“The Business of Essay Writing”

From Sarah Boorboor, an excellent piece in Smart Shanghai.

“We are destroying American higher education piece by piece,” says ‘Steve’, an education consultant in Shanghai. Steve, whose job is essentially ghostwriting college application essays for Chinese students, declined to give his real name, citing the blatant illegal nature of his job and his father’s work in admissions at an American university.

I heard Steve’s story pretty often.

Genoot breaks down the problematic business model used by most agencies in Shanghai: a student is taken on as a mentee for a large sum of money, say 100,000rmb.

The agency guarantees the student will get into one of their top schools or they’ll be refunded the majority of their payment. Even if 20% of the students get into a top school, and the agency must refund a portion of the other 80%, the sheer volume makes the economics worth it. They are still making money. A lot of money.

The guarantee is a clever gambit. And some parents accept a guarantee to a far less selective private college, where the Chinese applicant has a 90%+ chance even without any sort of admission counseling whatsoever.

….Nance’s solution was Dyad, a digital mentorship program, launched in 2012 in Shanghai. Built on a “freemium” model, all content is accessible online for students to follow on their own. This is supplemented by students who pay (from 8,300 to 48,500rmb) for a one-on-one mentorship program, which all claim to be 100% academically honest. Dyad is not the only mission-driven agency with a passionate CEO who claims to be selling the fishing pole, not the fish. Others include Ingenious Prep, Palm Drive and Genoot’s Curio.

Still there’s distrust that the mentorship companies like these are offering are all above-the-board, especially among jaded industry veterans like Steve.

The truth is there is no way to really know. What we do know is these programs run on a different model: they’re selective, meaning they interview students before taking them on, making sure their English lines up with their TOEFL score. They also don’t make guarantees and don’t offer performance-based refunds.

Colleges care about deception, at least the admission officials I know. But it’s really hard to police the “assistance” industry.

These alternatives may become more popular as top universities in the U.S. up the ante, requesting a taped interview along with student’s personal essays. “They get to see the student communicating with a native English speaker, just like the student would have to do with their professors and classmates when they arrive on campus,” says Guy Sivan. Sivan is the CEO of Vericant, a company in Shanghai that conducts and records these interviews. Vericant acts as a fourth party in this equation, offering another way to combat the pervasive cheating problem.

In his time in China, Nance says he’s seen a growth in honest companies but acknowledges cheating is still the norm. “I have seen change, but it’s like a rubber duck in an Olympic swimming pool. It’s going to be a long battle.”

It’s late October and application season is in full swing. This is when Steve’s job gets hard. Dark circles hang under his eyes. He’s staying at the office late each night when he’d much rather be at home playing video games. Most of his students have missed deadlines, neglecting to send drafts of their personal essays for him to “edit.” Time is short. At this pace, he will have one week to write 40 essays for 18 students applying for the November 1 early decision deadline. He explains, indignantly, “When push comes to shove, you’ve got a parent paying a good amount of money for a product and you’ve got to deliver.”