The college application process, for those staying within the rules, is one long and maddening lesson in the limits of control. Study hard, make the sports team, detail the family financial situation and then … sit and wait.
That this nerve-racking powerlessness could simply be bought off is among the most galling parts of the college admission scandal that exploded across the country last week. Instead of students doing what they can and hoping for the best, the elaborate scheme outlined by federal prosecutors involved nailing down spots at elite schools by cheating on standardized tests and funneling bribes to athletic coaches.
For the honest applicants, the path to college begins in years of effort and culminates now, in these early spring weeks, with answers landing at any moment in email inboxes. Some students worry that their achievements are too few. Others fear they might be viewed as not authentic enough. Some are led by their parents, but many navigate the process with little or no guidance at all.
There are athletes who have spent years in sports like crew, trying to keep their grades up while also drawing the legitimate attention of recruiters, unlike the families caught in the scandal last week. Most students are not applying to superelite schools. Some have already entered the world of higher education by going to community college — and are now hoping to transfer to a four-year school not too far from home.
Even within the rules, aspirants eye the angles, looking for activities or experiences that would increase their chances. But there is only so much an honest person can do.
A College Journey Interrupted
When she was 19, Surbhi Sharma cut short her college education to move to America. Her family left their home in northern India, following relatives to the United States and settling outside of Gary, Ind.
She went to work immediately at Dunkin’ Donuts. But she knew even then that she wanted to go back to college.
Now 26, Ms. Sharma is waiting to hear news of her applications to several four-year universities around Pennsylvania. For her, the college application was not a harried process dominating the afternoons and weekends of her junior and senior high school years, but something that unfolded over nearly a decade.
“It took a long time,” Ms. Sharma said. “It’s a very long journey and now I’m just waiting for that moment.”
When she started out, Ms. Sharma had no sense of how the American college admissions process worked and no one around to tell her. Not long after the family had moved again to the Pittsburgh area — her parents finding work at a gas station and Ms. Sharma as a teller at a bank — she went to an open house at the Community College of Allegheny County. It left her wondering how much time she would really have for her education. She left halfway through the presentation to get back to her job, and missed learning about financial aid.
“It’s a very long journey and now I’m just waiting for that moment.”
Eventually, though, she applied for and won a scholarship at the school and in 2016, four years after that open house, enrolled as a full-time student at the community college. The past two years have been jam-packed: commuting from home, studying mathematics and radiation technology, winning honors and other scholarships, serving in student leadership positions — particularly those involving outreach to immigrant students — and most recently putting in clinical hours at a hospital.
By the time she had begun the process of applying to four-year colleges, she was something of a veteran.
“I was ready for it,” she said.
Now, some eight years after first starting at a university, Ms. Sharma is nervously seeing where she will spend the next four. She wants to study radiation therapy technology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and perhaps, eventually, start working toward a doctorate.
“It’s a stressful feeling but patience and time, that’s what I can say,” she said. “I am just waiting.”
Taking Tests While Having Attention Deficit Disorder
The email arrived at the end of Jackson Lamb’s junior year at the McCallie School, one of the South’s most prestigious boarding schools.
What were his preferences, his guidance counselors wanted to know, for where he would go for college?
Mr. Lamb, now a 19-year-old attending high school on a scholarship, had never given it much thought. “I think they wanted me to take it more seriously because I was like, ‘Oh, whatever happens will happen,’” he said of his parents.
So began Mr. Lamb’s college application odyssey.
Searching for schools on Google and looking at suggestions from his school, Mr. Lamb gradually whittled down his list. An important criterion: a place where he could easily go rock climbing.
“There are definitely students I know who choose harder classes and take bigger workloads.”
Mr. Lamb, who has attention deficit disorder, had been granted extended time to complete his standardized tests.
Unlike the children whose parents were indicted last week, Mr. Lamb’s reasons were legitimate. In the fraud case, parents falsely claimed their children had learning disabilities, so they could take their tests under conditions that would make it easier to cheat.
Mr. Lamb is surrounded by wealthier students whose parents were more involved in their applications. “There are definitely students I know who choose harder classes and take bigger workloads,” he said.
With hindsight, he said, maybe he should have started thinking about colleges when he was in the ninth grade. Maybe, he said, he would have been “generally more aware that I’m eventually going to have to deal with all of this stress.” In the end, though, he suggested that his most aggressive strategy to impress admissions officers was writing an essay about his experience earning his Eagle Scout rank. His mother, back home in Central City, Ky., checked his essay for spelling.
But he has grown weary of the endless paperwork that comes with college admissions.
“I’m glad it’s going to be over soon,” Mr. Lamb said.
Fighting Asian-American Stereotypes
The college application season began in earnest last spring for Karen Ge when her parents proposed hiring a college consultant.
As Chinese immigrants who had attended graduate school but not college in the United States, they worried that they were not prepared for the infamous intricacies of the process. There were plenty of consultant recommendations to be had from other families at the public high school Karen attended in the Chicago suburbs, or from the College Confidential website that they read regularly. Karen’s mother, Kejia Ho, who had a terminal cancer diagnosis, wanted to give her daughter every chance.
