higher education

I Write College Essays for Rich Indians Applying to Ivy Leagues

For elite students, cheating extends beyond exams to the process of college applications.

by Anonymous; illustrated by Rahul Das
03 May 2018, 2:30am

Getting into an American college is tough, but can be made easier if you have money. Every single one advertises cutting-edge courses, stellar faculty, and idyllic campus life. And each requires applicants to write certain essays, describing not only why the college is unique, but why they are.

Students—both the poor ones taking a loan and the rich ones paid for by daddy—have to stand out amongst thousands of applications. Desperate for a spot, what do clueless applicants and parents do? In India, where cheating is institutionalised, they hire professionals to do the writing.

I know this first-hand because I am a ghostwriter, and am often called in to “help” such applicants—loan-takers and daddy-sponsored alike. Lack of talent, not democracy, I have learnt, is the Great Leveller.

The reason I take on such jobs is primarily the money. I get paid upwards of Rs. 1 lakh depending on the number of colleges the student is applying to (usually 10). And while I recognise my own hypocrisy, the fact is, the system created a need for people like me. Besides, the students who require my help are no paragons of virtue either.

I start with the CV. According to the typical fake resume, the average applicant has already accomplished far more than I have in my 30-odd years by the time they’ve graduated from school. Students I’ve ghostwritten for have saved the Great Barrier Reef and cured cancer. They’ve captained multiple teams (debating and sports mostly, basketball topping the trend), lead wildlife-saving initiatives, spread social awareness about water contamination and local pollution levels, and slayed their way through international Model UN seminars. Basically, our bundles of precociousness have ripped life a new one already.

Then why do they want to go to Amrika for uni? Why not continue all these good works while staying on and studying in India? To these students, philanthropy is just a stepping stone that provides a return on the investment. And worse, American colleges encourage this expectation. Which begs the question: what kind of young adults are we rearing by sending the implicit message that charity (it's own reward) must open doors to fabulous future employment?

After agreeing to work with any student, I meet them to discuss their essays and prompts. One expects loquacity from teenagers who write long form articles while spearheading the neighbourhood yoga drive, no? Hah! Our debate-winners usually sit slumped on my sofa and answer condescendingly only when spoken to—a sort of reverse-majesty that Liz II of Windsor could take a leaf out of. Otherwise, Mom or Dad do the talking.

Then, I start writing the essays (usually up to three per college; for universities like Notre Dame, UMich, Brown, UChicago, USC, RISD) and getting them approved by the person handling the application processes. Yes, even that is outsourced to an Indian, and it’s big business.

While writing, I often have to build personalities that don't exist. One child has read more books than whoever holds the Guinness record for it. Another has a vocabulary that would shame Shashi Tharoor. A third gets to be a connoisseur of metaphysical Sanskrit poetry. In a word, I imbue these children with exaggerated parts of my own self. There is nothing else I can do.

And while I'm being paid handsomely for this, I have a few concerns. Though my responsibility ends at the essays, I worry these children will be found out, especially at a college that still does interviews. There is no way they will come across as young adults whose lives were changed by reading George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo because… well, none of them have read it (dare I hopefully add, “yet”?). Still, more than 90 percent of my applicants have got into one or more of their preferred universities.

Which brings me to the injustice of it all. These amazing institutions, while being superior centres of learning, have such prohibitive acceptance rates that a truly talented applicant without means just cannot get in. There are scholarships, but those can't be used to pay professional writers like me to help gifted children. Sadly, my expertise is writing, not the education sector, so I'm unable to suggest any alternatives. I can only rail against the system, however feebly.

I imbue these children with exaggerated parts of my own self.

As I imagine my children trying to decide on their majors and minors, I am filled with despondency. No doubt their parents will help them choose everything from jackets to courses and internships for the next four years. But will our proteges truly make anything of themselves after starting their adult lives with fake resumes and faker applications?

These kids will earn fancy foreign degrees that give them access to a host of jobs others can only dream of. Maybe their time at such august institutions will shape them for the better. But, whether or not that inner transformation takes place, they will ultimately go on to earn fabulous amounts of money, perpetuating the cycle of privilege that comes with financial security and excess. When they are grown up, they will have children of their own who will eventually want to go to good colleges. I'll be there for them. And for the money.