Of Letters of Recommendation, Smoke & Mirrors

common app logo

I’ve written quite a bit about gaming the system here because it’s such a common occurrence in US higher education admission among many international students in Vietnam and elsewhere.  Why take the long way home when you can take a shortcut, right?  Improve your chances, use your God-given intelligence and ingenuity, keep your ear to the ground and walk through those whale-sized loopholes.

Yet another example is the Common Application, known as the Common App, a not-for-profit membership organization that serves students, member institutions, and secondary schools by providing applications that students and school officials may submit to any of its over 500 members.  As the website points out, “membership is open to colleges and universities that promote access by evaluating students using a holistic selection process.”

Is the system secure?  Yes, in that individual student, referee and institutional accounts are secure.  Is it subject to fraud?  In other words, can it be gamed?  In a word, absolutely.  All it takes is some patience and an efficient record keeping system.  Hard to get a teacher letter of recommendation?  No problem – draft your own (or have your unscrupulous agent do it for you for an additional fee), create her/his own web-based email account and pretend to be your teacher!  Hint:  Be careful how to word your letter so as to avoid duplication and possible detection.  Will it work in most cases?  Yes, because most admission officers just don’t have the time to check on the authenticity of your letters.

Why game the system?  Not to gain admission to your school of choice, especially if you’re a “talented and gifted” student, but to obtain a more generous scholarship package.  With a minimal investment of elbow grease and admission sleight of hand the ROI can be impressive.

smoke and mirrorsThis is just another step in crafting custom-designed applications to the US colleges and universities and giving admission committees exactly what they want, even if it doesn’t exactly reflect reality.  The solution, i.e., how to fight back?  Spot check letters and/or develop software (or use an existing system) that allows admission offices to compare letters and email accounts, especially for students applying from the same countries.  It’s a piece of cake.  Jump on the bandwagon.  Fight fraud with technology.


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