• Cameron Cleveland

It's Not a College Admissions Scandal - It's a Preparation Crisis (And It's Not Going Away....)

You Don't Need a Fixer with a Scheme;

You Need a Coach with a Plan


By necessity, this is not a short article.  For those who embrace the “TL;DR” (Too long; didn’t read) ethos, here’s the bottom line. 


First, young adults immersed in the college admissions process do not need a fixer with a scheme; they need a coach who helps them execute a plan specifically designed for them – and only them – to reach a full potential that has virtually nothing to do with GPAs, SAT or ACT scores, extracurricular activities, or creating a resume that would rival a Fortune 500 CEO prior to graduating from high school. 


Second, in most cases, that coach should be someone other than mom or dad.


Third, parents who invest wisely in their young adult’s future are not helicopter or lawnmower parents. They care.  Of course, this “wise investment” has nothing to do with cheating, hovering, eliminating any and all challenges and obstacles, or committing fraud, bribery, or any other felonious offense.


Sadly, we live in a culture that privileges scheming over planning and shortcuts over due diligence, grit, and living a disciplined life of reflection and accountability.  We also live in a knee-jerk culture that rushes to judgment and would rather apportion blame than identify and address the root problems at the epicenter of yet the latest scandal-of-the-week.


None of this helps young adults reach their full potential. Neither does it set a positive example.


In my line of work – as a professor and administrator and as an academic consultant and coach – I listen on almost a daily basis to laments about “kids these days” from parents and colleagues. Perhaps, instead, we should take a closer look at “adults these days.”  Indeed, my classes are full of young people who, for the most part, want to do the “right” thing. They are willing to work hard. They want to succeed.  They are inquisitive, involved in the world in which they live – and practically begging for someone – anyone – to step in and help them reach their full potential.


A majority are also anxious, riddled with self-doubt, unsure of both themselves and their prospects in life, and suffer the ill-consequences of woeful study habits and time and energy management skills. Their oral and written communications skills reflect a life lived primarily on computers, game consoles, pads and tablets, and cellphones. They tend not to look others in the eye. They shift from foot to foot or squirm in their seats when called upon to speak or answer a question. Indeed, many live lives of discomfort and worry rather than wonder and adventure. And these are my better students.


Whose fault is this? Should we apportion blame? If so – to whom?  I would guess that many of you have already begun to do so. “Well,” many of you are thinking, “it’s the schools these days. They just simply aren’t preparing kids like they use to.” Others might respond with contempt for “screen-time” and standardized tests. Too few of us have the proper response, “Perhaps I am responsible.” 


You are.  We are.  Though not, perhaps, for reasons that might seem intuitively obvious. 


Yes. We keep Caitlin busy with piano lessons, travel soccer, extra-curricular activities, SAT-prep courses, and community service.  We have been driving Mason and his lax-bro, Liam, to practices and tournaments for eleven years. We check their grades online on a daily basis. We call their teachers when their grades drop precipitously from a 96 to a community-college future 93. We demand perfect grades and facilitate their admittance to a top-tier college by insisting they fulfill all the requirements of the fabled “admissions algorithm.” 

And that algorithm is not a secret. 


If your daughter is the valedictorian, has more than four varsity letters, has captained a varsity sport or two, been an officer in a couple of extracurricular clubs, served as student-body or class vice-president, earned a near-perfect score on the SAT and ACT, built a few homes with Habitat for Humanity, founded her own company, and resourced a medical clinic in Haiti – she will likely gain admission to just about any college in America.  But maybe not her dream college. And that’s okay. 


You might scoff at the extremes posed in this vignette. You shouldn’t. There are, in fact, probably hundreds of college applicants each and every year whose resumes far surpass the impressive accomplishment of our notional daughter. They are truly remarkable young adults.  They will undoubtedly have bright futures.


They, too, are anxiety-driven. They, too, worry about finances, achieving perfection, finding the perfect job, and keeping-up with Grace and her friend, Meredith. 


The truth is – the college admissions process has never been more complex or fraught with pitfalls. One misspelled word in an otherwise perfect and truly engaging essay might very well derail an applicant’s efforts to attend his “dream” school. It’s true. A single point on the ACT – or ten on the SAT – absolutely might keep your son or daughter out of an extremely selective school.  And that’s okay.


