I spent every day after school when I was in fourth through sixth grade doing my homework in a conference room that was covered floor to ceiling in college brochures and posters. When I finished my homework, I would look over the various shiny brochures and marvel at all the options available. If you had asked me what college I wanted to go to in fifth grade, I most likely would have responded with the College of Wooster or The University of Puget Sound, which at that time were pretty out-of-the-box choices for a little girl in Tennessee.

My father has worked at the same independent school since 1974 and for 20 years of his time there, he was the Director of College Guidance in addition to his teaching role. I feel like I was on the platform when the runaway train that is the college admissions frenzy left the station. I myself have worked as a college guidance counselor in a school and I now work with families privately to help them navigate the admissions process, so I spend a lot time up close with families that are trying to help their students make decisions about college.

As you have most likely read, fifty individuals were arrested yesterday due to involvement with a college admissions bribery and fraud scandal. There were two ways that this fraud was carried out, 1) Test Score and Online Class Fraud and 2) Athletic Recruiting. This article sums it up well.

As someone who has been close to the college admissions world for most of my life, I am shocked but not surprised at the events that unfolded yesterday. I remember vividly the shaky edge in parents’ voices on our home answering machine in the late eighties and early nineties, asking my father to call them back. I remember wandering the aisles of the grocery store while my father was held up listening to a student’s parents in the produce section. “What is going to happen?” “Will they be able to support themselves?” “Will they be able to withstand the disappointment of not being accepted to their first choice school?” “Is there anything else we can do?” And then the one they were really asking inside all of the others: “Will my child be ok?” I believe that the individuals indicted yesterday at their core were very scared and unfortunately had the means to commit serious crimes to try to assuage those fears.

There are many reasons for the current climate surrounding college admissions and its escalation since the dawn of the internet — and each one probably deserves an article of its own, but a major culprit in the college admissions mania is the US News and World Report Rankings and their deeply flawed methodology. These rankings propagate the illusion of prestige. As we have seen in the past few days, the allure of prestige and the false promises it makes is a golden calf that few can resist worshipping.

The truth is that MOST colleges in the United States accept MOST of the students that apply. This is something I try very hard to impress upon the families that I work with and my father did it before me. There are lots of colleges that would love to educate my students, but too often families are infatuated with the schools that are a reach for every single student. The rankings and the media elevate and focus on the tiny subset of schools that have laughably low acceptance rates which drop every year. In 1999, my husband applied and was accepted to our alma mater and the acceptance rate was 61% — this past year it was 9.6%. As I tell the students that I work with: If there is a 9.6% chance of rain, I probably don’t need to pack my umbrella.

Some details came out in the Harvard Admissions case this fall about the credentials of their applicant pool. Of the 42,749 applicants for the 1,655 spots in the class of 2022, 8,000 had a perfect GPA, 625 had a perfect ACT score, 361 had a perfect SAT score, 3,500 had a perfect SAT math score and 2,700 had a perfect SAT verbal score. Not to mention, there are over 37,000 high schools in the United States alone, and every single one of those has a Valedictorian, a Student Body President, etc.

I am not trying to pick on Harvard or my alma mater, as they are both great fits for certain students, and they have both done a lot over the years to increase diversity as well as meet 100% of demonstrated financial need without loans which provides opportunities to those historically shut out of higher education.

A few years ago, I was on a tour of a highly selective university and the admissions officer told the group of 40-50 people that so many international students apply to this school with a score of 36 on the ACT that they could fill their freshman class of 3,500 twice over. His tone was not helpful, although I can appreciate his desire to manage expectations. But, if I had been a student sitting in that room — I would have been gutted.

I have deep sympathy for anyone that feels the temptation to go to extreme and unhealthy lengths in order to try to justify themselves in any way — because I myself feel that temptation acutely and daily. Hopefully most of us will not commit felonies in order to circumvent the standard that has been put before us, but make no mistake, the desire to justify ourselves in light of an impossible standard, or to delude ourselves into believing that there is an easy way out, lurks in every heart.

The law of God holds all of us to a standard we never have and never will be able to meet in our own strength. We are so dead in our sins that we can’t even legibly fill out an application. We aren’t accepted into the kingdom of God on our own merits, but through the death and resurrection of one who lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. Without Christ’s substitution on our behalf, our chance of acceptance was 0%, “but because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”