On “helping” students with college application essays

Many Americans had never heard of college admission consultants before William Rick Singer was accused of cheating to get the kids of wealthy clients into elite universities. It’s in recent years that the business of advising college-bound students has mushroomed, with the number of independent consultants quadrupling since 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported. They help students with college selection, applications, essays, and more.

Don’t high school guidance counselors do that anymore? you wonder. Yes, but with so many students to serve, a guidance counselor’s time with any one student is short. Some families, therefore, hire independent consultants to help their sons and daughters get into the the best colleges and universities.

At an average cost of $200 an hour, the consultants largely serve affluent clients. After retiring as a university publications editor, I toyed with the idea of trying to even the playing field for a few low-income students by volunteering to help with their application essays. In fact, I did volunteer for a year to Chicago Scholars, a mentoring program for Chicagoans who will be first-generation college students, but was disappointed that essay help was only a small part of a mentor’s role. Later I pitched the help-with-essays idea to another, similar organization, which wanted an interview coach instead, and to the Chicago Public Schools, which didn’t respond.

But rather than being frustrated by not being able to act on the idea, I’ve decided it’s just as well. The temptation to rewrite would probably have been too great for me. “Maybe I should give feedback in a written statement instead of working in the essay file,” I said to editor friends with whom I discussed the idea.

Writing in the Washington Post, college essay coach Joanne Serling said, “[M]y job requires that I walk a fine line between helping and cheating.” Serling described a process in which she brainstorms with a student, and then she writes an outline for the essay. The student drafts the essay, which she edits, the student revises, and she edits again — back and forth for weeks or months. “I frequently worry that I’m giving too much help,” Serling said, admitting that she sometimes supplies “the missing insight or a much-needed final phrasing.”

I understand where she’s coming from. On my job I sometimes worried that I changed too much, but I never figured out how to “lightly edit” bad copy. Was I supposed to correct misspellings but leave incoherent sentences? Change faulty punctuation but ignore illogical organization? Find factual errors but overlook missing information?

Time for as many rounds as Serling describes was out of the question. I confess to rewriting a lot, often using the copy submitted as notes. That may have been okay for informational publications where there wasn’t supposed to be an author’s voice. In a college application essay, the author’s voice is central.

The purpose of the application essay, as I understand it, is to help schools appraise the student’s character and personality. As Serling noted in her article, it’s not a format in which high school students shine because most of them have never written personal essays before. They stress about crafting essays to wow college admission decision makers. It’s no wonder they want help.

Maybe the essay should be scrapped in favor of a format more suited to that generation — something visual. Serling mentioned video essays. But a video essay could still be largely someone else’s work. I like the idea of interviews via Skype or the like. Sure, some students would probably pay for coaching beforehand, but I still think a Skype interview would offer more insight into a prospective student’s personality than a written essay.

 

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