Got Those Varsity Blues

After the FBI announced charges against 50 people in a college admissions scam, we take a closer look at college admissions (legacy, development, regular applicants), admissions essays (approaches to writing with authentic voices) and the effect of wealth on society and on determined parents (bribes, payments, sabotage), their children and other college applicants. 
Download Classroom Worksheets (PDF) 

The FBI announced on March 12, 2019, that 50 people were charged in a college admissions scam. By April 8, a dozen parents, and a men’s tennis coach, agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud to help get their children into selective colleges. The mastermind of the scheme, William Singer pleaded guilty to racketeering, conspiracy money laundering and obstruction of justice.


What the others who were charged would do. What the punishment will be. How the colleges will respond. What impact this would have on the college applicants, on applicants with disabilities and those who were denied admission because of the fraud is to be seen. This scandal provides the opportunity to take a closer look at college admissions, donations by wealthy parents to universities, legacy applicants and parents willing to pay thousands, lie, throw out ethics and cross into legal jeopardy to get a son or daughter into an elite university.


Although all students are not college bound — heading for military service, technical training or joining a family business in which they have worked — all can benefit from writing the college essay. We annotated ledes from The Washington Post to provide approaches to grab a reader’s attention.


The Operation: Varsity Blues resource guide contains an overview of the charges related to fraudulent college admissions, guest commentary on the influence of wealth on human action and interaction, a world view on university-related bribery and activities to examine admissions policies. The Essays and Decisions resource guide provides approaches to writing the college application essay and illustrates why college goals need examination. Perspectives that may stay those varsity blues.



April 2019

Facing Finances
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Develop Vocabulary
Career Education, English

Many of the terms used by writers of the news articles and commentary are found in In the Know. Review them with students. Perhaps, teachers could see how many of the terms students know and can distinguish, especially those like “early action” and “early decision.”


Discuss Misconceptions About the Ivy League
Career Education, English

Teachers may begin this activity by asking students to list the eight universities that compose what is known as the Ivy League. What impression do they have of these schools?


Many view the eight schools that compose the Ivy League as the foremost institutions of higher education. Read and discuss “Five myths about the Ivy League.”

Discussion questions might include

• To what extent are grades important in admissions? The rigor of the classes taken?

• The eight schools were originally grouped to form a sports conference. How important are athletics in admissions packets today?

• List factors that are considered for admissions? Can they be listed in order of importance (highest percentage of weight given)?

• What makes a university a selective school? To what extent does this factor give parents “bragging rights”?

• Do further reading about Myth 4. Are there additional factors and ways to determine the success of “need-blind” admissions? Would these change conclusions significantly?

• What professions are most likely to have leaders who graduated from or did graduate work in an Ivy League school?

• What are the arguments for and against pursuing admission to an Ivy League school?


Toles Take on Admissions Racket
Art, Journalism, Media Literacy, Visual Arts

The Post’s editorial cartoonist Tom Toles uses visual details, word play, and an alter ego to comment on the news. Give students Toles’ March 13, 2019, editorial cartoon. Notice that his commentary begins with the title he has given it. Five questions are provided to guide “reading” of the visual commentary.


If students are not as familiar with the admissions scandal, teachers may give students “2019 | Operation: Varsity Blues Highlights.” The information explains to students who “some” are who thought they had the “answer book” to getting their children admitted to elite colleges.

Higher Education
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Begin an Engaging College Essay
English, Any Class Working on College Essays

Before beginning this activity, teachers are encouraged to review Teachers Notes: Admission Essays — The Thought and the Lede. The suggested activity may be done before the one that follows.


The five ledes that are included in Essays and Decisions resource guide serve as models. The articles cover topics that could conceivably be student experiences or relate issues that could influence a student. We annotated the ledes from The Washington Post to provide approaches to grab readers’ attention. When those readers are the college admissions team, students should consider that hundreds of responses to the same questions are being read. There is no need to repeat the question. When a word count limits the length of the essay, it is even more important to directly, but creatively respond with a real voice.


Give students Lede 1. Read the lede and review the annotations. With which admission essay prompt might this be used? Have they been involved in any civic or community projects? What unsolved case or community issue intrigues them? In the space below the reprinted beginning paragraphs, ask students to brainstorm experiences or to write the first paragraph(s) to relate an ethical dilemma or problem their research/volunteering/job helped to solve or uncover weaknesses.


As a class or in small groups review the other four ledes. Here are questions to guide discussion. Use the space below the reprint for each student to brainstorm personal responses or with which college essay prompts this approach would work.

Lede 2 — What admission prompts ask about literary works, characters or authors? How might a response such as this demonstrate intellectual curiosity to go beyond the “character that influenced me most is …”?

Lede 3 — How does the use of specific holidays or significant dates support the focus on a team’s successful season? How might five significant dates in a student’s life be handled in a similar manner? Or times of day (on different days and events) mark important life influences?

