'But you don't like to read. Why do you want to go to Harvard?'

  @FortuneMagazine February 6, 2014: 5:29 PM ET
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(Fortune)

Daniel Grayson thought there was probably something fishy about the kid who said his childhood friend died from a procedure in a back-alley abortion clinic in Bangkok. Grayson, an associate director of admissions at Tufts University who recruits students and reviews applications from Southeast Asia, had been warned about too-good-to-be-true applications from Thailand. This one, from a student who claimed to have been so inspired by his friend's plight that he made a documentary on illegal abortion and promoted it with great success on the Internet, got him wondering. Grayson emailed the applicant, a senior at a Thai international school, asking to see the film. He heard back several weeks later from the student, who sent a link to a video posted to YouTube the day before by another person. The "documentary" -- a three-minute reel of stock photo images accompanied by a student reading a bland script on abortion -- looked hastily thrown together.

Tufts denied the applicant. In fact, during the 2013 admissions season, Grayson threw out a quarter of the applications from Thailand for suspected cheating. The applicants, he says, had offered impressive stories of enterprising (but fictitious) extracurricular projects, like the student who said he had invented an elephant motion detector to help protect agricultural fields in rural Thailand.

Padding college applications is virtually as old as higher education itself; for all we know Nostradamus may have overstated his powers of prophecy to secure a spot at the University of Avignon. But many undergraduate and graduate officials say that in recent years there's been a spike in problematic submissions, especially from emerging markets, where the families of the elite and the growing middle class are eager to ensure their children's success with degrees from top U.S. schools. And they are enlisting the aid of a growing professional class of consultants and fixers who will not only help a student navigate the complexities of the American college system but in many cases buff and polish a candidate's application beyond recognition.

In the most extreme cases, students and parents turn to savvy and unethical admissions consultants who excel at packaging students for U.S. audiences; for a pretty price, consultants will happily write essays and recommendations, fabricate student backstories, and coach applicants through enough interviews that the lies stick. "There do seem to be countries where getting unwarranted 'help' isn't considered cheating as much as it is seen as a necessary way of doing business," says Therese Overton, an associate dean of admission at Wesleyan University. "As the stakes rise and more people are apprised of the possibilities, it does appear the problem is getting worse."

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