‘I faked my way into Cambridge – and got away with it’

Caroline Calloway - Andrew Crowley
Caroline Calloway - Andrew Crowley

“Has anyone ever lied on their application to Cambridge?” comes the tentative question on The Student Room website. “It’s just I’ve heard people sometimes would tell a white lie. [...] Apparently quite a few people in my year decided to do so.”

It’s among the more egregious examples of “asking for a friend” you’re likely to read. He is given short shrift in the responses: “If you’re going to lie about your achievements, then you’re probably not good enough for Oxbridge anyway,” scoffs one. Another suggests it might be acceptable to say you played for the first XI in Lower Sixth even if you “got called up once because ten people were injured”.

“It’s impossible to lie about the important stuff,” they add.

You would imagine so, and yet American social-media star Caroline Calloway claims to have successfully duped one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world into giving her a place.

Calloway, whose appropriately named book, Scammer, comes out in a week, won a place at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, in 2013. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she admitted off-hand to lying to secure a place. “I lied on my application. I forged my [qualifications] when I got in.”

Calloway had already applied to Cambridge twice. She was also already in college – she was studying at New York University at the time but had decided she wanted a change. “I couldn’t live the rest of my life with an NYU email address,” she said.

On her third attempt, having received rejections from Harvard, Yale and Oxford, she won a place at Cambridge to study history of art.

Calloway emerged with a 2:2, but not before she had made a name for herself. Dubbed the “Gatsby of Cambridge”, she was known for the lavish parties she held in her rooms – rooms she rented in other, more attractive colleges in her second and third year, not deeming St Edmund’s beautiful enough for the particular brand of old-fashioned glamour she wanted from her British heritage university experience.

Caroline Calloway - Andrew Crowley
Caroline Calloway - Andrew Crowley

By 2015, she had built a large following on Instagram, documenting her social life at Cambridge with its “Harry Potter-like castles, Jane Austen-like balls”. It got her a book deal to the tune of half-a-million dollars (a deal she got after lying to a top literary agent’s secretary, pretending to already be his client to get a meeting), but it soon emerged Calloway shared more than a love of extravagant parties with Scott Fitzgerald’s anti-hero.

Namely, a loose relationship with the truth. Jay, you’ll recall, proclaimed to have been “brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years”.

Calloway eventually backed out of her book deal. In 2019, a friend revealed herself to be the ghost writer on many of Calloway’s Instagram captions and her book proposal. Since then, she has made her living as a kind of professional grifter.

Now 31, she seems to take great delight in having successfully “gamed” Cambridge. Thrilled with news coverage of her revelation, she teased that the full story would be revealed in her upcoming (self-published) book, writing on Instagram on Monday: “Find out how I lied on my application in Chapter 18 of Scammer!”

So how did she do it? Bump up her grades to make them seem more illustrious than they really were? Paint herself as having been a teen musical prodigy or sports star? Calloway says she forged her academic transcript (a detailed record of your qualifications) so “she could have faked any or all of these elements,” says Victoria McLean, CEO of international career consultancy City CV.

“Presumably because she didn’t have the necessary qualifications or educational background to get on to a course at Cambridge.”

King's College Chapel - Getty
King's College Chapel - Getty

Nathaniel McCullagh, founder of Simply Learning Tuition, a university admissions consultancy, says among British applicants, forgeries are rare and easy to catch. “[Universities] use software called Turn It In which uses AI to look for plagiarism. They use it on everything, they’ll put applications through it as well.”

If someone had lied about their exam results, the universities “would be able to check”, he says, using a special “programming interface” to verify with exam boards if there were any discrepancies with the grades claimed on the application. “They have link-ups to the exam boards,” he explains.

The Russell Group say their network of top British universities (which include Oxbridge, Bristol, York and Leeds, among others) all have their own ways of identifying fake information in applications, but share intel any time they encounter a fraudulent exam certificate or forged personal statement.

Doctoring applications isn’t particularly common in the UK, they say. It’s “such a high-risk move” for students, says McLean. “Universities contact your previous educational institutions to confirm the results you have listed on your transcript. They can also request verified copies, i.e. a copy of your transcript that has been signed by someone like a solicitor. They will also check your transcript against the rest of your application, where they may detect anomalies or signs of fraud.”

A Universities UK spokesperson said: “UK university admissions teams are highly skilled professionals who are well practised at assessing applications, the vast majority of which are completed in good faith by prospective students.

“Universities take accusations of fraudulent applications extremely seriously, and are committed to delivering a fair and transparent admissions process in the student interest, as set out in our ‘Fair Admissions Code of Practice’”.

Is it easier to slip fake results past an admissions department if you’re applying from overseas, like Calloway? “Maybe, but universities also have checks for this. They’ll do the same verification process as for UK students. There are also agencies that universities can use to authenticate overseas transcripts and some countries have a country-wide certifying institution. Some universities also apply seals to transcripts that are very difficult to fake.”

Cambridge University students in their gowns on Graduation day at Corpus Christi College, England - Getty
Cambridge University students in their gowns on Graduation day at Corpus Christi College, England - Getty

Though not impossible, it is more difficult to verify the results of a foreign applicant, such as Calloway. “If it’s a foreign exam board, it’s much harder to do,” says McCullagh. “If you’re trying to speak to an examining board in Malaysia to say ‘Did this student get this grade?’, it’s much harder.”

For their part, St Edmund’s College told Varsity: “We cannot comment on individual students, however we take statements like this very seriously.”

Perhaps Calloway’s misdemeanour is simply part of a time-honoured tradition in the world of American higher education. Lying on an application pales in comparison to the Hollywood parents who were found to have paid bribes to staff at top institutions to secure places for their children.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband Mossimo Giannulli were among dozens charged in a nationwide college entrance exam cheating scandal in 2019. The couple were found to have paid $500,000 to get their daughters into the University of Southern California as fake rowing stars.

Meanwhile, the Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman made a $15,000 donation to the Key Worldwide Foundation – ostensibly a charitable contribution which, in fact, went to someone who posed as Huffman’s daughter Sophia to take an exam for her. She was fined $30,000, sentenced to 14 days in jail and one year of supervised release.

Felicity Huffman - Paul Marotta/Getty Images
Felicity Huffman - Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Then there are the (technically) more above-board ways of getting into a top American college. Legacy admissions are rife in Ivy League schools. Top universities typically admit applicants whose family members have previously attended at two to five times their usual admission rates.

At Harvard, the acceptance rate for so-called legacy students is about 33 per cent – around five times the overall acceptance rate.

If you don’t have the grades, then, or a long line of Yalies and Harvardians in the family, a well-placed donation might be in order. Or a light edit of the facts. To read how Calloway pulled the wool over the eyes of the Cambridge admissions department, you’ll need to pick up a copy of Scammer and turn to chapter 18.