Essay photo courtesy Pexels.

What It’s Like Writing Fake Essays for Wealthy International Students

College admissions fraud is a global industry. Just ask these 'tutors.'

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Apr 5 2019, 3:15pm

Essay photo courtesy Pexels.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Anthony* is a graduate of a top-tier American university, a former adjunct at several American schools, and currently works at a college application consulting company based in Seoul. He holds two degrees, and his own SAT score was near-perfect.

On a typical day, Anthony (whose name has been changed to protect his employment) might check his clients’ email accounts and respond to their messages, log into their school accounts to check the status of their applications, and pay various application fees online. Crucially, he’ll spend hours on the phone with his clients—hopeful Korean teens, anxious about their college prospects and eager to please their parents by getting into the right school.

Utilizing college application consultancies is standard procedure in most urban areas of Korea and China, and it isn’t necessarily unethical. Filling out an application can be a daunting process for a native speaker, let alone for a student reading it in a second language. But as larger and larger sums become the norm in test prep and related fields, many of these companies can offer special, deluxe services for the right price—namely, some companies will commit outright fraud to get their customers into the schools of their choice.

If you’ve ever filled out a college application, or have a child who has, you’ll know that the process requires extensive details about a potential student’s ambitions, experiences, successes, and areas of interest.

The students discuss everything with Anthony—he discovers their hobbies, interests, worries, fears, goals, challenges, passions, and problems. If they do not have/cannot articulate any of these things, it is his job to create them. Creating passions. Inventing hobbies. Piecing together an interesting personality that they never actually developed.

He will anchor the helpful fictions he creates in reality. Hopefully, that will make them easier for the kids to remember. If they’ve ever been, say, dragged to a museum in Seoul by their parents—well, even if they were playing with their phone the whole time, he’ll take that real experience, look up a current exhibit, and write an essay about how impactful the art was, and how inspired it made them feel. That raw data will give him the veneer of plausibility he needs to do his job.

And then he will write their college application essays for them, from beginning to end. “I’m an academic mercenary,” Anthony said.

Last month the US Department of Justice charged dozens of wealthy Americans in a wide-ranging scheme to bribe, cheat, lie—and even photoshop—their children’s way into various universities. Anthony was not surprised by the revelations of “Operation Varsity Blues.”

“My first assignment was to take an entire online college course for a kid. I finished a master’s thesis for a student at [a top three Korean university], I’ve written philosophy papers for students at [a top ten American university]… And I hate these kids. And their parents," says Anthony. "They're invariably the worst sort of people—rich, awful, entitled.”

Anthony notes that a few are really sweet—genuinely bright, kind, impressive kids. But according to him, a great many are not—a combination of lazy, wealthy, and dull, with little curiosity and few interests beyond plastic surgery or League of Legends (a hugely popular online multiplayer game).

After five years, Anthony has a long list of success stories. He’s helped unqualified students bullshit their way into not only Ivy League schools, but big state universities as well.

The fake essay racket is a thriving industry in the US, but it’s arguably even bigger business in East Asian countries like China and Korea, where 1) applicants to Western schools are writing their essays in a second language, 2) plagiarism can be seen as less ethically dubious due to a collectivist culture/mindset, and 3) academic competition is even more cut-throat, and standardized test stakes even higher. A Western degree, particularly one from the US, can be very desirable in the Chinese job market, and potentially leads to greater opportunity as well as more rapid advancement. It’s also a bit of a status marker. Thirty percent of all foreign students in the US are now Chinese, and as of last summer, there were 340,000 in the country.

“What surprised me is that even 13- or 14-year-old kids already know their parents can buy their way into American schools.”

Anthony has had success at the high school level as well. Wealthy Koreans want their kids to have an English or American boarding-school pedigree, and he notes that “most of these places want an essay from the parents as well, about their child. So, one day I’ll pretend to be the kid and write his essay. And then the next day I’ll pretend to be the mom and write the parent essay, too. The majority of the parents only speak Korean. Last year, I got a kid who was a complete idiot into [an elite northeastern boarding school in America]. Tuition there is probably between 60k and 80k.”

