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January 10, 2002.

Admissions Essays Made Easy--But at a Price
by Paul Glader.

Hoping to major in marine biology at a top university, a wealthy Massachusetts girl laced her application essay with smiley faces and wrote that she once visited an aquarium, "sort of liked fish" and thought the movie "'Free Willy' was so cool."

Sanford Kreisberg, the founder of Cambridge Essay Service, wasn't amused. He advised her to research her field more thoroughly, gave tips on how to write more effectively and told her to "get the smileys out." Otherwise, "it would have been really damaging," he says. "This was just giggly and immature."

Cambridge Essay Service is one of at least a dozen businesses in the U.S. that--for a fee--help students overcome what may be the most daunting part of the college application: the personal essay. With names like EssayAdvice.com, MyEssay.com, Accepted.com, IvyEssays.com and EssayEdge.com, the services claim to help students break into prestigious schools.

Despite the cost--between $20 and $400 an essay, depending on the length, and up to $3,000 per M.B.A. application--these are boom times for online essay companies. And they're just part of the growing college-preparation market. Some estimate the total market for test prepping, essay editing and application consulting could be as high as $1 billion a year. And it's only going to get bigger. In 1998, 14.5 million students were enrolled in U.S. colleges, but enrollment is expected to reach 17.5 million by 2010.

Essay coaching isn't done just by e-mail, either. New York-based Kaplan Inc., a pioneer in the business of college-admission prepping, helps students buff up essays and applications for a fee ranging from $99 to $3,000. Trent Anderson, a vice president at the Washington Post Co. unit, says Kaplan's essay-assistance business has grown 20% annually in each of the past five years.

"The reason you hire an editor is the same reason you don't teach your own child to drive. It is just done better with a third party," says Cambridge Essay's Mr. Kreisberg, 55 years old, who taught a course on writing personal essays to Harvard College freshmen from 1981 to 1989.

What a service can do best is "stop the applicant from saying something damaging or politically incorrect," Mr. Kresiberg says. He advises students to stay away from "outward bound" or "climbing the mountain" essays. He says an essay can go back and forth 30 times before he and the client are satisfied.

Many essay editors claim experience in academia or insider knowledge of how Ivy League institutions work. Geoff Cook, 23, founded EssayEdge.com as a side job while a student at Harvard. He says he made $10,000 his first year, editing essays by himself. Today, Mr. Cook employs 150 mostly part-time editors who read 5,000 essays a month in peak season, and he plans to hire 30 more. He claims a 99% customer satisfaction rate and says 90% of the clients who answer his e-mail surveys get into their top-three school choices.

Not surprisingly, admissions officers aren't keen on outside editing and say such help can violate a school's honor code. Many applicants are asked to sign a statement saying they wrote their admission essay themselves. But admissions officers say it is often hard to tell who has been prepped and who hasn't.

One clue is if the student appears to be "overpackaged," submitting essays that are just too perfect, says Robin Mamlet, dean of admissions at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., which admits only about 1,600 of 20,000 applicants each year.

Carol Lunkenheimer, dean of admissions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., says eyebrows go up when we see "a really polished essay and we are looking at C's in English and low verbal scores. If it doesn't match, we become a little suspicious."

Others say red flags go up when a foreign student's application has a well-written essay but poor scores on the English proficiency test.

Assistant admissions director Kathryn Coffman of Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, who helps to read the more than 2,000 yearly applications, recalls essays that still have the line "Enter School Name Here" in them.

Plagiarism is also an issue here. At least one essay editing service buys and sells college essays for rates between $35 and $80. Reputedly successful essays for M.B.A. programs at such schools as Stanford, Harvard and Northwestern fetch the highest prices.

Although there is software that can be used to track down copycats, few admissions staffs resort to such measures. Still, "we often catch essays we see over and over again," says Michele Rogers, admissions dean at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. "It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it."

The prep companies say some customers use online editing services to save time. A San Francisco-area computing engineer named Jim says he paid Accepted.com $2,500 to help refine his statements for several top M.B.A. programs. "If you can afford it, it's good," he says. "Time is money."

Michelle Bryant, 25, a business analyst at West Publishing in Minneapolis, wanted to get an M.B.A. She says she has an analytical mind but finds writing a chore. So she paid $75 to Deone Terrio, a Cornell Ph.D. who owns EssayAdvice.com, to help her develop a personal statement.

Ms. Bryant eventually chose an online M.B.A. program, Capella University, over a few large state universities and believes the essay editing helped her brainstorm, focus and be creative, sparing her hours of misery.

A bad economy makes more people head for an M.B.A., says Graham Richmond, 28, a founder of ClearAdmit.com. He evaluated applications for the admissions office at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania while a student there. Since his Philadelphia-based company was launched this past fall, he and his business partner have been spending 60 hours a week reading essays, often exchanging e-mails with applicants on evenings and weekends.

Despite the criticisms of some admissions directors, he defends the practice of helping students find an edge, for a fee. After all, he says, "any writer needs feedback."

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