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Sherpas, Not Substitutes

In light of the last year's college admissions scandal that continues to make headlines across the country, I receive a lot of questions about the ethics of helping students and families manage the college application process. As such, I thought it might be helpful to capture some of those thoughts here.

First, we need to be clear that the conduct that is alleged to have happened in the scandal is without question illegal and unethical. Although the subject of the crimes involves college admissions, the issue is really about theft. There's nothing ambiguous here, it's just wrong and illegal.

Where things get a bit more tricky is when families hire an advisor or coach to help navigate the college application process (for completely legal help!). How much "help" is too much? Where are the ethical boundaries?

When I sit down with a student and family for the first time, I typically use the sherpa analogy to describe the nature of the work we will do together. For those who don't know, a sherpa is someone who climbs mountains and helps ensure less experienced climbers reach the summit. A sherpa might show the climber which direction to climb, fix ropes into the rock to ensure the climber doesn't fall of course, or carry some extra oxygen to help the climber if they find themselves in a tough spot.

What's critical here is what a sherpa DOES NOT do: they do not climb the mountain for the climber. At the end of the day, whether the climber reaches the summit or not is completely up to the effort they put into the climb.

To apply the analogy to the college application process, as a sherpa, I can help map out paths to complete college applications, help research various colleges to find a best fit, and edit (not write)/advise on essays to help ensure they capture the student's story in a compelling and complete manner. But at the end of the process, whether a student has a successful and enriching college application process that ends with acceptance to a college that is a great fit is completely up to the student. I can not play the role of substitute student and do the work.

Getting accepted into a great college is incredibly exciting, but don't compromise your values or ethics to do it. It's really not worth it.

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