Performative Action: The College Admissions Scam is Symptom of Image-Driven Illness

Performative Action: The College Admissions Scam is Symptom of Image-Driven Illness

[Note to Reader: The author of this article recently finished working a temporary position at Staples High School where she acted as advisor for the school paper, the staff of which includes the students interviewed. It is important for the purposes of journalistic integrity to fully disclose the author’s relationship with these students.]

Olivia Jade Giannulli was a budding social media star, which meant that by today’s standards, she had it all. The doe-eyed spawn of actress Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli parlayed her beauty into brand deals, and her generous bank account (courtesy of her famous parents) afforded her a jet-set, photo-ready lifestyle that incurred envy among the millions of followers she amassed between her YouTube and Instagram platforms. She had seemingly perfected the art of illusion that an “influencer” career often demands—presenting a glossy version of her life and using “likes” as currency.

It seemed almost poetic, then, that someone who specialized in presenting a carefully crafted image to her audience would meet her downfall by the same methods. In the past month, Giannulli has become the face of the recent college admissions scandal, wherein the super wealthy bought their children admission to elite universities. Whether it was by cheating on standardized tests or elaborately faking athletic credentials—or both, in Giannulli’s case—parents with deep pockets found that the coveted Ivy League or Ivy-equivalent bumper sticker was only a price tag away.

But lambasting the wealthy because of what they did to get their kids into college is only focusing on part of the problem. Our image-obsessed culture has afflicted a much larger demographic. With the rise of social media, we have made teenagers hyper-aware of others’ perception, and the idea of “branding yourself” extends to the college application process. Society has placed such high importance on name-brand colleges and, in turn, has nurtured teenagers who do anything for the application just as much as they “do it for the ‘gram.”  In many ways, the Internet and college admissions have become one in the same: we photoshop our lives and present the most appealing version of ourselves in the hopes of acceptance.

“Photoshopping our lives starts way before college,” Poppy Livingstone, a sophomore at Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut said. “But it starts to get unethical when you take opportunities away from people who are less fortunate than you with your photoshopped life.”

Even without photoshopping, Livingstone recognizes that she has privileges most don’t. Staples boasts the title of best public high school in the Connecticut and Westport the ninth wealthiest town in the country. Having grown up in Silicon Valley before moving to the east coast, Livingstone describes both wealthy, achievement-oriented communities as “rich,” “white,” “privileged,” and “competitive,” in that order. With that competition comes extreme pressure to perform.  

“People I know that live [in Silicon Valley], especially my age, a lot of them have some kind of anxiety or depression or a lot of stress in their lives,” Livingstone said. “A lot of them, similar to here, just do a lot of extracurriculars they don't really feel like doing and a lot of them end up going to high-end schools. So I think yeah, the same pressure exists there that exists here.”

Several of the parents involved in the scandal hail from glittery, image-driven areas of California, including Silicon Valley. Livingstone’s mother is even acquaintances with one of the alleged perpetrators. When Livingstone heard about the admissions scandal, she was disturbed on a level that was almost meta.  

“I think that it has imbued in me a deep and never-ending fear that I am also in on this con by doing SAT prep and paying for a college counselor,” Livingstone said. “I mean, am I complicit? It makes me feel super gross. [...] If I’m angry about this, I should probably be angry about myself.”

In affluent Westport, many of the students that I spoke with about the scandal expressed this guilt. But at the same time, SAT prep and college counseling are the bare minimum demanded of applicants, making this exclusive college dream really only a possibility if you have the money to pursue it.

“I think about people who are expected to get into the same colleges I’m expected to get into and how they will not have access to [test prep and tutors],” Livingstone said. “It’s unrealistic for them to get really good [scores] on the SAT, and it’s unrealistic for them to take a billion AP [Advanced Placement] classes if they have to work a job to help support their family, for example. I mean, we’re on a greased slide into college and they’re like trying to skateboard down a staircase with rocks on it.”

Because standardized test results are solely attributed to the test taker (college admissions scandal aside), high scores become shorthand for intelligence. Test takers don’t need to disclose whether they received expensive tutoring, so impressive scores are necessary when aiming to portray inherent genius—and therefore, creating the image of an ideal candidate.

In addition to high test scores and excellent grades in rigorous classes, students should have an incredible essay, ideally attend an elite prep school, display a resume that shows a focused and developed passion, and should have a demonstrable humanitarian streak according to USA Today College.

And hilariously dotted throughout USA Today’s advice about how to get into an Ivy League school—from the mouths of college admissions deans and Ivy professionals—is the key: the student should be genuine. Don’t do this in pursuit of college, we have the audacity to tell our students. Exhaust yourself with rigorous course loads and time-consuming extracurriculars because it feels right.

