Review: “Operation Varsity Blues” sheds light on the 2019 college admissions scandal

Director Chris Smith unveils daunting details about America’s largest college admissions scam in this Netflix documentary.

By Megan Reyes, Staff Writer


“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” provides insightful information on how parents were willing to spend hundreds or even millions of dollars in order for their children to attend a prestigious university.


The documentary begins with a montage of high school students waiting for their college acceptance emails from high-ranking colleges such as USC, UCLA, Stanford and Yale. It shows them screaming and their excitement to know that they got in due to merit and hard work. After the montage, news of the scandal broke, revealing the people that were involved such as actresses like Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and many other parents and college sports officials. This was a brilliant opening idea from the director because it showed a contrast of people who earned their way to a renowned university to people who paid their way in.


Rick Singer was responsible for the influence of undergraduate admissions decisions at several colleges. He was also a former high school and college basketball coach, which helped him get kids into these universities. Former clients of Singer said that he was very serious, non- charismatic and suspicious. He claimed to be a college and high school counselor and a recruiter, showing his manipulative and cunning nature really well. Singer fabricated applications, lied about things such as race and sports and he paid a test proctor thousands of dollars to change incorrect test answers.


Mark Riddell was the test proctor that was associated with Singer during the scandal. Parents paid Singer $10,000-$75,000 per test to ensure their children received whatever score they desired. Riddell flew out from his home in Florida to testing centers in Canada, Texas and California. He took the tests for some of the students, sat beside others telling them the answers or corrected their responses after they had turned the exam in.


In the documentary, Singer told New York lawyer Gordon Caplan that his daughter should “pretend to be stupid” during her meeting with a psychologist.


“The goal is to be slow, to not be as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies,” said the 5-foot-8-inch crooked mastermind.


Singer explained to parents how their child could get in through one of two ways, which he referred to as the “side door” and “back door.”


The “side door” method was Singer’s infamous tactic in which parents paid hundreds and thousands of dollars to create fake athletic scholarships. This method offers guaranteed admission and is cheaper than the “back door” strategy; this is what attracted many clients. The “back door” approach is more expensive and involves giving a top-tier university a donation, but does not guarantee admission and usually benefits the billionaires due to the eye-catching checks that contain seven to eight figures. It is revealed that the parents that were caught in the scandal had hundreds and thousands of dollars to blow, but not enough to ostensibly buy Harvard’s attention.


Later into the film, students find out they have been rejected by their school of choice.


YouTube influencer Olivia Jade Giannulli, whose parents Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli are the highest profile people who participated in the scandal, used the “side door” to get their daughters into USC. This granted admission for both Olivia and her sister Isabella on USC’s women’s rowing team, which made people suspicious that both sisters got accepted to the same university on athletic scholarships.


“I remember hearing later that Olivia had also gotten into USC,” said a blonde YouTuber who went to Olivia’s high school. “I was like ‘woah’ because USC is extremely difficult to get into. So not only one sister, but both of them.”


Olivia’s high school counselor also became suspicious because he did not believe that either of the sisters participated on the rowing team. He called the USC admissions office and said that he highly doubts that she is in a sport due to her frequent uploading on her YouTube account. Both of Olivia’s parents referred to her counselor as a “meddling weasel” and a “nosey bastard.” Her father then confronted the counselor and word of the confrontation got back to Donna Heinel who was the former senior associate athletic director at USC. She left Singer a voicemail about being concerned with her potentially being caught in the scandal.


At the end of the documentary, the people involved in the scandal were sentenced.


“You can get a great education almost any place if you want it,” said former Stanford admissions officer Jon Reider.


It does not matter how prestigious a university is, as long as you get a good education out of it, there is potential to be successful.