Skip to content ↓
MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Crazy admissions stories by Matt McGann '00

A story about craziness from both sides of the college admissions process.

From The Chronicle of Higher Education (via a friend at Harvard) comes this story about craziness from both sides of the college admissions process. I think my favorite is the private jet/financial aid story from Kalamazoo College.

You may also be interested in the other stories from The Chronicle’s Admissions Supplement.


Bribery Attempts, the Unbearable Pushiness of Parents, and Other Admissions Tales

While visiting colleges in the Northeast last year, Andrew N. Lazar had the kind of campus tour that gives admissions deans nightmares. As the tour began one morning, a car pulled up and four young men dressed in black jumped out, grabbed the student guide, and tossed her into the trunk. A fifth young man emerged from the vehicle and announced that he was the new tour guide.

“All of us were jolted awake wondering what just happened,” says Mr. Lazar, who recently graduated from Irvington High School, in Irvington, N.Y. Before anyone could go running for the police, the new guide explained that it was all a joke. Mr. Lazar decided to attend Cornell University this fall, for reasons unrelated to the pseudo-kidnapping, which took place at a different campus.

Although they are often overshadowed by the sheer intensity of the admissions process and constant news reports warning how difficult it is to get into top colleges, weird, funny, poignant, and even appalling events are also part of the college-search process.

Take campus visits, which are supposed to leave prospective applicants and their families walking away with a good impression, but don’t always go according to plan. Marybeth Kravets, the college counselor at Deerfield High School, in Deerfield, Ill., says a member of the 2006 graduating class was touring a Long Island college when a parent asked the tour guide what percentage of the student body was Jewish. The guide’s response: 99 percent. When the parent expressed skepticism, the guide responded, “Well, they all sound Jewish.”

Jim Conroy, chairman of college counseling at New Trier High School, in Winnetka, Ill., tells of visiting a small liberal-arts college in New England, where admissions officials had promised to assign their best student tour guide to show him around. “We weren’t four steps away from the admission office, when the student told me that he needed my help,” Mr. Conroy recalls. The young man wanted advice on where to transfer. “He spent the whole tour talking to me about what he didn’t like.”

While visiting a private college in New York state with her mother, Corinne M. Fisk, a classmate of the student who witnessed the pseudo-kidnapping, watched a slide show put together by a student and presented by the admissions staff. She and her mother realized that the background music for the presentation contained the lyrics of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” The song, made famous by the Police, deals with an affair between a male teacher and a female student. The admissions staffer was oblivious to the suggestive lyrics. “My mother was cracking up,” says Ms. Fisk, who will attend Loyola College in Maryland in the fall.

One Saturday morning on a small New England campus, several dormitory windows shot open as a tour group passed by the building. The students began to harass the tour guide from their windows. “Tell them the reason you got in here,” one yelled. “Your father has millions of dollars.” Paul M. Feakins, director of college counseling at Norfolk Academy, in Virginia, says one of his seniors was visiting the campus during what he calls a “shock the tourist” incident.

Alena Davidoff-Gore, a brand-new graduate of Baltimore City College High School who will attend Brown University in the fall, recalls a tour of Swarthmore College during which one mother’s questions left those around her rolling their eyes. The mother wanted to know how students would get food if they were sick. They’d be in the infirmary, the guide replied. But what if they weren’t sick enough to seek medical help, the persistent mother wondered. Would the student’s friends bring food?

The tour guide had just encountered a “helicopter parent,” as mothers and fathers who hover above the admissions process (and many other aspects of their children’s lives) are now called. The guide eventually switched the subject.

While visiting several elite universities, Jessica C. Dai heard parents ask young admissions staffers why, having gotten a degree from such a prestigious university, they had not moved on with their lives. The implication was that they should be doing something more significant than working in admissions. Ms. Dai, a graduate of Clarkstown South Senior High School, in West Nyack, N.Y, will go to Brown in the fall.

When admissions deans and high-school counselors get together, they have plenty of stories to share about encounters with parents. W. Scott Friedhoff, vice president for enrollment at Allegheny College, in Meadville, Pa., recently talked with a high-school student and his mother about campus social life. While discussing fraternities, Mr. Friedhoff referred to the Greek system. He told the mother that her son would have fun even if he chose not to go Greek. “Pure joy came over her face,” Mr. Friedhoff recalls. “She said, ‘What a relief. We are Italian.'”

