Do Colleges Verify Information in Applications?
In the adult world, it is fairly common, almost expected, for one’s resume to exaggerate their past achievements. In fact, a recent study found that 85% of people lie on their resumes in one form or another. A babysitting gig can easily become experience “supervising an energetic group of young associates” and an office filing job demonstrated your ability to “promote synergy and vertical integration for data-management systems.” These examples are not lies in the sense that they are not conjured from thin air, but are rather comically souped-up versions of the truth.
Compare that to famous examples of adults who have achieved notoriety for flat-out fabrications. Frank Abagnale of Catch Me if You Can fame, managed to work in high profile professions such as physician, lawyer, and airline pilot without possessing a single credential. MIT’s Dean of Admissions, Marilee Jones, was exposed in 2007 of not actually having earned any of the three degrees she claimed on her resume. Amazingly, she had been at MIT for 28 years and had even been bestowed an award as their best administrator.
In the college admissions realm, you’d be surprised how often students, in an effort to make themselves stand out, go a little too far in exaggerating their accomplishments and end up putting forth contradictory or incompatible information. For example, if a student’s resume claims that they had a lead role in The Glass Menagerie but their drama instructor’s recommendation lauds them for their admirable work as a stagehand, suspicions will inevitably arise. This is one of many ways applicants can stretch the truth and risk setting-off an admissions counselor’s BS-alarm.
Write the essays yourself
One of the bigger hotspots for eyebrow-raising contradictions comes on the essay section. A student with a 480 score on the writing SAT whose admissions essay is composed with Hawthorne-level prose will raise more red flags than a Kyrgyzstani color guard (their flags are red – Google it!).
Regardless of your literary bona fides, admissions officers expect your essay to be written in a 17- or 18-year-old voice, not a 40-year-old voice, unless of course you are a middle-aged applicant, in which case writing in a teenage voice would be quite strange. Leave the “quarter” words resting in the pages of your SAT study guides and stick with language of the small change variety. We’re not saying to dumb anything down, but if an admissions officer comes across an essay littered with words like “lugubrious” or “perfidy,” they are going to assume that your essay was written by either a paid essay coach or the ghost of a 19th century crime reporter.
Of course you should get feedback and editing assistance from adults throughout your essay-writing process. Just make sure that as you incorporate their advice on grammar, flow, sentence-structure, etc., you do not accidentally incorporate their voice as well.
Be honest about extracurriculars
Do not exaggerate your level of volunteer, work, or extracurricular experience or the number of weekly hours that you spent engaged in such activities. The notion that you somehow volunteered at a nursing home 20 hours per week, while playing three varsity sports, taking four AP classes, and editing the school newspaper seems logistically impossible and, if it somehow was true, still sounds more unhealthy than impressive.
There is no reason to be less than 100% honest about what you did in your spare time during high school. Some students, short on activities, panic at the sight of so much blank space on their extracurriculars section that they resort to grossly embellishing or completely inventing clubs, sports, jobs, and the like. This phenomenon is seen way too often in admissions offices around the country—the applicant from the Great Plains region who founded a spelunking club, the do-gooder who alleges to have volunteered more hours than exist in a week, and the teen who claims to fluently speak five languages but seems to have trouble remembering any of them during the interview. If you need proof that this way of operating always ends in disaster, see George Constanza’s antics in just about any Seinfeld rerun.
Your interests should match your past pursuits
This last topic is not an issue of dishonesty but rather sheer incongruity. Some candidates stated academic interests in terms of college and career are not at all supported by their past experience. If you claim to be passionate about political science and yet passed up the chance to take AP Government & Politics senior year in favor of a massive block of study halls, you have some ‘splaining to do. This is not to say that the above scenario cannot represent a sincere and compelling true story. Maybe you had no interest in history until you watched the film Dunkirk this past summer, which then led you to clear out the history/politics bestseller list off of Amazon, igniting a passion that fueled your search for the nation’s top political science programs, and forever changed your life course. No problem. Just be sure to chronicle your unique journey in the application.
Never outright lie/forge/deceive
On a less subtle front, it’s probably worth touching on the most obvious deception—actual forgery or outright lies. There have been many prominent cases of people going to extremes to deceive admissions committees and eventually getting nailed for it. Adam Wheeler was a student at Harvard who not only fabricated SAT scores, transcripts and recommendations in order to gain acceptance but then went on to forge additional documents while attending the school in order to compete for prestigious prizes. Then there is story of Akash Maharaj who forged a Columbia transcript with straight A’s in order to transfer to Yale. Committing criminal-level fraud to get into a prestigious university is a surefire way to become famous for all the wrong reasons.
Of course, the most notable recent example of deception in college admission comes in the form of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal which saw many prominent entertainers and business moguls attempt, via a criminal intermediary, to buy fake athletic scholarships for their children at schools like USC and Stanford. Needless to say, unless you want to gain infamy as a character in a Netflix documentary and potentially face prison time, do not pay someone to take the SATs for you, Photoshop your face onto a crew star’s body, or bribe coaches/admissions officers for a promise of acceptance. It feels a little bit silly to even have to put this advice in writing, but, based on recent events, we absolutely feel it is necessary to state this explicitly!
College Transitions’ bottom line:
Falsifying any part of your application can actually cause an applicant more harm than a mere blemish or two. Believe it or not, an admissions officer does not want to see a supernaturally well-rounded applicant who claims to have filled every waking moment with some type of extracurricular activity and even volunteered for a sleep study at a research institute just to cover those embarrassingly lazy non-waking moments. Colleges want to see a real human being capable of communicating their passions and actual life experience. Be genuine. In the world of college admissions, an honest stagehand is always a more marketable applicant than a fraudulent lead player.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).