Why can’t your kid write his own damn essays?

Let’s talk about teaching teens integrity.

I was leafing through the glossy pages of my college’s alumni magazine when I stopped short. There was an article about a 20-something who made the Forbes’ Top 30 Under 30 List.


Sounds pretty run-of-the-mill for an alumni magazine, right?

Then I saw this:

“She held less-than-glamorous jobs: writing college admission essays for high school students, writing grants and ghost-writing two books.”

Uh, let’s read that again, shall we? She was writing college admission essays for high school students… The author just tossed that in with all the other great resume-builders, like, no big deal, everyone knows you can pay someone to write your kid’s college admission essays. What the what?!

This is not cool. Or maybe I’m just old school. Back in my day we wrote our own damn essays.

These days, college is the passport to everything, which means it’s super competitive to get into. So I get why you might want to give your kid a leg up and hire someone to craft the perfect essays. But what does your kid learn from this?

I mentioned this article to a friend of mine and she was all, meh, everybody does it.

Yep, I’m definitely old school.

Here’s my issue with this: IT’S CALLED CHEATING.


Now you might argue that this 20-something-under-30-Forbes-listed chick was assisting or helping or tweaking or editing those essays. And that I can get behind. Because I teach graduate students and their grammar tends towards a-tro-cious. Please get your kid a grammar coach. We professors will thank you. Plus, your kid might learn a thing or two about writing.

BUT the article does not say this young lady was assisting, helping, tweaking, or editing. It says she was writing college essays.

I have no idea what that entails. Does she interview these children to learn their life stories? Does she ghost-write for them, since she ghost-writes for other folks? Does she go through their Facebook feeds and make stuff up based on all the photos from those whitewater rafting trips in Costa Rica?

Or is it purely altruistic, because these children have learning disabilities? I doubt it. I’m sure the alumni mag would’ve noted that in bold font.

Which brings me to this:

Why can’t your kid write his own damn college essays?

Sure, sure, you’re already paying for math tutors, extracurricular study-abroad-junkets and SAT prep classes. All to guarantee kiddo gets into Harvard. So why not throw in a little more cash to tie up that college application package with the perfect Swoozie’s bow – with a couple of perfectly polished essays?

I got no beef with items 1 through 3 above (tutors, trips to Nepal, test prep). It’s your money, spend it on whatever. Also, your kid might learn something from the tutors, he’ll get the experience of a lifetime overseas, and he’ll have to take the SAT by himself. (Right? Or can you pay someone to sit in for him these days?)

It’s the writing college essays part that irks me. What does your kid learn from this?

1) It’s ok to suck at something if you have money. You can always outsource the hard stuff.

2) Kiddo will discover he sucks at a lot – once he gets into Harvard and has to do some actual work. (Although I guess it doesn’t matter, because he can just fall back on lesson #1.)


Then there’s the issue with my alma mater. I have a bone to pick. Because it supposedly has an Honor Code:

“On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/examination.”


I wrote this anti-cheating pledge EVERY TIME I took an exam or wrote an essay.

You can argue that high school students don’t sign this pledge when applying to college, so who cares? But if the high standards around cheating are relaxed pre-college, how can the high standards surrounding cheating be upheld during college?

More to the point, why is my alma mater even mentioning this practice? The 20-something chick has an impressive story regardless. I’d still think she’s completely adorable and awesome without those eight little words.

When an honorable institution nonchalantly tosses in the statement, “writing college essays for high school students,” it NORMALIZES THE PRACTICE.

Alums reading this magazine are suddenly, like, hey, great idea! (Or maybe I’m the only alum bothered by this. Because I’m old school.)

Oh, well, my boys are screwed. Because I’ll make them write their own damn essays. And because they’ll have to compete against applicants whose daddies paid for perfect essays.

Maybe that’s why I’m writing this. Me, a mother of two small children. A mother who usually writes about things impacting small children. But my small children are going to grow into big children. And I want them to understand things like honor and truth-telling and integrity.

My boys are going to confront hard things in life, like classmates with parents willing to bend the rules to give their children an edge – athletically, socially or scholastically. I’m talking on the soccer field or during math camp or by corroborating an alibi for senior skip day. I want my boys to know there are lines we don’t cross. Like cheating to get into college.


I’ll end with a quote about honor. A quote that might have appeared within the pages of that same glossy alumni magazine.

Never suppose that in any possible situation or under any circumstances that it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing however slightly so it may appear to you… Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise … and that exercise will make them habitual…
–Thomas Jefferson

Share your thoughts below or on Facebook at MothersRest.


Photo credit: Olu Eletu from

Well, I sent a letter to the editor…! And here are some great comments from readers and other alumni on Facebook.

Good for you! I agree it is terrible that the same institution which made such a big deal about “the Honor Code” would condone such a lack of integrity!

I feel the same way you do about this practice, but I feel like we might be missing the other side of the story here. I can’t imagine what it would be, but I’m interested in hearing what the magazine has to say, because who the heck could type that and think it was ok??

I didn’t see that article. And I certainly hope UVA isn’t OK with outsourced essays. My kid can hang out with yours – I won’t do her homework! But we’re already encountering this in kindergarten…There were summer reading assignment projects on the first day of school that were obviously not done by a 5 year old. In the end, it only hurts the kid. Buying an essay or doing their project might get them in, but they’ll eventually have to take a test all on their own.

Send a letter to the editor. Or maybe do a bit of research first and then do it (just in case there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this practice that I cannot for a second imagine). Or, better yet, pay someone else to do a bit of research first.

Completely 1000% agree and furthermore *wish* that parents would carry that integrity and not support this!! I can’t fathom paying for my son’s college essays to be written and, if I am, how in the world will he be making it through those 4 years?

I’m a writer by trade. My kids sent me their essays and I inserted notes where I thought they should rethink their approach. I’d like to think I helped them in the long run…

Yes! If you can’t write your own essay, we’ve just taught you that (1) money solves everything (it doesn’t), (2) it isn’t really that important, (3) we don’t think you could actually do it anyway, and (4) mommy & daddy will make it better. In addition to the cheating! Terrible.

Oh, this bothers me no end. I’m a writer. I value good grammar, spelling, punctuation, composition. I have a college freshman who hates to read and doesn’t much enjoy writing, either. I proofread his college essays. I made suggestions. I know I could have written them better. But they weren’t my essays. In the end, he got into a college that was a good fit for him–on his own.

It would have been so, so bad to let someone else write them. Not only would that have said that integrity is unimportant, but it would have sent him the clear message that he was incapable. Yes, he could be a better writer, and hopefully he will learn to be the way we all do: through effort and correction. Not through outsourcing.

I have a high school senior (and junior, too, actually) so we are in the thick of this. My senior has multiple essays to write for various colleges, the IB extended essay, and a TOK essay (also for the IB program), all due before Christmas. While we’ve enlisted helpful teacher friends, his previous English teachers, and my English-major husband to give him pointers and tips, EVERY one of those essays will be his own original thought. And I’m incensed to think he could lose a college spot to someone who merely outsourced their essays.

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