The Rise of the Outsourced Admissions Essay
It’s December, the height of college application season, and students across Massachusetts are hunched over their desks, putting the finishing touches on their college application essay. Traditionally, that essay has been viewed as a chance to break loose from the drone of dry figures and bullet points, and get to a place where unadulterated personality and a compelling story are enough to put a hopeful over the top. Or at least that was the case when students were still writing their own essays, which, increasingly, they aren’t.
So let’s start over.
It’s December, the height of college application season, and hundreds of anonymous Ivy League graduates are hunched over their desks, putting a shine on the personal statements of kids they’ve never met face-to-face, practicing their craft over the Internet, and for good money. Last year was the most competitive admissions season in history, and these freelance editors, and the multiplying number of firms they work for, are doing a booming business in this latest extension of what has come to be known as the “admissions industrial complex.” In an age in which SAT scores can be bumped up by buying a thousand-dollar test-prep course and parents will pay private academic counselors tens of thousands of dollars to help brand their kids for colleges, it should come as little surprise that there’s also a thriving trade in “perfect” application essays.
“It’s become a big industry,” says Chuck Hughes, cofounder of Road to College, a local admissions-consulting firm. Essay editing is just one of the services his company offers, but there are at least a dozen operations out there that do enough business in essay editing to make it their primary focus. The biggest, and a pioneer of the field, is EssayEdge: Now headquartered in New Jersey, it got its start in Cambridge, where it was founded in a Harvard dorm room in 1997. Several others are based locally, including All Ivy Educational Services, founded this spring in a Somerville apartment, and Cambridge Coaching, which is staffed by grad students at Harvard and MIT. The Writing Center, started by 2006 Harvard grad Nathan Labenz as a way to fund a year of travel abroad, was based here last summer, when Labenz was in town living with friends. “I’m just picking up the crumbs,” Labenz says. “I think this stuff is only getting crazier, partly because the Internet is making it easier.”
As the industry grows, however, so do concerns that these services, if not explicitly promoting plagiarism, at the very least run counter to the central mission of higher education. After all, helping students fake or exaggerate learning in order to gain access to more learning seems a little dubious. But some essay editors argue that such criticism is a bit…academic. What they’re doing, they claim, is merely responding to market pressure. “If clients are going to pay me a fortune to get into the system,” says one editor at the Writing Center, “I’m happy to reap the benefits.”
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It works like this: For fees of $60 and (way) up, essay-editing services turn rough drafts, outlines, and even raw biographical information into finished masterpieces suitable for submitting straight to the admissions office. EssayEdge’s guidelines for its editors tell them to make clients’ essays “substantially better”: “If the average essay we see is a C, you should return at least a B+/A-…. The edited essay should be compelling and not just slightly improved…. Cut, add, reorganize at will.” Another company, GradeSaver, tells its potential editors to “imagine this is your college application essay” and “make every necessary change to make this essay the best it can be.”
The essay editors who take on the job do so for the obvious reason: money. Hapless humanities majors fresh out of elite schools line up to work for these editing services, which themselves have acceptance rates on par with those of top-ranking colleges. (EssayEdge boasts that it rejects 50 applicants for every one hired.) Once they’re in, editors can earn anywhere from $40 to $100 per essay, plus bonuses ranging from $10 to $50 per happy client. The money might not sound like much, but it adds up. Many editors use the work to support themselves while pursuing less remunerative careers in the arts or public service. “I’d be lying if I said that the pay didn’t matter,” says an editor who began working for EssayEdge while volunteering for AmeriCorps. “I can make $25 to $40 an hour at this.”
The editors I interviewed for this story (most of whom requested anonymity) were divided on how far they were willing to go on an applicant’s behalf. “Something important about EssayEdge is that we never write for the clients,” says Katie Daily, who has had over 400 customers, some of whom have gotten into Columbia Business School, Harvard, and Brown. Another EssayEdge editor, though, sees things differently. He recalls one kid applying to MIT who wrote about a topic so inappropriate that the editor thought it was a joke. (Thanks to a nondisclosure agreement, the editor won’t identify what the topic was, only that it was “the type of slap-happy thing that a bunch of guys hanging out at 2 in the morning would come up with.”) But when the editor e-mailed the applicant, he “e-mailed back with the most sincere response imaginable about how he really was trying to write about this,” the editor says. The finished essay was due in less than 48 hours, and the editor couldn’t tell the kid to scrap the idea and start over. “The assumption on the part of the company was that the customers would be pissed if you did that,” he says, adding that EssayEdge “keeps you in a state of low-level panic about losing your job.” So he held his nose and dove in. “It was totally absurd, but I had to rewrite the essay. I used lots of scientific jargon—anything to make it a little less offensive. I was grasping at straws, any tendril of something that would make sense.”
