For prospective students who are sweating the thought of writing their admissions essay for application season, here is a cheerful thought. This will be the last written checkpoint they will pass through throughout their academic journey.
Get through this, and they’ll never have to worry about being a proficient writer again. Or, at least, no one will ever try to turn him into a competent writer again. After all, once they are in college, they are assumed to already know how to write.
Except we all know that’s by no means universally true. That’s why I had enough clients to make a living for during my decade of writing student papers. And that’s why, more than a decade after my retirement from professional cheating, others like me are still making a living.
When higher education was an elite pursuit, it was assumed that admitted students had all the basic educational tools necessary to survive. It was also assumed that the teaching of technical writing was below the dignity of teachers. But as educational opportunities multiplied in the second half of the 20th century, competition for space in the most prestigious institutions intensified. By necessity, their admissions process has become more complex.
Superficially speaking, the admissions essay is designed to add color and depth to each candidate’s academic profile. But, more importantly, it is the primary piece of evidence used to confirm that a college applicant has the basic ability to write.
This is important because, despite the massification, students still do not receive meaningful instruction in writing. Yes, I am aware of your school’s 100-level explanatory writing requirement; I built my first ghostwriting portfolio by producing these cookie-cutter assignments for struggling students. But they don’t work. In other words, students who start university without knowing how to write will probably leave university without knowing how to write. Many of them will also leave without a degree – and that’s a desperate way to experience college.
It is high time to admit that things have to change. Classical education is dead. Students go to college to develop practical skills for the 21st century workplace. These are not the same students as the less than 3% of the college-age population who have attended a tertiary institution in 1910, armed with pre-school grooming and patrician breeding. It can no longer be assumed that students arrive with the basic academic skills needed to succeed. A 40% failure rate within six years serves as pretty damning evidence to the contrary.
Of course, if we want to enroll college students with writing difficulties, we must also be ready to support their academic needs, even if it means re-examining the relationship between college and basic writing instruction. And it could start with the admission essay. If we can use this early sample of active writing to better identify and serve students who need meaningful, effective (and ideally ungraded) writing instruction, those students will become much less likely to cheat later on.
Of course, there will also be those who are tempted to cheat on their admissions test. I worked for some of them. I once completed an essay for a student applying to Brown University. The essay prompt asked the student to “tell us something more about yourself that would help us understand who you are, how you think, and what issues and ideas interest you most.” The client – an aspiring doctor – asked me to “throw some kind of hook that will really make them look at me. I need about 1,500 words we are going [sic].”
I have no way of knowing if he got into Brown — or the University of Pennsylvania, whose admissions essay I also wrote for him. But using his admissions essay as a diagnostic tool could have had a deterrent effect. Those like him who are tempted to work their way through the admissions process might be dissuaded by the thought that all of their future writing might be measured against this ghostwriting sample. After all, buying your way through every mission over four years isn’t cheap.
Additionally, those who have written their own admissions essay may be deterred from cheating on later college assignments by thinking that this measure of their true writing ability exists.
Rather than treating the admissions essay as the final written checkpoint, it may be more intuitive to think of it as the first step in the intervention process.
Dave Tomar is a freelance writer and editor for Inflection Magazine. His latest book is The Complete Guide to Contract Fraud in Higher Education.