cheating all the time

Last week, I wrote:

A depressing percentage of students at every top school are there because somebody told them how to ace the test, someone handed them the impressive internships and travel experiences that padded their application, someone even wrote their essay. Yes, really, cheating, cheating everywhere, cheating all the time, so much cheating.

This week, the New York Times wrote:

In what the Justice Department called its largest ever college admissions prosecution, federal authorities charged 50 people on Tuesday with taking part in a nationwide scheme to game the admissions process at highly competitive schools like Yale and the University of Southern California.

Swept up in this were a few celebrities, including Felicity Huffman, wife of William H. Macy. I can just picture how it happened, too. Bill was on the phone with USC admissions:

USC: Now, I just need, on this application you sent us, I can’t read the SAT score.

Bill: Yah, but it’s OK. The acceptance is in place. Yah. So we’re all set, then.

USC: Yes, I just have to confirm that your daughter is actually qualified to attend USC, but I can’t read her SAT score, so if you could read me—

Bill: Yah, but, see, I don’t have it in front of me. Why don’t I fax you over a copy of her SAT score?

USC: Fax is no good. That’s what I have, and I can’t read the darn thing—

Bill: Yah, OK. I’ll have Felicity send you a copy, then.

USC: OK. Because if I can’t confirm this SAT score, I have to call back that acceptance letter.

Bill: OK. No problem. I’ll just fax that right over—

USC: No, no. Fax is—

Bill: I mean send it. I’ll shoot it over to you.

And, scene.

This isn’t about money or career options. All these kids would have had plenty of both. It’s about status. And I can understand social climbing. There was a time not too long ago when you had to have read the right books and acquired the right diction if you wanted to mingle at the highest levels of wealth and status.

Times have changed. Today, Instagram trumps all, and fake followers are a much safer way to cheat.  Watching sophisticated, highly respected actors like Huffman and Macy go to these absurd lengths to chase such an outdated form of status is like watching Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan. I’m just—why? I mean, USC is a good school—I guess?—but photoshopping your kid’s head onto a real athlete’s body? Climbing a sheer rock face without a rope? Chill. Read a book or something.

I have similar thoughts when I hear about an author spending a quarter of a million dollars to buy a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a nice-to-have, yes, but not a must-have. You could have used a fraction of that money to build a much, much better book.

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