Other editors rationalize away ethical concerns by arguing that they’re providing a public service. To them, essay editing is a form of affirmative action that levels the playing field for smart people who just happen to be bad writers, or for the foreign-born who don’t write smoothly in English. “I firmly feel that my work, albeit in a limited way, is a source of stability and democratization,” says the AmeriCorps volunteer/EssayEdge editor, with complete earnestness. “By helping future Asian tycoons come to America for their MBAs, I am helping strengthen the economic and personal ties between generations of leaders in America and Asia.” Surprisingly, Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard professor famous for his condemnation of grade inflation, takes the position that this particular defense of essay editing might have merit. “I can see it in the case of foreigners,” he says. “A lot of them have pretty good spoken English but don’t write very well. And they have to do all their work here in a foreign language, which is difficult for them.… That doesn’t seem to be quite so serious.”
“The people that I was helping to get in were not traditional Ivy League people,” adds a former editor for Admissions Essays, which sells custom-written “model” essays created from client questionnaire respon
ses. “So I think that this is changing who gets in, but maybe for the better.” (Admissions Essays posts a disclaimer saying that customers aren’t allowed to use the essays the company generates as their own. But, the editor admits, “we all know that they do.”)
Of course, the affirmative-action rationalization can cut both ways, particularly if you are a traditional—or at the very least stereotypical—Ivy League applicant. “There was one instance where it was the typical rich kid who didn’t want to lift a finger,” says the same former editor. He was applying to Harvard, Yale, and Brown, “and I could tell by reading the questionnaire that he was the kind of huge jerk that I had encountered too many times in college. He was a pompous asshole in the questionnaire, and I really wanted that pomposity to come though in the essay. I wanted the admissions committee to know what a jerk he was. So I did sort of adopt that tone in the essay. I don’t think I was trying to make him not get in…well, maybe I was. I was thinking, We have quite enough of those people in the Ivy League.”
The integrity of the edited essay can be even more compromised when the editors themselves are playing the admissions game, and stand to benefit from undermining the competition. Several years ago, another former editor for Admissions Essays wrote a few essays for clients who were seeking spots in the same law school that she was. When she got in, she was glad to discover that none of them had. “I don’t know what I would’ve done at orientation weekend,” she says, “if I had sat next to someone who I knew had cheated.”
Cheated—it’s a stinging accusation, but clients and their parents contend it doesn’t apply. They feel they’re not being any more dishonest than anyone else who secures some extra help. “I think it’s no different from hiring a tutor,” says one mother of a local public school student who used All Ivy Educational Services to polish his college essay. “My son put many hours into his essay and just needed help in editing it.” A software company employee living in Bangalore who had the Writing Center edit his business school applications—and did not tell the schools that he’d used the service—adds, “An applicant’s job is to make sure he communicated his ideas effectively. I see not much of a moral conflict in seeking professional help to edit your essays to ensure that your goals, motivation, hobbies, and career growth are all presented in a coherent manner. All the ideas expressed in the essays are completely mine.”
Harvard professor Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College and author of Excellence Without a Soul, is unmoved. “Is it okay to impersonate people and take the SAT on their behalf?” he says. Justifications for using an editor, he feels, flow “from an assumption that it’s better for a dishonest person who knows how to game the system to be admitted than an honest person who puts forward their own work and isn’t as deceptive…. To say that what they’re doing is completely fine, except that they don’t want to reveal what they’re doing? Horse manure.”
Admissions staff at Harvard, as well as at Amherst, Tufts, Boston University, and UMass Amherst, declined to discuss how essay-editing services affect their decision-making process. But several schools said they don’t think essay editing is corrupting the standards of elite education. “Remember, an essay is one component of a college application,” says Colin Riley, a BU spokesman. “It is not a determining factor. So while it’s important, no wonderfully written essay is going to alter the academic transcript or the recommendations from the teacher or the counselor or their standardized test scores.”
MIT is the only top-tier school in town that’s willing to condemn essay editing on the record. That’s because recently an essay-editing company had the audacity to directly e-mail Ben Jones, an MIT admissions officer, asking for advice on what he was looking for. Bemused, Jones blogged his response on the MIT admissions website. “The rules are simple,” he wrote. “Write your own essays.”
“Having one’s essay rewritten by someone else to the point that a reader wouldn’t recognize the original is unethical, yes,” he says, “but the more important issue is that applicants who engage in this sort of activity are really missing the point. At MIT, we’re looking, quite simply, for the applicant’s voice.”
Amherst director of admissions Tom Parker says he’s less concerned about individual essay scofflaws than about the broader implications of the trend. “What I worry about more is increasing the kind of cynicism that surrounds the whole process. Part of me wants to say, ‘Let’s just not admit anybody from any of these places where we know that students are doing this.’ I’ve never done that and never will do that, but there are times when I really want to say, ‘You know, we really don’t need these kids.’”
At least for now, ferreting out the professionally tweaked imposters from the authentic essays isn’t high on the to-do list of most admissions committees. But even if it were, essay editing has become such an unavoidable part of the application process, and such a vital source of employment for recent Ivy League grads, that it’s probably here to stay. “It’s like steroid use,” says the editor for the Writing Center. “You can’t compete unless you use it.”