June 22, 2020
I am a parent to a high school junior, and I'd like to know if it's legal (permissible) for a professional to help a student write her essay.
The key word here is "help," and there's a lot of gray area surrounding it. Most college admission officials acknowledge that application essays should be a student's own work, but that getting some guidance is still permissible. Yet there is a lot of disagreement about how much assistance is too much.
It's almost always considered acceptable for an applicant to share an essay with others ... parents, friends, school or private college counselors ... and to ask for general advice. "Does this essay answer the prompt?" "Are there grammar or spelling errors?" "Does it sound like me?" Some high schools even include college essay writing as part of the junior or senior English curriculum. In such cases, each student's essay is "corrected" by the teacher, much as if it were a homework assignment on The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick! Many folks, however, insist that it's not fair for some applicants to receive advice on their essays while others get none. Indeed, "The Dean" maintains that, in a perfect world, each student would write college application essays in a proctored session with no aid at all provided by anyone. But, in our current world, it is considered okay for students to seek essay guidance, as long as the final product is still clearly their own.
Some paid professional essay advisors approach their duties ethically. They may help the student choose an appropriate topic and then offer suggestions for improvements after the student has completed a draft independently. But there are also hired guns out there who write all or most of the essay themselves or who make such sweeping changes that the student's voice disappears.
Admission officials often say that they can sniff out inauthentic essays that weren't authored by teenagers. "The Dean" believes that this is sometimes but not always true. But I also believe that students — and their parents — know in their hearts if the writing sent to colleges has crossed a line — however fine — that separates an honest submission from an unscrupulously altered one. And, as the world learned from last year's celebrity scandal, parents who provide illicit admission assistance are ultimately doing their children a great disservice. So even if you enlist a professional to oversee the application process, do make sure that your children can still claim their essays as their own.
Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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