Sham Alert: Questionable Letters and Emails Received by Shorewood Students

Posted by Marianne Stephens on 1/21/2018

Alert:  Beware of Sham Offers Sent to Shorewood Students

Several students have come to me or their counselors with fancy-looking direct mailings or questionable emails they have received. Please be aware that these offers are often not what they seem. Read on for more information, resources, and other types of scams. 


Official-Looking Letters or Emails 

You/ your student might receive thick envelopes with official-looking seals, or emails from organizations with important-sounding names, like "National Congress/ Academy/ Society/ Conference of ________" or "Who's Who in...". Often the names are very close to reputable organizations, like the National Honor Society, which has a chapter at Shorewood.  

These mailings look legitimate, and the letters may say something about the honor of being selected. However, most of these are essentially well-packaged marketing schemes. The award is not an award. It is an advertisement for a conference or a guide that will cost you money. 


Not a Complete Scam; More Like a Sham

There probably is a real conference or a real camp—you will get something for your money—and you might even find it beneficial, but beware of the claims. Most of these programs are not selective and do not have minimum criteria; they are open to anyone willing to pay. Thoroughly check out any programs. Some schools call these "Pay to Play" programs. 


About the Organizations

Often, these are for-profit companies. Sometimes the conferences they promote are held at prestigious universities, but the organization may simply be renting space at the school and not have official ties. The official-sounding names do not mean the organization is a well-respected, reputable entity. Sometimes famous, accomplished people are listed as speakers or honorary board members. These individuals may have been hired to be speakers. 


The Claims:  Honor & Boost for College Admission

The offers make it sound like the student has been selected or nominated, and it may list students who have previously participated in the program. While there may be some minimum criteria, overall these are marketing techniques designed to flatter you into paying for something. If Shorewood nominates you for something, you will know from Shorewood. 


Attending these programs will not help with college admissions. You might hear that colleges want you to do extra activities and honors, but they do not expect you to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars. Colleges know which programs are truly selective and legitimate and which are not. They will not be impressed if you attended one of these conferences or are listed in a guide that makes money off of the students who are listed. 

There are scores of legitimate enrichment and college admissions assistance programs run at universities and through nonprofits. Be sure that you check out organizations thoroughly. Check on nonprofit status and investigate the connection to a named university. 


Reality: Colleges Value Work & Ongoing Involvement

College admissions representatives value work, family commitments, and ongoing involvement in activities/ pursuits/ hobbies/ sports. You do not need a fancy-sounding opportunity to help you get into college. 


How Organizations Get Personal Information

These organizations do not get your information from Shorewood or the Shoreline School District. We are obligated by law to keep student records private. Students all over the country are receiving these mailings. 


Organizations could get student information in a few ways. 

The College Board and ACT are supposed to only share information with nonprofit educational organizations. Read about the College Board’s Student Search Service which is probably a source of the college mail your student receives. Read more about the College Board’s Data Privacy Policies. You can look at your account to find out if you are enrolled in the Student Search Service. 

To opt-out of information sharing via College Board’s Student Search Service, unsubscribe in your privacy settings here (you may have to set up your College Board account first if you have not already done so) by contacting the College Board at 866-825-8051, by email at, or by writing to the College Board, Attention: Student Search Service, 11955 Democracy Drive, Reston, VA 20190. 

Realize that you will not hear directly from colleges if you opt out, but you can contact each college of interest individually. 

There are also marketing lists all over the place; most of our names, including our kids’ names, somehow end up on these lists. The Federal Trade Commission has opt out tools; see Stopping Unsolicited Mail, Phone Calls, and Email on


My Personal $.02

The first question people ask:  “Is this legit?” To which I answer as above. 

The second question people ask:  “Would you send your kids?”  My answer is no. I wouldn't spend the money. 

Don't be so scared of college admissions that you think you need something like this to get in. College admissions representatives know that these are marketing ploys, and realize that not everyone has access to enrichment. Colleges have loads of respect for students who work in the summer. You do not need to do something flashy to get colleges attention.  


In the National Media:  Suggested Reading

For Sale:  Survey Data on Millions of High School Students NY Times 7.29.2018 I was interviewed for this article

Don’t expect this ‘award’ to help you enter college LA Times 1.29.2016

Congratulations! You Are Nominated. It’s an Honor. (It’s a Sales Pitch.) NY Times 4.13.2009

For Sale:  Student “hopes and dreams” Politico 5.15.14


Be a Skeptic and Do Your Research

On occasion, mailings are legitimate. Ironically, some of the legitimate recognitions may not be as fancy as the sham ones. Do internet searches for reviews of events and organizations, and see if anything comes up when you search for the name of the organization and the word “scam.” 


Offers by Email & Telephone

You may also get solicitations via email or phone. These firms have most likely gotten your information from marketing lists and have a product to sell you. 

In the past, many offers by telephone have had to do with test prep or college financing services, though companies who get your information might try anything. Some callers have claimed that they are from the College Board, but The College Board does not make these offers. 


Be very skeptical of any unsolicited contact, no matter how it comes. 

Never give out your credit card information or agree to something that will cost you money without checking out thoroughly. 




See the College Board’s Information about Telemarketing and Internet Scams for further recommendations. 

See Avoiding Scams on for information on other types of scholarship, FAFSA, and student loan scams that might come your way. 


Please let me know if you have questions. If I don’t know the answer, I will try to find out!