But encounters with parents are more likely to produce headaches than laughter. “This year I wanted to put ‘No Parents Allowed’ on the front door of my office,” says Jennifer Delahunty Britz, dean of admissions and financial aid at Kenyon College. One mother, she says, tried to dictate what the dean should write in an e-mail message to her son to encourage him to attend Kenyon. “She was feeding me lines like a ventriloquist,” Ms. Britz recalls. The dean e-mailed the young man, but used her own words. He eventually enrolled.

At a recent event for parents of students admitted to Allegheny, Mr. Friedhoff was stunned to hear parents asking questions like, “What happens when my son doesn’t do well on an exam?” “How will you tell me if my child decides to try drinking?” Sometimes family members raise questions in the most unlikely settings. A member of the admissions staff at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was standing at a urinal in the football stadium when the grandfather of an applicant who had recently been denied admission demanded an explanation on the spot. (The grandfather had accompanied the youngster on a campus visit, and recognized the admissions staffer.) “I couldn’t believe that somebody would bring up college admission when he was standing there with his pants open,” says Stephen M. Farmer, undergraduate admissions director at Chapel Hill.

But appalling behavior more often occurs on traditional terrain. A father came into Mr. Conroy’s office at New Trier with his son and asked whether the young man had a chance of being admitted to MIT. When Mr. Conroy said it was unlikely, the father replied, “My dream is shattered.” The son turned to his father and said, “Dad, it’s your dream, not mine. There are plenty of good schools I can go to.” Mr. Conroy says more and more parents act as if they, and not their children, are the ones applying to college.

Willard M. Dix, college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, sometimes has parents come into his office and sit on his sofa while their child sits behind them. “They will go on about Johnny and how wonderful he is and how a brand-name school is the right place for him, while the kid sits in back shaking his head No,” says Mr. Dix.

Then there are parents who think bribery is the surest route to success. Monica C. Inzer, dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y., has been offered bribes four or five times during her admissions career at three colleges. “I have had people show up with a check in hand asking how much it will cost,” she says. “They have never met a problem they can’t solve without writing a check. Every time it happens, I can’t believe it is happening.” And every time she explains to them that that is not the way business is done. “We let the family know that the conversation is no longer appropriate, nor is it helping their son or daughter,” she says.

This spring two parents came into her office without an appointment and refused to leave until they met with her. They weren’t offering money to get in; they and their child simply wanted out. The young man had been admitted under Hamilton’s binding early-decision process, but had not withdrawn applications to other colleges, as required by the rules governing early decision. The parents explained that their son had subsequently been accepted by a college he preferred to Hamilton, and asked if Ms. Inzer would release him from his commitment. The dean told the parents she was withdrawing the admission offer because the student’s actions had called his moral character into question. Moreover, she was obligated to inform the other college of his behavior.

She did, but the other institution still took the student.

Mr. Friedhoff had an experience this year that involved another ethical breach: double depositing. Allegheny received a deposit from an admitted student’s mother that was made out to St. Lawrence University. When Mr. Friedhoff called his counterpart at St. Lawrence, he learned that it had also received a deposit from the woman, but made out to Allegheny. “We agreed to return the checks to the mother and to withdraw admission to both schools,” says Mr. Friedhoff. But after putting the young man through the wringer, the two administrators agreed to let him enroll at Allegheny, which he claimed was his first choice.

Even more serious transgressions can occur. Bruce J. Poch, vice president and dean of admission at Pomona College, tells of receiving a teacher’s letter of recommendation that was highly critical of a strong applicant. His suspicions were aroused because the letter was inconsistent with the rest of the student’s record, so Mr. Poch called the high school. He discovered that the teacher had never written the letter. Mr. Poch believes that the mother of another applicant from the same school wrote the letter in an attempt to hurt the strong student’s chances and improve her own child’s prospects. Her child was not admitted, but the student whose file she was believed to have sabotaged was.

Bizarre parental behavior has also invaded the financial-aid process. Admissions and financial-aid administrators say it has become fairly common for parents with substantial six-figure incomes to seek financial assistance. “I have never seen so many families with incomes of $200,000 to $300,000 applying for need-based aid,” says Ms. Britz. “They look at their financial outlays and think they have need. But it’s really about lifestyle choices they have made.”

Joellen Silberman, dean of enrollment at Kalamazoo College, received a three-page, single-spaced letter from a cardiologist explaining that his take-home pay of $17,000 a month might seem like a lot, but really wasn’t. Ms. Silberman was unpersuaded.

