TCS Daily

Whose Personal Essay?

By Joanne Jacobs - March 1, 2004 12:00 AM

The turning point in Erica's life -- or so she told the college of her choice -- was her first day in school in California. She was 11 years old. She spoke no English. She was terrified.

Her first draft did a great job of describing her fear, but it didn't explain how she'd made the transition from that shaking, silent girl to the A student she became.

I've been helping Mexican-American students at Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter school that's graduating its first class this year. Erica is eager for help, which I suspect is one of the secrets of her success. I suggested she shorten the fear section and provide more specifics about her first steps to competence. I urged her to use short sentences at the start to emphasize her limited English, building to more complex sentences at the end. I fixed the little errors in English usage and spelling. I cut the redundancies.

Was I doing too much? After all, I won't be there to help her write college papers. She needs to go to a college where she can meet expectations.

In the eternal search for equity, college admissions officers are looking more closely at students' writing. Grades are so inflated as to be nearly worthless. Nearly half of college freshmen claim an A average, up from 18 percent in 1968, according to the American Freshman Survey conducted by UCLA.

Examining students' transcripts helps, but it's not perfect: High schools that inflate grades also inflate course descriptions, slapping "honors" and "Advanced Placement" labels on not-very-advanced classes.

The SATs and ACTs make it possible to tell real A students from the self-esteemed crowd. But colleges are afraid to lean heavily on tests that produce much higher scores for Asian and white students than for blacks and Hispanics. That's especially true now that affluent students are likely to take test-prep courses or tutoring, getting a small edge in exchange for a hefty expenditure. (My daughter was an SAT tutor. She thought most of her clients' parents were wasting their money.)

Essays are supposed to be the equalizer. Applicants can demonstrate their writing skills, and disadvantaged students can explain why they're good candidates.

But essays also favor students from affluent, educated families. They're more likely to get coaching on essay writing from their English teachers and from their parents.

And now an online industry has emerged to help students write college admissions essays. Students can buy college essays online or pay for editing of an original essay. charges $9.95 a page for a 350 word essay "excellently-written -- in which the writer discusses their aspirations and qualifications for applying to college." (It should be "his or her" and I'd go with "well-written" and "for applying to college" is unnecessary and grammatically dubious. But never mind.)

This is good old-fashioned cheating.

By contrast, EssayEdge starts with the customer's essay, presumably with individual aspirations and qualifications, and charges $39.95 and up to correct "grammatical and mechanical errors," $79.95 and up for basic editing, $149.95 for comprehensive editing of two rough drafts. The editors are "Harvard-educated," allegedly. The deluxe service, which includes helping select a topic and outline the essay, starts at $299.95.

There's also a service to improve letters of recommendation, presumably for those who are writing their own.

With Honors ups the ante. Its founders are Harvard honors graduates, not just mere Harvard grads. (How valuable is that Harvard degree if the best job you can get is rewriting application essays?) A short essay costs $37.50; 301 to 800 words runs $100.

In addition to editing services, buys and sells "sample essays." For example, an applicant trying to write about an influential book will pay only $3 for "five essays written about books ranging from Black Like Me to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Accepted to Duke and Harvard." More arcane topics cost a bit more.

The samples are supposed to be "inspiration," not reproduction, and a student who turns in the sample essay runs a risk it will be recognized. On the other hand, there's enormous turnover in admissions personnel and lots of students write about The Bell Jar. charges $50 to edit a short essay, $200 for one that exceeds 750 words. It pays to write short. Applicants have to write their own first drafts. charges $99 to $159 per essay, with a discount for brevity. Those who need help writing the first draft pay $249 for consultation and editing; mere proofreading costs $25.

The complete package -- consulting, an outline and editing -- costs $600 at Any subsequent essay is a bargain $450. "Polishing" costs $160 an hour.

Judging by the samples of editing advice, these services do help students improve their essays. But they make it harder to use essays to find out about the applicant. These days, an admissions essay may reflect the students' writing ability -- or the quality of the editing service the student can afford. The ideas may be original -- or borrowed from some earlier applicant.

Some colleges now ask students to submit a paper they've written for a class, with the teacher's grade. It's more likely class work will be the student's work, unpolished by Harvard graduates.

Joanne Jacobs is a frequent TCS contributor. She last wrote for TCS about the use of technology in schools.


TCS Daily Archives