As the news about George Santos and the varsity blues admissions scandal continues to circulate, we wanted to find out how common it is to lie on your college application. Given the sheer volume of applications that most schools receive, the veracity of information is largely left up to the honor system.

In January, surveyed over 1,600 current 4-year college students along with those who have graduated from a 4-year school within the last five years.

The results:

  • 61% admitted to including “untrue information” on their college applications
  • Of this group, 39% misrepresented their race or ethnicity
  • 30% faked their letters of recommendation
  • 34% wrote about untrue stories in their essays
  • Less than one-third were caught by an admissions officer

6 in 10 Current and Recently Graduated College Students Lied on Their Applications

Of the 1,647 current and recently graduated college students surveyed, 61% admitted to including untrue information on their applications.

“Students can feel the need to compromise their own ethics in an attempt to stand out from thousands of applicants due to the pressure they feel,” said Blanca Villagomez, college admissions and education advisor.

“But honesty is always the best policy when applying to college. Exaggerating certain accomplishments, creating false narratives, and misrepresenting information of any kind can have serious consequences,” she continued.

Of this 61%, 40% say they included volunteer hours they hadn’t actually completed, 39% faked job experience, 38% included fake extracurriculars, 32% included false internship experience, and 30% even faked their letters of recommendation.

Students Also Admitted to Taking Liberties With Their College Essays

Thirty-four percent say they wrote about untrue stories in their essays, 24% had someone else write their essays for them, and 18% plagiarized their essays.

“I understand the pressure that students feel when preparing their college admissions essays,” said Villagomez. “The selection committee will be reviewing thousands of applications and writing a compelling essay will help you stand out.”

“However, it is important to first debunk the myth that using a powerful or extraordinary life event is the only way to a successful essay,” she explained. “This is simply not true.”

“College admissions officers are interested in learning about an applicant’s personality, character, and values, and this can be achieved through a wide range of experiences. I recommend that students write about topics that are meaningful to them and that showcase their strong writing skills, personality, and perspectives.”

Tips for Writing Impactful College Application Essays

Below are several tips Blanca provided for prospective college students looking to maximize their chances when it comes to the college essay:

  1. Find support: Depending on your access to resources, your support system will look different. But having a group of people that will help you during the writing process and keep you accountable is essential. You can lean on an English teacher, mentor, or college counselor for example. If you have the financial resources to invest in a college essay coach that’s also an alternative.
  2. Be honest: Avoid exaggerating your accomplishments just to impress the readers. Make sure you’re writing about experiences that are real and genuinely important to you.
  3. Be specific: You have limited space in your essays so choose specific moments, hobbies, or personality traits that illustrate your character, strength, and interests. Be organized, direct, and concise.
  4. Focus on a deeper meaning: Demonstrate how a specific experience helped you grow or develop a new perspective. Readers are more interested in learning how you have developed as a person and not just a list of accolades.
  5. Show, don’t tell: Simply listing your accomplishments or filling the page with bold statements won’t make you stand out. Instead, use concrete examples and anecdotes to demonstrate how your experiences helped you develop into who you are today, what you learned, and how you will use this new knowledge.
  6. Write several drafts: Writing is a process and it will require several drafts to feel confident with your final result. Make sure to dedicate plenty of time to your essays and start early whenever possible.

39% Misrepresented Their Race or Ethnicity

In addition to fudging their essays and experiences outside of school, many respondents said they were not fully truthful about certain demographic sections of their application. Thirty-nine percent say they misrepresented their race or ethnicity, 33% misrepresented their religious preference, 22% their disability status, and 20% their veteran status.

30% Say Their Fibbing Was Discovered by an Admissions Officer

When asked if the untrue information they included on their application was ever uncovered by campus admissions, 30% of respondents admitted it was. Of this group, 62% say their admission to the school was revoked or denied as a result of the discovery, while 38% say their admission was not revoked or denied.

“The risks associated with misrepresenting information on your college application will vary. One example is the revocation of admission,” commented Villagomez. “During the admissions process, students are required to acknowledge that the information they submitted is their own work and factually true.”

“If a college finds out that an applicant has misrepresented information their offer of admission can be revoked at any time, even after the student is already attending the university,” she continued. “Other risks include the loss of scholarship or financial aid awards that have already been awarded, or in more severe cases criminal charges and legal action.”

“Overall, any risk comes with damage to a student’s reputation which creates a ripple effect in the future. It will become much harder for them to be admitted into other colleges or even secure employment.”

Many Believe Their High School Was Complicit in the Deception

There have been cases documented in the past showing how high schools doctored students’ transcripts before sending them to colleges in an effort to get students accepted at competitive schools. When asked if they believe their high school participated in such practices, nearly half of respondents say they believe it is ‘somewhat’ (29%) or ‘very’ (19%) likely that they did.

Majority Believe Lying on Their Applications Helped Them Get Accepted

While lying on your college application may be seen as morally dubious and certainly has risks, it’s somewhat understandable why students feel pressured to do so. Elite schools are getting even more competitive, and the number of applicants is rising, so aspiring students feel they must do everything they can to give themselves a leg up.

“The standards of an elite school are high so it is very normal and common for students to feel pressure if they want to be admitted,” said Villagomez. “Honest communication is key. I encourage parents and guardians to create safe spaces at home to unpack college pressures.”

“At school, I recommend that educators support students in navigating the college application process by discussing their concerns and providing them with the appropriate tools and resources to cope,” she elaborated.

“I also encourage students to reflect on their values and motivations for applying to an elite school. Doing so will help them gain clarity and pinpoint the source. Oftentimes, the pressure comes from social comparison, familial expectations, or cultural norms.”

Of our survey respondents, 61% say they ‘somewhat’ (30%) or ‘strongly’ (31%) believe that including untrue information on their applications helped them get accepted.

Interestingly enough, when asked about the fairness of college admissions in the U.S., the majority of respondents didn’t seem to have a problem with the system. Seventeen percent ranked the process as ‘very fair,’ 33% as ‘somewhat fair,’ 25% as ‘neither fair nor unfair,’ 18% as ‘somewhat unfair,’ and just 8% as ‘very unfair.’

“I often remind students that getting into an elite school is not the only measure of success and there are many different types of colleges and universities that can provide a great education,” Villagomez finished.

“It’s less about the school’s prestige and more about finding the best fit for their needs. Having open and honest conversations can help students expand their horizons and understand that the best colleges are those that align with their interests, goals, and values.”


This survey was commissioned by and conducted online by the survey platform Pollfish from January 11-12, 2023. In total, 1,647 participants in the U.S. were surveyed. All participants had to pass through demographic filters to ensure they were between the ages of 18 and 30. Respondents were then screened to include only current 4-year college students or those who had graduated from a 4-year school within the past five years. They were then screened in a second round to ask if they had included untrue information on their applications. The survey used a convenience sampling method, and to avoid bias from this component Pollfish employs Random Device Engagement (RDE) to ensure both random and organic surveying. Learn more about Pollfish’s survey methodology or contact [email protected] for more information.