It took a while to happen, but college essays have begun to be placed under the kind of scrutiny traditionally reserved for the SAT. In just the past couple of weeks, articles have appeared in both the Washington Post and Inside Higher Ed discussing the college essay industry and highlighting the vast sums of money some families spend on assistance with this aspect of the application.

These articles raise some very important questions: exactly how much help is too much? And how should colleges evaluate an assignment that some applicants have spent thousands of dollars to complete?

From the Inside Higher Ed piece:

One essay coach who asked not to be identified said that the equity issue is obvious. He said he takes a few pro bono clients, but that most low-income students could never find someone to do what he does. “How does someone without money” compete “on an equal footing?” he asked.

He said that essay coaching is becoming the norm for wealthy families, just as test prep has over the last few decades and private counselors have in the last decade or so.

And from the Post:

Pressure to excel in the verbal endgame of the college application process has intensified in recent years as students perceive that it’s tougher than ever to get into prestigious schools. Some well-off families, hungry for any edge, are willing to pay as much as $16,000 for essay-writing guidance in what one consultant pitches as a four-day “application boot camp.”

But after highlighting these dangers, both articles promptly downplay the seriousness of the issue. The Inside Higher Ed article ends by asserting that the real problem occurs when “Aunt Gladys, the English teacher, wants [the essay] to be rewritten”, while the Post article cites the standard response among admissions officers:

“It’s very obvious to us when an essay has been written by a 40-year-old and not a 17-year-old,” said Angel B. Pérez, vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College. “I’m not looking for a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. And I get pretty skeptical when I see it.”

There’s a grain of truth to this statement, but it doesn’t even begin to address the real issue.

Yes, admissions officers can tell when an applicant has been helped by someone who does not understand the ins and outs of the college essay. It is indeed screamingly obvious when a middle-aged adult unfamiliar with how college essays typically sound decides to insert a few lines, or a paragraph, or even tries to rewrite a whole essay.

The operative phrase, though, is unfamiliar with how college essays typically sound.

What admissions officers cannot know – and have no reliable way of finding out – is how many essays they’ve looked at that have been massaged, shall we say, by adults who are familiar with how college essays typically sound. Adults who know exactly how college essays typically sound and can convincingly channel, or even replicate, a 17-year-old’s voice – warts and all. Adults who are paid thousands of dollars precisely because they possess this skill.

The real takeaway is not the students should avoid getting outside hep with the essay; it’s that they shouldn’t do so unless they can afford to ensure that the help is undetectable.

Even at the lower end – that is, people who charge $50/hr. as opposed to $500 – essay helpers are often superbly well versed in the college admissions game. In fact, many of them managed to beat it themselves not too long ago. (Exactly how do admissions officers think that 25-year-old Ivy League graduates with humanities degrees pay rent in Brooklyn, or LA, or Cambridge?)

Admissions officers can only know what they do catch – they cannot know what they don’t catch.

I suspect that most of them are perfectly aware of this fact, and well aware that their claims about being able to recognize over-edited prose are sheer nonsense. But the pressure they are under to meet so-called “institutional priorities” when admitting a freshman class means that they are prohibited from acknowledging it – at least publicly.

Besides, if admissions officers were really and truly able to flag every essay that had received too much help, the market for $16,000 essay boot camps would dry up pretty quickly. The fact that business is going strong suggests that this type of assistance is actually highly successful (my personal experience supports this as well), and that admissions officers are perfectly happy to turn a blind eye to it.

Statistics from the Harvard class of 2021 bear this out:

17 percent of surveyed [members of the class of 2021] reported seeking college application advice from a private admissions counselor from outside of their high schools. Of that number, 32 percent reported that their parents made more than $500,000 in a year, while 11 percent said their parents make less than $40,000.

Why such attachment to the essay? Because eliminating it – or making it less personal and more focused on academic interests/goals, as in the UK system – would make the process less holistic. And if there is one thing no one wants, it is to make the process more numbers-driven, particularly when dealing with 40,000 applicants with sky-high grades and test scores.

Furthermore, most elite colleges are deeply invested in the idea that they are not just selecting a freshman class but creating a unique community – that the 5 or 10 percent of students who make it through are in fact the chosen, whose exceptional personal qualities elevate them above and beyond their accomplished and high-scoring peers. And without the essay, how could those exceptional personal qualities be identified?

