I’m inspired today to address a sticky topic: the moral issues around getting help with your personal statement/essays for college or MBA admissions.

What Should a Professional Writing Consultant Do?

A writing consultant should coach, explore ideas, and help applicants see what is unique about them and their life experiences. They should draw connections and suggest directions to take, layers to add, and ways to best impress an admissions committee. Sure, they might also suggest a few grammatical or organizational corrections. But in the end, the essay is ALWAYS the client’s essay, NOT the consultant’s.

Still, there are people who are troubled by the concept of what consultants do. Here’s a comment I received after posting a request for a college essay coach:

“… I find this topic/”profession” very troublesome. It’s a slippery slope from coaching a young person about choosing a topic and format and helping them focus to, in effect, writing it for them or do such extensive edits that it’s no longer the student’s PERSONAL essay. Yes, I’m sure there are essay consultants that put on the brakes, and this one could be one of them, but a position description that is so blatant about the role (“… take a drab Free College Consulting application essay and turn it into gold!”)… gives me pause. I’m not naive – far from it – but of all the pieces in the college application package subject to “help”, the essay should be the most sacrosanct.”

The concerns expressed here are my concerns as well. We as consultants should do our best to turn the drab into gold, but by asking key questions of the applicant – not by writing the essay.

The NYT and The WSJ Chime In

Not long after receiving the above comment, I also came across an article that related the results of a conference attended by nearly 5,000 admissions officers and counselors. The group, which included professors, admissions officers, and other college administrators, offered nine pieces of practical advice for writing personal statements. I was happy, and frankly relieved, to see “Have an editor. All panelists advised having a close, trusted editor and an objective, outside reader.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that 20% of admitted students used an M.B.A. admissions advisor in the application process. The WSJ also stated that “As the consulting industry has grown, some business schools have become more accepting of it.” In fact, the managing director of M.B.A. admissions and financial aid at Harvard Business School uses admissions consultants as a resource “to ‘get some field intelligence’ about how prospective students view the school and its admissions process.”

The Difference They Make

It is unquestionable that having a talented editor can give applicants an edge. And not everyone has a family member, guidance counselor or close friend who can serve as an editor or consultant. Indeed, what a true consultant can offer that a friend or relative cannot, is an objective eye and the perspective of someone who has read dozens, if not hundreds, of essays. They’ll make sure your essay does not sound like anyone else’s.

I believe consultants provide an extremely valuable service and that they should not cross the ethical line that would have students presenting an essay that is not theirs. Their purpose and privilege is to help transform pedantic or blah essays into stories that capture the hearts and minds of the admissions committee.


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