For $79.95, a college applicant can hire an online editor to polish his personal essay. With Honors promises the services of a Harvard honors grad. It feels like cheating, writes Jay Mathews of the Washington Post. Colleges ask for essays to judge applicants’ writing skills — not to evaluate the ability of their editor-for-hire. Or writer-for-hire. Still, Mathews concedes, not every kid has a parent who can help them craft a coherent essay.
The colleges will find it more difficult to gauge writing skill based on essays if these services proliferate, but they have other ways of vetting their applicants. Some schools have begun to require sample class essays, graded by a teacher. In any case, these sorting games only affect about 10 percent of students, the ones applying to selective schools.
Here’s an applicant’s original essay: It’s awkward, wordy and bland. The suggestions for improvement are sensible, though the first paragraph still needs a lot of work. This kid is applying to Harvard?
This afternoon, I’ll be helping two girls with their college essays. Both are A students at the charter school I’m writing a book about. Both are Mexican-Americans from immigrant families. Last week, I saw Erika’s AP English paper comparing Antigone to her sister Ismene. Without any help, she writes better than the Harvard applicant who used With Honors.
When I was applying to college, my parents wanted me to rewrite my essay for Stanford, which was about the quality I value most: a sense of humor. They thought it was too light. I was sick and tired of churning out college essays. I sent it in as is. I got a personal letter back from the dean of admissions, who said how much he’d enjoyed my essay, and that he looked forward to seeing me at Stanford. I took that as a positive sign. He mentioned my essay in his speech at orientation too. He said that after reading hundreds of deadly serious essays it was a relief to read one with a sense of humor.
Nowadays, or so I hear, college essays are a pity party. Comfortably middle-class students dredge up obscure disadvantages; aspirants grieve for a dead grandparent or goldfish. The unchallenged are challenged to come up with life challenges they’ve overcome. Two weeks ago, I was helping a girl who’s so disadvantaged her life borders on parody. She’s way too busy to feel sorry for herself. I had to tell her to put the details of her life into her essay.