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Can Colleges Tell When Students Don't Write Their Own Essays?

Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone CC Admissions Expert Posts: 3,857 Senior Member
edited October 2011 in Ask The Dean Topics
Question: Although I browse College Confidential, I have not much glanced at the Essays section until yesterday, and a question pops up: To what extent are colleges aware that applicants receive so much essay writing help, editing, revising, etc? What do they do if they find out that the college admissions consultant wrote the essay? You’ve [...]

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Post edited by Sally_Rubenstone on
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Replies to: Can Colleges Tell When Students Don't Write Their Own Essays?

  • 2924SW2924SW Registered User Posts: 74 Junior Member
    My children chose to write on very unconventional topics and I think that probably helped them---they all got into good schools. They obviously were not ones a mom or counselor would have suggested, or even encouraged or tried to alter. IN fact, when i heard the topics--they made me shake my head, worry, and say "Oh, no-" you better hope you get a 23 year old guy assigned to read your application." There was little question they were authentic, and personal, tho they were not lofty subjects----no essays on how to solve global warming. Maybe you need to go to the good college first to know how to write on that subject.
  • Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone CC Admissions Expert Posts: 3,857 Senior Member
    Oh, no-" you better hope you get a 23 year old guy assigned to read your application."

    LOL. Will you tell us what those topics were, 2924SW?
  • CacciatoCacciato Registered User Posts: 502 Member
    I think at this point a high schooler should be able to write better than their parents.
  • immortaliximmortalix Registered User Posts: 676 Member
    Hmm, I worry about my essays. I tend to write somewhat dryly--a.k.a. academic stuff, and not personal stuff--though I tried really hard to make my college essays conversational and personal.

    My Common App essay I showed a revised draft to my English teacher and he spoke to me for about a minute pointing out parts where I didn't really say much. Basically he said "more you". I wouldn't consider my essay as doctored or inauthentic, but if he hadn't looked at it, I might have submitted a less personal essay. And then there are my other essays, which I have had several friends look over several draft versions, making edits based on their feedback of blah blah is good, blah blah is awkward, blah might sound better as blah, etc. Though this is no where near as serious as having an college consultant write the essay for you, I still had help that ultimately led to better essays.

    I don't think there is any good way to find out if someone wrote an essay for the student or not. And I don't think admissions officers should hold it against the student if the essay seems inauthentic or fake, as there are just so many writing styles and personalities out there. I'm pretty sure my essays are pretty serious looking, as in not lighthearted or whatever other traits people attribute to teenagers, but that's just how I write. Admissions counselors always talk about how they are there to put the students in the best light. Eliminating a student who did write an authentic essay that just seemed too mature or sophisticated for a teenager is just wrong. They should give the student the benefit of the doubt.

    I wouldn't say that the proctored essay is the way to go, but if it comes down to that, I would probably support it, especially if it gives admissions officers an ease of mind that the essays are authentic. But a really timed essay like the SAT essay is just horrible--I wrote really simply, aiming for length, and sticking in two random examples that didn't really fit, but sort of did, to game the SAT, without really focusing on using sophisticated vocabulary or syntax. If they have proctored essays, they should still have the regular essays to supplement it because some people just aren't good under pressure. The easiest thing to do would be to make the SAT essay an hour long, giving it more legitimacy and less of the pressure influence.
  • ghostbusterghostbuster - Posts: 1,590 Senior Member
    The better answer is how many people actually write it by themselves and don't have ANYONE read it for them and correct mistakes and make suggestions. I know a LOT of kids have friends help them...is that any different than a teacher reviewing it? A parent? Even a guidance counselor? (yes, I heard of that happening).

    Colleges assume you get some advice. Its a question of degree. Its one piece of the entire puzzle of your application. It has to fit into the rest of the puzzle.

    I view essays as an opportunity to express your personality, or a particular passion that is important to you, (which can include humor and creativity) and less your strengths or weaknesses in writing skills. Some help and suggestions are normal. Very, very few students write it alone in a vacuum and get no input, corrections, proof reading etc.

    What they are really asking is "Who are you?"
  • xiggixiggi Registered User Posts: 25,441 Senior Member
    The most important question should not be about the degree of help the applicant receives, but if essays truly make a difference!

    For starters, who is there to declare that there a consensus about what constitutes a great essay or a ... lousy one? Should we listen to the experts in the field? The parents? Or, the army of well-meaning teachers and HS counselors?

    People love to say that it is easy to spot a lousy essay. You only have to see it for a few seconds to know how bad it is. However, what do we know about the qualifications of the readers? And, what are the qualified readers really looking for? If we learned something from the SAT Essay debacle is that the readers hardly look for a great essay; they are asked to score essays according to a "score-by-the-numbers" approach.

    Essays that DO work are probably far remote from what most "helpers" suggest. Students should ask for guidance for brute spelling, and perhaps a bit of grammar. While typos and lousy constructions scream at the reader, more damage can be caused by ineffective ADULT editing that sucks the life of an essay.

