I was not great at taking tests my junior year of high school. It was 2013, and I had already taken the SAT three times, so I enlisted the help of a college exam prep tutor once a week for a few months. My tutor would ride his bike up to my house every Saturday afternoon with a satchel of books thrown across his back. He would greet my family at the door with a friendly smile, wearing thick-framed glasses. My mom would offer him snacks during our sessions, and my dad would chat with him afterward about family and life.
I worked hard, and when I returned to take the SAT, I improved my mathematics score by 400 points. I remembered something my tutor told me the first time we met. Taking standardized tests is like playing a game, he said. You have to learn the ways in which it tricks you, and outsmart the test at every turn in order to win.
My tutor was Mark Riddell, the former director of college entrance exam preparation at IMG Academy, who will be sentenced on federal charges later this week.
My family and I heard about Riddell's role in the country's largest college admissions scandal, Operation Varsity Blues, when the story broke in April 2019. Affluent families and their children, from celebrities like Lori Loughlin to big-time lawyers like Gordon Caplan, were bribing Ivy League schools to get their kids through the door. More than 33 parents were involved in the scandal, bribing schools like Stanford, the University of Southern California, New York University and Harvard. And the scandal was not just Hollywood buzz. It was happening around the U.S., including in Bradenton.
I was shocked to see my old tutor’s face and name flash on screen. The headlines said Riddell had been working with Operation Varsity Blues' mastermind Rick Singer, who ran college admissions counseling businesses.
How was it that someone so unassuming, charismatic and undoubtedly genius would get caught up in white collar crime? More so, how was it that the same tutor who sat at my kitchen table years ago, and genuinely helped me, was now pleading guilty to fraud?
From 2011 to 2018, Riddell was paid up to $10,000 per test he took for students involved in Singer’s plans. Singer would use a process he called “getting in the back door, or side door” of institutions, bribing schools with hefty donations, fabricating collegiate athlete résumés or fudging standardized test scores. This is where Riddell came in.
Riddell would fly to Texas and California and serve as a proctor to students taking the SAT or ACT. After students left, Riddell would retake their tests, filling in the appropriate answers to score a number predetermined by their parents. For example, if a student needed a 32 out of 36 on the ACT, Riddell could score exactly that. In a news conference last spring, Andrew Lelling, then a U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts and prosecutor of the case, said Riddell did not have inside information about the correct answers. He was "just a really smart guy."
Singer’s plans and Riddell’s involvement are detailed in the new Netflix documentary Operation Varsity Blues. The documentary shows actors reenacting phone conversations between Singer and parents that were recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A test preparation expert featured in the documentary, Akil Bello, believes it was easy for any adult to achieve good marks on a test made for 11th graders. Riddell, however, added his genius, which allowed him to be uncannily precise and discrete in getting the results parents wanted.
Riddell’s career didn't begin this way. He graduated from Sarasota High School, where he played on the tennis team while also attending IMG Academy when it was Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy. He earned a law degree from Harvard, using his near-perfect test scores and athletic ability to get in. When he returned to Bradenton and became IMG’s college adviser, he helped other students get into their dream schools. After news broke about the scandal, he was promptly fired.
Where does that leave Riddell? He still lives locally with his wife and kids, awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the United States and obstruction of justice. His next court hearing is Thursday, April 15, when he could be sentenced anywhere from 33 to 41 months, depending on his cooperation in the ongoing investigation. Without cooperation, he could be looking at 40 years of prison time.
Whether Riddell was involved in Operation Varsity Blues while I was tutored by him is a question left unanswered. It also makes me wonder if I knew anyone who paid him to take the test.