There are four main categories of individuals and businesses currently offering college advising and application essay services. I will take them in order to describe what they offer and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The first category is individuals and companies offering themselves as “College Counselors” or “College Application Advisers.” Many of the individuals running these businesses have degrees in Psychology and credentials in counseling. In general, their focus is on the application process as a whole and essay development is generally left largely to the applicant, beyond some brainstorming and a generalized response to the final essays. In some cases this is because the counselor feels that the essay should show the student’s own skill level and thinking without significant editing help; more often, in my opinion, the student is largely on his or her own because most college counselors don’t have the writing chops to be of serious use. This doesn’t mean that the overall package offered by your typical college counselor lacks value, but I have worked with many students who already pay a college counselor but who still need more help with their essays.
I include my own services in this first category because I offer college advising and selection services, but I also focus on developing persuasive and superior supplemental materials, particularly in working with supplemental activities and in developing superior essays. This is partly because of my background, which is academic and editorial and which gives me a highly pragmatic approach, and partly because most of the people I work with are Juniors or have completed their Junior year, and by that point, your GPA has taken shape and so has the trajectory of your coursework. You can’t make a big improvement in your grades other than finishing strong as a Junior and maintaining your GPA as a Senior, but you can still make a big impact through supplemental materials, particularly your essays and any activities associated with the essays.
A second category of service providers is the large test prep companies, such as Kaplan, which focuses on standardized test prep but which has, over the years, developed a college advising package. The overall quality of the services they offer is decent to very good, but again the essay and supplemental materials side of the application is more an add-on to the services they traditionally offer and you will be in a setting more like a distance learning or on-site class for most of their services, rather than in a truly individualized setting–unless you want to pay a lot of money, that is. The quality of instruction varies quite a bit and there is a fairly high rate of turnover as they often hire folks who are recent graduates or may be picking up money while completing an advanced degree.
In addition, these are generally for-profit companies, and their college prep packages, even those offered in a class setting, can run into the thousands of dollars. While they are cheaper than the more pricey college counselors in the most expensive places, like New York, these companies are still an expensive option and can be unsatisfactory due to varied instructional quality and those looking for a program which is individually tailored.
In addition to these, you can find plenty of cheesy sites promising an essay “review,” which will amount to about a paragraph offering an overall evaluation and a few suggestions for improvement, supported by what amounts to some margin notes. They are not personalized services but are businesses which farm your essays out to low-paid and usually inexperienced editors. If getting a cheap review is your only concern, go ahead, but you will get what you pay for here. Some of these same sites also offer ghost writing “services,” which is the final category I will discuss.
Ghost writers do have a place in the world, such as when a ghost writer helps an inarticulate celebrity put out a biography, but ghost writing has no place in the writing of college application essays. The business model of ghost writing sites involves offering essays, often very cheaply, (as little as twenty dollars, in some cases) written by someone else who pretends to be you. This is, of course, unethical. While nobody will put you in jail for this kind of fraud, you would be kicked out of school if this were ever revealed and your life could be badly damaged if not ruined. But the main reason you should avoid these people is that it’s just bad for you to fake your way through life, and it’s bad for those around you, too.
Turning back to the legitimate businesses and individuals, my main criticism is that they give the most help in easiest areas of the college application process and the least help in the most difficult. Sure, a traditional college counselor can save time and family strife in walking parents and students through college selection, but they generally treat the application essays as a kind of adjunct project, largely up to the individual inspiration of their clients. It is my view that your college application essays are too important to be left for the last stage of the application. You should be developing them no later than the summer prior to your Senior year, and you should seek help in shaping and reshaping them. They can sway a reader if you are in the gray area created by the rubrics which admissions officers use to judge you–for a detailed explanation, see this link–and as admissions become increasingly competitive, essays have increasingly become the deciding factor in whether many are admitted or not. And if you are put into a classroom setting, be it online or at a physical location, you are another face in the crowd–it’s not a waste of time, but it’s also not optimal.
Don’t forget, the holistic universities (those who require essays) are intentionally emphasizing subjective factors and human judgement–the gut reaction of your admissions reader does matter. So don’t settle for a merely decent effort in your essays or for someone who sees their duty as complete after making a few margin notes or giving you a simple thumbs up or thumbs down on your essays.
I will close this post by presenting a simple comparison. Below I will show you both an example of my editing and compare my package of services to one of my current competitors–Brown University, which has decided to make money off its own college applications process by putting the college application essay into an online class for which it charges a lot of money. (Is this cynical of Brown? I don’t know, but it does suggest that they have accepted the reality that most students who apply to Brown use professional editing help, and are using that fact to promote their own general essay writing class to high school Juniors.)
My clients’ essays are always kept confidential, but I offer here an example of how I can edit as I take a long and somewhat convoluted essay by a well-know contemporary author, paring it down and focusing it so it is a 500-word essay suitable for a college application. Have a look at what is on both links to see how I can reshape a piece of writing into something that fits into the five-hundred word limit imposed for most undergraduate applications.
The editing I will do on your essay will be even more detailed–you will find considerable commentary along with suggested additions, corrections and deletions.
In order to make a more detailed comparison of what’s on offer and what it will cost you, let’s have a look at Brown university’s online class in preparing for college writing, where they include the college application essay; go here for the tuition and then use the tabs to look at the course description.
This is Brown, so this is a good class, but they want well over 1,000 dollars for this course and only one college application essay is included in the curriculum, which is primarily meant to prep you for Freshman English and writing research papers at Brown. Read the course description closely, using the tab at the top, to see this for yourself. Keep in mind another important difference from the personalized services I offer: the instructor will be dealing with the equivalent of a huge lecture hall, so your essays will generally be graded either by a graduate assistant or an adjunct, and the detail and quality of their responses can vary widely. I edit all of your work personally and communicate with you directly.
And most of you will want to write three to five essays for your college applications, not one, yet you will finish this 1,395 dollar class with only one college essay ready to go. This is not a terribly efficient or cost-effective way to approach your college essays this summer.
In contrast, if you use my services, you will end up with multiple essays, each of which I have edited line-by-line, with detailed commentary, and each essay edited through three total drafts, ending with a polished final product that is ready to submit; in addition, everything we do is specifically tailored to you. In fact, for a little over half what Brown charges you in their online course, I will help you write five application essays to Brown’s single application essay, and I will take you from your first draft through a third, polished draft. If you want to write fewer essays and spend less money, I can work with you on a single essay at a time. I assist you step-by-step, and you can be proud of an excellent final product that really represents you.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am available for personal consultations and assistance, or we can use Skype if you live further afield from me but want a more conversational approach. Othwerwise, we will use e-mail and phone communication as we develop and exchange drafts until you are satisfied.
Send me a draft of a college or other essay for a free sample edit. My calendar will fill rapidly from July on, so don’t wait too long.
E-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org