Essay: How I Got My Kid Into College — Without Cheating

John Horn with his wife and son in their Wake Forest University gear. (Courtesy John Horn)

My wife and I just went through the college admissions process with our eldest son. It was exhausting, exhilarating, disappointing, and ultimately satisfying.

We did not cheat. And yet it's no surprise at all that other parents did.

The most startling takeaway from the FBI's investigation into how rich parents cheated and bribed to get their children into elite schools is not the tawdry details of the scheme, which allegedly included rigging achievement tests and directing huge payments to sports coaches.

Instead, the real news is that we somehow haven't heard about these tactics before. The business (and it is a business) of college admissions almost encourages this kind of behavior.

In the aftermath of Tuesday's indictment — whose targets include actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, along with other prominent figures — there will be countless judgments about the parents' actions, most of them appropriate. And the purported tactics are indeed extraordinary: fake students taking tests, photoshopping a non-athlete's head onto an athlete's body, bribes to coaches and test proctors, and much more.

But what might be lost in all of the chatter at school drop-offs is how the college admissions culture is itself to blame, as it helps turn otherwise rational people into, well, criminals — especially those with money and privilege. You can see it in what one mom, marketing executive Jane Buckingham, allegedly said to the government's confidential informant about her son: "I need you to get him into USC."

Our son is a freshman at Wake Forest University (which was also implicated in today's indictment). He worked hard in high school, got good grades, and tested well on the ACT. He applied to several schools. He was rejected by some, admitted by others.

That's the way it goes, and as I tell many parents: "The best school for your child is the one that wants your child." And for our son, the school he attends has turned out to be a great match.


Read more: USC, UCLA Athletic Officials Among 50 Charged In Alleged College Admissions Bribery Scheme


Not everybody sees it that way, and as soon as their son or daughter is out of diapers, they try to engineer a different outcome. As Gordon Caplan, a prominent attorney indicted today, allegedly said while discussing how he would cheat to get his daughter into college: "Keep in mind I am a lawyer. So I'm sort of rules-oriented."

"Sort of" indeed.

I know parents who, when their kids were just 2 years old, would obsess over applications to selective private preschools, convinced that there was only one place to finger-paint and shovel dirt to set their child up for academic excellence.

I know parents who hired tutors to try to get their kids into those same preschools.

I know parents who worry that their first grade classroom is not academically challenging enough, and could somehow thwart any chance their 7-year-old has for an Ivy League college.

I know parents who fail to question a high school curriculum that favors Advanced Placement classes (largely designed solely for AP tests, and its resulting boost on a college application) over studies into subjects whose personal and intellectual rewards could be more meaningful than an AP grade.

The parents aren't the only ones to blame. Thanks to rankings by magazines like U.S. News & World Report, high schools obsess over their college placement. College counselors will sometimes steer students away from the college they actually want to attend to a more prestigious campus for no obvious reason other than such rankings.

When parents start swimming in that world, they can start to believe in any means necessary. And that's how we reached today's indictment, which of course does the greatest disservice to the kids whom the parents were trying to "help."