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Question: Although I browse College Confidential, I have not much glanced at the Essays section until yesterday, and a question pops up: To what extent are colleges aware that applicants receive so much essay writing help, editing, revising, etc? What do they do if they find out that the college admissions consultant wrote the essay?

You’ve hit a nerve with me. This essay business has gotten way out of hand, and it’s near the top of the (lengthy) list of my admissions-process frustrations. College folks claim that they can usually sniff out essays that are not the student’s original work. But I disagree. Of course it’s true sometimes … particularly now that a growing number of admission officials are requesting the writing-sample portion of the SAT or ACT so that they can compare work that was done in proctored conditions with that done at home–and which may have passed through many drafts (and many hands) before submission.

Among college staff, guidance counselors, and teachers there are two camps. The first includes those who say, “Admission officials should use only the essays that are produced in proctored sessions to be sure that the applicants themselves are the authors.” The other camp, however, maintains that even the best writers deserve a chance to edit and revise and that a short and pressured test administration does not produce the sort of writing sample–or revealing information about the applicant–that the traditional college essay is designed to do.

Personally, while I can see where each argument has its merits, I land in the first contingent. There is not only rampant “cheating” out there–with students paying ringers to compose their essays (or to whitewash their fledgling efforts beyond recognition), but also there is way too much gray area when it comes to what is ethical and what is not.

For instance, I read Acceptance, by Dave Marcus (a book I highly recommend. It shadows one outstanding guidance counselor in Long Island and shows us what the guidance gold standard should be for all our kids.) The seniors at Oyster Bay High School, who were profiled in the Marcus book, took a fall-term elective class called “Essay Writing for College,” which was co-taught by the head of guidance and the AP English teacher. Even if the instructors did not write a single word of the student prose, certainly the advice they provided, their attention to detail, and the time allotted to the task gave Oyster Bay students a huge edge over their counterparts elsewhere who didn’t have access to comparable expertise.

Similarly, many high schools that do not offer a dedicated class like the one at Oyster Bay nonetheless include college essay-writing as part of the English curriculum. Many other schools, of course, do not. College officials will rarely know if an essay has had the benefit of an English teacher’s intervention nor how extensive this intervention might have been.

Personally, I have seen hundreds of essays that I am certain are not the student’s original work … even some pretty lousy essays that reflect their too-many-cooks construction. I’ve also seen some wonderful essays that I’m sure had no adult intrusion and yet might still trip the sensitive seismographs of suspicious admissions evaluators.

Although application forms commonly require students to supply a signature that attests to the originality of all materials, it’s not really clear where one draws the line. For instance, if a parent, teacher, or other advisor tells a student that his or her opening paragraph is a snooze and suggests a snazzier one to replace it, is the work still authentic? I have reviewed countless essays myself over several decades, and yet I continue to struggle to find that fine line between “editing” and “altering.”

If I ruled the world, entire college applications would be done under proctored conditions in a single Saturday-morning session, much as the SAT’s and ACT’s are conducted now. All writing would be authentic (albeit not perfected due to the time constraints). The application would also include a slew of short-answer questions–such as Princeton’s renowned “hodge-podge” queries. (“Your favorite book,” “Your favorite movie,” “Your favorite keepsake or memento,” “Your favorite source of inspiration,” etc.) But in my application utopia, these questions would vary from year to year to help guard against professional tampering. (“Geez, Louise, do you really think any Ivy will admit you if you list The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as your favorite literary work?”)

Now back to your initial question: Most college admission officials claim that they are aware that essay doctoring is out there, but I think they often repudiate just how rampant it is. They fail to take appropriate steps to safeguard against it, and they also fail to set consistent guidelines to define what sort of help is permissible and what isn’t. (Yet even with crystal clear boundaries, there are always those who will blatantly ignore them. For instance, an independent counselor friend of mine recently told me that a current client is irate because she refuses to write his essays. The parents claim that the other private counselors in their purview always author the essays.)

In the vast majority of cases, college officials can only guess that a personal statement is not original. Unless the student has submitted “Self-Reliance” — or perhaps one of the more memorable samples from the countless essay how-to tomes that now abound–chances are that admission committees can’t ever be 100 percent sure that an essay is not the applicant’s own. But if the suspicion level is high, it will certainly work against the student as the yea and nay votes are tallied. If it’s really high, the admission staff may contact the guidance counselor to discuss their concerns.

Like many things in life, the essay-writing debate boils down to a personal-responsibility issue. There are those who won’t play by the rules and those who will–even if they pay a price for doing so. Two years ago, when my own son was competing for the graduation-speaker honor at his elementary school, he had to submit a speech to be adjudicated. I tossed out a very general idea (“Why don’t you mention every student in the class by name and include a memory of each one of them?”) My son told me that, although my suggestion was decent, he could no longer use it because it wasn’t his. “I didn’t tell you what to write,” I explained. “I just gave you a direction to head in.” “Nope,” he insisted. “Can’t do it now.” Then he turned the computer screen from my prying eyes and tackled the task without assistance.

Well, my son got the job anyway, but I realized that afternoon that I might have to steel myself for the day when he sends in all his college essays while I–despite my eons of expertise–get nary a peek. If nothing changes between now and then, his staunch insistence on authenticity might hurt him in the race for space at the most selective schools. But, even so, I have to hope that–for him and for all others like him who know in their hearts what is really their own–the loss of admissions advantage will be supplanted by a lifetime of good karma instead.

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