For all of their faults – and there are, indeed, many – most university admissions departments are quite adept at recruiting, assessing, and accepting a diverse freshman class that will not only succeed – but thrive – within their specific and very particular academic, research, extra-curricular, and social ecosystem. A vast majority of these students will not only enjoy academic success but also add immeasurably to the campus community, as a whole. Your son or daughter, regardless of how spectacular he or she might, in fact, be – might not fit within that ecosystem. And that’s okay.


Not every young adult belongs at a Harvard or a Yale or an MIT or a Duke.  

And that’s okay.


Cheating to get into one of these schools or, worse (yes – worse!), structuring a young person’s entire high school life and curating his or her identity around gaining admission to one of the nation’s top-50 undergraduate institutions is not only counterproductive, it also threatens to undermine the very purpose of attendance at such an elite college in the first place.


If you cheat to get your young adult into Harvard (or Arizona State University, for that matter) – your child will very likely struggle mightily – and not only academically. Rather than cheating or scheming to “keep up with the 1%,” how about working methodically and in accordance with a detailed, tailored, and comprehensive plan to prepare that young adult for success?  


There are, of course, many options available to parents laser-focused on getting their son or daughter into college.  Some cost as little as $3500 to $5000. These programs focus almost solely on two things: building a resume and preparing for the SAT and ACT. Other independent admissions counselors add to this “core business” by providing assistance with college applications, admissions essays, and keeping young adults on track throughout what is, for many, a long and daunting process. These additional services run the costs up to the $10,000 to $12,000 range. 


I will not even speak to the “elite” agencies whose costs range from $65,000 for a single weekend “boot camp” to “comprehensive packages” that can run up to $1.5 million for those seeking admission to an Ivy League or extremely selective college.  Yes. 1.5 million dollars.

In each and every instance, whether at the $3500 or the $1.5 million rate, the sole focus of these programs is getting a client into college.  That’s it. This is ridiculously short-sighted because, as I tell my clients and their parents, it’s like “winning” the first quarter of a football game. It’s not enough.


When you cheat, bribe, or scheme – or pay a consultant – just to get your child into a college, you’re missing the point entirely. None of these paves the way for success. None helps your child reach his or her potential. 


There is an alternative. But it’s not easy. There are no short cuts.  Neither you nor your son will be able to pay for success with money. Instead, he must “pay” by learning how to live a disciplined, reflective life based upon establishing clearly-defined and measurable outcomes, identifying specific tasks to achieve these outcomes, assessing his progress along the way, and developing soft- and hard-skills to facilitate success not only in the classroom – but also in the hallways, on the athletic field, in the dorms, and, later, in the marketplace.  

There are no shortcuts. There is no amount of money one can pay to “side-door” success.

Rather, success requires hard work, discipline, reflection, commitment, and unapologetic honesty.  It requires moral, ethical, and temporal buy-in – not financial bribes and scheming.  

We offer an alternative: The nxtUWay. We begin working with our clients during their freshman or sophomore year in high school. We assess their personal interests, assets, and skills. We help them benchmark and map their teen years. We introduce them early to what college “means” – and what it takes to earn admission at an elite, highly-selective, or selective institution. We have them start thinking about what they might want in a college. We help them develop the daily planning, written and oral communication, and reflection and assessment skills necessary for success in life – not just in school.  


Later, with our proprietary programming and intellectual property, we help them identify, visit, and assess a wide-range of college options. We don’t just look at Duke. Davidson might be a better option. In fact, the excellent honors college at the University of South Carolina (or Pomona) might be an even better option. Unlike other firms, we don’t publicize “testimonials” that brag about getting a child into a particular school. We will never do that. Why? Because, though Harvard might, in fact, have been the absolute perfect fit for one of our clients (and it was) – it very likely is not for 90% of our other clients. And such testimonials unduly pressure or influence other young adults as they embrace their own journey.


More important, we continue to work with, counsel, advise, and coach our clients as long as they want us. We coach them throughout their undergraduate experience – both privately and in destination seminars at places like the Whitewater National Training Center in Charlotte, NC. We open them up to the world of possibilities and opportunities available to person who lives a life examined – and is willing to work diligently to reach his or her full potential. 


We even continue to advise young people when they enter the marketplace.  It’s what we do.

We coach.


You don’t need a fixer with a scheme.


You need a coach with a plan.

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