Who’s Essay is This, Anyway?

I e-mailed Eric and his parents: “We need to work on this essay. It sounds like an adult wrote it.” I decided I’d save the explanation about the admissions reps knowing how 17-year-olds write for the later discussion we would be sure to have when Eric’s parents denied writing the piece in question.

A few days later I received an e-mail from Eric’s mother that read, “Did you say the essay sounds like an adult wrote it? Could that be because an adult did write it? What should we do?” What should you do? Give the essay to Eric and let him write it.

I had spent hours with this student, gently coaching him along, careful not to intrude too much on his writing. He had high aspirations but his writing and grades were mediocre. He had native intelligence but was averse to hard work. We plodded along most of the summer, getting his main essay in shape. He worked like a snail, a tiny bit here and there, but nothing much to speak of. It took weeks for him to have something useful for his main Common Application essay.

One day in the fall he appeared with a hard copy of one of his supplemental essays in hand, an odd event for him as he usually came unprepared to our sessions. I had already seen his lackluster draft, an uninspired piece about being a pirate. The student talked about wearing knickers and having a parrot on his shoulder. It was a description one might find in a children’s book.

I picked up the revision and read, “Equality through the redistribution of wealth (otherwise known as stealing from the rich), as well as the rules of fair play in duels, and collective decision making amongst my mates, would be the hallmarks of my piratical ideal. Like Disney’s Jack Sparrow, Sabatini’s Captain Blood and Goldman’s Black Roberts, I would be a self-serving, risk-taking buccaneer but a fundamentally altruistic man.”

“This looks nothing like your essay, Eric.”

“Yeah, well, my dad added a bunch of stuff.”

The student didn’t seem to care much about the quality of his work, but clearly his parents did. He was happy to let them pave the way for his admission to a good school, one that might even be more than he could manage.

Things continued like this. Each essay bore the stamp of either the father or the mother, depending on the topic. In fact, one day when the student and I were meeting, mom called to say, “I am working on revising Eric’s essay on marijuana and I found a club at ______ College devoted to decriminalizing possession of marijuana. Would that be something to work into this essay?”

Like all parents, this couple surely wants the best for their child—a good education leading to a promising future and the ability to be a fully functioning adult. Who doesn’t want that for their child? But in hijacking the writing process, parents unknowingly deprive their child of a basic and fundamental experience: that of competence. By rewriting their child’s essays and leaving not a shred of his own voice in the process, parents are telling their child that their work isn’t good enough, that they cannot count on their own voice to express their desires, that they are, essentially, not able to speak for themselves.

Those of us who guide students through the college choice process believe that the people reading these essays are savvy enough to realize when an essay has been written by someone other than the student. But it seems to me one of most fundamental issues we can raise as IECs is not what this will do to the students’ college chances, but what this will do to the students’ sense of self. I plan to make sure I address that issue with all of my upcoming students so I don’t have to read about another parent’s secret desire to “don his black velvet coat with gold buttons at the cuff.”