The former lawyer is a college admissions coach, someone other parents hire to walk their teens through the sometimes confounding process of getting into the school of their dreams.
Essay writing is just a part of that application puzzle, but it’s become an increasingly big one for college coaches such as O’Connell, a growing breed of professionals who get paid by parents to beseech their teenagers to dig just a little bit deeper to set themselves apart from their peers.
Just 500 to 700 words long, the admissions essay is make-it-or-break-it for your average high school senior. They have to be unique but poignant, smart but not smart-alecky. Kids have to sell themselves without sounding selfish or arrogant. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of other kids are doing the same exact thing at the same exact time, all trying to stand out.
“Not every college or university has the chance to meet every applicant,” says Stephanie S. Espina, director of freshman admissions at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. “The essay is an opportunity to get to know the student on a more personal level . . . a way for a student to convey their interests, passions, reflections or future goals.”
But college isn’t just about kids’ goals anymore. Parents are involved, and in some ways that’s a good thing. A joint study by researchers from UCLA and the American Academy of Pediatrics that was published in the journal Pediatrics in 2015 shows a direct link between a parent’s expectation that a child will attend college and the child’s academic success in primary and secondary school.
But parental expectation is like the mythical hydra when it comes to college admissions. Where one head may be silenced with a glowing recommendation letter from a basketball coach or band director, another is already popping up to shout, “But what about that essay!?”
“Parents think there has to be a secret handshake to get into college,” says Jim Jump, academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond and a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. He blames essay obsession on an obsession with prestige. Most kids may be able to get into their local community college, and if they have the grades and a decent set of extracurriculars, they’ll probably make the cut at a state school.
“Where the essay really counts is if you’re a bubble candidate, where your grades are just so-so, and at very highly selective schools,” Jump says.
Like counselors at other high schools throughout the country, Jump has seen a spike in the number of parents turning to paid coaches for that little extra help.
For parents who want to go even further, type “college essay” into Fiverr — an online marketplace to find freelancers to do just about anything for you — and dozens of responses pop up, offers ranging from ‘I will edit your college essay” to the more carefully worded “I will perfectly handle your college essay.” Other sites are less cagey, blatantly offering to sell you an admissions essay for less than $30.
“I think that is a terrible trend and a risky trend,” O’Connell says of buying your kid an entire essay. This may seem obvious, but there is clearly a market for it. “They’re going to write something completely generic. They’re not going to write what’s really in your heart.”
Not to mention the ethical issues that come with an essay that’s purchased outright. Paying for something and representing it as your child’s subverts the admissions process as a whole, giving kids an unfair advantage, says Carrie James, an ethicist with the Good Project at Harvard University. And of course there’s the message it sends to your child — that you can buy their way into college (and who knows what after) and that Mom and Dad will take care of the tough stuff in life.
“The longer-term ethical implications are important to consider as well,” James says. “What kinds of future workers and citizens are we nurturing through such practices?”
Most college coaches draw a very strict line between advising and “doing it for them.” Their job is to get kids to write the essay themselves, just a better version than they might have drafted alone.
“My counseling training has taught me to ask lots of open-ended questions,” says Ethan Sawyer, who counsels students on essay writing and goes by “the College Essay Guy” online. Instead of asking, “Did your parents’ divorce make you sad?,” for example, he’ll ask, “What was that like?”
“I also teach students basic screenwriting structure, as it’s a pretty efficient way of not only showing them how stories work but also getting them to think visually,” Sawyer says. “Personal statements are short films.”
Sawyer has gotten requests to write the essay outright, but he’s turned them down. Mostly, he sees kids who just need a little help, some prompting to get started or proofreading on the back end. Often those kids are in public schools where the counselors on staff just can’t keep up — not surprising when you consider the average public high school guidance counselor manages a caseload of 476 kids.
The fact that those public school counselors exist at all should give some direction to parents who are unsure whether it’s okay to give — or pay for — essay help. Some 30 percent of public schools employ at least one counselor whose exclusive responsibility is to provide college counseling.
Adelphi’s Espina says admissions officers do expect kids to get some help with their essay, usually from a guidance counselor, an English teacher or a parent, or even from the college.
“Many students lack the access to resources to fully grasp the process itself, including the importance of the college essay,” she says. “It’s quite common for [admissions] counselors or directors to provide free lectures-presentations on the college essay at local high schools or on their own college campuses.”
And if kids just seems out of their depths, O’Connell has this advice: “I tell kids if you’re really, really struggling, you’re not telling the right story.”
Sometimes they just need to be sent back to the drawing board.
Jeanne Sager is a writer and editor based in Callicoon Center, N.Y. Find her on Twitter @JeanneSager.