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  • Writer's pictureNancy Fries

Self-reflection Against the Backdrop of Scandal

I’ve engaged in a lot of self-reflection on the ethics of what I do recently, especially since learning about the college admissions scandal last week. My introspection actually began in early 2018, when a local high school sophomore died by suicide and left notes attributing his despair to the soul-crushing pressure in our community. I started questioning whether my work alleviates the stressful nature of the admissions process, or contributes to it. The scandal only heightened my growing concern.

And then I received this text:

“Just want to say thank you! In this crazy (and disturbing) time, you have always been above and beyond moral, honest and respectful when it comes to college essays and applications…. So grateful for you and all you do for our community!”

That text meant the world to me, yet I still feel a responsibility to ask whether or not I am part of the problem. So I’m using this blog post to lay it all out there.

My process

Here’s what it looks like when I help teens with their essays. First, we meet to brainstorm topics. I challenge them to look inward and express themselves outwardly—something most teens find uncomfortable. There might be a moment when I’m chatting with a student who thinks she has nothing to write about, and she tells me something she thinks is insignificant. “Wait a minute!” I’ll say. “That’s a great topic right there!” Or he may have a general sense of a topic, but no idea how to approach it. “Tell me about a time when you were working with one of the kids and could see that you were making a difference,” I’ll prompt him. Suddenly, his story comes to life.

My students work on their drafts on their own, without me present, and most subsequent review takes place via Google Docs. After reading a draft, I might say to a student, “Your story is interesting, but I need to know more about how YOU personally contributed to this and what you learned.” I’ll suggest splitting a long, convoluted sentence into two or even three sentences. I’ll change “I want to be apart of the college community,” to “I want to be a part of the college community.” (This is one of the most common errors I see.) Ultimately, the student ends up with an essay in their own voice, reflecting their personal qualities or values in a way that would not otherwise be apparent in the application.

My struggle

Is that unethical? It’s hardly in the same category as paying bribes to gain admission or having a proxy take your SAT. But as an article in today's LA Times notes, it is one of the many ways wealthy families give their students completely legal advantages in college admissions—like hiring a math tutor to improve your grade or a private tennis coach to help you make the varsity team, taking a summer course on a college campus or a service trip abroad. All these costly pursuits might help a student's application. It’s a fact that families who work with me are generally comfortable enough financially to pay me to do so. Some just want me to facilitate a smoother process, but others are hoping my assistance will help their child gain acceptance into the best college possible. “Best” for most of these families is defined as most prestigious and highest ranked. And I will admit that simply by offering my services, I’m implying that the essay matters, and therefore working with me will help your kid get in.  

From the day I launched my business, my tagline has been “Your Essay, Your Voice.” I want to reiterate that I do not write essays for students. I also want to state that I have no evidence that working with me helps students gain admission to colleges that wouldn’t have otherwise accepted them. Yet one parent wrote to me last year after receiving his son’s admission results: “It was clear that you helped make (his) application stand out. When we compare to other students with superior test/grade metrics, the only difference that got him superior results was the application, and we can’t thank you enough.” If that’s actually true, is it unfair?

Leading an essay workshop at SOY, July 2018

Since becoming an empty-nester, I have committed to offering my services pro bono. Last summer I began volunteering at Save Our Youth (SOY), a community-based organization that offers a full slate of after-school programming for middle and high school students, most of whom will be the first in their families to attend college. I provide an essay workshop for the seniors in their college-prep program and attend weekly writing sessions, roaming the room to help students as they craft their essays. Does my volunteer work balance any “unfair” advantage I am giving my paying clients? These are questions I have been asking myself. Ones I cannot yet answer.

The only definite answer I have is that my work gives me a sense of purpose and joy. And I do not want to stop. Therefore, for those who want to work with me, or those who question what I do, I want to clarify my personal and professional standards:

1) I will never make promises with regards to college acceptances. There are other consultants out there who do. One recently filed suit against a family that failed to pay the second half of her $1.5 million fee. She’s gotten a lot of flak about that fee, but hey, the student did apparently get into Dartmouth, so if that’s what you are looking for, she might be the right consultant for you. I have no evidence that working with me helps students be accepted to any particular college.

2) I will never encourage students to participate in activities solely for the sake of college admissions. No charitable organizations formed as resume padders, and certainly no false athletic accomplishments. I do offer guidance to some students on extracurricular activities that might round out their applications, but I make those suggestions based on building upon their interests, enriching their experiences, and helping them identify majors and careers that appeal to them. I also—often to their dismay— suggest they get a job. I will help students find ways to pursue their passions, expand their personal experiences, and serve their communities.

3) I will help students discover many possibilities when it comes to college, regardless of their grades and scores. I will show students the many colleges that will embrace them, with the record they have, where I believe they can thrive. I will be honest if a student is unlikely to be admitted to a particular college and encourage focus on reasonable choices rather than “dream schools.” I will support fit over prestige.

4) I will work with (almost) any student. I do not care whether my students are top performers applying to the most prestigious schools or those who will be delighted to be accepted to a less selective college. The only students I will decline are those with unrealistic expectations and unbalanced lists of colleges that are all reaches. I will support realistic goals.

5) I will ensure students present an authentic picture of themselves through their essays. I will not support students exaggerating their accomplishments or embellishing their stories. I can also tell when another adult—often a parent—has written or edited an essay. It happens every year. I will tell the student if an essay does not sound authentic.

6) I will pursue professional and personal development. I read articles, follow Facebook groups and subscribe to listservs to stay abreast of what is happening in college admissions. I attended a writing retreat last spring. Currently, I am taking an online course on supplemental essays. I will be a life-long learner.

7) I will continue to serve my community by offering my services to low-income, first-generation students.

I welcome any comments and additional suggestions.


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