In light of the recent academic scandal I am going to list ways I've heard to help get your kid into college and thoughts on how ethical they are (hint: bribing a coach to claim your kid is on the rowing team is not ethical).
1) Your kid likes (1) helping the homeless and (2) Ramsey Theory and (3) helping the homeless learn Ramsey Theory. Or perhaps they like rowing or Latin or fencing or Pig Latin or.... Great! encourage them, get them books and tutors, and whatever they need. You have an eye towards how this will look on for college admissions; however, it is your kids choice as to what they like. Also note that these activities are in addition to doing well in school, SATs, etc, not instead of it. Perfectly ethical, though I note that this avenue is not open to poor families and in some cases even middle class families.
2) Item 1 is the extreme on a spectrum in terms of how much are the extra things the kid does there idea OR planned by you to GET INTO A GOOD COLLEGE. This item will be the other extreme, but realize there is a continuum (actually I doubt there are a continuum number of options here, but there are many in between. Maybe its omega + omega*.) You have heard that being on the chess boxing teams is good on a college application so you TELL YOUR KID that they likes both Chess AND Boxing and should be on the team. You also hear this about being on the fencing team and knowing pig latin, so your kid can taunt their opponents like this:
youah, aint-kay ence-fay orth-way eans-bay
This might not be as bad as it sounds if the kid learns to like Chess-Boxing. But it may be worse than it sounds if the kid rebels against all of this and becomes a crack whore.
Is this ethical? It may be bad for the kid, but it may push him into things he ends up liking. One drawback: you've HEARD that being on the chess boxing team is good for college admissions, but is it true?
And again, not open to some families.
3) Item 2 (or even 1) but with an addition: Hire a college adviser to help you. Someone who knows (or claims to know) what colleges look for- Trombone, Latin, Chess-boxing, whatever. Still ethical but I again worry about the kids future rehab bills.
4) Here is where it gets murky. The college adviser helps:
a) Polish the kids essay (my parents, who are both in English, helped polish my essay to get into graduate school (I don't recall if there was one for ugrad). They told me to use lots of `ing' words so it sounds like I am actively doing things. They also helped me figure out when recursion-theoretic is hyphenated. I got into Harvard but not MIT, so make of that what you will.) Polishing, proofreading, that could be okay. But it can slip into b or c below.
b) The adviser (or the parents) talk to the kids to find out what to write, but then writes it. Maybe the kid proofreads and polishes. Maybe not even. The adviser is a ghostwriter. Clearly unethical but the line between helping-to-polish and adviser-wrote-it is again a continuum.
c) Adviser writes it and it is completely fictional. I once heard a rumor that a particular sample of an essay to get into med school was used by several med school applicant. Gee,they can't all have gotten inspired by watching their grandfather in his pajamas die of cancer. This is awful of course, but I wonder- what if the student writes a fictional essay all by themselves! Some combination of how much the essay is true and how much help you got on it is unethical. But some might be okay. Is it bad to polish stories that are basically true to make them flow more easily? Prob not. But there is a 2-dim continuum based on both accuracy and how much help the student got.
As a side note- how much does the personal statement matter for admissions? I suspect that if an elite school gets LOTS of REALLY QUALIFIED applicants, the essay may be all that distinguishes them.So it can be important. I also wonder if people on admissions can tell if an essay is not written by the applicant. Or maybe if there is an interview that can help detect it.
5) Parents give X amount of money to the college and the kid gets in. This is talked about a lot though I don't know how common it is for someone NOT qualified to GET IN based on money. College admissions has many factors so its not quite so clear cut what NOT qualified means. Even so, if seems odd that this is not in any way shape or form illegal. It IS transparent, so I guess thats a plus. The argument I've heard is that the money is used for scholarships to fund students who get in but can't afford to go. I do not know if this is true. And this one is only available to the top Z %, not sure what Z is, but there are people who can do 1,2,3,4 who can't do 5. I would call this unethical though colleges don't seem to think so. Or they do but they do it anyway.
6) Before I list the current scandal I want to list another issue: having a psychologist (or whoever it is who judges these things) say your kid is Learning Disabled so they get more time on the SATs. Perhaps bribing them, or perhaps its understood what you want. Again, I do not know how common this is. An alternative if you can't afford some of the above options, or done in conjunction with a lot of the above options.
7) The current scandal. Obviously unethical. A few things I wonder about:
a) One story was that they bribed someone to say their daughter was Learning Disabled and had to take the SAT (or whatever it was) in a separate room, making it easier to change the answers to the correct ones. So twice unethical.
b) Some of the students were clearly NOT qualified.
c) A parent does unethical things to get the kid into college.
The kid later lies to the parents about their grades or their plans
The parents are SHOCKED that their kids lie and wonder where the learned such behaviour!
8) Actually Item 2 --Parent has kid do things to plan to get into college-- is interesting for another reason. Are you your resume?
Imagine that Alice helps the homeless her Sophmore year in High School NOT because she cares about the homeless but because its good for college admissions.
Alice goes on to do other things that look good for college, NOT because she likes them or cares, but just to get into a good college.
She gets into an elite college
Did they take her in the hope she would KEEP doing these things or because she is the KIND OF PERSON who does these things?
And it gets weirder- she DOES keep doing these things since she's heard its good for Business School (disclaimer- I do not know if its good for B-school)
More generally, she keeps doing things she doesn't care about to advance. So her outward self really is doing good deeds and such, but her heart is not in it. So if her college or B-school or Job hired her because she DOES these things, that is NOT a lie. If they hired her because they want this KIND OF PERSON then... its a lie but I'm not sure what to make of that.
9) Is there ANY reason to have legacy matter for admissions? This seems like the dumbest and most easily fixed aspect of the whole process. I have never heard a good argument for it. Ever.
10) College Sports--- that's an entire blog post or book all by itself, so I won't go there.
11) One can argue whether helping the homeless, or being on the rowing team, or teaching the homeless how to row, should matter for college anyway. But lets assume that its legit to want people at your college who have lead interesting lives. So charity work or sports might be a MEASURE of that. But beware Goodhart's law:
When a measure becomes a target is ceases to be a measure.
The recent scandal is Goodhart's law on steroids.
(NOTE- I had in earlier version `Goodwin's law' but a commenter corrected me and reminded me that Goodwin's law is that if an internet discussion goes on long enough someone will be compared to Hitler. I wonder if that also applies in discussions by Nazi's.)
12) Does getting into an Elite College really increase your income or happiness (these are two very different questions) over the course of your life? I do not know-- if you do, please comment.
13) (ADDED LATER) A commenter pointed out that one could also go to a school outside of the USA that values proficiency in the chosen discipline over the items above. Excellent question that raises a few more:
Do schools outside of the USA hold Americans (or for that matter any non-citizen of their country) to a higher standard for admissions? I ask non-rhetorically.
If you get a degree from outside of the USA will that help or hurt your job prospects in the USA? Of course this depends on the school you goto, but even with that I do not know the answer.