Preparing for College

The Ethics of Essays

One of the things I like best about admissions counseling is working with applicants on their essays. I think most high school seniors are capable of writing at least an "honest" statement that presents some insights into the writer. I've answered more than a few reporters' questions about the kinds of problems I see in today's schools. My answer is usually always the same. The biggest shortcoming I see among high school seniors who are applying to college is their inability to conjure a convincing argument in writing. In other words, they can't gather their intellectual and writing-skill forces sufficiently to articulate a clear thesis and then defend it. That's a long way to simply say, "They don't write so well" (or as some seniors would say, "They don't write so good.").

This unfortunate reality has spawned the rise of some interesting, if not shady, cottage "essay help" industries that cater to the intellectually lazy and the expressive-language challenged. One such type of enterprise is the essays-for-sale crowd. The phrase "essays for sale" reminds me of "love for sale." In a sense, selling previously written essays to college applicants (or any other kind of applicant) conjures images of dark street corners, lamp posts, and sultry come-ons. It's a kind of prostitution.

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting article by Scott Anderson about this very issue. See if you agree with Scott, as I do.

Honesty on Application Essays

My morning Google alert for "college admission" recently brought me the following story from The Cornell Daily Sun: "New Website Buys Students' Admissions Essays." Understandably, Cornell undergraduates would be uniquely interested in this development because they, along with their peers at the seven other Ivies, MIT, and Stanford, are the only students who have written essays worthy of purchase: $15.00 for single essays, $7.50 a pop for bulk orders, $20.00 for the complete works of a single author.

While this particular website might be new, the idea is hardly innovative. That there are entrepreneurs willing to traffic in essays is no secret to anyone who evaluates admission applications for a living. And if the evidence and anecdotes of déjà vu experienced by admission officers are any indication, such sites probably do a brisk business. In that sense, the public premiere of a new outfit would border on prosaic if it weren't for the fervent and opposing arguments that inevitably follow:

"Access to essays levels the playing field and helps students from schools with lackluster college counseling programs compete in today's take-no-prisoners admission wars!"

"The sale of essays promotes plagiarism and diminishes the capacity of students to think for themselves!"

If the first claim is misguided (and conventional wisdom among admission professionals suggests that it is), the second one is incomplete. Yes, plagiarism is a nasty potential byproduct of these businesses. And reliance on samples of other people's work to create one's own can certainly constrain rather than inspire. But there's also an important practical point that usually gets overlooked:

There's no guarantee that these essays are any good. And I speak from unfortunate experience.

A few years ago, I stumbled across a copy of my long-forgotten application to the University of Virginia (not an Ivy, I realize — but for a kid from New Jersey in the late 80s, not exactly a gimme, either). The visual appearance was delightfully retro: name and address manually typed into too-small spaces, short answers generated on a dot matrix printer and carefully taped onto the page.

But the writing itself was wretched. The grammar and mechanics were fine. The problem was the content. As seen through the eyes of my 30-something self after a decade of college admissions experience, my responses were less than compelling — and that's being charitable. In describing the activity that meant the most to me, I drew a grand analogy between my small role in the marching band and an individual light bulb in Times Square. I went on to use my main essay to extol the virtues of procrastination. That's right: given the opportunity to tell the UVA admissions staff something about myself, I chose to let them know that I liked to put things off until the last minute. I even concluded with a brief poem on the topic. It was 17-year old male brilliance.

Fortunately for me, Virginia's longtime (and dearly missed) dean of admissions Jack Blackburn saw my application for what it was: the best effort of an uncoached, first-generation applicant who had done all he could in a high school where only half the graduates went on to four-year colleges. When I received Dean Blackburn's invitation to join the university's first-year class, what I could not see was the unwritten acknowledgment hidden between the lines of his gracious welcome: I was admitted in spite of my writing, not because of it.

In the wintry depths of the application reading season, there is nothing that invigorates an admission counselor more that coming across an essay so well done that she is compelled to walk into a colleague's office and say, "You have to read this." But as someone who once worked in one of those ivy-clad admission offices, I have to confess: that scene does not play out very often.

Unfortunately, the implication of services that hawk other people's writing is that it does. The authors of these essays may have ultimately been admitted to an uber-selective institution, but as the young statisticians among them would confidently tell you, correlation does not imply causation. Essays play an important role in a student's application, but they rarely seal the deal in the way that essay vendors imply. (And, fortunately for me, they seldom torpedo the whole enterprise, either.) The far more common — and, in some ways, comforting — reality when it comes to college essays is that most students generally do an O.K. job. The question is whether "O.K." is worth 20 bucks.

The rational answer is "probably not." But how reasonable is it to expect a rational response from a teenager who perceives the undergraduate admission process not as a thoughtful exercise in self-assessment and communication but as some great cosmic crapshoot? I don't mean to let the kids off the hook. Applying to college comes with distinct responsibilities, and chief among them is portraying oneself accurately and honestly. But those of us who orchestrate the transition from high school to college need to find a better way to help students understand the system, not game it.

Maybe it's time for colleges to tackle the issue head-on with their prospective and current students. Admission counselors could devote a few minutes of their information sessions to a conversation not about essays but about essay trafficking. (If it evolves into a thoughtful discussion of academic integrity, all the better.) Student leaders on the campuses targeted by essay vendors could launch "not for sale" campaigns among their peers. Deans of admission might even consider purchasing some of these "no-fail" essays with the goal of publicly deconstructing them for the perfectly acceptable but unremarkable documents many of them are bound to be. Stripped of their pretense and mystique, these essays would become effective tools for teaching applicants a valuable lesson about selective college admissions: that elusive fat envelope contains an offer of admission, not a conferral of perfection.


I've written extensively about admission essays on the College Confidential Web site. My experience over the decades in working with essay writers has shown me that just about everyone has at least some potential to be an effective writer. You don't have to buy work from someone else to get your point across. So, play it safe. Stay away from those dimly lit street corners and crank up your brain in the safety of your own room.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.