Another parent called to complain that his son had not received any need-based aid. When Ms. Silberman explained why, the parent said he would hop on his private plane and fly to the campus to straighten her out. But he flew out the same way he flew in — empty-handed.

The antics of applicants who go to extremes to make an impression are a familiar source of bemusement and consternation for admission officials. Duncan C. Murdoch, who has just retired as vice president for external relations and enrollment at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Mass., recalls interviewing a student at a Seattle hotel who insisted he come outside for a few minutes. The youngster began juggling lighted tiki torches while talking about his life. “I remember telling him ‘Dylan, you had damn well better be a good student.'” Dillon was, and has just graduated from Olin.

Liz H. Woyczynski, director of undergraduate admissions at Case Western Reserve University, tells of an applicant to a program that guarantees admission to the university’s medical school. During an all-day open house, he pulled a deck of cards out of his jacket pocket and did magic tricks every time he met a new member of the admissions staff. “He was hoping to make a memorable impression on us, but it was over the top, especially since we had already gotten his 45-page resume with a three-page table of contents,” says Ms. Woyczynski. The young man was admitted to the university, but not to the special program.

Application essays are another place where students try to stand out. Mr. Poch recalls one applicant who cut his essay up into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle and challenged the admissions staff to put his life together. It was a risky strategy, but the student was strong academically so his effort was viewed as creative. “But it wouldn’t have helped if the kid didn’t have the goods,” Mr. Poch cautions.

An essay submitted to Texas Christian University stood out, but for the wrong reasons. Raymond A. Brown, dean of admissions, says the high-school senior’s application “was solid until the essay, where he wrote an articulate description of torturing frogs. I kept waiting for the punch line, but there wasn’t any.” Mr. Brown called the applicant’s high-school counselor, who steered him away from taking the young man.

It wasn’t clear whether the applicant knew that the university’s mascot is the horned frog.
Section: Admissions & Student Aid
Volume 52, Issue 44, Page B3


12 responses to “Crazy admissions stories”

  1. Evan B. says:

    Wow…those are simultaneously amusing and scary. Worse is that I could almost have seen my parents doing a few of them.

    Our local paper, the Tennesseean, ran a story a few months ago that was basically recounting strange happenings at the Vanderbilt admissions office.

    I thought the funniest was the guy who sent in a vile of red liquid with a note saying that he would sweat blood to get into Vanderbilt smile.

  2. dave glasser says:

    I dunno, I thought *all* Olin kids fire juggled.

  3. Christina says:

    “The youngster began juggling lighted tiki torches while talking about his life. “I remember telling him ‘Dylan, you had damn well better be a good student.'”

    I think that was my favorite part.

    Yikes. YIIIIKES.

    I suppose the scariest part is that you’re probably not all that surprised by any of this, huh?

  4. Ash says:

    Dylan is one crazy kid, but we love him anyways.

  5. Shannon says:

    Oy, I can definitely see my dad trying to do this. I mean, without the private plane part.

    Do things like this happen at MIT a lot?

  6. suchis says:

    those were some wacky stories. i would b humiliated to have parents like some of those kids. i got creeped out by the story of the kid who tortues frogs.

    even though i would be humiliated, at least all those kids have parents who care…i mean my parents care but they dont know much about the admissions process 2 get really involved

  7. Anonymous says:

    hey, my college counselor was the second one mentioned!

  8. Jon says:

    hahaha those stories are really funny, but scarily they show what some people are thinking under the duress of the college process… maybe everyone should take a step back and let the college pick him/her and not try and do that for them? this said, im definately going to bring my tiki torches to my interview…

  9. Anonymous says:

    campus tours definitely make a big impression. Duke was my first choice until I visited.

    I guess I can consider myself lucky that my parents are no where like some of the ones in the stories, yikes! They are always like, as long as you go to college and we don’t end up taking out a second mortgage… good for you!

  10. I don’t know, I did magic tricks at my interview; but I didn’t do it to show off. I did it because it was a big part of my life (please, I’d gone to magic camp for 2 years; I was practically a freaking Merlin).

    I just found it funny and read that twice because I thought the first time it was referring to me.

  11. Laura says:

    Haha my parents were like, “Laura, why are you worrying so much? You did well on your SATS, so you’re guaranteed to get into MIT!” And then when I got in they were like, “See, we told you so!”

    Talk about frustrating. =P

    I was so entirely clueless about applying to colleges, I don’t even want to think about it.

  12. Aaron Thom says:

    Um Hopefully that’s not what I look like while I’m applying to college…ha ha ?