Illustrations by Ketch Wehr
Hey China, you’re welcome. When you think about your future multi-million dollar shipping moguls, innovative tech giants, and up-and-coming diplomats, please remember a small handful of them probably received their Ivy League degrees thanks to me.
I’m a black market college admissions essay writer, and over the last three years I’ve written over 350 fraudulent essays for wealthy Chinese exchange students. Although my clients have varied from earnest do-gooders to factory tycoon’s daughters who communicate primarily through emojis, they all have one thing in common: They’re unable to write meaningful sentences.
Sometimes this inability has stemmed from a language barrier, but other times they have struggled to understand what American college admissions committees are looking for in a personal essay. Either way, they have all been willing to pay me way more than my old waitressing job ever paid me.
Although I’m a second-generation Korean American like some of my clients, I never felt pressured to become a doctor or a lawyer. I majored in art history at college, and after graduation, I found myself bouncing from retail jobs to temp work. Every day, I loafed about in bed. Reading my friends’ Facebook statuses about finishing law school and starting their dream jobs, I wondered if I should ever leave my house. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or if I even possessed any skills someone could pay me to use – at least I didn’t know until my friend told me I could reap in a cash bonanza forging wealthy Asian students’ college essays.
Once I started ghostwriting essays, I quickly went from making $8.50 (€6.46) an hour as a waitress to making $2,000 (€1,522) in two weeks. In one admissions cycle, I wrote over a hundred essays and earned enough money to pay my bills for the rest of the year, pay off my car loan, and – as a treat for my hardworking hands – receive $150 (€114) Japanese manicures on a biweekly basis.
Each ghostwriting session starts with a daylong interview. I pry into every intimate corner of a client’s life: her family history, financial background, and childhood secrets. Then I try to pinpoint one relatable thread of pain or humanity, which I can make the focal point of an essay attached to a larger universal theme, like empathy or humility.
For example, one girl – let’s call her Wei – always wondered why her parents looked so much happier in their old photographs. She assumed they looked miserable because they had never wanted a child, let alone a female child, but as she grew older, she noticed her parents worked long hours to support her. Their smiles had become worry lines because they had decided to sacrifice themselves for their daughter. With this knowledge, Wei realised that love comes in many shapes and sizes.
Of course, by sacrifice and long hours, I mean that her parents owned a multi-million dollar company. Wei regularly enjoyed spa getaways with her mother as her father traveled, closing massive deals, but Wei mentioned she had seen photos where her parents looked happier – I could use this moment in an essay to show a sliver of introspection. Did I fabricate some details? Yeah. Did the story sound like a greeting card? Sure. But most importantly, did she get into her top-choice school? Hell yes she did.
Like most black market workers, I picked up my payment at designated pick-up locations at malls and in Starbucks. Sunglasses and a trench coat weren’t required, but with every nondescript envelope of payment, I swallowed my ethical misgivings. I knew for every wealthy Chinese client I helped, there were a dozen struggling natives who needed as much of a helping hand.
Of course, I didn’t have time for moral quandaries. As my name became more popular, I found myself with more clients than I had time to help. I couldn’t interview all of them, so I needed to find a way to produce essays faster. My solution: writing about my own intimate experiences.
One December evening, I used one of my most embarrassing moments as the basis for an essay for a 17-year-old Chinese girl who had never desired something she could not afford. The event happened shortly after my father abandoned my family when I was a kid, leaving us broke. Our water and lights were turned off, and my mom was working multiple jobs to support us. Since we lacked utilities, my mother washed our laundry at the local Laundromat. One day, she left our laundry at the Laundromat while she went to finish errands. When she returned, she discovered that someone had stolen our clothes from the washer. The stolen laundry comprised most of the clothes we owned, so my mother took my sister and me to Goodwill to buy clothes. A classmate spotted me at the thrift store, and the next day at school, she pointed at me and called me poor in front of my entire English class.
As a college admissions essay, this story was pure gold. You could wrap anything around the story, and it would work, especially since students love rags-to-riches tales.
Except, my life was still made up of rags. Nothing exemplified my rags better than me sitting in front of the laptop, preparing to sell this still wounded part of myself for $400 (€304), but without any debate, I emailed the essay to my 17-year-old client.
The loss hit me immediately. Looking at my closed computer, I felt like a stranger to myself. Every time I used my weaknesses and memorable moments in my clients’ essays, I felt a part of myself disappear. Already floundering in that directionless void of post-college life, I began to lose the one anchor I had: myself.
I don’t know what I was expecting in return from the student. Would my client feel the pain of the story and then question the ethics of using another person’s life as an admissions essay? Would she call me and thank me for cutting out a personal part of my heart for her? Later, I received a one-word email from her: “Thanks.” The message stung. I thought about the itchy Goodwill sweater and how much itchier it had felt as I cried after my classmate mocked me. I had given up a private piece of myself for the bargain price of $400 (€304). I logged off and shut down my laptop.
The voice of a college admissions essay is very specific, especially when you’re writing from the perspective of a Chinese exchange student. You have to portray a lot of their expected characteristics while simultaneously fighting against some of their more negative stereotypes. You have to be timid yet idealistic, ambitious yet giving, and reserved yet honest. Selling personal stories of yourself written in the voice of strangers who lack empathy and humility will eventually dissolve you. At the end of every writing season, I always swear I will quit, but I’m still broke with no idea about the shape of my future. I can deny it all I want, but I know, come this fall, I will be in front of my computer at 2 AM mining my brain for another piece of myself to sell for $400 (€304).