Dave, I’ve got a bit of a dilemma. My son is applying for college and his writing skills aren’t, well, that great. I’m a writer and I’m finding it quite difficult not to get involved with his admission essay! What’s your opinion on this? Do you think I should help him, or let him do the best he can and hope for the best?
What a fascinating question! College admission essays have become quite a bit more important in the last 10-15 years as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) has seen somewhat of a kickback from the admissions offices as being less relevant. But there’s a wrinkle here too, because the new revised SAT now includes essay questions, so it’s quite likely the case that a college admissions reviewer could compare an admissions essay with the written portion of the new SAT test, detect any dramatically improved writing, and potentially reject it as an admissions essay written by a professional service (or parent) rather than the student.
And those professional services have quite a lot of chutzpah too, if I may use that word. Here’s a recent posting from Craigslist, for example:
“Your hard work should be recognized! Our college admission essay website is visited by thousands of students monthly. You will be paid for the opportunity to publish your college admission essay or personal statement on our website and you will also have an opportunity to seek a well-paid position as a freelance college admission essay and personal statement editor for us. You will also gain personal satisfaction from the many thank you letters that you will receive from the students whom you have helped. We are greatly looking forward to hearing from you! Please forward your college admission essay and/or personal statement and we will get in touch soon.”
Not dubious enough? Agencies helping students cheat on admissions essays and even school assignments are rampant, disgustingly so. Here’s another listing I bumped into on Craigslist too:
“Leading national provider of academic research and writing assistance is seeking freelance writers to help students with model essays and papers. Please be comfortable with MLA/APA and capable of writing under strict deadlines. Please have a cell phone that you usually answer. Please send 2 writing samples with MLA or APA citations, and a resume if you have one. Writers are compensated well. The amount depends on the complexity of the project.”
When I went to college (and I have three degrees) I wrote my own essays, did my own homework, and did well – or poorly – in class based on my own efforts and work. Admissions essays should be in the same category: if you want to teach your son a valuable lesson about how to get ahead, how to be an upstanding citizen and how to be proud of his own accomplishments, you need to let him work independently.
And most assuredly, do not even consider for a minute having a third party company help with admissions essays. That’s just morally repugnant to me, and if cheating makes the difference between acceptance and rejection from a particular college, then that’s probably not the college that’s most appropriate for your son anyway.
Now, having said all of that, I would certainly encourage you to ensure that he spends sufficient time on the essay to do his best possible work. Suggesting that he write it, print it, and read it after a few days off is just good parenting, and perhaps I’d go as far as to say showing him how to work with a spell checking program and grammar checking tool could help him improve his prose too.
But this is a basic parenting question, really: do you want to model that cheating and circumventing the system is acceptable as long as you get the desired outcome (which, of course, you might well not get anyway), or do you want to show him that you trust him and have confidence in his innate abilities?
My friend Barbara Feldman also just wrote about this very topic of helping your children with admissions essays on her Surfnetkids Journal, an article worth reading for a different perspective on this scenario: College Application Essays. One point she makes that I’m in complete agreement with: “A college essay that differs dramatically in style/voice from the one on the SAT is going to look out of place. Keep this in mind before hiring an editing service, or hacking away at it yourself.”
I hope that my answer is informative and thought-provoking. Good luck with whatever path you take, and good luck to your son on his college admission.