In the social sciences, there is a principle known as Campbell’s Law, which states the following:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Or, said more simply, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Although selective colleges assess applicants holistically rather than according to strict numerical metrics, I think that a modified version of this rule is in fact very relevant to the admissions process.

As selective colleges make clear, they are looking for both academic and extracurricular achievement. In fact, because so many applicants have similarly high grades and test scores, decisions are commonly made based on what students have done outside the classroom: how deep their commitment and—more importantly—how high their level of achievement.

Focusing too heavily on academics, so the thinking goes, would produce mere drones, students who can do well on tests but who lack “passion” and “creativity.” No, colleges want students who are involved in their communities, ones who do well by doing good.

At the same time, though, “authenticity” has become one of the great buzzwords in college admissions. It’s that elusive quality that everyone claims to be seeking, and that expensive college consultants are claimed to strip away. Yes, applicants must be super-achievers, but they must achieve that status—or appear to achieve that status—naturally.

People might not agree on much when it comes to college admissions (outside of the fact that the current system is seriously broken), but I think pretty much everyone is in accord that whatever authenticity might be, the students involved in the admissions scandal most certainly did not possess it.

I think, however, that the focus on authenticity is misplaced, and that judging this quality is for all intents and purposes a fool’s errand.

Essentially, the problem is this: as long as an acceptance letter to an elite college remains such a potent status symbol, applicants to top colleges will strive to give those colleges whatever it is they happen to be seeking. It is impossible to know what interests (if any) they would choose to pursue, and how high they would push themselves to achieve, if admission to an elite institution were not dangled as a carrot at the end of the stick.

In other words, admissions officers cannot know who applicants genuinely “are” because their identities (as least insofar as their applications are concerned) have been so strongly shaped by the admissions process itself. And as the system currently stands, there is no way out of this trap.

Then, there’s the subtext of the word itself: what elite colleges generally want when they ask for “authenticity” is applicants who are confident yet self-deprecating enough not to come across as cocky; good enough team players not to truly threaten the status quo (at least not in a way that might bring negative attention to the university) but distinctive enough not to come across as boring; studious enough to excel academically but socially adept enough to be accepted by their peers. All this, plus an undefinable “it” factor. That’s a pretty insane set of criteria for anyone to fulfill, never mind a high school senior.

And the reality is that most high school students (most adults, in fact) cannot independently assemble an application that demonstrates these qualities in a manner sufficiently compelling to capture the requisite percentage of votes from an Ivy League admissions committee—that’s why the college-consulting industry exists.

None of this is to imply that students don’t genuinely enjoy their activities or want to help others; rather, it is merely to point out that sixteen-year-olds are generally acutely aware of the fact that, say, spending one’s Sundays volunteering at the local soup kitchen (or creating a program to send art supplies to pediatric cancer patients, or founding a charity to build schools in Africa, or helping make an Oscar-winning documentary about menstrual stigma in India) is also a way of racking up points toward an elite college acceptance.

Regardless of what message adults are intending to send, the one they actually send is this: yes, by all means, it’s important to do good—but do it because there’s something in it for you.

So yes, some high-achieving students do genuinely pursue their interests without serious consideration of what top colleges might be looking for, but the reality is that most of the successful applicants to super-elite colleges I worked with had parents who were exceedingly savvy and knew how to mold their children into precisely what those schools were looking for, in some cases over a period of many years. For all the fuss that gets made over test prep, it was ultimately only a very small part of the package. An important part, to be sure, but one piece in a much larger scheme.

These parents played by the rules insofar as they would never have done anything so risky as to hire someone to take a test for their children, but they also had a clear understanding that grooming their children for admission to an elite college was a concerted, long-term project requiring significant time, money, and effort. They also knew how to exploit the system to its limits, whether that involved pushing their children to excel in less-common sports or using a questionable anxiety diagnosis to get double time on a standardized test. (Double-time, not time-and-a-half; only one of my students with a bona fide learning disability ever got that one.)

To be clear: these were nice, polite, naturally very bright kids; they were generally quite pleasant, and there was nothing stiff or fake or put-on about them. But the line between who they were as people and who they were as applicants was not particularly clear. In a sense, being an elite college applicant was their identity. And in that regard, they were indeed “authentic.”

Note: lest you think this post is too cynical, after I put it up, a reader directed me to a reddit post entitled “[Admissions Officers] Can’t Actually Detect “Authenticity” Or “Passion”: Hot Take From A Stanford Senior.” From the horse’s mouth…