By Bess Kargman
Sunday, January 15, 2006
College admissions officers around the country will be reading my application essays this month, essays in which I describe personal aspirations, academic goals -- even, in one case, a budding passion for the sitar. What they won't know is that I actually graduated from college more than a year ago, and that the names attached to these essays are those of my duplicitous clients.
Until recently, I worked as a freelance editor for a college application consulting firm. A friend had told me that online essay editing provided her with a flexible schedule and decent earnings, so I thought I'd give it a shot. A quick Google search produced a lengthy list of potential employers. I chose one at random, e-mailed my résumé with a writing sample and was hired as a freelance editor the following day.
Initially, the arrangement seemed ideal. The students who paid my employer $150 to $200 for my services mostly needed proofreading help. The ideas were theirs. Occasionally I would shift a few sentences to reshape a paragraph or introduction, and I would e-mail the essay back with comments and suggestions.
I enjoyed working with these kids because it was evident how much they needed my help. Most spoke English as a second language or came from less advantaged communities, where experienced proofreading advice from a parent or friend was hard to come by. It was completely ethical; as one admissions officer later told me, everybody should have someone look at their essay before sending it off.
Then my employer suggested that I could earn more money working as a "comprehensive" editor. The pricier and very popular Comprehensive Package, I was told, provided students with a more thorough form of assistance, including the "model essay" option. It sounded like a promotion to me.
My instructions were to call the clients and get a better understanding of their expectations. After a few days of e-mail correspondence, I would churn out the model compositions, which the students were instructed to use for "inspiration" during the process of writing their own. I didn't question why a student (or, rather, a parent) might be willing to pay as much as $399 for a service that provided nothing more than inspiration. I was optimistic that my creativity and enthusiasm would rouse the undiscovered essayist within my clients.
But it soon became apparent that these clients paid more because they needed more from me. Trying to frame their model essays, I had to fish for ideas. When I asked one young man to tell me what exactly made him a unique candidate for college admission, he e-mailed back: "I stand out because I have a lot of outstanding ideas. . . . This is because I am an individual and I have no problem thinking outside the box."
I asked another client, whose first essay dwelt too much on her unhappy youth and trouble with the law, to give me an example of how she had grown and changed. "I passed candy out at a hospital over Halloween," she told me. "Feel free to elaborate."
Several weeks into the process, I found out that my first comprehensive client had in fact included my essay with his application -- verbatim. (I asked him about it after discovering that the submission deadline for his top college choice was less than an hour after he received my "model.")
I wasn't helping these kids, I was faking it for them.
I confronted my supervisor: How could the company offer a service that was so easily abused? She said unapologetically that the firm's practices and intentions were legitimate. I was taken aback by this blatant indifference. Actually, the company's only real response was to stop sending me any clients altogether. After all, they have a whole slew of college graduates willing to do the kind of bogus work I've decided to turn down.
This form of organized, for-profit cheating was unfamiliar to me, so I decided to look into how pervasive it might be. Of the 30 online editing companies I checked, four list the mock or model essay as a service. A handful of others offer varying degrees of application assistance. The least impressive but most affordable allow students to scan thousands of sample essays from a database, arranged by category, for a mere $20 a month.
At the other end of the spectrum is the fully commissioned piece written on a student's behalf -- of course, always for "inspiration." They call it the "authentic" essay. The hypocrisy isn't subtle. On the Web site of one such service, which also offers term-paper writing, is a blinking banner proclaiming: "Worry about plagiarism? Aaaaaaaaa! We write only original papers!"
I should point out that, as far as I have been able to determine, many of these companies are legitimate. They do not offer "model essays," just proofreading and light editing. Maybe I just picked one of the bad apples. But any company that offers something like the Comprehensive Package and then turns a blind eye to the possibility of its misuse inevitably facilitates cheating.
The Internet has made it possible to cheat with unprecedented ease, speed and sophistication. "Cheating is nothing new," one college admissions officer told me, "but organized cheating in the college application process is a growing problem." Like all the admissions officers I spoke to, he was aware that, as schools become more selective and applicants come under increased pressure, there's an obvious market for companies that, however unethically, will sell students a competitive edge.
Does this kind of deception get caught? The college officials I talked to said they try to "connect the dots," comparing an applicant's essay quality with his or her grades, standardized test scores and recommendations, scrutinizing a little harder when a kid whose essay reads like Thoreau barely passed creative writing.
If the dots don't connect, I was told, the school might investigate further. More likely, it will just "drop the envelope." In other words, the punishment for getting caught is a rejected application.
Having braved the application process myself six years ago, I fully sympathize with how stressful it is. But there's a significant distinction between hiring a professional editor and buying an unethical product.
Students who believe they are ready to attend college should not be searching for this form of application assistance. My clients thought they were gaining something by hiring my professional services. But in the process they were losing something far more important: an opportunity to define their own authentic voices.
Bess Kargman, a 2004 graduate of Amherst College, lives and works in New York City.