Of course, as Harvard’s Steven Pinker has pointed out, having never chosen applicants any other way, universities have nothing to compare the existing process to. It is merely an article of faith that choosing students based on academic credentials alone would result in a class of personality-less drones. (As Pinker very reasonably asks, “why are elite universities, of all institutions, perpetuating the destructive stereotype that smart people are one-dimensional dweebs?”)

The amount of money that gets poured into test prep is obviously grounds for concern, as well as an major source of inequity; but at the same time, I think it’s reasonable to point out that there is a real difference between paying thousands of dollars for SAT or ACT prep, and paying thousands of dollars for essay help.

In the case of the former, students still need to take the test themselves. Regardless of how much time they’ve spent getting walked through practice questions, they still need to answer questions that they’ve never seen before, on their own, for four-plus hours, without anyone holding their hand.

On the essay, in contrast, they can get coached through virtually every sentence without anyone being the wiser. As long as the essay sounds like that particular 17 year old wrote it, no one’s suspicions will be raised in the least.

As for the input/output issue: on one hand, it is true that when an applicant with, say, a 1520 SAT gets considered, there is no way to know for sure whether that score was obtained after a couple of hours with a prep book, or after many months and thousands of dollars worth of tutoring. (If colleges genuinely wanted to put scores in context, they could of course ask for this information point blank – plenty of applicants would of course lie, but that would at least show that schools were making an effort.)

What colleges do not know, however, is how many applicants with sub-par scores – applicants whose folders did not make it past the initial read-through – also spent thousands of dollars on tutoring and still failed to be competitive.

They also cannot know how many applicants spent thousands of dollars on tutoring and still scored so far below a minimally competitive level that they did not even bother to apply.

The fact that test scores correlate with income is often misinterpreted to mean that income determines test scores, and that students from well-off families will inevitably obtain high scores. But that is not at all true: I worked with students whose parents shelled out thousands of dollars for tutoring over the course of many months, but who could not crack 700 per section on the (old) SAT, or in some cases 600. In almost every case, the scores were an accurate reflection of what the student did – and did not – know.

In contrast, there is no reliable way to tell whether an applicant’s essay is actually reflective of their writing ability, or whether every other word had to be edited. (Although whether admissions officers truly care applicants’ ability to write coherently is questionable. They’re only responsible for admitting a class that will please the powers that be; the actual grunt work of teaching students who may or may not be prepared for college-level reading and writing is someone else’s problem.)

Incidentally, no one seems to have the slightest concern about how much effort students put into their athletic achievements, for example. When was the last time an admissions officer looked at the application of a championship fencer and said something to the effect of, “You know, this kid’s accomplishments are impressive and all, but I’d really like to put them in context. I mean, how much did the parents really spend on private coaching? And this competition last spring, did she just wake up and nail it, or did she spend five hours every day practicing? If she’s the sort of kid who needs to repeat the same moves over and over in order to perform well, that really makes me question whether she’ll be able to contribute creatively here.”

No, it’s pretty safe to assume that doesn’t happen.

To come back to the essay from a slightly different angle, I recently found myself at a gathering during the course of which I encountered a man who worked as an admissions officer for an Ivy League school. During our brief exchange, he mentioned that when he read applications, he always started with the essay. If he liked the kid, he’d be willing to fight for him/her in committee; if not, he wouldn’t bother.

I knew that this is how admissions officers often read, of course. And when giving essay advice, I’ve often emphasized the importance of personality as well. But as I listened to him say it out loud, whole thing suddenly struck me as maddeningly capricious.

How was it fair that some kid who had spent the last four years slaving away should have their future decided by whether or not this particular person, who by a quirk of fate was assigned to read their application, happened to find the essay version of them likeable?

Liking someone on paper is not necessarily the same thing as liking them in person. Some people who are perfectly atrocious in real life can be utterly charming on paper, and some truly wonderful kids who would be an asset to any school are sufficiently poorly versed in the ways of the college essay that they come across as total duds in writing.

Writing about oneself well is hard – that’s why the essay industry exists – and it’s not a skill that many kids (or, for that matter, many adults) possess naturally. Students who don’t have someone to ensure they walk an acceptable balance between highlighting their accomplishments and showing an appropriate degree of modesty, and that they come across as entirely natural while doing so, are far more likely to run afoul of an admissions officer’s sensibilities.

