It’s the end of the semester and the beginning of college application season, which means articles about wealthy people paying smart but poor people to do their kids’ work for them.
As someone who teaches college, I always feel I should be more outraged than I actually am about articles like this one in the New York Post, where a bevy of “tutors” spill stories about the rich and famous slackers whose college admissions essays they write. After all, if people like Dave Tomar—who wrote pseudonymously about this topic in the Chronicle of Higher Education back at the end of 2010 and is now peddling a book—helps Madison get into a college for which she’s unqualified, she’s going to eventually end up in my discussion section, texting under the desk about how her totally uncool TA won’t like, just tell her what the thesis of her paper should be.
Like many of the tutors quoted in the article, I paid my way through college editing college admissions essays. And it may work differently on the Upper East Side, but it was almost never the one-way street that the breast-beating, hair-pulling trend stories make it out to be. I mostly interacted with students online. Many were foreign, most had no idea how to even go about writing in the very strange genre of the personal college essay, despite their ease with personal details in 140 characters or less. Applicants tend to fill their 500 words with descriptions of volunteering at the soup kitchen and the inevitable clichés about hard work and determination that you should expect when you ask a 17-year-old to reflect meaningfully on how she sees herself “contributing to the community.” Unless they apply for graduate school, students will likely never write a similar document again.
When I wrote my lengthy responses to these first drafts, I usually tried to avoid telling the kids what I really thought: that they should start over and on an entirely different topic. (My company discouraged that.) Instead, I would seize on some tiny bit of concrete personality: self-deprecation, humor, anything that would indicate that this person had some sort of a pulse, and give advice on how to expand it. I ended up providing more outlines than actual, finished products. And I was always a little surprised to find that the applicants didn’t accept many of my edits. (What were their parents paying me for?)
As for the outrage I don’t really feel: Sure, we can all agree that it’s a rigged deck—that the kids whose parents can pay $150 for a few hours of my time are at an unfair advantage. But we could just as easily make the same argument about, say, regular meals, or any of the other benefits that middle and upper middle class kids enjoy. The tutor fury seems a little misplaced. It’s also worth noting that one of the students in the Post article whose tutor wrote his application essay ended up flunking out in college, so the advantage was very temporary.