Last week, the sting operation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues exposed a long list of well-heeled and well-known parents who rigged the college-admissions process, in part by paying proctors and ringers to take or correct tests for their kids. Not long after news of the scheme broke, critics rushed to point out that celebrity parents like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman didn’t need to break the law to game the system.
For the ultra-rich, big contributions might get their name on a science building and their offspring a spot at a top-tier school—an option California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently called “legal bribery.” Even the moderately wealthy can grease the admissions process with extensive SAT tutoring or, more problematically, college application essay editing.
In the admissions process, there’s a high premium on the personal statement, a 500-word essay submitted through the Common Application, about some foible or lesson, which aims to give readers a better sense of the student than, say, a standardized test score. More than one university and advising blog rank the essay among the “most important” aspects of the process; one consultant writing in The New York Times described it as “the purest part of the application.”
But while test scores are completed by the student alone—barring bribed proctors, that is—any number of people can alter an essay before submission, opening it up to exploitation and less-than-pure tactics at the hands of helicopter parents or expensive college-prep counselors who cater to the 1 percent.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, eight college application tutors shed light on the economy of editing, altering, and, at times, outright rewriting personal statements. The essay editors, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity since many still work in their field, painted the portrait of an industry rife with ethical hazards, where the line between helping and cheating can become difficult to draw.
The employees who spoke to The Daily Beast often worked for companies with similar approaches to essay writing. For most, tutors would Skype with students early on in the application process to brainstorm ideas. (“I would say there were a lot of instances of hammering kids with potential ideas,” one tutor said. “Like, ‘That’s a terrible idea for an essay, why don’t you try this instead?’”) Then, the student would write a draft, and bounce back edits with their tutor, who would grade it according to a standardized rubric, which included categories like spelling, sentence structure, style, or whether it was “bullshit-free.”
Most made between $30 and $100 per hour, or around $1,000 for helping a student through the entire application process, at times working on as many as 18 essays at a time for various schools. Two tutors who worked for the same company said they got a bonus if clients were accepted at their target universities.
One consultant, a 22-year-old Harvard graduate, told The Daily Beast that, during his senior year in college, he began working as an essay editor for a company that hires Ivy Leaguers to tutor applicants on a range of subjects. When he took the job in September 2017, the company was still young and fairly informal. Managers would send him essays via email, and the tutor would revise and return them, with anywhere between a 24-hour and two-week turnaround. But from the beginning, the consultant explained, his managers were “pretty explicit” that the job entailed less editing than rewriting.
“When it’s done, it needs to be good enough for the student to go to that school, whether that means lying, making things up on behalf of the student, or basically just changing anything such that it would be acceptable,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve edited anywhere from 200 to 225 essays. So, probably like 150 students total. I would say about 50 percent were entirely rewritten.”
In one particularly egregious instance, the tutor said, a student submitted an essay on hip-hop, which named his three or four favorite rappers, but lacked a clear narrative. The tutor said he rewrote the essay to tell the story of the student moving to America, struggling to connect with an American stepfamily, but eventually finding a connection through rap. “I rewrote the essay such that it said... you know, he found that through his stepbrother he could connect through rap music and having a stepbrother teach him about rap music, and I talked about this loving-relation thing. I don’t know if that was true. He just said he liked rap music.”
Over time, the tutor said, his company shifted its work model. Instead of sending him random, anonymous essays, the managers began to assign him students to oversee during the entire college application cycle. “They thought it looked better,” the tutor said. “So if I get some student, ‘Abby Whatever,’ I would write all 18 of her essays so that it would look like it was all one voice. I had this past year 40 students in the fall, and I wrote all their essays for the Common App and everything else.”
Not every consultant was as explicit about the editing world’s moral ambiguities. One administrator emphasized that his company’s policies were firmly anti-cheating. He conceded, however, that the rules were not always followed: “Bottom line is: It takes more time for an employee to sit with a student and help them figure things out for themselves, than it does to just do it. We had problems in the past with people cutting corners. We’ve also had problems in the past with students asking for corners to be cut.”
Another consultant who worked for the same company and later became the assistant director of U.S. operations told The Daily Beast that while rewriting was not overtly encouraged, it was also not strictly prohibited.
“The precise terms were: I was getting paid a lump sum in exchange for helping this student with this Common App essay and supplement essays at a couple universities. I was given a rubric of qualities for the essay, and I was told that the essay had to score a certain point at that rubric,” he said. “It was never clear that anything legal was in our way, we were just told to make essays—we were told and we told tutors—to make the essays meet a certain quality standard and, you know, we didn’t ask too many questions about who wrote what.”
Many of the tutors told The Daily Beast that their clients were often international students, seeking advice on how to break into the American university system. Some of the foreign students, four of the eight tutors told The Daily Beast, ranged in their English ability and required significant rewriting. One consultant, a freelancer who stumbled into tutoring in the fall of 2017 after a classmate needed someone to take over his clients, recounted the story of a female applicant with little-to-no English skills.
“Her parents had me come in and look at all her college essays. The shape they were brought to me in was essentially unreadable. I mean there were the bare workings of a narrative here—even the grasp on English is tenuous,” he said. “I think that, you know, being able to read and write in English would be kind of a prerequisite for an American university. But these parents really don’t care about that at all. They’re going to pay whoever to make the essays look like whatever to get their kids into school.”
The tutor continued to advise this client, doing “numerous, numerous edits on this girl’s essay” until she was later accepted at Columbia University. But not long after she matriculated, the tutor said she reached back out to him for help with her English courses. “She doesn’t know how to write essays, and she’s struggling in class,” he told The Daily Beast. “I do the help that I can, but I say to the parents, ‘You know, you did not prepare her for this. You put her in this position’... Because obviously, the skills necessary to be at Columbia—she doesn’t have those skills.”
The Daily Beast reached out to numerous college planning and tutoring programs and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, but none responded to requests to discuss their policies on editing versus rewriting.
The American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers also declined comment, and top universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Brown did not respond or declined comment on how they guard against essays being written by counselors or tutors. Stanford said in a statement that they “have no specific policy with regard to the essay portion of the application.”
A spokesperson for Common Application, the not-for-profit organization that oversees most college essay submissions, wrote that all students must sign a waiver before submitting their application, affirming that it is completely their “own work, factually true, and honestly presented.”
In the Operation Varsity Blues case, the cheating was stunningly brazen. One of the proctors, so-called “test whiz” Mark Riddell, a Harvard grad who allegedly took hundreds of thousands in bribes, actually bubbled in kids’ answers on standardized test sheets, according to prosecutors. But the world of college essay editing is more subtle.
Every good piece of writing needs an editor—someone to point out redundancy, confusing sentences, cliches, or even just where things get boring—and two of the tutors who spoke to The Daily Beast said that was the kind of editing that made up most of their work. “Oftentimes, the job is as simple as ‘what do you mean by this?’ or ‘be more specific’” one tutor said. But, for others, it wasn’t always clear where editing became cheating, or just how many revisions they could make before they were, in their own way, just bubbling in the answers.
“When you’re working on a piece of writing, there’s not really a motive to it, other than to like it, and to get other people to like it. But with this, there’s an agenda,” one of the more cynical tutors explained. “And the agenda is me—getting me into this school. I think that kind of changes the extent of what people want out of an editor... I think these kids and their parents really just want you to do whatever it takes to make this a get-into-college-free card.”