted, and is notified in December. A father in the audience asked how a college would know if a student who applied early decision also applied to other schools. I explained that the student was signing a contract and would not be free to accept another offer of admission. He responded, “But how would they know?” Not only did he want to find out how his child could break a contract without being caught; he clearly had no shame about requesting this information in front of more than fifty people.

The early decision contract is just one area where ethics come into play during the college admissions process. Writing an application essay is another. While it can be very helpful to have someone provide feedback on essay drafts, students need to write their own essays. Parents can be tempted to cross the line, especially when they see a child struggling with multiple applications and facing deadlines on top of a heavy workload in school.

College applications require students to certify that all information submitted in the application process is their own work. But even if you put aside the dishonesty, and I am not suggesting that, submitting an essay that was written by someone other than the student is likely to backfire. Admissions officers read a lot of essays and they are pretty good at spotting the ones that are written by a 45 year old.

The point of application essays is to help admissions officers get to know the student, and if someone else writes the essay, the student’s voice is missing from that application. If students don’t write their own essays, they also miss out on the opportunity to engage in the self-examination that is part of the college application process and helps them clarify their goals. Students who prepare their own applications tend to feel more confident about their ability to handle their lives, and that will help them be successful once they are in college.

Ethical shortcuts don’t start with college applications. There is an epidemic of cheating in high school. Students who are anxious to get into “good” colleges are under a lot of pressure, and it can be very tough to resist the temptation to cheat. If everyone else is doing it, students can fear being at a disadvantage if they don’t cheat. Even strong students who don’t need to cheat might fear being labeled selfish if they don’t share the answers to a biology test.

We need to be careful about the messages we send to kids. That father who wanted to know how to get around the early decision rules is letting his kids know that cheating is okay. It’s not just about getting into college. Do we need more generations of business leaders who will take shortcuts when it comes to financial responsibilities or product safety?

While unethical behavior may bring rewards in the short term, kids who cheat can’t feel genuine pride in their accomplishment. Once they start, it’s tough to stop cheating, and they may be afraid they can’t manage in college without it.

They also can end up sabotaging themselves on the way to college. Integrity is one of the less discussed but very important parts of the college admissions process. When they review high school records, admissions officers may forgive a student who got in trouble for having a beer at the prom, but disciplinary action for cheating is a major red flag.

Of course, there are many students who do not cheat. They have earned their grades and scores, and can feel confident about their ability to succeed in college. They have integrity, and that’s good news for them and for the rest of us.

Success Stories

  • Aaron F., Columbia, MD
    "Thank you so much, Audrey, for your help with my essays. I was amazed at how much time and thought you put in – your input greatly improved my essays. I also want to thank you for the way in which you helped me. You were able to give criticism in a way that was easy to digest, making the already stressful process a little smoother. I know that I …
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