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A week ago, the sting operation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues exposed a long list of well-heeled and well-known parents who rigged the college-admissions process, to some extent by paying proctors and ringers to take or correct tests for his or her kids. Not long after news associated with the scheme broke, critics rushed to indicate that celebrity parents like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman didn’t need to break the law to game the system.
For the ultra-rich, big contributions could easily get their name on a science building and their offspring a spot at a top-tier school—an option California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently called “legal bribery.” Even the moderately wealthy can grease the admissions process with extensive SAT tutoring or, more problematically, college application essay editing.
A 500-word essay submitted through the Common Application, about some foible or lesson, which aims to give readers a better sense of the student than, say, a standardized test score in the admissions process, there’s a high premium on the personal statement. More than one university and advising blog rank the essay among the “most important” aspects of the process; one consultant writing in The New York Times described it as “the purest part of the application.”
But while test scores are completed by the student alone—barring bribed proctors, that is—any number of people can modify an essay before submission, opening it up to exploitation and less-than-pure tactics at the hands of helicopter parents or expensive college-prep counselors who focus on the one percent.
In interviews using the Daily Beast, eight college application tutors shed light in the economy of editing, altering, and, in some instances, outright rewriting personal statements. The essay editors, who decided to speak on the condition of anonymity since many still operate in their field, painted the portrait of a market rife with ethical hazards, where the relative line between helping and cheating can be tough to draw.
The staff who spoke to your Daily Beast often struggled to obtain companies with similar methods to essay writing. For many, tutors would early skype with students on in the application process to brainstorm ideas. (“I would say there were lots of cases of hammering kids with potential ideas,” one tutor said. “Like, ‘That’s a idea that is terrible an essay, why don’t you try this instead?’”) Then, the student would write a draft, and bounce back edits due to their tutor, who would grade it based on a standardized rubric, which included categories like spelling, sentence structure, style, or whether it was “bullshit-free.”
Most made between $30 and $100 per hour, or around $1,000 for helping a student through the entire application process, in some instances taking care of as many as 18 essays at any given time for various schools. Two tutors who struggled to obtain the same company said they got a bonus if clients were accepted at their target universities.
One consultant, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate, told The Daily Beast that, during his senior year in college, he began working as an essay editor for a company that hires Ivy Leaguers to tutor applicants on a range of subjects. As he took the work in September 2017, the business was still young and fairly informal. Managers would send him essays via email, as well as the tutor would revise and return them, with anywhere between a 24-hour and two-week turnaround. But right from the start, the consultant explained, his managers were “pretty explicit” that the job entailed less editing than rewriting.
“When it’s done, it requires to be great enough for the student to attend that school, whether this means lying, making things up on behalf regarding the student, or basically just changing anything so that it could be acceptable,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve edited anywhere from 200 to 225 essays. So, probably like 150 students total. I would personally say about 50 percent were entirely rewritten.”
The tutor said, a student submitted an essay on hip-hop, which named his three or four favorite rappers, but lacked a clear narrative in one particularly egregious instance. The tutor said he rewrote the essay to tell the storyline associated with student moving to America, struggling for connecting with an stepfamily that is american but eventually finding a link through rap. “I rewrote the essay so that it said. you understand, he found that through his stepbrother he could connect through rap music and achieving a stepbrother teach him about rap music, and I also talked about any of it thing that is loving-relation. I don’t know if that was true. He just said he liked rap music.”
Over time, the tutor said, his company shifted its work model. In the place of sending him random, anonymous essays, the managers started to assign him students to oversee during the college application cycle that is entire. “They thought it looked better,” the tutor said. “So if I have some student, ‘Abby Whatever,’ I would write all 18 of her essays so that it would look like it absolutely was all one voice. I experienced this past year 40 students in the fall, and I also wrote each of their essays for the normal App and anything else.”
Don’t assume all consultant was as explicit about the editing world’s moral ambiguities. One administrator emphasized that his company’s policies were firmly anti-cheating. He conceded, however, that the rules are not always followed: “Bottom line is: it requires more hours for a worker to stay with a student which help them figure things out than it does to just do it for themselves. We had problems in past times with people corners that are cutting. We’ve also had problems in the past with students asking for corners to be cut.”
Another consultant who worked for the same company and later became the assistant director of U.S. operations told The Daily Beast that while rewriting had not been overtly encouraged, it had been also not strictly prohibited.
“The precise terms were: I happened to be getting paid a lump sum payment in exchange for helping this student with this specific Common App essay and supplement essays at a few universities. I became given a rubric of qualities when it comes to essay, and I also was told that the essay needed to score a certain point at that rubric,” he said. “It was never clear that anything legal was at our way, we were just told to help make essays—we were told and now we told tutors—to make the essays meet a quality that is certain and, you realize, we didn’t ask way too many questions about who wrote what.”
Most of the tutors told The Daily Beast that their customers were often international students, seeking suggestions about how to break into the American university system. A few of the foreign students, four for the eight tutors told The Daily Beast, ranged within their English ability and required significant rewriting. One consultant, a freelancer who stumbled into tutoring into the fall of 2017 after a classmate needed anyone to take over his clients, recounted the story of a female applicant with little-to-no English skills.
“Her parents had me are available in and look at all her college essays. The form they were delivered to me in was essentially unreadable. I mean there were the bare workings of a narrative here—even the grasp on English is tenuous,” he said. “I believe that, you know, to be able to read and write in English could be sort of a prerequisite for an university that is american. However these parents really don’t worry about that at all. They’re likely to pay whoever to help make the essays appear to be whatever to have their kids into school.”
The tutor continued to advise this client, doing “numerous, numerous edits with this essay that is girl’s until she was later accepted at Columbia University. But not long for help with her English courses after she matriculated, the tutor said she reached back out to him. “She does not know how to write essays, and she’s struggling in class,” he told The Daily Beast. “I do the help that i could, but I say to your parents, ‘You know, you would not prepare her with this. You add her in this position’. Because essay writers obviously, the relevant skills required to be at Columbia—she doesn’t have those skills.”
The Daily Beast reached out to numerous college planning and tutoring programs plus the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, but none taken care of immediately requests to discuss their policies on editing versus rewriting.
The American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers also declined comment, and top universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Brown failed to respond or declined touch upon how they guard against essays being written by counselors or tutors. Stanford said in a statement which they “have no policy that is specific reference to the essay part of the application.”