Personal essays for hire

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.

About Joanne


  1. Let’s not forget that the essay is a none-too-subtle way to inform the selection committee that you are a member of a favored minority group. See the “My Turn” essay in the October 20, 2003 Newsweek — “Getting Into College, Whatever It Takes,” by May Akabogu-Collins
    (Sorry, I’m unable to provide a link to it.)

  2. My impression, as someone who applied to college within the last ten years, and whose 3 younger siblings have applied even more recently, is that the college essays that lead to acceptances are the dynamically-written, creative, stand-out-from-the-crowd essays. I’m sure some kids write sob-stories and get accepted, but I imagine that’s because they are thoughtful, nuanced accounts, not whining pleas for admission or favoritism based on minority status. I have always heard that if you are going to write an essay in one of the stock categories, it better be durn good.

    Based on essay alone, I would be shocked if Harvard or any other top school accepts that girl.

  3. I don’t remember it being all that hard to get into college. I didn’t apply to Harvard, but I was accepted at a couple of the Seven Sisters, and I’m pretty sure my college essay sucked.

  4. steevil (Dr Weevil's bro Steve) says:

    Applying to UVa from Norfolk, VA, our younger sister’s essay on why she wanted to attend consisted of the word “propinquity.”

    She was accepted and was made an Echols scholar as well.

  5. Ken Summers says:

    This reminds me of the first employee I ever hired. I could not write the inquiry letter she wrote, and I couldn’t begin to explain what made it so good, but when I read it I knew she was very likely to be the one I would hire. She did not disappoint, in interviews or on the job.

  6. “I wanta work here.”

  7. U-M’s new “diversity contribution” or “life disadvantage” question provides an interesting insight here. The director of admissions, Ted Spencer, recently said U-M is looking for someone who is “willing to take a risk” but not “too much of a risk so as to offend someone”. With that kind of doubletalk, what should we expect other than bland, boring pieces of garbage like what we read in the Post in your example.

    (BTW, the exact quote is at my website above)

  8. Joanne, interesting how your comment “Without any help, she writes better than the Harvard applicant who used With Honors” and reports from the folks I know who’ve taught at posh schools and state schools are so at odds with Calico Cat’s comments about students – comments based on attending, not teaching, at schools with different ranks.

  9. How long did this student spend writing and editing that original essay? How badly did she want to get into the college of her choice?

    My two undergrad entrance essays were the best pieces of fiction I ever wrote. Well, not really fiction. But I knew each had to present a gripping tale–so I spent days polishing them until they shined. As a math-first guy, essay time was like a month-long stay at Rikers, but worth it in the end.

  10. PJ/Maryland says:

    Life threw me an even more difficult hurdle during my junior year of high school.

    Apparently it takes a Harvard Honors grad to really mix your metaphors. (BTW, anyone know what “honors” means at Harvard? I got my college degree “with honors” because I wrote a thesis; my school also gave out “cum laude” or “summa cum laude” based on GPA.)

    I thought the edited essay, while much improved, was too stiff, and suspiciously dense for an 18 year old. A sensible applicant should leave a couple of minor grammatical errors in just to show that her parents (or didn’t write it for her…

  11. “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.”

    So let me get this straight. Having your parents help you with your essay isn’t cheating, but having a paid service help you is?

  12. I’m writing my college essays myself; I’ve got one of my English teachers, who’s a friend of mine, looking over them for me, but it’s all down to me. And, PJ, I’m taking minor umbrage at that grammatical errors quip – unless it’s only aimed at those who do have someone else wholly write essays for them.

  13. My sister got into Stanford based primarily on two thingsl placing 4th at the California HS State Track Meet in thehigh jump, twice, and writing an essay where she talked to her cat.

    Innovation, individuality and uniqueness count for a lot. Unfortunately, stick-to-it-tiveness and not getting in over your head count for a lot as well. She dropped out at the end of her second semester. 🙁

  14. About five years ago my roommate at the time was applying for law school. He contacted a counselor at his alma mater (UC Riverside) for advice on essay writing. She also sent him some essays writen by other students she had helped. He was pretty disappointed in the quality. Particualy disappointing to him though was that almost all of the essays contained a boilerplate paragraph that I could only assume was provided by the counselor. I can’t remember the entire paragraph, but I remember that about 8 of the 10 essays had it. It began, “As an African-American[or other ethnic-minority label], I have faced many difficulties in my life…” Amazingly some of the ‘difficulties’ were pretty interesting, but seemed to have nothing to do with the first sentence.
    My roommate (who was half Persian), felt ripped off by the selection his counselor gave him and the conceit that it implied.

  15. Mark Odell says:

    two tone wrote: “Getting Into College, Whatever It Takes,” by May Akabogu-Collins

  16. Richard Brandshaft says:


    I’ve noticed before that you, as a professional writer, give an occasional off hand slap at poor amateur writing.

    I don’t criticize journalist’s computer programming skills. I understand that it’s a lot easier to be successful in life without knowing how to program computers than without knowing how to write. But judging high school students by adult professional standards is a bit harsh. Fortunately, no examples of my high school essays survive. I doubt that I was any better than some examples you quote.

  17. I hate to be the one to break it to y’all, but graduating with honors from Harvard really isn’t all that special. The unlucky alumnus would have to be in the bottom 9% to avoid it…

  18. (Of course, Yale and Princeton aren’t that great in that area either, as you’ll see from the article, with 51% and 44% graduating with honors, respectively. Cornell keeps its honors system purer.)



    Very interesting piece by Joanne Jacobs on college adminssion essays. Part of the piece is about how, for $79.95, an applicant can hire an online editor to polish his essay. Don’t miss the sample essay–by a student supposedly applying to