My friend and colleague, “Sarita” (not her real name), returned to her native India to tend a sick relative. Sarita is an independent college counselor here in the United States. Because she had spent her childhood in India and still has many ties there, she was optimistic that she could relocate her counseling business to India, too. However, as she began to search for prospective advisees, she repeatedly encountered the same surprising expectation: Students (and, especially, their parents) assumed that Sarita would be writing their application essays. They didn’t think she would be merely reviewing them or even editing them. Instead, they thought that she would do all the work! But, when Sarita explained that the applicant had to write his or her own essay, the prospective clients went elsewhere, claiming, “The other counselors will write the essays and fill out the applications!”
During her months in India, Sarita discovered that there were many college advisors and “agents” who did indeed write essays and who completed applications for their students and who even promised sure-thing acceptance at top-choice colleges due to their purported ties to these institutions.
Sarita, however, refused to write student essays or to complete applications … not just for the obvious ethical reasons but also because she was experienced enough to know that such falsified documents are often very obvious to admission officials. A student who has the grades, test scores, and other strengths to be a viable candidate at a highly selective U.S. college might be turned away when admission officials sniff out application dishonesty. So Sarita realized that those “sure thing” acceptances were often empty promises.
Similarly, I read a post on the NACAC (National Associate for College Admission Counseling) listserve. It came from Anne Richardson, the Director of College Counseling at Kents Hill School, a private boarding school in the state of Maine. (See her “AdmissionsQuest” blog here. )
She gave me permission to share what she wrote:
We have now confronted our third case this fall of overly keen agents abroad writing and rewriting college essays for our students. We have had agents add school traditions that do not exist in our school, change genders of teachers and coaches, invent life-changing circumstances, convert our students into instant Ph.D. caliber writers, embrace all manner of flowery adult language that has no bearing on teenage writing, and more.
This has been an endless discussion in our office, and we have come up with a plan which I share with you all, in case any of you confront the same issues and find this helpful.
From now on, every time this happens, we will share the information with the student’s advisor and ask him/her to email/call the parents and let them know the following:
1. Any school or college will find this unacceptable.
2. NACAC finds this unacceptable and agents will be reported to Overseas ACAC.
3. College admissions folk expect essays written by teenagers and are instantly suspicious when they are not. If the colleges suspect a problem, they can and will compare the essay to the SAT writing sample. If they are not compatible, the colleges will be question the entire application.
4. This could seriously jeopardize a student’s chances of admission at any college to which s/he applies, particularly because the student signs a document saying that the work is his/her own. From the Common App: I certify that all information submitted in the admission process – including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials – is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented …”
We also ask that the parents discuss these issues with the agents that they hire.
I don’t pretend that this will solve the issue overnight; it may scarcely make a dent. However, we feel that it is important that the parents become aware of the issue, as they are the ones hiring the agents in addition to the services we offer. If the parents understand the magnitude of the potential problems and damage that this can cause to a student’s college applications, maybe the system will slowly begin to change and the good agents will supplant the not so good ones.
Like Sarita, Anne Richardson and the other administrators at Kents Hill recognize that application “doctoring” by agents and other outside advisors can ultimately jeopardize a candidate’s admission chances. Sure, there are students—both international and domestic—who cheat on applications and get away with it. But, increasingly, college admission officials are looking closely for signs of dishonesty, and applications from international students often get extra scrutiny.
Years ago, when I worked in the office of admission at Smith College, my director, Nanci Tessier (now Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Richmond) used to exhort her staff members to “be detectives.” She showed us how to watch for inconsistencies and for other “flags” that might suggest that information on the application was exaggerated or downright untrue. (Example: A teacher recommendation describes a senior as “smart but almost pathologically shy.” The student lists on the application that she is president of her school’s student government. This seems an unlikely role for a timid teenager and, after a follow-up phone call, it does turn out to be a fabrication.)
Similarly, essays written by adults are often easy to spot, especially when the “voice” in the essay doesn’t resemble the one in the writing section of the SAT or ACT. Admission officials do give their applicants the benefit of the doubt. They understand that an essay composed under pressure during a timed session can’t benefit from the same careful editing that an application essay might. But, even so, as Anne Richardson points out, there are many essays—especially from foreign students who are not native English speakers—that set off alarm bells in admission offices.
After Ms. Richardson posted her comments on the NACAC listserve, other admission professionals responded by agreeing that they, too, are struggling to convey to international students and their parents that the assistance they receive from agents and other overseas advisors is not only unscrupulous but also inaccurate.
Of course, the U.S. college admissions maze is difficult to navigate … even for Americans who attend high schools where all their peers are enduring the same confusion and where skilled college counselors may be available to serve as guides. So it’s understandable that parents who live outside the U.S., who are new to this process, and who may not speak English will be eager to enlist a seasoned expert to lead them.
But keep in mind that any “expert” who volunteers to write essays, to complete applications, or who promises acceptance at specific colleges is truly not an expert at all. Even if they insist that their involvement will be “secret,” it is likely that the essays they write will be viewed as inauthentic in admission offices (and they may even recycle the same essays among multiple clients!). Telltale signs of agent involvement will hurt chances of acceptance more than any agent assistance will help. Thus, when hiring a private consultant, look for those like Sarita who can provide evidence of appropriate education and experience, a list of references (preferably from students outside your home nation as well as within it), and who—above all—insist that they will help you to understand the application expectations but won’t do the work for you.
Next Admissions Without Borders: How to benefit from working with agents … ethically