The Truth Inside the Fluff: Catching Lies on College and Job Applications

by | Sep 6, 2016 | Assessment, Blog, Leadership, Values

resume-2-1616792-640x480Have you noticed that people today will stop at nothing to get your attention?  It’s hard to know where the truth is inside all the fluff!

How do you know if you should hire someone, for example?  It takes a lot of work to sift through the marketing spiels people manufacture for their resumes.  On paper, it looks like the person can save the world in a single bound.  You hire them and find out they can’t even save an Excel file.

How many people lie on job applications?

I did a search to look for statistics about lying on resumes and guess what I found instead?  A plethora of articles on how to not get caught lying on your resume.  Wow, lying has become so commonplace that people offer public advice on how to do it better.  The little  research I did find is consistent with these observations.  “A new survey from CareerBuilder of more than 2,500 hiring managers found that 56% have caught job candidates lying on their resumes.

How do people lie on college applications?

Where does the lying start? Think about it.  People begin having resumes as kids and they usually construct them for college applications.  It has become more common for students to lie on their college applications.  It goes far beyond exaggerating their participation in extracurricular activities to submitting false recommendation letters, having others write their essays, claiming fictitious awards, and falsifying financial aid data.

When the dean of Harvard College is criticized for saying he wants to “help students become the person they said they wanted to be in their applications,” you know something is not right.  People put what they think the admissions committee wants to see on their applications, whether or not it has any bearing to the truth.  I’ve heard people discuss a viable strategy for getting into college where you say you want to major in a subject that the college is looking for and then switch when you get there.  That is what I would call a blatant lie.  And, yet, it seems perfectly acceptable as a means to get into college.

It’s hard to find out just how many people are lying on their college applications, but there is evidence it has turned into an industry in China.  According to a 2010 study, 90% of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations to American colleges, 70% have someone else write their essay, and 50% forge their high school transcripts.  Agencies in China charge students aspiring to go to America thousands of dollars for such fabrication services, as described in a recent report by the Boston Globe.

How do you catch the lies?

How do hiring managers and college admissions people see through the exaggerations and lies that candidates put on applications?  Interviews are a good way to look the person in the eye and find out if they are who they say they are.

Research shows interviews are not necessarily accurate when predicting performance, but they can be if done properly.  When you saddle up to someone and focus on your “old boy” connections, you’re bound to find what you’re looking for—the perfect candidate.  When you ask someone for specific examples of what they’ve done and how they went about it you can tease out evidence of their skills and personal style.  When I’ve interviewed candidates for Harvard, I’ve found it easy to distinguish between rehearsed fluff and authentic responses.

How do you figure out someone’s true ability?

In addition to lying, people have learned how to game the system too.  An SAT score doesn’t mean what it used to.  People spend thousands of dollars and hours upon hours training for the test.  A test score is also only nominally predictive of performance, and even less so when people train for the test.  How do you sift through inflated scores to find out someone’s true ability?

What you really need are work samples from the person.  I don’t mean professionally edited essays.  I mean real work from the person in question—interviews, writing samples, and so on.  Colleges that don’t have the resources to go through all that find themselves being duped. More selective colleges tend to expend more resources to validate what candidates submit in their applications.

Companies, on the other hand, can and often do require work samples, interviews, and direct correspondence with the candidate.  They can also check references.  I highly recommend you don’t shortcut this process.  I can’t tell you how many people look good on paper who can’t perform even the basic aspects of the job when they get there.  A bad hire is costly for everyone involved, including the candidate.  Do them—and yourself—a favor by doing your due diligence in the hiring process.  Don’t take their word for it.