I’m a college essay coach. I’d like to say I’m shocked by the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. But the truth is, I’m not all that surprised, just convinced that there’s much more skulduggery to uncover. Why? Because even though I consider myself a moral practitioner of the high art of college essay coaching, I’m also a pragmatist — and my job requires that I walk the fine line between helping and cheating. Here’s why.
The college essay is supposedly a personal statement from the student to the college describing something meaningful about their life. The problem is that for most public high school students, their college essay is also their first personal essay. They’ve spent three years strictly focused on expository writing, and now, when faced with a new challenge, they have to knock it out of the park on their first try. When students come to me for help, they often stare in disbelief when I tell them they will be writing a story about themselves, in the first person. Many don’t believe me. Several use third person for at least one draft.
Add to this deficit the fact that most teens are anxious, self-conscious and reluctant to examine their inner lives, much less their personal failures (an essential ingredient in most common application essays), and you have a recipe for disaster — and a nearly perfect setup for cheating.
For a typical student, I spend four to six hours crafting a single essay, and we might work on five or six essays together. That’s well over a thousand dollars. For most of the first session, we’re brainstorming ideas. Then comes the outline — that I supply. Their draft. My edits. Their draft again. Sometimes there are in-person sessions or phone interviews that feel like therapy, or at least its close cousin, a gentle probing of the soft tissue of the student’s psyche to help pull out meaningful nuggets about which to write.
This process typically goes on for weeks, sometimes months. Some teenagers are surprisingly adept at analyzing significant life experiences and articulating deep emotions — but most are not. Some teenagers with whom I work can tell me how they think or feel, but they have no words for those thoughts or feelings when they’re alone with a blank screen. To help combat this particular kind of writer’s block, I sometimes interrupt a student when they’re talking through an experience and say, “Write that down.” Sometimes I write it down for them.
Even walking this careful road — pushing students to find their own voice and go at their own pace — I frequently worry that I’m giving kids too much help. I meet regularly with another college essay coach in my town to trade confidential stories, share concerns, come up with realistic solutions. And yet I am faced with constant pressure from the students’ parents to make the essay “better” or to speed up the pace (thereby decreasing the bill).
One parent whose son could not seem to find the emotional core of his essay relayed that they knew someone who had sent a college essay to a parent’s acquaintance who “works on Broadway,” and that it had come back complete after just one round. I got the hint, even though I pretended to ignore the dig. Another client insisted I finish eight supplemental essays with her child in just three weeks — despite knowing that the child struggled mightily to finish the first essay in double that time. In both cases I stuck to my guns and made the kids work, and work hard. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t gently speed things up a bit by supplying the missing insight or a much-needed final phrasing.
None of these parents were bad people, nor did they consider what they were asking me to do as amoral. Rather, like most parents, they felt intense pressure to help their kids get into the best possible universities. And they knew, as I did, as we all do, that most of the other students against whom they were competing were getting similar help — if not more. That there were private guidance counselors who were doing far more than I was, consultants who were altering their students’ words, fabricating insights and generally pumping up their students’ accomplishments.
It’s a rigged system, but it doesn’t have to be this way. For one thing, the colleges could acknowledge how much help these kids are getting with their essays and either eliminate them or substitute them with an optional video essay. If their true goal is to get to know an applicant’s personality and character, why not let students present themselves in the medium that makes sense to them? Most kids will never become writers, and writing a personal essay is a unique art form that isn’t even being taught in most public schools.
Meanwhile, together with other local writers in my town, I’ve been offering free services to students who are part of my high school’s minority achievement club. Many of these new, nonpaying clients are first-generation immigrants with limited resources. Many are average students with modest goals for college. And yet their stories and accomplishments are no less amazing than my high-paying clients aiming for the nation’s top colleges.
One student-athlete wrote about the pain of undergoing surgery for two broken legs without his mother present because she wasn’t able to take the time off work. The stark reality of that experience forced him to question his own academic efforts, and to begin to venture outside his comfort zone of sports. Then there was the African American girl who wrote about her family’s pressure for her to straighten her hair, and the YouTube channel she started to help other girls and women learn how to care for and appreciate their natural beauty.
Not only were these stories moving, original and authentic, but they were accomplished with far less help from me than many of my private students were given. But perhaps most interesting was the fact that most of the students I worked with felt guilty and a little bit embarrassed about getting help. One student insisted that she couldn’t have done it without me, when she quite clearly did just that. It took a lot of explaining on my part to convince the students that many of their peers applying to top colleges were in fact getting much more help than they were.
When compared in this light, is the help that I’m providing my private clients equivalent to cheating? I still don’t think so. But it’s also clear that the college admissions process is in no way a level playing field. Perhaps if there’s one good thing to come out of Operation Varsity Blues, it may be a reevaluation of exactly what we’re asking of our students, and a reminder that under the current system, the best colleges aren’t necessarily attracting the best kids.