Lede 4 — The environment, climate change and other concerns involving nature might begin with a similar descriptive lede. Note how important it is to begin immersed in the experience.

Lede 5 — Consider gun ownership or violence against others who do not share the same religion or race, bullying in person or online, or other types of issues which confront one with a decision — to speak up or hide, to get involved in activism or join the crowd?


Teachers might use the common application questions or ask students to bring in the college essay prompt they are working on. Ask students to revise the same essay with different opening paragraphs modeled on the five ledes to see the difference each makes on the impression and focus.


Is It the Wealth?
Economics, English, History, Philosophy, Psychology

Plato, Hobbes, and Rousseau addressed the influence of wealth on the wealthy and the impoverished. Read and discuss “What 3 famous philosophers would think about the college admissions scandal.”


What They Say About Wealth” begins with questions to guide reading and then extends the activity into movies and books students have seen and read. Next would be for students, after discussion of the three philosophers and fictional figures, to examine the lives of real wealthy individuals (suggested activities 4 and 5). Teachers may go an additional step to have students share their finished paper, PowerPoint or podcast and lead class discussions of the varying viewpoints on wealth.

Read About Reading, Writin' and Admissions


What Happens When Wealth Becomes Sabotage?
Character Education, Ethics, English, Psychology


Teachers may begin this activity by asking students if they

1. Share college visits with friends and classmates?

2. Tell the parents about the mishaps of their classmates?

3. Do their parents view the Facebook and other social media of their friends and classmates?


What are the upside and downside of the above?


Give students “Cutthroat Competition” to read and discuss. Possible questions include:

• Are they surprised by the actions of these parents? Have they heard of similar actions?

• What does it mean to have “empathy and commitment to the common good”?

•  Do they know of examples of what Richard Weissbourd described: “It fuels the constant competition that a lot of parents feel in this process, and it lower the bar for unethical behavior.”

• Why is “opportunity hoarding” considered unethical and against the common good?

• Should the counseling or guidance department at a school have the right to intervene and take the steps described in the article that were done at Sidwell Friends School?


Is Meritocracy Possible?
Career Education, Debate, English, Government, Social Studies

Teachers should begin this activity by defining “meritocracy.” (in the know link) How does a meritocracy differ from a kakistocracy, theocracy, and plutocracy?


Teachers may form four groups and assign each group one of the following Post articles to read and become the expert in its content. Questions about fairness of admissions, the input that students make on the education they receive, the “oxygen levels” that teachers and students provide in the learning atmosphere and the value of a college degree may be addressed and debated. What are the ideas presented by each writer? Do students agree with the concepts?

• “No one likes the SAT. It’s still the fairest thing about admissions.”

• “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.”

• “Why getting into elite colleges is harder for women

• “The real college admissions scandal isn’t bribes and cheating. It’s how wealth tilts the playing field.”


Read Advice to Parents
Character Education, English, Ethics

The Post’s On Parenting column offers advice to parents. Read two of the articles related to college admissions. Discuss and evaluate the ideas. Do students find them to be accurate representations of what their parents expect and will do?

• “Feel like the college application process is out of control? Here’s how to keep it ethical."
• “Parents don’t write that college essay. (Here’s how to help instead.”


Consider Two More Perspectives on College Admissions
Character Education, Debate, Ethics, English

The Question: Should parents help their students with their college applications, including the writing of college essays?


If parents are not moving to college with their sons and daughters, will they be ready to do online revisions and research topics? In addition, what is the line that should not be crossed by the high school guidance counselor and English teacher and other faculty members whose help is sought? At what point does the child take responsibility for his or her college application? What is the best way to tell parents you do not want their third re-write of your essay?


Read, discuss or debate ideas presented in these Post commentary.

How to weasel your kid into an elite college without paying bribes

I helped wealthy kids apply to college. Their parents drove me away.”



Are Elite and Ivy League Schools Overrated?
Debate, Economics, Ethics, Personal Finance

Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary asks parents — and students — to really look at the value of their money and spending it on elite schools. Read and discuss  “The college admissions scandal isn’t just about rich, entitled people.”


Teachers may form two teams to debate the value of a diploma from an elite school versus one from a in-state school or even a two-year college or community college foundation before transfer to a four-year college. Graduate school may be thrown into the mix of best ways to invest your money in your future.


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In The Know 

Admission Tests Also known as college entrance exams, these are tests designed to measure students’ skills and help colleges evaluate how ready students are for college-level work. The ACT and the College Board’s SAT are two standardized admission tests used in the United States. The word “standardized” means that the test measures the same thing in the same way for everyone who takes it.

Money or favor given or promised in order to influence the judgment or conduct of a person in a position of trust; something that serves to induce or influence

College Application Essay

An essay that a college requires students to write and submit as part of their application. Some colleges offer applicants specific questions to answer, while others simply ask applicants to write about themselves or use the common application essay prompts. Colleges may refer to this as a “personal statement.” 

