The Rich are Different

Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. F.Scott Fitzgerald “The Rich Boy” (1926)

Yes, they have more money. Ernest Hemingway

After the recent college admissions scandal, perhaps Hemingway would have cynically added, “And they cheat, even when they don’t have to.”

On March 12, 2019, the Department of Justice filed criminal charges against 50 people including 33 parents who had fraudulently lied and bribed their children’s way into selective colleges. Operation Varsity Blues revealed a college admissions system so crazy and competitive that these extremely wealthy and well-connected parents, including the actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, felt compelled to cheat, even when they didn’t have to.

William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind behind the scheme, bragged about his services bribing college coaches and test proctors who would guarantee admission through “the side door.” Apparently, regular folks use the “front door” of submitting actual grades, scores and extracurriculars, while the very wealthy can use “the back door” gaining admission for mediocre candidates by making large donations and pulling strings. The poster boy for “back door” admits is Jared Kushner who secured his slot after his father’s $2.5 million donation to Harvard. The “Z-list,” as it is known at Harvard, is a practice widespread at all prestigious schools allowing the children of alumni, large donors and the well-connected to be favored over all other applicants.

However, even the Z-list wasn’t enough for these parents. Instead, they preferred outright cheating, paying millions to guarantee acceptance by faking athletic profiles and submitting fraudulent test scores. Singer’s “side door” scheme went undetected for nearly a decade, from 2011 to 2019, although it may have started even earlier. Over that time, Singer collected more than $25 million from his clients to pay off psychologists, athletic coaches and test proctors.

Although the Z-list and “the back door” illustrate the inherent unfairness of college admissions, at least with that system, the quid pro quo is not illegal. Kushner never submitted a false profile pretending he was a world-class sailor; never doctored his transcript nor paid someone for his mediocre SAT scores. He never pretended to be world-class at anything except wealthy. And arguably, the Kushner wealth, funneled into campus buildings and endowed chairs, could be enjoyed by other Harvard students. Most of the bribes Singer arranged only benefitted the direct recipients.

So what can be learned from these ultra-wealthy parents behaving badly? That these parents, despite all the advantages that their wealth and status have already granted them and their offspring, still feel it is necessary to cheat. That they feel entitled to cheat and are willing to pay millions for the privilege.

Rather than spend their money to give their children the opportunities to learn at the best schools, from the best teachers, tutors and coaches, these parents decided their kids were too dumb, lazy or incompetent to be entrusted with such matters as their very own futures. In several cases, it appears the students didn’t even know their parents were cheating for them. Transcripts from taped conversations show some parents insisting their children not find out their test scores and applications were falsified by Singer.

For these parents, the back door wasn’t good enough; caught up in their own hubris, they wanted even more. Donating a building or two may reveal their children are mediocre, like Jared Kushner. No, to escape any doubt their kids are the very best and worthy of Stanford or USC, they decided to circumvent the system entirely by cheating their kids’ way to the top. By doing so, they have harmed everyone who played by the rules including their own unsuspecting children.

Most ironic of all is the harm these parents have inflicted upon their kids. Yes, the rich are different from you and me. Wealth, Fitzgerald writes in “The Rich Boy” “does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful.”

By cheating on behalf of their children, these parents who thought that money could buy everything, may have stolen from their offspring the most valuable thing of all–the feeling of accomplishment derived from trying your best and working hard toward a goal, even if that goal is not guaranteed. These Varsity Blues parents—CEOs, professors, doctors, famous actors—appear to exemplify how hard work and effort lead to career success, yet they did not pass on these values to their very own children. Perhaps they thought they were saving them the trouble of working hard for their achievements. Perhaps by eliminating all obstacles from the path to success, these parents believed they “loved” their children.

Instead, these wealthy cheaters have made their children soft rather than hard; made them ignorant rather than educated; made them ridiculed rather than admired. What type of parental love is that?

Actual parental love consists of allowing your children to try and fail, of providing the opportunities, but not rigging the outcomes. How else can children become capable adults and responsible citizens who will continue to contribute to society once their parents are gone?

Yes, the rich are different. Money does matter and what Operation Varsity Blues shows is that college admissions is far from an equal playing field. However, parents who are fortunate enough to afford the best private schools, tutors, coaches and expensive sports like sailing, crew and fencing know that they must let their children try, work hard and possibly fail. If you can afford the best for your children, you must ask them to do their best. That is the most valuable inheritance of all.

See the Film! Why Students Must See the Film Version of Plays

As a tutoring professional for over ten years in Silicon Valley, an area that prides itself on high quality education, I am still shocked that most English teachers whether at private or public schools do NOT screen films based on plays that students read and study in class. In January 2017, I posted the blog Five Movies Based on Shakespeare That You Didn’t Know Were Based on Shakespeare to partially address this issue.

By not screening films based on plays, teachers ignore a valuable tool to enhance student understanding, engagement and retention. Students need to see a play performed. Plays are not meant to be analyzed purely as text as this will kill any of the artistic merit and enjoyment to be gained from seeing a performance. This is akin to reading music on a page and never hearing the orchestra play the piece.