But Karen, who has an SAT score of 1590, a GPA of 4.8, and in 2017 scored among the top students nationwide in a major high school math competition, said no. With some combination of calculation and authenticity, she felt she had already been shaping herself to be a competitive candidate for admission to top colleges for years.
“I had to factor in all the stereotypes about Asians. Like they’re really good at math and have no social skills.”
First, at her mother’s insistence, she had practiced for the test to apply for a magnet program that began in the fourth grade.
When she got in — the following year — there was MathCounts, a middle-school math competition, to prepare for.
Then the goal was qualifying for the state championship, and then the national one.
The pleasure of achievement was mixed, always, with the pressure of the looming uncertainty of college admissions.
When Ms. Ge realized she had come to genuinely love math, there were new considerations: One high school summer, she chose to attend an elite math program that was thought to be more prestigious for a college application, rather than one that was better tailored to her interest.
And her application essay itself was a balancing act. As an Asian-American who loved math, she had been well-warned by peers and mentors to avoid appearing too much like one. The Harvard admissions lawsuit, which claims that the college discriminates against Asian-American applicants by assigning them low scores on “personality” criteria, did not help her confidence, especially since she was applying early to Harvard.
Despite all her math accomplishments, she focused her essay on the experience of overcoming her social shyness. The goal was to come across as “warm” rather than “flat,” — the term often assigned to Asian applicants by admissions officers.
“I had to factor in all the stereotypes about Asians,” said Ms. Ge, who is now 17. “Like they’re really good at math and have no social skills.”
Rejecting the consultant was something that could let her feel, she said, a little less like she was trying to manipulate the system — or that she was a cog within it. Even in December, when she learned she had not been admitted early to Harvard, she had no regrets.
“I did all I could and I didn’t cheat, even if I didn’t get the results I wanted,” she said. It was a stressful year, full of dark moments, Ms. Ge said. Her mother died in the fall.
It helped that she was accepted last week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was like a huge cloud lifted, because I can actually go to a college now,” she said. But her wait continues.
She will find out about Harvard on March 28. Stanford, another top choice, will let her and other applicants know a few days after that.
Rowing Crew and Impressing Recruiters
When he received an email from a crew coach at an Ivy League school soon after he began his junior year of high school, Angus Gosman was still uncertain whether he would attend college.
“It was quite surprising for me,” said Mr. Gosman, 18. “I didn’t realize that recruiting was starting then. These are amazing academic institutions, not something that I ever saw myself in.”
By the beginning of his senior year, Mr. Gosman was speaking with rowing coaches at nearly a dozen universities, including Princeton, Syracuse and Northeastern.
“This is not a sport you can rely on — you’re always just one injury away from losing everything.”
Mr. Gosman did not even consider himself an athlete when he picked up an oar and stepped into a boat for the first time at the age of 13. But he loved it immediately.
“There’s a level of camaraderie that is just unmatched when you’re in sync with the rowers,” he said. “I love the rhythm of it. When you’re going fast, it’s almost euphoric.”
Though he knew the Marin Rowing Club had won national championships and boasted a history of sending students to top-tier schools, Mr. Gosman said he had never felt confident it would be his ticket into college.
“This is not a sport you can rely on — you’re always just one injury away from losing everything,” he said. “With the recruitment process, you have to be constantly getting better and better.”
Every weekday, Mr. Gosman wakes up in the morning no later than 6 a.m., attends class until practice starts at 4 p.m. and usually gets home about 9 p.m. Saturdays are set aside for races, and Sundays are his one day off.
Managing college recruiters became a near constant side job for Mr. Gosman, who would send emails every few weeks with updates on his speeds for rowing two kilometers, telling recruiters about new personal records in races.
His coaches in Marin helped guide him through the often bewildering process. There are strict rules from the N.C.A.A. about when a coach is allowed to speak with a high school athlete and what details they are allowed to exchange.
His parents never pressured him, he said, but the appeal of being in college became clear quickly for Mr. Carson. He flew across the country to visit Syracuse — the free trip was part of being recruited — and stayed in a dorm with rowers, watching them practice and attend class.
Ultimately, Mr. Carson was most taken by a school close to home: University of California, Berkeley. Last fall, while like most students he was still filling out applications, he reached a verbal commitment with the coach, all but assuring his admission.
Still, he is anxiously awaiting the official admissions letter this month — if his grades slipped too much, he said, he could be rejected.
It is impossible to know whether Mr. Angus could have been admitted to Berkeley on his grades alone. Becoming a prized athletic recruit at a top school gives an applicant a serious edge, which is why the wealthy parents indicted last week bribed soccer, sailing and crew coaches to pretend their children were top athletes when they weren’t.
Mr. Angus has committed countless hours to become a true recruit. But will other students still look at him on campus and dismiss him as a jock who doesn’t deserve to be there? Maybe. No doubt, he said, being a top rower helped him “a lot.”
“That’s not to say I don’t deserve it — I put my work in,” he said. “There’s a lot of responsibility: You’ve got to be on top of your sports and you’ve got to be on top of your school. You’ve no chance to rebound, you’ve got to be on top of all of it.”
Audra D.S. Burch contributed reporting.