Is it ever ok to cheat or lie on a university application?

  • Post category:Cheating

If money was not an issue, would you cheat and pay to get your child into a school, college or university, even if you know they weren’t capable of passing the entrance criteria?

Many parents have been there, the “What can we do to get our child into THAT school?” position. 

For most of us it’s down to helping our child to prepare the best way they can, so they can do their best when taking any entrance exams or tests, or taking part in any sports or fitness selection activities.

Then we let the dice fall where they may.

And that’s where any “gaming of the system” stops.

For some, however, there’s a need, a compulsion perhaps, to secure THAT ONE place using the “whatever it takes” method that they may well have used in other areas of their lives. For them to cheat is simply one of the ways to achieve the result they want.

And it’s those “whatever it takes” actions that devalue the results achieved by other honest and capable students.

The College / University entrance cheat scam

Recent evidence has come to light from the FBI that several high net worth individuals in the US have been caught allegedly having taken part in a selection of US college entrance scams, with bribes of up to US$500,000 (£377,000) having been identified.

US authorities have been quoted as saying that this is the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice.”

It appears that more than 30 parents have been accused of taking part in this bribery and as you may surmise bearing in mind the amounts of money being discussed, many are well-known celebrities, lawyers, real estate developers, fund managers, high profile wealthy individuals or others senior business executives.

It’s alleged that these parents had in effect paid to cheat on their children’s college entrance exams, or to secure fake athletic scholarships.

In total up to $6.5m (£4.9m) was paid to a consulting firm to secure their children’s places in this fashion.

Apparently a “life coaching and college counselling” company run by William “Rick” Singer was involved in facilitating these arrangements, with a total fee earned for carrying out these actions netting his organisations around US$25m.

Many of the payments made by the parents were in due course redesignated as “donations”, which meant that when the funds were passed onto the colleges the parents could then claim tax deductions against them.

Mr Singer’s organisations comprise Edge College & Career Network, also known as The Key, and a non-profit organization, called the Key Worldwide Foundation.

Singer had previously expressed what The Key does as this,

“What we do is we help the wealthiest families in America get their kids into school.”

Or more precisely, they were adept at gaming the system to secure places for those would were willing to pay the most.

The FBI alleged that Mr Singer would arrange for cheating on standardised tests or to bribe college coaches to recruit a student.

Mr. Singer, is co-operating with the ongoing investigation and has pleaded guilty to the charges which include racketeering, conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Famous parents – Implicated parties

Along with William Singer two other people have been charged with conspiracy; Steven Masera who is an accountant and financial officer for the two entities and Mikaela Sanford, a multi-role employee in the organisation.

Various parents have been named as taking part in the scam, including Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman (wife of William H Macy, himself not named in this action).

Ten sports coaches from top Colleges, along with specific test administrators, teachers and test proctors were also named in the legal documents. For them, cheating other more capable students out of a place is ok.

The FBI’s case covers the years 2011 through to 2018, when it is alleged that around US$25m was paid, effectively as bribes, by parents who wanted to circumvent the normal college or university entrance procedures.

The FBI charge names fifty people, comprising 33 parents and various sports coaches, since sport is so heavily linked to university admittance in the US.

Of those named, Lori Loughlin, Mossimo Giannulli, William E. McGlashan Jr. and Felicity Huffman may be the ones more instantly recognisable to a UK audience.

Other parents indicted include a self-help author (there’s irony there I feel), a casino operator (someone who’s good at playing the odds, I’d suggest) and a Napa Valley vineyard owner.

Many have been required to post bail of between US$ 250,000 to US$1m and surrender their passports.

Innocent parties “tarred with the same brush”

It appears that sometimes Mr Singer’s clients simply wanted help with securing college places for their children.  There’s no suggestion they had cheated the system themselves, however they are now worried that this case will somehow cast doubt upon the way their children actually secured their places.