Unfortunately, the majority of English teachers commit professional malpractice by either not bothering to screen films of a play or screening only select scenes. One teacher goes so far as to refuse to screen films; I often see this teacher’s students because they do not understand the play well enough to write a decent analysis. My first recommendation is that they see the film.

In the best of all possible worlds, all English teachers would screen the film version of the play BEFORE students read it. Screening the film during class time instead of assigning it as homework would guarantee students actually see the play performed as it should be. Plays are not static text, but living art. Besides, most students would prefer to see a film during class than sit through a boring lecture or Socratic seminar.

By seeing the film before reading the play, students will better understand the plot, emotion, mood and tone. Some teachers wait until after students have read the text to screen the film and although this is better than no film at all, students should still see the play first. Most students have no idea of the diction, body language or costumes, especially for Shakespeare, and a performance will help them later conjure up the mental images needed to appreciate, analyze and interpret the text for an essay.

Here is a partial list of plays that local schools have taught. I am sad to say that the majority of my students did NOT see the entire play in class either before or after they had read it. Make sure your student does see the film. Make it a family movie night. Not the most fun movie night compared to seeing the latest Avengers’ blockbuster, but it will make writing essays about the play easier.

Antigone, As You Like It, Cyrano de Bergerac, Fences, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, MacBeth, Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Oedipus Rex, Othello, Phedre, The Tempest, A Raisin in the Sun, and Romeo and Juliet.

8 Minutes That Will Change Your Life

In 8 minutes the average human can:

1.      Boil an egg.

2.      Run a mile.

3.      Shower and change.

And the average college admissions officer? That human can read and pass judgment on your entire college application, everything included –grades, test scores, resume and all essay responses.

Granted, two admissions officers peruse your application in tandem. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, “some elite colleges review an application in 8 minutes. Or less.” Sitting side-by-side, one person reads your transcript and test scores while the other reads your essay responses. They briefly share notes about you and then decide to admit, deny or wait-list. In 8 minutes. Or less.

The main reason for this time crunch is the sheer number of college applications inundating admission offices. Students submit their applications online through the Common,  Coalition or the UC Application. Once a student has entered in the necessary information, applying to one school or twenty schools is as easy as checking an additional box; the only limit is the application and test score submission fees.

Not surprisingly, every year, the number of college applications has grown by leaps and bounds. Duke University broke 30,000 applications last year; Boston University was over 60,000. Last fall, UCLA became the first university to receive over 100,000 applications in a single year. In a perverse arms race, high school seniors submit even more applications to raise their chances of getting into college. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 36 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges in the fall of 2015. Just 10 years earlier, in the fall of 2005, only 17 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more institutions.

Pity the poor admissions officer. Faced with thousands of applications and a short deadline, the only response is an 8-minute processing time. Like a 21st century Bartleby the Scrivener working in the dead letter office, admissions officers must reject thousands and thousands of applicants, even though many are fully qualified to attend their institutions.

What a soul-crushing job.

So, who is that person on the other side of your application? Who aspires to be a collegiate bureaucrat? Most likely, the application reader, especially the most junior readers, couldn’t get a job at Google or Goldman Sachs. Or maybe they had to follow their spouses who are tenure-track professors at said university and they needed some type of paid employment.

Faced with such a reader, what can you, the applicant, do?

Well, first, pray to the application gods that your submission gets read either first thing in the morning or right after lunch. In an Israeli study, judges were more likely to grant parole to prisoners if they reviewed their cases first thing in the morning or right after lunch. A parole rate of 65% dropped close to zero as judges reviewed more cases right before lunch time. The parole rate rose again, immediately after lunch. The researchers concluded that mental fatigue sets in and judges will default to the easier decision as they get tired. The easier decision is to deny parole.

By analogy, for an admissions officer, the easier decision is to deny admissions. Therefore, college applications read early in the morning or right after lunch will probably have a slightly higher admit rate as mental fatigue has not yet taken its toll. (I haven’t found such a study, but please send me a link if you have).

Second, make sure your essays grab the reader’s attention. The Common and Coalition Applications basically ask you to tell a story that only you can tell. What story can you tell that will put a smile on the face of that possibly bitter, definitely overworked reader?

Third, use summer to get a head start on the process. By drafting your essays earlier, you can allow time between drafts and gather comments from friends, family, and teachers. Writing a good essay takes time and effort. Often your first ideas will not be your best ideas. By starting in the summer, you have the luxury to start over.

A three-month head start in the summer may pay off when faced with the 8 minutes that will change your life. (Need subscription to read)

To Get Parole, Have Your Case Heard Right After Lunch
By Kate Shaw, Ars Technica Between the courtroom antics of lawyers, witnesses and jurors, reason doesn’t always …
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From The Atlantic article “Where College Admissions Went Wrong” on who are the gatekeepers in the admissions office: “You would never find the faculty in any decent university that would allow 24-year-olds to determine who were going to be their colleagues on the faculty; nor would they allow these 24-year-olds to determine who are going to be their graduate students or their post doctorate fellows,” said Cole, noting that admissions officers have often declined to go forward with his recommendations. “So why do we do it in undergraduate education?” The article also advocates a lottery system among all the qualified applicants. This would be fairer and less stressful for both applicants and admissions officers.
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