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How to help a kid write a college admissions essay without cheating

A Stanford University student walks in front of Hoover Tower on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif. | AP photo

One of the more troubling revelations to emerge from the college admissions scandal is the heavy-handed role played by college essay “coaches.”

Fifty people, including the actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have been indicted on multiple criminal charges, from bribing athletics coaches to paying ringers to take SAT exams, in the service of getting the children of wealthy families into our nation’s most elite colleges and universities.

OPINION

But also facing scrutiny are professional essay coaches, hired as script doctors for the autobiographical essays students must include with their college applications.

I have never been employed as a college essay coach. But as a college English teacher, I frequently have been asked to “look over” or give advice on such essays. The request often is made by a friend or relative on behalf of a son or daughter.

Most of the students I have advised were applying to undergraduate school, but several were applying to graduate programs or law school. I have always agreed to help, as a favor, and I have expected no payment — nor has anybody ever offered to pay me.

The essays handed to me generally are poor. Not necessarily poorly written, but poor in the sense that they are forgettable.

College admissions officers read hundreds of these things every year. So an essay that promises from the start to be unoriginal (“My church’s mission trip to Costa Rica”) or insipid and abstract (“My strengths, accomplishments, and future goals”) could sink an applicant, and might not even be read in its entirety.

College admissions personnel often face a prodigious task, given the mountain of applications they must evaluate. So a lousy essay makes their job easier. They can quickly toss that student’s application into the rejection pile.

As a writer, I am willing to help applicants make sure, at the very least, that their essays are read. But as a teacher,  I am willing in fairness to offer only limited assistance, similar to what I might offer my own college English students.

For example, I never tell them what to write about, since generating an essay topic is part of the writing process for which they’re responsible. Instead, by asking leading questions, I get them to free-write about several events in their young lives, until they discover the one that best characterizes the student and human being they have become, and what the college might be interested in seeing.

Secondly, I do not supply edits or revisions. Both, again, are part of the writing process, and doing such for an applicant would be cheating, just as doing so for my students would not improve their writing skills. Instead, I use a colored pen to indicate where there are mistakes, and where examples or details might be needed. How they make the changes must be up to them.

The result is usually an improved personal essay that an admissions officer is likely to read to the end, while rightly assuming the applicant wrote it themselves.

I was surprised, then, to read the confession of a paid personal essay coach, Joanne Serling, in a March 15 op-ed in the Washington Post. The headline was: “My Dilemma as a College Essay Coach: How to Walk the Fine Line Between Helping and Cheating.”

Serling described an industry in which coaches charge between $75 and $1,000 an hour to help students with their essays.

“For a typical student,” she wrote, “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.

“Some [students] can tell me how they think or feel,” she continued, “but have no words for those thoughts or feelings when they’re alone with a blank screen… I sometimes interrupt a student when they’re talking through an experience and say, ‘Write that down.’  Sometimes I write it down for them.”

For Serling to write the student’s outline, and then to actually write portions of the text that may appear in the student’s paper, feels closer to plagiarism than to the kind of legitimate help a teacher or tutor might offer at a university’s writing center.

I sympathize with Serling’s expressions of self-doubt. She admits to walking a fine line between helping and cheating. But I believe she leans to the wrong side of that line, especially given that she is being paid by the students and their families. The arrangement is one of salesperson pleasing a paying customer, not teacher schooling a student.

I also sympathize with the college admissions officers who must read these essays. They must wonder about the authenticity.

Yes, the college admissions process is a scandal. It screams for reform. But so does the college essay coaching industry, which appears to operate with not much more integrity than a term paper mill.

Universities could require that essays be written in the presence of a university proctor. Or they could scrap the personal essay altogether.

Something must be done to eliminate, or at least heavily discourage, what amounts to another form of pay-to-play at America’s most exclusive colleges.

David McGrath, emeritus professor of English at College of DuPage, is the author of THE TERRITORY.  He can be reached at mcgrathd@dupage.edu.

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