Ethics behind college essays


Kathleen McElroy, Managing Editor

For many students, attending a top university has been their biggest dream since childhood. As a student attending a prestigious college preparatory school, I have felt the pressure of college admissions since my first day of middle school. With each year, the acceptance rate at top universities decreases, further emphasizing how important it is for students to stand out during the application process. While a student’s GPA and test scores allow them to be considered for an acceptance, colleges do not hand out acceptance letters simply because of a perfect score on the ACT or a 4.0 unweighted GPA. In the wise words of the Harvard President, Drew Faust, the students of Harvard University must stand out in ways besides their GPA and test scores, as Harvard’s incoming class could be filled “twice over ” with high school valedictorians. Once upon a time, extracurricular activities were another form of setting students apart from each other. However, given LJCDS’ heavy emphasis on students acting as scholars, artists, and athletes, half of my classmates are on my field hockey team and the other half are on the school’s volleyball team. In each of my academic classes, I could list six peers that participate in the same three clubs I also participate in. This leads to the only remaining factors for setting students apart: college essays and letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are a fairly simple way to improve one’s application, and, as long as students choose teachers that truly know their character and are decent writers, they should have a strong letter. College essays, on the other hand, are a completely different matter.

Acceptance Rates at Top Universities This Year:

Photo credit: IvyCoach

College essays demonstrate a student’s character, passions, and life experience while many other factors of the admissions process do not show as much proof of a student’s personality. While my transcript may show my A- in Geometry freshman year, my grade shows nothing about my behavior in that class or my relationship with my teacher. Grades and test scores simply provide colleges with a baseline of a student’s intellectual capabilities, proving just how important college essays are in setting apart one valedictorian from another. 

As a student at La Jolla Country Day, I realize the privilege I have gained while attending this school. As a rising senior, I will soon be able to work one-on-one with a professional writer working with the College Counseling Department and will be able to use the school’s resources to improve my essays. I will be able to get help shaping my ideas and creating clear thoughts, two components that could completely elevate my essay. While I believe that getting more eyes to view your work is completely ethical, if those additional readers change your essay completely, the moral line is crossed. In most cases, having another individual rewrite students’ essays is more likely to occur with an out-of-school writer or college counselor, as they require a larger fee and have less clients.

This ethical debate is emphasized as wealthy members of society are able to afford a service that others are unable to pay for. An anonymous Stanford graduate student mentioned in the Stanford Magazine said that she “fel[t]” like she was “helping someone” who “might not have” gotten in without her help, and that she can justify this because she believes there is a chance they might “do something good with th[at] chance.” On the one hand, a professional writer can make a full-time career from their skills while a Stanford graduate student can make “$20 to $30 per hour.” 

Another concern regarding college essays is the true ability of a student, as theoretically, these essays are written by 17-year-olds, so while the spelling and grammar mistakes should be limited, the essay shouldn’t be perfect. The essay needs to represent the student’s writing abilities, and having a professional writer re-write the essay takes the attention away from personal experiences. Instead, the essay starts to focus on a general, superficial story. Without the student’s voice, the essay begins to lack uniqueness and may begin to sound like the thousands of other essays written by other qualified professional writers. 

At the end of the day, there are many other factors of the college admissions process that are unequal, and college essays are just one of the many. It is understandable that parents would want to spend as much money as possible trying to help their kids the best they can, yet it is not something that should be justified. The importance of a college essay is the personalization of it, and that should be considered when families are deciding whether or not they want to hire additional help for their children’s essays. 

Cover photo credit: Harvard University