If a fake entrance essay is successful, often these students have no choice but to continue paying for academic work that isn’t theirs. Anthony confirms that clients returning for more help once they’re at university isn’t unusual: “Once they get to class, they realize how in over their head they are. They start failing because they can’t handle the workload themselves. They need us even more. So I also write essays for Ivy League students.”

Mo Panahi, a 30-year-old American from Kansas, has been teaching ESL in Korea and China for the past five years. He spent the past year at a self-styled private American academy in Xiamen, a major southern seaport in China.

“What surprised me is that even 13- or 14-year-old kids already know their parents can buy their way into American schools,” says Panahi, a detail notably different from many of the students involved in the Singer scandal, who seemingly were unaware their parents were putting a hand on the scale for them.

“Many times I’d tell a student to stop sleeping, to pay attention to the test prep, and they’d say something like, ‘It doesn’t matter, teacher. My father is rich and I will be handed down a company. He can afford to get me into any school I want in America, Canada, or Australia, I don’t care about English.’” The newly rich in China have simply embraced something wealthy Americans have long known: everything is for sale.

Panahi says that in Xiamen, it's common for parents to create a post seeking a tutor, or a native speaker to help write an application essay, “and then when you respond to the job, you quickly realize you'll simply be writing the whole essay."

There wasn’t much American about Panahi’s employer (he was the lone American instructor, at least) but that didn’t stop them from billing it as the Vermont International Academy.

“They framed some ‘certificate’ on the wall in the office stating that the school has no real connection to Vermont or Vermont public school curriculum, only that it's a decent school, in the writer's opinion. I'm not sure why they hung that up there, I guess they hope no one will look too closely,” Panahi says, laughing.

Panahi also says that most parents won’t dig too deep—as long as they see a few diverse faces in the classrooms, it won’t matter that many instructors aren’t native speakers, or that the boss has an Eastern European accent. In fact, when I tried to visit the school’s website, I was redirected to a dubious looking gambling site that reader safety prevents me from linking to here. Other listings give a Vermont address that appears to be a Salvation Army on Google Street View, and a phone number that nobody answers.

Rachel Toor, former admissions officer at Duke University and author of Write Your Way In: Crafting an Unforgettable College Admissions Essay was surprised by none of the details of “Operation Varsity Blues,” but feels for the students.

“I think there are unintended consequences for students whose parents do too much to pave the way: The kids internalize the idea that they’re not good enough,” says Toor.

Toor has watched a similar dynamic play out over the decades with her own classmates from Yale, who still suffer from “imposter syndrome.” She also notes that to some extent, “we all do, but when you know your parents are not just greasing the wheels, but cheating on your behalf because you can’t make it on your own? That’s got to hurt.”

Anthony, however, sees mostly feelings of entitlement. Unlike some of the students caught up in the American scandal, his are fully aware of their parents’ actions. “They’re excited about ‘their’ essay. When they talk about it, it's with real pride. They talk about 'my essay’ or say 'I got into Yale.’ But I wrote 100 percent of the essay.”

***

Xinmeng Xu (English name: Hermione), 19, a sophomore at the University of California-San Diego, is decidedly not one of those kinds of students. A native of Qingdao, a coastal city in China’s Shandong province, Hermione estimates that among her friends “around 95 percent or more used some external help, since the applications are difficult for 16- to 18-year-old students.”

While there are plenty of students like Hermione who pride themselves on doing their own work, she explains that a lot of consultants offer essay writing as a service, and some of her friends used this “special” service. In that case, the application teachers would collect some of the ‘raw materials’ about the students—or even not—and proceed to write those essays on their own. Those students needed to sign a consent form, giving up their rights to look at or edit the essay/personal statement written by application teachers. This way they had more time to prepare for TOEFL, ACT/SAT, or “to simply just have fun.”

“My friends who used that service didn’t get into any trouble,” says Hermione, “so it seemed pretty unfair, especially when I struggled so much.”

