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Students bend the truth on college applications

By Kelly Kaufholdf

A college career means big opportunities for students, but it also means big responsibilities. Just applying to a major college means a whole year of hard work and worries. Once students get past researching schools, gathering information and filling out applications, they have to contend with how to pay for it all.

"Oh yeah, plenty. It was very stressful. You get paranoid at times," admits Larry Kociolek, a biology sophomore at Illinois Wesleyan University. "You've got to worry about a lot of factors, not only grades and test scores but also financial aid."

Freshman Jamie Tindall says she felt that stress, too - and so did most of her friends. "Oh yeah, but that happens anywhere really. You want to get in," says the Texas Christian University student. "This was my first choice -- TCU. Obviously you are nervous waiting for the letter. And you always want to get a good SAT and ACT [score], so there is some pressure."

"This student was changing transcripts for a fee. I have no idea what the kid was charging but for whatever [fee] he said, 'I'll raise your ACT score.'"

dean of admissions, Illinois Wesleyan University

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Competition is tough, says Jim Ruoti, the dean of admissions at Illinois Wesleyan College. "There are so many more students trying to get into school now." All that competition can make a borderline student desperate to get in - maybe desperate enough to bend some rules, or even lie.

New U.S. Department of Education rules set to take effect this summer could force some students to push that envelope. "If a student has a drug conviction, supposedly they can be disqualified for the Pell, work study and supplemental work study education grants," says Ruoti.

Here's how it will work: A student with one drug conviction loses federal aid for one year. A second conviction makes it two years, and a third strike means they're out - they will never be able to get federal financial aid.

The question is - is there a way around those rules? Ruoti replies, "We ask students if they've ever been convicted of anything more than a traffic violation, but again if a student checks no, how are you gonna know? And with the right to privacy a high school counselor won't tell you."

Felony convictions aside, there are plenty of little white lies on those applications, too. "Sometimes a student is applying as a freshman who graduated let's say a year ago or a year and a half ago," says Ruoti. "You have on your application, 'have you attended another university?' and they put no. Then you find out they went to another school and flunked out."

Kociolek knows that one. "Transfer students, if they haven't done as well at their previous school they conveniently forgot to include the transcripts of classes they didn't do too well in." Some of those students had great high school transcripts so they try to fall back on that. But that doesn't always work, especially when there's foul play involved.

"At one high school in suburban Chicago a student was working out of the registrar's office," recalls Ruoti. "This student was changing transcripts for a fee. I have no idea what the kid was charging, but for whatever [fee] he said, 'I'll raise your ACT score.' The kid was changing the composite scores, but not the four sub-scores, so they didn't add up to 28. The high school had to go through every transcript and check. The interesting part of it was -- had the kid thought of it to change the sub-scores -- he might have been able to go on for a long time."

In addition to transcripts being changed, Ruoti says, "I [also] remember seeing test scores that had been changed." Kociolek has seen something similar among athletes.

"We ask students if they've ever been convicted of anything more than a traffic violation, but again if a student checks no, how are you gonna know?"

dean of admissions, Illinois Wesleyan University

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"I especially knew excellent athletes in high school that wanted to get into any college and didn't have the scores to get into even the lesser selective schools, and they had somebody take the ACT for them," Kociolek remembers. "I know people who boosted their stats in sports and stuff, maybe increased their batting average by a few points. Coaches have been involved in that too, not just students."

There are other ways students can bend the rules without breaking them, says Ruoti. One student took the ACT twice, and the first college she applied to let her combine her best verbal and math scores. On her own, she started putting that hybrid score on other applications - something most schools won't allow. She eventually got caught, but insisted she didn't know it was wrong.

Some students with physical or learning disabilities can take admissions tests without the tension of time - there's no clock or time limit. "You'd be surprised how many students become a junior and get a disability," says Ruoti. "And that's a shame. There are people who know they can go to a doctor and say they have a visual or a dyslexic problem. As long as they have that slip from a physician, ACT has no option. I had one counselor tell me 'I can name the doctor, and for $75 you can have that option.'"

It can also go the other way. Some parents have been known to pay a private psychologist to get their child into a gifted program at the beginning of high school, which in turn drives up their grade point average over the next four years.

Ruoti has been at this for 35 years and has pretty much seen it all. "I think there are probably more things now than there were then, just because of the pressure. ...Students are under so much more pressure to get into school and get into the right school."

Tindall from Texas Christian says the pressure on students won't end once they're registered and snuggled in their dorm room bed. "Once you get in, that kind of continues. It's not exactly over when you get in -- it goes on."

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