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The Chronicle of Higher Education
February 6, 2002

Online Editors Scrutinize Admissions Essays of the Skittish--for a Fee
by Michael Arnone

To the consternation of admissions officials, many college and graduate-school applicants are now hiring online editors to go over their application essays. The editing companies cater to applicants skittish about their writing ability, ambitious to get into the institution of their choice, or just looking for a second opinion.

Companies large and small are hawking their virtual red pencils to applicants seeking entry or a return to academe. Not surprisingly, these companies -- with names such as IvyEssays, EssayEdge, and Accepted.com -- emphasize that the personal essay is a crucial part of the application. Many of them advertise that they can improve an applicant's chances of getting into a particular college by helping craft the essay.

Some sites edit all kinds of applications, while other focus on a few or even just one type of degree. For example, Clear Admit works exclusively to get applicants accepted into master-of-business-administration programs. Some of the companies help on the essays only, while others guide customers through the entire application process, so that they end up with an integrated package.

Prices vary widely among companies -- EssayEdge's most popular essay-editing service costs $60, while Sanford Kreisberg, founder of the Cambridge Essay Service, offers a complete application package for a flat $1,800 rate. The philosophy of "You get what you pay for" -- and the income of the applicant -- determines which company applicants pick.

College admission officials and experts, though, are worrying more and more that people who use these services seek an unfair advantage in the application process to get a benefit that may not exist. Colleges expect applicants to submit their own work without undue outside assistance, says Mark Cannon, deputy executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Assistance with grammar, for instance, is acceptable, he says, but applicants shouldn't let anyone else develop ideas or write any portion of their essays for them.

How much help applicants should -- and do -- receive has been a growing question for admissions officials for years, Mr. Cannon says. The buzz among those making admissions decisions is that the increasing use of computers and the Internet has fueled the controversy, he says.

"The name of the game in the admissions process is fairness," says Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Online-editing companies, he says, further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. "They allow less-accomplished but well-off students to improve their applications," Mr. Nassirian says.

Admissions professionals are also concerned that the companies warp applicants' expectations of what they must do to get into and pay for college. Robin G. Mamlet, director of admissions and financial aid at Stanford University, says: "I am concerned about the message that students must surely absorb: that who they are is not enough, that they must be packaged and presented in order to pass muster. Nothing could be further from the case."

It's not even clear whether such packaging and presentation of admissions essays really works. Students consistently overestimate the importance of the admissions essay, says Sarah Meyers McGinty, a university supervisor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied the undergraduate application process. The courses a student takes in high school, the grades received, and scores on standardized tests are more important criteria at all but a few colleges, she says.

"An essay would be a very unstable credential to base an admissions decision on," says Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard University's Harvard College. An essay can help admissions officers understand a student's undergraduate record, she says, but the record itself is a much more important criterion for admission.

"The college essay is rarely critical," says Mr. Kreisberg, of the Cambridge Essay Service. Applicants to graduate schools, though, are older and must explain what they've been doing since they graduated, he says. Getting assistance on essays makes a big difference if the finished essays help the students stand out in admission officers' minds.

Whether or not the essay is the linchpin, the companies argue that they deliver what they promise. Customer testimonials litter their Web sites. EssayEdge states that 94 percent of its customers are admitted to at least one of their favorite colleges and 66 percent get admitted to their first choice.

"You can use all the help you can get when you're unsure about your application," says Mark S. Bartholomew, a second-year law student at Lewis & Clark College. He credits Deone M. Terrio, president and editor-in-chief of EssayAdvice, with getting him into his first-choice law school even though his grades weren't the best. "Grades and tests are set in stone, but you can always improve your writing," Mr. Bartholomew says.

Many customers want to hedge their bets on getting into the most prestigious and selective colleges by going with companies that claim to have close links with Harvard, Stanford, and similar institutions. For example, on many of its Web pages EssayEdge says, "Put Harvard-Educated Editors to Work for You!"

While editing ability is important, an editor's knowledge of the applicant is also crucial, says Mary Carroll Scott, vice president of the College Board and of member relations for Collegeboard.com, which does not offer editing services. "Someone who knows you is usually the best person to help you do your writing," she says.

Applicants might be better off seeking free advice from their parents and friends, Ms. McGinty says, adding that hiring a company to help write an essay would be no better or worse than having anyone else edit from scratch. If an applicant does hire a company, he or she should choose one that takes the time to get to know its customers.

Some small companies do spend a good deal of time working with applicants and get a chance to know them. Mr. Kreisberg says he works intensively with his customers for several weeks, doing four or five drafts each of up to seven essays. Ms. Terrio, of EssayAdvice, says she spends hours on the phone and on e-mail learning about her customers.

Other companies offer less personalized service. EssayEdge, one of the larger companies, has 175 to 200 editors and promises turnaround times of 24 or 48 hours, depending on the package bought. Customers get a one- to two-page critique of their essay plus an edited copy.

Most companies make a point of saying on their Web sites that they help their customers write the essays, rather than writing the essays for them. But some offer to sell customers purportedly successful essays as references, and some of those, such as IvyEssays, warn that they will help prosecute people who plagiarize that material.

Plagiarism is hard to spot, but admissions officials usually can recognize it as something that doesn't ring true with the rest of the application, or as something they've read before, says Ms. Lewis, of Harvard. She and her peers say that they encounter a handful of plagiarized essays each year and deal with each case individually. The expectation, though, is that applicants will do their own work. "We do operate on trust," she says.

 
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