For Anthony’s clients, questions of character are beside the point. “Nobody in Seoul thinks of this in ethical terms," he said. "I’ve never once heard anyone voice any concerns, and I’ve even worked with professor’s kids.” There’s a similar, and telling flippancy/absence of ethical qualms in the records of the recent indictments as well, possibly best represented by Felicity Huffman’s (admittedly amazing) usage of a Scooby-Doo reference (ruhh-roh!) in an email to her own child’s college application consultant.

“It’s how people at the top maintain power,” says Anthony. “This is how you get incompetent people in powerful positions. This is how you get a Jared Kushner.”

Essay creation is only one aspect of the services these types of consultancies provide—being well-connected, they also sell internships for big fees, and if they can’t find a real one, they’ll cook something up.

“The boss has friends at [a top three Korean university], so—for a fee—he funnels these students into an 'internship' there. They may show up now and then. They’ll shadow grad students, or they’ll learn, say, how to operate some expensive physics gizmo. Well, they only got the opportunity to learn that because they bought the experience. They may not have even been interested in physics,” Anthony said, stressing again that often his clients have no passion or intellectual curiosity for their majors or programs—the company cares little for their natural aptitudes or interests.

Some believe these wealthy clients are being swindled. That it doesn’t matter what school you go to, that an Ivy League pedigree is a meaningless status symbol, and people shelling out hundreds of thousands to photoshop their kids into top schools are suckers.

That depends on what these parents think they’re buying. If it’s simply a good education, Toor quite rightly points out that “you can get a good education anywhere. The degree matters less than what you do in college.”

Of course, education isn’t what’s for sale here, and it’s doubtful “Aunt Becky” weighed the various merits of schools’ journalism or computer science programs. Parents are buying their children the chance to meet the elite, whether it’s at Seoul National, Harvard, or Tsinghua.

Harvard's Schlesinger Library
Harvard's Schlesinger Library. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“It’s how people at the top maintain power,” says Anthony. “This is how you get incompetent people in powerful positions. This is how you get a Jared Kushner.”

As far as fixes are concerned, Toor thinks that it would be helpful for students to submit graded work from high school, so admissions officers can see what students are being taught, but concedes that it “could lead to more hectoring by parents of already underpaid and stressed out teachers. Timed writing prompts, submitted immediately, could be effective. But honestly, if they [parents] feel OK about what they’re doing, nothing I can say is going to change anything. I just wonder what lessons about character they think they’re teaching.”

For Anthony’s part, he feels “it’s weird that school should even be a meritocracy… we are handing out knowledge, so why should you have to be a certain social class to access it? Pump more money into education, and let anyone go anywhere they want. Admit more students. Why is knowledge limited to those who got the best test score? If this is fraud, then [the process of] getting a job is fraud.”

Nothing about last month’s detailed reveal surprises him, but he allows that “I sort of love how shocked everyone is pretending to be. Hey, schools are engines of class warfare—surprise.”

The roots of the problem are deep: There is no international oversight committee for this. Admissions offices don’t always have the staffing to look into suspicious applications. Many contemporary university presidents have MBAs, or come from a business background rather than academia. And as the hooks of privatization sink deeper into public universities (see: Purdue and Kaplan), college tuition continues to rise, untethered to any realistic benchmark except an investors’ expectation of profit. This in turn makes higher education unaffordable to more and more people each year, and turns one-time institutions of social mobility into exclusive, gated communities for the children of America’s most-privileged. A 2017 study discovered that 38 colleges in America have more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than they have from the bottom 60 percent—and that includes five Ivy League schools (Brown, Dartmouth, Penn, Princeton, and Yale). That student loan debt is now the US’s second largest consumer debt area—higher than credit cards, and lower than only housing—only exacerbates the situation.

The problem isn’t that a bunch of rich celebrity offspring have taken spots that more deserving kids should have earned—the problem is, those spots were never really for those students in the first place. Those spots were always for sale. Higher education is being successfully monetized, whether it’s skyrocketing tuition, student loans, NCAA broadcast rights, student parking fines, or the application process itself. “Operation Varsity Blues” reflects that reality.

Toor, however, sees at least one potential upside for last month’s revelations.

“Honestly, if the fallout of all this is that degrees from elite schools mean less? That would be the best outcome.”

*Name has been changed.

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