Let’s use the admission essay to detect cheating

For would-be college students sweating over the prospect of writing their admission essay for the application season, here’s a cheery thought. This will be the last writing checkpoint they will pass in their entire educational journey.

Get through this, and they will never again have to worry about being a competent writer. Or, at least, nobody will ever again try to make them into a competent writer. After all, once they’re in college, the assumption is that they already know how to write.

Except that we all know that this is by no means universally true. That is why I had enough customers to make a living during my decade of ghostwriting students’ papers. And that is why, more than a decade since my retirement from professional cheating, others like me continue to make a living.

When higher education was an elite pursuit, it was assumed that admitted students had all the basic educational tools needed to survive. It was also assumed that technical writing instruction was beneath the dignity of professors. But as educational opportunities multiplied in the second half of the 20th century, competition for space at the most prestigious institutions intensified. By necessity, their admission process grew more complex.

Superficially speaking, the admission essay is designed to add color and depth to each applicant’s academic profile. But, more importantly, it is the primary piece of evidence used to confirm that a college applicant has the basic ability to write.

This is important because, despite massification, college students still do not receive meaningful writing instruction. Yes, I’m aware of your school’s 100-level expository writing requirement; I built my early ghostwriting portfolio churning out these cookie-cutter assignments for struggling students. But they don’t work. That is, students who start college without the ability to write will probably leave college without the ability to write. Many of them will leave without a degree, too – and it is a desperate way to experience college.

It is high time we admitted that things need to change. Classical education is dead. Students go to college to develop practical skills for the 21st century workplace. These are not the same students as the less than 3 percent of the college-aged population who attended an institution of higher learning in 1910, armed with prep-school grooming and patrician breeding. It can no longer be assumed that students arrive with the basic academic skills needed to succeed. A 40 percent non-completion rate within six years serves as pretty damning evidence to the contrary.

Certainly, if we are willing to enroll in college students who struggle to write, we must also be willing to support their academic needs, even if it means re-examining the relationship between college and basic writing instruction. And that could start with the admission essay. If we can use this first active writing sample to better identify and serve students who need meaningful, effective (and ideally ungraded) writing instruction, these students will become significantly less likely to cheat further down the line.

Of course, there will be those who are tempted to cheat on their admission essay, too. I’ve worked for some of them. I once completed an essay for a student applying to Brown University. The essay prompt invited the student “to tell us something more about yourself that would help us towards a sense of who you are, how you think, and what issues and ideas interest you most”. The customer – an aspiring doctor – instructed me to “throw some sort of hook that will make them really look at me. I need about 1,500 words [sic].”

I have no way of knowing if he got into Brown – or the University of Pennsylvania, whose admission essay I also wrote for him. But using his admission essay as a diagnostic tool might have served as its own deterrent. Those like him who are tempted to fake their way through the admission process might be dissuaded by the thought that all their future writing could be measured against this ghostwritten sample. After all, buying your way through every single assignment over four years does not come cheap.

Moreover, those who wrote their own admission essay may be dissuaded from cheating on subsequent college assignments by the thought that this yardstick of their true writing ability exists.

Rather than treating the admission essay as the last writing checkpoint, then, it may be more intuitive to think of it as the first step in the intervention process.

Dave Tomar is a freelance writer and managing editor for Inflection Magazine. His latest book is The Complete Guide to Contract Cheating in Higher Education.

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