    In the end, the student who can pull it off without an army of helpers will be the winner. And will continue to win throughout his or her college life.
  • BillyB1918BillyB1918 Registered User Posts: 15 New Member
    I've always assumed the writing portion of the SAT/ACT was used by colleges for verification of an applicant's writing ability when compared to the essay submitted, i.e. to find some similarity in style and confirm the essay submitted with the application was actually the student's work. Also, if you have been an admissions officer for even just a couple years and have read hundreds of essays you get a decent feel for how high school students write that you could tell if something was seriously out of line.
  • MommaJMommaJ Registered User Posts: 5,699 Senior Member
    First, a giant "Bravo!" to every word of Ms. Rubenstone's statement. The essay element of applications is completely tainted and should simply be dropped. I am particularly dubious about the ability of the average admissions officer to judge a piece of writing. That the (non-Common App) essay topics are often quite inartfully drafted only reinforces my belief that the typical admissions office is not exactly rife with English majors who are equipped to properly evaluate hundreds of essays, much less discern which of them have been worked over by parents or professionals.
  • bigwill11205bigwill11205 Registered User Posts: 719 Member
    I thought I'd just say something. I haven't allowed ANYONE to read my essays. I really don't want any input because I don't want anyone critiquing my writing; I feel that taking advice from anyone would make the essay less "me".

    I check my essays my rereading them many times, and then reading them backwards---starting with the last sentence of the paragraph, and working my way to the first.
  • kmccrindlekmccrindle Registered User Posts: 1,650 Senior Member
    I'd hate to see them throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater by spiking personal essays. However, if I were an admissions officer, I'd like to also see what the student is capable of unmitigated, particularly by "paid" help. Like many other folks, I have not come up with easy answers. I suppose I would attempt to "triangulate" the writing talent of the student by requesting timed prompts from early senior or late junior year (most districts have 'em), request the SAT and ACT written portions, and perhaps invest in the resources to allow for online drafting and revision (so I could see 'versioning' -- this would pretty quickly reveal if an adult was having a hand in restructuring, I suspect). That would all likely account for more available time than a typical admissions officer might have at their disposal. Which leaves us with instead a form of online proctoring, should someone care to invent same.
  • CJ MadisonCJ Madison Registered User Posts: 488 Member
    As a parent, I feel that the essays should primarily be the students responsibility - However, I agree there is no reason a parent, mentor, teacher etc. cannot give constructive criticism, syntax correction, etc.

    One "nice" feature of the New "SAT with Writing" is that any college AO can actually read the SAT essay written by the student in a proctored environment. If the college app essays and the SAT essay are way off/disconnect - there could be a problem.

    While I realize the SAT essay is a timed essay under duress, it still gives the AO's the ability to compare writing styles.

    Also, please do not use internet essays or previously published essays. Most colleges have software they use to screen for plagiarism, just as we college profressors use!
  • CacciatoCacciato Registered User Posts: 502 Member
    yes because the quality of writing in a short 25min essay is completely similar to writing over months and months......
  • momofthreeboysmomofthreeboys Registered User Posts: 16,427 Senior Member
    My kids wouldn't let me peek at their essays. I worried about that, but let it go. One admission officer mentioned later that she "liked" my S2's essay and S1 got a quick note on one of his acceptances that the admissions group liked his essay so the content must have been fine even if the grammer, punctuation and spelling were questionable LOL. S2 did let me edit a short response because it was too long by about 20 words. I took it out of passive and deleted a couple words for him to make it fit. So many kids write in the passive these days, that in itself if a fairly telling quality.
  • limabeanslimabeans Registered User Posts: 4,753 Senior Member
    We had a slightly different scenerio around here. My son was COMPLetely distracted with other things, and ever-so-slowly got out his essays. So what did I do while I fretted? I helped other kids with their grammar, message, etc. as a reader.

    It was a great experience for both of us: my son didn't have me writing anything for him (although i was tempted to) and I got to help some wonderful kids polish their essays. Now, mind you, I didn't polish those essays to a level where they weren't authentic. After all, it started and ended with their original essay. Often I'd tell them where to elaborate, where to cut. I had a chance to help kids better understand their own message and maybe help them understand how to improve their writing too.

    By contrast, my son's friend has been working with a college counselor throughout this process, and yee-gads. The essay is not-at-all who this kid really is. It sounds oh-so-humble, yet in truth, he's much more driven than that. It's a shame (and a sham) to see what happens just because families have $$$ to burn. (Yale, are you listening? Hope so!)
  • haydenhayden Registered User Posts: 4,415 Senior Member
    I have to admit I've been shocked by how many parents tell me how much time and effort they put into their kids' essays, including paying someone to "edit" the essays. A couple of times I asked if they were comfortable with their level of involvement, and with straight faces they assured me they, or the paid third party "non-writer" really didn't write the essay, they just corrected the grammar, maybe tweaked the word choice a bit, moved some sentences around, perhaps just a little change in the topic/wording/direction of the essay - but certainly didn't write it !

    On the other hand, I'm also cynical enough to think that most admissions reps feel confident in their ability to spot such interference. I'm not so sure.
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