Some have commented that this had come as a shock to them, especially since Mr Singer’s services had been recommended by other friends who had used him in the past.

William Rick Singer fake scholarship implicated court hearing
William ‘Rick’ Singer Credit Katherine Taylor for The New York Times

Collateral damage

Mr Singer’s “coaching and college counselling” company The Key, is claimed to have orchestrated the operation, earning around $25m in the process. It’s currently unclear what will now happen to those privileged students on campus, whether their parents are found guilty or not. Some may be forced to resign their places, or to have their grades re-assessed.

What’s clear, however, is that brand relationships and therefore endorsement payments, are being cancelled at speed.

Apparently the beauty brands Sephora and TREsemme have also sought to limit damage to their own companies by severing their relationships with Ms Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, one of those who were alleged to have benefitted from the scam.

Hollywood actress Ms Loughlin has herself been dropped by her TV network Hallmark over her alleged role in this scam.

Crown Media Family Networks, which owns the Hallmark channel, in a statement: “We are no longer working with Lori Loughlin and have stopped development of all productions [involving the actress] that air on the Crown Media Family Network channels.”


But what do you do if your child’s not capable of achieving the required score in a test?

No problem, if you’re a client of Mr Singer, since he’ll simply arrange for a substitute to take the test instead.  For that he’s alleged to have often employed the services of Mark Riddell, a thirty-something an ex-tennis professional, and at the time a director of college entrance exam preparation at a Florida boarding school.

It’s alleged that he could “game” the test results to secure a ‘Goldilocks’ style result, not too low, not too high, but just right to fit with the student he was pretending to be.

Mr Singer would take the tests off-site and away from the college so nobody would carry out any checks as to who was completing the test.

Sports scholarship scam

Having someone else take your test, whilst undoubtedly illegal, is plausible, providing those monitoring the test can be bribed to “look the other way”. But how do you fake a student’s credentials when it relates to sporting ability?

Actually that’s even easier.

It’s alleged that what would happen was that their heads would simply be Photoshopped on to the photos of other more capable students, or alternatively their results data would be ‘massaged’ to appear better than it really was.

Apparently a supposed basketball player somehow grew from 5ft 5in to 6ft 1in during the admissions process.

It seems that not being involved in sport, at all, was no barrier to making the rowing team and once in those bribed sports coaches would ensure no further questions were asked.

Many universities and colleges welcome applications from strong sports candidates for the twin benefits of those candidates being powerful role models for students, along with the prestige that sporting success confers on that institution.

Famous universities targeted with cheating scam

Along with less well known or smaller universities and colleges, Yale, Stanford and Georgetown were among the universities targeted in the scam.

There is no accusation that any were complicit in the wrongdoing and all are investigating the matter internally.

Who else has “dodged a bullet” this time?

It appears that issues surrounding this case only came to light in 2016 whilst federal prosecutors were working on an unrelated securities fraud case.

Their suspect in that case offered information about this scam in a bid to reduce their possible sentence in the securities fraud.

It’s plausible to suggest, therefore, that other similar scams with parents who feel it’s ok to cheat may have been, or are still being operated to secure admissions places.

There’s every possibility, therefore, that other well-off parents are now rather worried about how they may have ‘manipulated’ their own children’s entrance scores, this story may have a few more chapters to go.

Don’t try this at home

Whilst we all want the best for our children, in cases like this the people who lose out the most are always the students. In the long term, cheats never prosper.

Firstly there are those who have secured a place at an institution under false pretence, where they will most probably have trouble with achieving the required grades over subsequent years.

And secondly there are the capable students who’ve missed out at a chance to go to those places.

I’d suggest that there’s always a school, a college or a university that would be a great fit for your child and that, if required, with a good tutoring and coaching programme, that is going to be a place that once they secure it, they’ll do well there.

And that approach is one that will allow you to sleep soundly at night, rather than worry about any legal actions from the authorities.

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