Opinion

College admissions essays provide another way to cheat. Do colleges really care?

FILE - In this April 3, 2019 file photo, actress Lori Loughlin, front, and husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, left, depart federal court in Boston after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. On Tuesday, April 9, Loughlin and Giannulli were among 16 prominent parents indicted on an additional charge of money laundering conspiracy in the case. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
FILE - In this April 3, 2019 file photo, actress Lori Loughlin, front, and husband, clothing designer Mossimo Giannulli, left, depart federal court in Boston after facing charges in a nationwide college admissions bribery scandal. On Tuesday, April 9, Loughlin and Giannulli were among 16 prominent parents indicted on an additional charge of money laundering conspiracy in the case. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File) AP

How much do colleges care about fraud among applicants? We have to wonder about that after the admissions scandal in which wealthy parents paid big sums for cheating on college entrance exams or to fake their kids’ interest in, and talent for, various sports.

The various universities involved have reacted with horror over the whole situation, playing the victim card. In truth, however, the athletic “side door” has been known as a weak point in the admissions game.

The University of Washington chose to recognize this and do something about it years ago, CNN reports. Athletic coaches are forbidden to have direct contact with the admissions office and their requests to admit certain athletes must be reviewed by athletic administrators. A separate committee of faculty and deans reviews data about student athletes, including their academic outcomes.

Most other schools have conveniently ignored this opportunity for admissions fraud, though public outrage is now forcing them to do something about it.

The problem is that other forms of application fraud go on all the time while college leaders and admissions officers pretty much ignore it. One of the most common versions of this is essay fraud.

Opinion

Colleges have gone gaga over essays, with many of the most selective ones requiring multiple extra essays on top of the one in the Common Application. The prompts are often crazy-making. Colleges, if you haven’t figured this out: Every applicant is telling every other school why that’s the one they most want to attend.

Above all, like the athletics side door, essays practically invite cheating by more affluent students.

Not that it’s terrible for kids to have someone to brainstorm ideas with them, suggest a few touches or proofread. Every journalist knows we all need copy editors.

We’re talking about applicants who have someone write their essays for them. “Academic writing services” are shamefully ubiquitous, whether they’re writing application essays or researching and crafting their term papers after they’re accepted.

One, TSM Group, reaches out to writers who might work for them, saying, “You are offered to accept orders that are different academic assignments. Those are essays, reports, term papers, speeches, etc. Each assignment comes with specific requirements that must be followed. Papers differ in academic level and deadline. You are free to accept paper you prefer.”

Ignore the cheating for a moment. What student would pay for such execrable English skills?

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

The quality of the writing – and the price – differ remarkably from one “service” to another. And there are plenty of them. There’s even a website that offers advice on how to find the most “trustworthy and honest custom writing company.” I wonder if its readers catch the irony?

A couple of weeks ago, I tried messaging a different writing service to check in on how this works..

My ask: Could they could produce a 2,000-word college paper on environmental studies with four days’ notice? The answer was yes, with an approximate price quote of $160. Then I asked about having a college application essay of 600 words written, if I provided some information about the applicant. Again the answer was yes.

Jia Tolentino, now a writer online for New Yorker magazine, wrote an article for Jezebel in 2016 in which she talked about doing that for wealthy Texas families as a source of easy money. She charged much more than the writing service I queried. But she quit after a while.

“This job – writing college essays for Abigail Fishers – was the only job I have ever been truly ashamed of,” Tolentino wrote, “and I am so ashamed of it now that it hurts. I did it, too, for a particularly embarrassing reason: because it paid so well that I could keep my earning hours to a minimum….”

The thing is, this doesn’t appear to be illegal, at least on the part of the actual ghost writers or the companies that pay them because they can claim that they were writing the papers simply as examples for students to see what a proper essay should look like. It was never their intention for the essay to be turned in under the student’s name!

The students have not plagiarized, exactly, but they have committed fraud – and the ghost writers have aided and abetted them. Laws need to make sure this is clarified. The students have led college admissions officers to think this is their work, just as parents in the admissions scandal fraudulently led colleges to think that the students were sending them honestly-attained SAT scores or athletic resumes.

Colleges haven’t cared about this form of fraud nearly as much as they should. Instead of assuring themselves that they recognize faked essays when they see them, they should get out ahead of this before the next big scandal breaks. They could at least inform applicants that they do not accept ghost-written essays and specify what that means.

Applicants should have to attest in writing that they have not received more than brainstorming and copy editing help. They should also agree that, if the facts prove otherwise, they will be expelled from college and possibly prosecuted. Enforcement might be tough to carry out, but the threat alone should at least make students and their families aware that this is fraud. They might even think twice.

Colleges should minimize the role of essays and make them less likely to be ghost-written. The University of California has produced a set of much shorter essays that most high-achieving students should feel confident doing on their own. Better yet would be to have students write their essays as in-class assignments in high school, and have the schools submit the rough and polished versions directly to the colleges.

There will always be attempts to game college-admissions. The least colleges could do is set some firmer rules.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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