One of the other, unspoken jobs of college essay “helpers” is to ensure that kids come across as likeable – or at least to ensure that they don’t come across as unlikeable. Most of the students I worked with I adored, but I had a couple whom I found entitled and unpleasant, and part of my job was effectively to ensure that these aspects of their personalities did not come through in their college applications.

Admissions officers can only go by what is in an essay – they have no way of knowing what was taken out.

So even when the essay is done well, there is really only so much you can glean about a person’s true authentic self from 500 words.

Then there’s the practice of former admissions officers going into the college-consulting business, or joining the faculty of elite private high schools. Because they know who will be reading a given student’s application at a particular college, they can subtly help students tailor their essays not only to the “culture” of a particular school but also to the specific preferences and biases of their former colleagues.

This circulation of staff between admissions offices at elite private colleges and college counseling offices at exclusive private schools is among the most insidious advantages (primarily) well-off students are privy to. If colleges truly wished to put a damper on it, they could, for example, require former admissions officers to refrain from working in a college counseling role for a certain period after leaving their jobs but, at least to my knowledge, no school even attempts to impose such a prohibition.

There’s also the matter of Common Core – even if it’s been nominally abandoned, states are still keeping the standards under a slightly different name. Over the past few years, public schools have increasingly emphasized the type of writing done on standardized (state) tests and devoted less time to exploring different types of genres and composition styles. Writing a personal essay well requires exposure to examples of well-written personal essays; it also requires practice – both things that private school students are now more likely to obtain in school.

To be clear, individual students who work with a tutor on the essay may find the process rewarding and enlightening, and ultimately emerge with a better sense of themselves as people and as writers. I don’t dispute that. And obviously — obviously — most applicants do in fact write their own essays, with minimal interference from parents, English tutors, or high-priced professional consultants. Plenty of students do make it into highly selective colleges without outsize amounts of help.

I’m also not saying this to attack families who pay for essay assistance — believe me, I am intimately acquainted with the kinds of familial tensions college essays can produce, and even a couple of thousand dollars can be a small price to pay for keeping a parent-child relationship from blowing up. I could have desperately used that kind of help when I was 17.

I’m also not saying this to attack tutors who provide essay assistance; I did it myself for a long time. The admissions system that exists is opaque and unpredictable, with different rules for different applicants, and the essay industry is a perfectly rational — and inevitable — response to it. You can’t blame families for wanting to rely on someone who understands how it all works.

At a systemic level, though, the essay is a requirement that is begging to be gamed by those with the means and the savvy to work the system, particularly by well-off applicants to the most prestigious schools. Colleges know this, and yet they largely ignore that the problem even exists. (And honestly, at some level, who can blame them? If you had to wade through hundreds of poorly written essays on a daily basis, for months on end, you’d probably be so relieved to find some that were was well-written and engaging that you probably wouldn’t want to stop and wonder how much help the kids actually got with them.)

In closing, let me say this: every piece of information used to make admissions decisions, from course rigor to grades to extracurricular activities to essays to test scores, is affected by socioeconomic factors. I suspect that you could pick almost any section of the Common App to examine at random, and the correlation between family income and achievement would apply just as strongly as it does to test scores. Inequities in the college admissions process reflect systemic inequities in American society as a whole, and there is no easy way to level the playing field after 18 years of accumulated disparities.

The real question, then, isn’t how to make the process completely fair but rather how to create a process that’s the least unfair. Even if colleges do make a real effort to recruit underprivileged students, their practice of tacitly condoning high-priced essay help for wealthy applicants — who, after all, continue to make up the vast majority of their student bodies — calls into question just how serious they are about changing things on a broad scale. Equalizing things is ultimately not just a matter of giving a leg up to disadvantaged applicants, but also of removing the blatantly unfair practices that benefit more advantaged ones. Unfortunately, the latter is something that colleges really can’t afford to risk.

Standardized tests have traditionally provided a convenient scapegoat because, well, they’re not much fun and because they valorize a particular type of academic prowess over other types of knowledge, but the equity issues at play the current admissions process run far deeper than that. It’s encouraging that some of the more extreme practices are beginning to be reported on, but whether these stories will result in the same kind of backlash against some of the more subjective aspects of the admissions process… Well, I wouldn’t count on that happening just yet.