It’s nice for colleges to peddle the idea that being yourself is all you need to be in order to gain admission, but students aren’t buying it. And the slim admission statistics for elite universities back up their skepticism.

“As soon as you enter high school, it’s not about being in high school and having fun, it’s about how you’re going to get into college,” Staples junior Sophie Casey said. “What clubs you join, what classes you take [...] It’s hard to have genuine feelings that are the primary motivation for doing something.”

Casey began mapping out her path to college in eighth grade. She made a list of the classes she wanted to take, the clubs she was going to join, what level she wanted the classes to be, and which teachers she wanted to ask for recommendations.

“I made a literal four year plan,” Casey said, laughing. “It was neurotic and crazy and depraved.”

“Did you follow it?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “There have been small changes, but I actively continually edit it.”

The plan only shows that Casey has gotten more ambitious. Instead of the original four AP classes she envisioned herself taking, Casey now has 11 between sophomore, junior and senior year.

But the regimented prescription that will help a student get into college—the AP classes, the laundry list of extracurriculars, the off-the-charts scores and the professional tutoring—effectively strangles any chance for students to discover who they truly are during their adolescent years. It discourages them from finding and pursuing their passions because that may involve some degree of failure along the way. And failure is not allowed, as it might potentially derail the perfect achievement streak they need to have in order to compete for admission. Authenticity is the most impossible ask because every other standard demands that students tailor their image to what colleges want to see on paper.

“It’s sad that [students] put so much emphasis on what other people—what colleges—think about [them],” Casey said. “Whenever I’m filling in an application and it’s like ‘what about me’ I don’t know what else to put outside of academic achievements. I don’t know what I am outside of school.”

Casey is not an anomaly, nor should we pretend that prioritizing college in her high school career means that she is somehow doing it “wrong.”  As much as college admissions gatekeepers may request authenticity, their standards demand a very specific brand of teenager. Ideally, elite colleges look for a student with ambition, talent, and preferably money. In exchange, the students will receive access to a network of alumni who will welcome the new generation into the fold and help him or her succeed in the dreaded real world. But the concern for the future isn’t quite in the forefront of students’ minds.

“I feel like it’s more about self-validation and the opportunities that esteemed colleges offer,” Casey said. “Success past the collegiate realm is almost an afterthought because it’s already attached to [the] name.”

But does all that effort to get into an elite college really make a difference long-term? Some say no, that elite bumper sticker prestige ultimately won’t make you happier and that Ivy Leagues specifically have a terrible return on investment. But one banker, who attended an Ivy-equivalent school and agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, said yes.

“For front end positions [those that are the highest paid] our bank only recruits from a list of maybe twelve schools,” he said. “And those recruits are for region-specific positions.”

A bleak reminder: there are eight Ivies.

In order to secure a job at a large bank, he explained, students are funneled through an employment pipeline. They’re recruited for internships at the undergraduate level and the best interns will be offered a job as an analyst for a select few spots after they graduate the following year if they perform well.

“So it 100 percent matters where you went to undergrad,” he said. “And that’s why you have so much emphasis [placed on the school name], because you have these parents working at these companies that only hire from certain schools.”

“Do you think it’s only a finance career that does that [hires from certain schools]?” I asked.

“No, I think it’s any career that’s good. That’s competitive,” he said.  

The students I spoke with didn’t seem to feel that their parents actively pressured them to go to a specific school. However, they did have internalized pressure that came from growing up in an achievement-driven area. Like the banker, the students tended to equate competition with quality. After all, elite colleges are considered “elite” specifically because the competition for admission is so high.

“What do you think is attached to a person when they say that they’re an alum of an Ivy League school?” I asked Casey.

“There’s definitely...respect but also a lot of envy. And I think, I don’t know if this is true, but I definitely think that people here like to be envied,” she said. “How much of a difference [getting into an elite college] is going to make to you is maybe negligible compared to how it’ll affect others’ perception of you. People define themselves by—or maybe they think that other people define them by—achievement.”

Olivia Jade Giannulli managed to achieve measurable success in the social media realm, a field that is inherently unpredictable and notorious for taking prosperity as quickly as it gives it. Her parents, neither of who went to college themselves, may have believed they were giving her a more stable future through the USC degree they bought for her.

But success without substance isn’t success at all. The banker I spoke with agreed that it’s very hard to fake your way to success in a highly competitive field. Once you enter those competitive colleges, you need to perform at that level or else drown among candidates who will outshine you. His bank weeds out candidates who have coasted on privilege with a 3.3 GPA minimum  requirement (no exceptions) from top universities and tough interview questions that require both industry savvy and classroom study.

“It sorts itself out because if they start their career and they’re not good, they’ll get fired. They’ll be pushed out. That’s part of the sorting process,” he said. “That’s the thing, you can only fake it for so long.”

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