On Essay Help and Early Decision

May/June 2002

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A high school senior has just applied to Stanford. His credentials are similar to those of hundreds of other applicants, but his essay sets him apart. It is elegantly written, expresses profound themes of public service and citizenship, and oozes personality. It’s enough to make any admission officer swoon. Just one problem: the applicant didn’t write it. Not by himself anyway. A professional writer/editor, hired for the purpose, helped him shape the ideas, develop a structure and rework entire sections.

Essay assistance is a growing phenomenon as students look for new tools to help them get into the nation’s leading colleges and universities. Combined with concerns about early-decision programs—which allow students to commit to a “first-choice” school to improve their chances of acceptance (while enabling the school to lock in good applicants)—it has some administrators and policy-makers asking whether students with money and sophisticated support have an unfair advantage over those without.

Robin Mamlet, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid, acknowledges that professionally packaged applications are a source of “increasing concern.” She and her staff sometimes notice particular styles or patterns that suggest students are using the same counselors or services to help them., which bills itself as “the leading personal statement and essay assistance service on the Internet,” says it “organizes information you provide into a full and complete model essay.” The site cautions that students should never submit this model essay as part of an application package nor represent it as their own work. “We do not condone plagiarism.”

Whether using such a service provides an unfair advantage is unclear, but it raises suspicions that the essay may not represent the abilities of the student. And if admission officers can’t be sure of that, selecting deserving students becomes much harder.

One editor at another major essay-assistance company admits that the work makes her uncomfortable. “The way I have rationalized this is that wealthy people . . . can afford to pay a private editor on their own. I’m just providing a similar service for less,” says the Stanford graduate, who requests anonymity. She charges $20 to $30 per hour, and her clients often aren’t native English speakers. “Every once in a while, I feel like I’m helping someone get into a school they might not have and they’ll do something good with the chance,” she says.

Sohini Ramachandran, now a Stanford senior, worked on her application essay over the course of 10 days during her senior year in high school. She focused on how a conversation she had as a 9-year-old attending a math conference in Germany inspired her to study math and do research. Her parents, both college professors, read her essay and made a few suggestions, but Ramachandran says she hesitated to change much. “It’s such a personal thing,” she says. “I wanted to get my voice across. I worried that, if too many people looked at it and I incorporated their ideas, that wouldn’t happen.”

Some schools now attempt to gauge the amount of help a student received on the essay. Duke University’s application reads: “We recognize that all good writers seek feedback, advice or editing before sending off an essay. Whose advice did you seek for help with your essay? Was he or she helpful? What help did he or she provide?”

Stanford officials have talked about adding similar questions. At present, the application says, “In accordance with Stanford’s Honor Code, we trust that the essays will be your own work.” “My sense is that Stanford will need to come out with a statement of what is an appropriate level of help and what goes too far,” Mamlet says. But those involved in the discussions acknowledge that drawing the line between appropriate and inappropriate help is tricky. “We are getting into some very gray areas,” says David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature and chair of the Faculty Senate’s committee on undergraduate admission and financial aid.

Early-decision programs are another controversial practice. They have become popular because they let universities lock in high-achieving applicants while offering students better odds of acceptance. For example, applicants declare that Stanford is their first choice and submit applications by November 1 for an answer by mid-December. If accepted, they must withdraw any other applications and enroll at Stanford. For 2002-2003, Stanford accepted 556 early-decision applicants from a pool of 2,390, or 23.3 percent. Regular applicants—whose application deadline is December 15 and who receive answers in early April—face much harsher odds. For early- and regular-decision applicants combined, the acceptance rate was just 12.4 percent this year.

Complaints about early-decision programs have increased in recent months. Last September, an article in the Atlantic Monthly criticized the way colleges and universities use early decision to manage their enrollments. And in December, Yale president Richard Levin, ’68, told the New York Times he would like to scrap the practice, saying “the only one who benefits is the admissions officers.”

But Mamlet is a strong supporter of early decision, arguing that it benefits students as well as colleges. Without it, she says, students would have to apply to more schools to cover themselves if their first choice fell through. As a result, they might be accepted at several schools, and admission officers would have to wait much longer to learn which students would accept their offers and which would go elsewhere. Competition would be keener in each school and wait lists would be longer.

Mamlet acknowledges that early-decision applicants are generally affluent and have good college counselors and college-educated parents familiar with the admission process. “The charge that early programs play to the privileged is a fair one, but the ultimate question is whether the existence of an early program diminishes the potential for diversity in the class,” she says. “Stanford has never been more diverse.”

The solution, Mamlet says, is to use the program judiciously. She says that placing a ceiling on early-decision admissions—Stanford’s is 33 percent of any entering class—provides sufficient balance and room for diversity.

One of the most disconcerting elements of both the early-decision debate and the growing reliance on professional essay writers, Mamlet says, is the sense that the admissions process is some sort of high-stakes game. “Applicants and their families are trying to ‘play’ the admission system rather than to reflect honestly and seriously about who they are, what they value, how it is they learn best, and therefore what kind of college will suit them best,” Mamlet told an audience during Parents Weekend this year. “And the public perceives that colleges are caught up in an unending and morally suspect ‘game.’ Because, this line of reasoning goes, each top institution now wants to be the top, we are no longer selecting applicants out of a genuine response to each student’s strength and individuality, but instead always with an eye to how best to position ourselves in the U.S. News rankings. I don’t think this is true, by the way, but I do think this is the way it is commonly understood.”

To overcome this, Mamlet says, she and her colleagues must thoroughly explain admission procedures and why they exist, recognize and speak more openly about the stressfulness of the process, and work with peer institutions to improve the process.

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