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The Daily Tar Heel

Students embellish ?to get ahead

For a lot of us, the start of a new semester brings countless applications for various merit organizations and internships. The prompts are generally the same: Tell us why you’re great. Keeping in mind our competitors for these coveted positions, we compile the most competitive lists of extracurricular activities, philanthropic endeavors and leadership positions.

And it follows, in the spirit of competition, that we would try to recap our accomplishments in the most glistening language possible.

The distinction between outright lying and embellishment is increasingly blurred.

For instance, a group of teens randomly deciding to go out into their town and plant a few trees could be described as “a tree-planting campaign” organized to advocate the importance of paper conservation and recycling. Or maybe a few weeks vacationing in China could be played up to a “Chinese cultural immersion” for an unspecified period of time. And no rules were broken — no honesty contracts were breached. But where is the line?

No one can tell us better than Adam Wheeler — the former Harvard student who had glowing recommendations from his professors, perfect SAT scores and a high school diploma from Phillips Academy in Andover. But when he pleaded guilty last month to 20 counts of larceny, identity fraud, falsifying an endorsement or approval and pretending to hold a degree, the ugly, raw truth came out.

It turns out that Wheeler actually attended a public high school in Delaware rather than Phillips Academy. And instead of receiving perfect grades as a freshman at MIT like he claimed, Wheeler spent two years at Bowdoin College until he was suspended for academic dishonesty.

Many admissions experts concur that nearly all college applications contain elements of untruth. But it is impossible to investigate every exaggerated extracurricular and perfectly polished essay.

UNC admissions officials have said in the past that they rely heavily on the Honor Code, high school guidance counselors’ endorsements and a national database to help them filter through roughly 23,000 applications each year.

Wheeler crossed the line and strayed far from merely altering the wording of his accomplishments to make them sound more appealing. Wheeler flat-out lied.

And his willingness to jeopardize his entire academic career and run the risk of prosecution for the sake of higher achievement speaks to the pressures and stresses of our society.

Like it or not, our society is extremely status-oriented and there are huge social and economic incentives for those with the highest credentials.

David Callahan, author of “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead,” told Boston Magazine, “at some level, it should be no surprise that people fake their credentials.”

It’s unclear where the line is. Some may say that we already crossed it with use of the spiffy language. But as long as this getting ahead mentality persists, we shouldn’t underestimate how far we might go to get what we want.

Hinson Neville is a guest columnist for the Daily Tar Heel. He is a freshman business major from Roanoke Rapids. Contact him at

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