For some, doing well is not enough

Some of you may remember the college admissions scandal of a few years ago in which many famous actors and other well-to-people were caught finding ways to game the college admissions process so that their children could be admitted to the schools of their choice. One of those people was actor Felicity Huffman who paid an exam proctor $15,000 to correct some of the incorrect answers on her daughter’s SAT exam so that she would get a better score. I was struck by something she said recently as to why she did what she did.

Huffman, 60, ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud as well as honest services mail fraud. She spent 11 days in prison in October 2019 and completed 250 hours of community service after becoming the first of 34 parents to be sentenced in the scandal’s fallout.

Huffman on Thursday said: “I know hindsight is 20/20, but it felt like I would be a bad mother if I didn’t do it. So – I did it.”

Elaborating, she said: “I felt like I had to give my daughter a chance at a future. And so it was sort of like my daughter’s future, which meant I had to break the law.”

Huffman described enduring pangs of anxiety and regret as she drove an unwitting Sophia to the exam.

“She was going, ‘Can we get ice-cream afterwards? I’m scared about the test. What can we do that’s fun?’” Huffman recounted to KABC. “And I kept thinking, ‘Turn around, just turn around.’ To my undying shame, I didn’t.”

Note that Huffman said that she felt that she had to “give my daughter a chance at a future.” Huffman and her husband William H. Macy are well-known actors and presumably are wealthy. Because of their ability to pay the full tuition, their child’s future was pretty secure and she was almost guaranteed to get into a fairly good university even with mediocre test scores, not to mention being able to get plenty of good tutors and all the other cognitive benefits that come with having a privileged background, and would have likely done very well in life because of those advantages. Why risk cheating just so that you could get into a slightly better university?

This may be puzzling to many people but I have often seen that kind of thinking first hand. For many years I taught the first year physics courses at my university. Most of the students were first year enrollees but sometimes there were a few who were from neighboring high schools. These were usually academically ambitious students who took a college-level course for a variety of reasons such as wanting to be challenged or because they wanted to impress college admissions officers. They were usually very diligent students.

I remember one year such a student came into my office soon after the college admissions results were released. He was the son of a prominent person in the community. He was devastated because he had not gained admission to Harvard but had been wait-listed, so that he would only be admitted if some of the people who had been admitted decided not to accept. This is low probability for Harvard.

He came to me to see if there was anything I could do to help him gain admission. It turned out that he had applied to about ten of the top-ranked, most selective universities and had been accepted at all except Harvard. Almost any student would have been delighted to have gained admission to those universities but he was devastated. He had set his mind on Harvard and anything else seemed like a major failure.

I felt sorry for him because he was so dejected. He asked me if I could write a letter of recommendation for him to the Harvard admissions office to get them to reconsider. I said that I could and would but told him frankly that the odds of the letter having any effect were small. Most of my efforts were aimed at trying to talk him out of his deep gloom, to make him aware that in the long run, it would not matter which of the ten schools he went to and that he should just pick one and make the most of the opportunity that almost any other student would have been thrilled to receive. I do not know if he was taken off the wait list and got into Harvard. He never came back to my office to thank me so I assume that my letter had not been successful.

His was the most extreme case but I have encountered other students too who by almost any measure had achieved great academic success and got into universities that would give them an advantage over most of their peers, but it was never enough for them.

There is also another factor at play and that is the parents. Sometimes parents try to fulfill their own unattained ambitions through their children and have greater expectations for their offspring than the children have for themselves, making them feel inadequate because they did not meet the goals their parents set for them. Some parents compete with other parents for bragging rights based on the academic success of their child and where they get admitted. This is particularly true of closed communities where people compare notes. Many of the people who were convicted along with Huffman belonged to the same social circle in Hollywood. Close-knit immigrant communities are also prone to feeling this pressure.

I sometimes wonder about these students, whether as they go through life, they view their achievements in any area, even if seen as admirable by others, as never being quite good enough, and thus their lives consist of one disappointment after another even though they have done well.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    I felt like I had to give my daughter a chance at a future

    This is the sort of thing you’d expect to hear, justifiably, from someone on the poverty line whose kid shows potential.

    It speaks volumes, to me, of the horrible dystopian shithole the USA must be if a Golden Globe winning multimillionaire actually believes that she has to game SAT scores to give her child “a chance at a future”.

    Then again, I didn’t really know much about the US education system until a minute ago (thanks, Google). I had assumed that this quote:

    ‘Can we get ice-cream afterwards? I’m scared about the test. What can we do that’s fun?’

    … was something the daughter had said to her mommy when she was maybe ten or eleven and sitting a pre-high school test. Then I read the background and it became apparent that that was a comment from an EIGHTEEN year old. I can begin to see why her mother thinks she might struggle with life, even with her parents’ millions to cosset her for as long as she and any of her offspring live. Mind you, getting her into a MORE selective and competitive school would seem counterproductive.

  2. lanir says

    Expectations are weird.

    I’m adopted so I’m not very much like my parents. Early on they realized I was very smart and expected me to do well. But they were also pretty harsh authoritarians so quite a lot of questions that I could have used to learn how the world went unanswered. Instead, they would accuse me of talking back to them. It kind of sabotaged any learning I might have received from them to the point where I’ve never been any good in the areas where they were talented and knowledgeable. But they still expected great grades and good results from me even as they were working against that outcome.

    My experiences have left me with the impression that parents should work on the process rather than focusing on the outcome. A test is done with once you take it and get a grade. Not many of these grades will matter a few years down the road. Understanding the material on the test well enough to apply it later is going to be far more useful.

    Quick side note: I didn’t really see the ice cream comment as juvenile. She was using a psychological trick to distract herself from being nervous about the test, which is something I suspect most people feel in that situation to some degree or other. Responsibly dealing with your emotions in a stressful situation like that is more of an adult reaction.

  3. rblackadar says

    About your experience with the Harvard applicant, it’s just possible that he had a legitimate reason to prefer Harvard — but then again, of course you would have found that out if it had really been the case. No, the thinking was probably more like this: rejection => some couple thousand people in the U.S. are (or at least are perceived to be) better than me, and that’s not good news for my future Nobel prospects! Even if most of those other people go into liberal arts. I must do something about that!

    Personal confession: I used to play that game, and it messed me up pretty bad for a number of years.

  4. rgmani says

    The worst part of all of this is that Felicity Huffmann’s daughter took the SAT legitimately and got a good enough score to get into Carnegie Mellon. Turns out there was no need to cheat at all!

  5. says

    I think Mark Twain is relevant here: “Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.”

  6. says

    ‘Can we get ice-cream afterwards? I’m scared about the test. What can we do that’s fun?’
    TBF, I’m 42, and I’d be doing similar. It helps giving myself something to look forward to after doing The Big Scary Thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *