The FBI investigation called “Operation Varsity Blues” exposed a wide ranging corruption scandal in elite college admissions. At the center of the scandal is William Singer, the owner of Edge College & Career Network. Through a money-laundering scheme, Singer charged hefty sums of money for guaranteed admission to elite colleges, and then used those sums to bribe college coaches, test proctors, and others to falsify records and credentials to ensure admission. Federal prosecutors charged 50 people in the matter, including wealthy parents, athletic coaches, standardized test proctors, and Singer himself.

The college admissions process in the United States is typically “holistic.” University admissions committees evaluate students holistically on a range of factors, including grades, standardized test scores, difficulty of classes taken, extracurricular involvement, and letters of recommendation. Additionally, some universities give preference in the admissions process to students who are high level athletes who may join their athletic teams, students whose family members have attended a particular school in the past (“legacy”), students of families who have donated large sums of money to the university, and students who bring a desired diversity (racial/ethnic, geographic, or interest-based) to a campus community. Over the last several decades, in part due to the rise of the internet-based applications and aggressive marketing on the part of colleges and universities, college admissions has become more and more competitive, with an increasing number of students submitting applications for a fixed number of spots in freshman classes.

In our experience, for less selective schools, grades and test scores often carry the bulk of the weight in their application processes. For more selective schools (such as Ivy League schools), other factors weigh more heavily, as universities generally can fill their classes multiple times over with students with nearly perfect grades and test scores. The process is at best opaque for students and families, as there are often no surefire factors that can lead to admission to certain universities.

Over the last several decades, as the college admissions process has become far more competitive and remained opaque, an industry has sprung up around preparing students for college admissions. While there are certainly illegitimate players, such as the ones indicted in Operation Varsity Blues, there are a tremendous number of legitimate people and companies doing good work to help students prepare for college. The primary difference is in focus: illegitimate players focus on “gaming” a system to secure admission for a candidate that might otherwise fall below the bar; legitimate players focus on helping students pursue excellence in their lives that may then translate to better outcomes in college admission.

An apt analogy can be found in sports. A legitimate sports coach may help an athlete understand and practice the technique of their sport, provide accountability for rigorous training, and help to program physical training that will improve the athlete’s overall capability. An illegitimate coach may try to introduce illegal steroids, sabotage the game, or gain unethical advantages over competitors.

Likewise, ethical college prep companies focus on helping students perform better in school or on test by increasing their underlying capacity and confidence. Through tutoring, they help students understand material better for their schoolwork; through test preparation, they help students understand and practice for standardized tests; through mentorship, they help students form better relationships with their peers and teachers; and through application consulting, they help students put their best foot forward in the college application process.

The best practitioners put their students at the center of this process, helping students to understand themselves better through the high school academic journey during their formative adolescent years. When done right, tutoring, test prep, coaching, and mentoring are powerful catalysts for students to grow into better human beings. The best practitioners also focus on “fit” when it comes to the college process, helping students find and apply to the colleges or university experience that will serve their capacities and goals best, not the one that has the best name according to one publication's rankings. Finally, the best practitioners focus on empowering students to develop themselves to the best of their ability while maintaining a balanced and meaningful life, and they let the chips fall where they may when it comes to college admissions.

I co-founded Signet Education in 2005 with a Harvard College classmate. Seeing the rise of “cookie cutter” test prep companies, we wanted to build a values-based organization that put individual relationships, mentorship, and genuine academic growth at the heart of our work. Over the last decade, we have helped thousands of students find meaning and success in the academic process through thoughtful and effective academic tutoring, standardized test preparation, admissions consulting, and academic coaching.