Development Admits

Donation-based admission; result of parents, organizations or foundations making a substantial donation to a college to which a family member or someone of particular interest is applying for admission


Early Action An option to submit applications before the regular deadlines. When students apply early action, they get admission decisions from colleges earlier than usual. Early action plans are not binding, which means that students do not have to enroll in a college if they are accepted early action.
Early Decision

An option to submit an application to a student’s first-choice college before the regular deadline. When a student applies early decision, he or she gets an admission decision earlier than usual. Early decision plans are binding. The student agrees to enroll in the college immediately if admitted and offered a financial aid package that meets needs.


Elite  Socially superior part of society; group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence; the best of a class
Group Interview 

An interview including several or many applicants with a representative from the college admission office; interested students hear about the school and ask questions.



Unfair, favoring one side, partial, weighted

Legacy Applicant

A college applicant with a relative (usually a parent or grandparent) who graduated from that college. Many colleges give preference to legacy applicants (also called “legacies”).

Meritocracy System in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement; leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria. College admission not involving family wealth, need or legacy.
Need-blind Admission 

A policy of making admission decisions without considering the financial circumstances of applicants. Colleges that use this policy may not offer enough financial aid to meet a student’s full need.



Process of locating (by observation and application) individuals in order to fill needs of university athletic teams or to achieve diversity (academic, gender, geography, race, religion, skills)

Rolling Admission  An admission policy of considering each application as soon as all required information (such as high school records and test scores) has been received, rather than setting an application deadline and reviewing applications in a batch. Colleges that use a rolling admission policy usually notify applicants of admission decisions quickly.
Scam    A fraudulent business scheme, swindle; to defraud
Transcript The official record of your course work at a school or college. Your high school transcript is usually required for college admission and for some financial aid packages.
Waiting List The list of applicants who may be admitted to a college if space becomes available. Colleges wait to hear if all the students they accepted decide to attend. If students don’t enroll and there are empty spots, a college may fill them with students who are on the waiting list.

SOURCE: College Admission Glossary: Learn the Lingo

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

Common Career Technical Core: 3. Attend to personal health and financial well-being.

Career-ready individuals understand the relationship between personal health, workplace performance and personal well-being; they act on that understanding to regularly practice healthy diet, exercise and mental health activities. Career- ready individuals also take regular action to contribute to their personal financial well-being, understanding that personal financial security provides the peace of mind required to contribute more fully to their own career success.

The District of Columbia has adopted the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics. In addition, DCPS has adopted new learning standards in arts, health and physical education, science, social studies, technology and world languages.



Academic Content Standards may be found at and

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Financial Literacy Education. 1.5.A Explain that people make financial choices based on available resources, needs, and wants. (By the end of grade 5)

1.5.A.1  Explain the consequences of making financial decisions.

1.5.A.2  Identify opportunity cost of financial decisions made by individuals.

1.5.A.3  Apply the steps in the decision-making process to a financial situation.

1.5.A.4  Describe the concept of financial obligations, such as borrowing and “IOUs”.

1.5.B Explainattitudes,assumptionsandpatternsofbehaviorregardingmoney,saving,investing,and work and how they affect personal consumer decisions.

1.5.B.1  Identify factors that affect personal financial decisions and actions.

1.5.B.2  Explain philanthropy, volunteer service and charities.


Financial Literacy Education. 1.12.A Evaluatethefinancialchoicesthataremadebasedonavailableresources,needs,andwantsfor goods and services. (By the end of grade 12)

1.12.A.1 Explain how scarcity and opportunity cost affect decision-making.

1.12.A.2 Analyze costs, benefits, and opportunity cost to determine the achievement of personal financial goals.

1.12.A.3 Apply the decision-making process to an unforeseen situation.

1.12.A.4 Explain the concept of financial obligations, such as a promissory note, cell phone contract or college loan.


The Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum Content Standards can be found online at 

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Economics and Personal Finance. EPF.15  The student will demonstrate knowledge of income earning and reporting by

a)  examining how personal choices about education, training, skill development, and careers impact earnings;

b)  differentiating among sources of income;


Economics and Personal Finance. EPF.17. The student will demonstrate knowledge of personal financial planning by

a)  identifying short-term and long-term personal financial goals;

b)  identifying anticipated and unanticipated income and expenses;

d)  developing a personal budget;

e)  investigating the effects of government actions and economic conditions on personal financial planning; and

f)  explaining how economics influences a personal financial plan.


Academic Content Standards may be found at

Common Core Standards 

Key Ideas and Details:

Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms. [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2]


Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., quantitative data, video, multimedia) in order to address a question or solve a problem. [CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.7]



Common Core standards may be found at