In a world of private SAT tutors and admissions bribery, what does it mean to get into college on your own?

Illustration by Rachel Hawley

When Brett Mayfield took out the trash one day his junior year of high school, he threw the bag to the curb, and a glossy pamphlet fell out detailing a program he had never heard of before: QuestBridge. The program gives low-income students like Mayfield a full ride to a list of top colleges and universities. Although he first thought it was a scam, Mayfield says he came to realize that this program was his “ticket out.”

Mayfield, a first-year communication major, grew up in Welch, Oklahoma. His town was so small that his regional high school was a 30-minute drive away and had a class size of 80 students.

“Where I live, we’re never told about college outside of University of Oklahoma or Kansas State, so I had no idea what any of the schools on [QuestBridge’s] list were, except for Yale,” he says.

When he broke the mold by committing to Northwestern, everyone Mayfield knew discouraged him.

“All of my teachers told me, ‘Oh, you’re shooting too far,’” Mayfield says. “It basically felt like everyone in my class resented me because they thought I was showing off because I got into this really good school. A lot of people stopped talking to me because they thought I was being egotistical.”

While Mayfield navigated an application process his parents knew nothing about and fought against a culture that stigmatized his pursuits, wealthy parents around the country allegedly paid proctors, athletic recruiters and admissions officials to secure their children’s acceptances to top universities. The scandal made national news in March, and colleges have since been scrambling to address the concerns of an application process susceptible to cheating.

The college admissions scandal brought that inequality to a whole new level.

“I exhausted all my resources to get here,” Mayfield says. “I feel like some people can just pull out their wallet and they’re here.”

Medill first-year Anna Margevich felt like she needed to switch out of her Chicago public high school to even have a chance of making it in to college. She enrolled in a CPS college prep school that was dedicated to helping send low-income students and people of color to college.

“The level of discipline in academics was so not normal,” Margevich says. “Their only way to combat statistics and probability of not going to college.” She described a culture of “extremely strict and over-the-top and overwhelming” work that she had never experienced. But students did what they had to do because they were under the impression that “this was the only way to get into colleges.”

The school’s authority over her freedom went beyond a rigorous course load. Beginning the moment she transferred in as a freshman, she took classes preparing students for the college application process. During her junior and senior years, she says the school controlled the selection process. She could only apply to the colleges her school recommended based on her academic standing — except they weren’t recommendations, they were mandates.

“It was like, ‘you have to meet these standards. You’re gonna apply to state schools because of money. You’re gonna do this because of statistics and what we say,’” Margevich says.

Monitoring their Common Application accounts, the school enforced this system by grading students on how they applied to colleges and punishing them when they went out of line. “If you applied to a school without the consent of an adult who was dealing with you, you would get four demerits, which means you get a four-hour detention on Friday in the basement. You can’t disobey what they’re saying.”

Mayfield and Margevich shared the concerns of typical college-seeking seniors, but their low-income status came with other disadvantages. “When you’re wealthy … it is assumed you are going to have access to college, and for me, that’s not assumed,” Margevich says.

RTVF first-year Owen Pickette went to an elite, all-boys private high school just outside of Boston. His reaction to the college admissions scandal was different than those of a disadvantaged socioeconomic status.

“There were a few seconds where I just genuinely thought someone I knew would get accused,” Pickette says.

Although he initially wanted to stay with his friends in the public school system, Pickette says his private school gave him attention he wouldn’t have received otherwise. Pickette had an SAT tutor, the means to tour any college he wanted, workshops for the college application process and individualized advising from his school’s college counselors, who focused on the college process starting his freshman year.

While his friends at public schools had to be at the top of their class to get into a school like Northwestern, the people at his private school focused on getting into the Ivy Leagues and saw Northwestern and similar schools as their secondary choices.

If the brand name of his private school wasn’t enough, his school’s counselors had relationships with college admissions officers at elite schools that gave him and his fellow classmates the kind of access others didn’t have.

“They would call them and advocate for us individually,” Pickette says. “Before the acceptance letters came out, my school knew who was going to get into what schools.”

When students got waitlisted at their top schools, the counselors would call the admissions officers to negotiate on their behalf and get them off the waitlist. Pickette knew of one behind-the-scenes case where a counselor struck a deal with one of his classmates’ top schools, agreeing that he would take a gap year and enroll the following year.

In the wake of the college admissions scandal, he was left wondering, “What was it that I did that was truly different, aside from the fact that I didn’t cheat on anything?”

When first-year theatre major Billy O’Handley heard about the scandal, he wasn’t surprised. He went to Phillips Exeter Academy, a top-ranked college prep boarding school that historically accepts children from wealthy families.

“At a school like Exeter, the idea is that any advantage you can get to get into college, you take,” O’Handley says. He says students at his school commonly used “technically legal methods,” including using their connection to a provost at a school to recommend them or talking to people on the board of trustees. He says he knew someone who got into a school where their aunt and uncle donated millions of dollars.

“It’s fucked up that the culture prides college acceptance over morality,” O’Handley says.

In an interview with The Daily Northwestern, University President Morton Schapiro admitted to personally reading the application files of wealthy or well-connected students.

“I think it’s important for schools to be a lot more transparent,” O’Handley says. “We’re all shitting on Morty for telling us that he reviews applications, but that’s amazing transparency.”

Margevich agrees that the process lacks clarity, but she says it’s telling that the Northwestern student body is predominantly wealthy; two-thirds of students come from the top 20 percent, according to The New York Times. Pickette remembers his mom telling him the need-blind application process was for show.

“They need to have so many kids here who have money because they need that revenue for the school,” Pickette says. “And I think … when a kid of a famous person applies, there has to be some inclination that that helps Northwestern’s brand.”

The Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Admissions declined to comment on its application process.

Beyond his calls for more transparency, O’Handley says, “Schools have to be need-blind and have to stop being circumstance-blind. Colleges have to be better about situational context.”

While the children of wealthy parents may expect to get into top universities, Mayfield threw up when he received his acceptance letter. “It was my only shot to get out.”