College Application Essays: BUYER BEWARE!!!!!!

A quick rant while I wait for my medication to kick in.

“I can write. I went to a goodest college. I think I’ll be a college essay expert.”

Buyer Beware:

I have been helping teens with the college application essay process for almost two decades. The increasing competition and pressure to get into a top tier school has unleashed an explosion of essay “consultants” who are growing exponentially. This all seems too familiar as it’s following the same frightening trajectory as the SAT/ACT prep market: (Among the many excellent SAT/ACT tutors and some reputable prep companies, there are also quite a few centers that sell gimmicks and tricks while packing kids into classrooms and preying on the anxiety and stress of parents and students while charging exorbitant fees and promising the moon).

The same is happening with college application essay advisers. I have met many qualified, professional and honest essay consultants. However, I am seeing a growth of unqualified people who are all sizzle and no steak. (Pardon the cliché).

Here are some red flags to question. However, if you like the answers you receive and as long as you are comfortable, you are making the right choice. This is a guideline only; not steadfast rules to be set in stone.


“I went to the BESTEST college” If the essay adviser tells you that he went to the Ivy League, Buyer Beware:that alone shows nothing. First, writing your own essay and having the ability to help others do it are two completely different skill sets. Secondly, you don’t know all the factors that got him into the college; they may have nothing to do with the essay.

“I am so clever” If the essay consultant tells you that his essay, “How my life is like the phases of the moon” got him accepted into a top tier school, run away fast! Buyer Beware: First off, the chances are the story is “cow chips.” The reason the College Board eliminated the option to choose your own topic was because most of these types of essays were pretentious and didn’t tell the admission’s people anything about the applicant. If the tale is true, then he is probably a wonderful writer, exceptionally creative and had other factors that led to his acceptance. Bravo for him. However, do you want him to take chances with YOUR son….suggesting “risky” topics because it may have worked for him ten years ago? (That doesn’t mean I’m against creativity in essays. I’m against pretentious essays that are more about being “clever” than substantive).

“Dear Diary” If the essay guru tells you he is a writer, Buyer Beware: What kind of writer? Is it someone who writes short stories and poetry? Is it someone who has a blog dedicated to reviewing movies or giving shopping tips? Is he a technical writer? It’s like photographers. A great portrait photographer can’t necessarily shoot a landscape with the same expertise and visa-versa. You want someone who understands academic and creative writing as it applies to college admissions.

"An A+ for the teachers" If the essay expert has a background as a high school or college English teacher or has worked in college admissions, at the very least you can assume the person truly understands the system, understands teens, and has practical experience in guiding students. This is definitely a plus. HOWEVER… I have met qualified and capable essay people who were neither teachers nor admissions officers. (Did I just confuse you?)

Franchises & Centers:

"Essay Factories" Buyer Beware: Some of these franchises are following the SAT model. It’s questionable enough whether this model works for SAT other than being a money maker for the owners but this model can’t possibly work for the individual and unique characteristics of each student. There are a couple that advertise the owners as brilliant top tier alumni but who are the actual advisers? What are the qualifications of each person on the front lines? Keep in mind….the majority of the fee is going to the franchisee or the owner. What is the actual consultant being paid? If someone is a professional, I doubt very much he would work for pennies from a franchise.

"SAT/ACT tutoring centers" This is a tough one to quantify. MANY want to jump on the college essay wagon as a perfect addition to a database of SAT students. But who is working with the students? What are his qualifications? How much time will be spent per student?

"Boot Camps" Buyer Beware: To me, this is nothing more than a gimmick to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. It doesn’t address ALL THE SUPPLIMENTAL essays. This will hurt your teen in the long run. A (possibly) polished common application essay that reads differently than all the supplements will certainly raise red flags.

One Stop Shopping:

"Juggling too many balls in the air" Let’s talk about the “soup to nuts” consultants who do it ALL. I know a few who are able to handle all aspects of the process. But even there, I wonder how much time is actually devoted to helping students with the essays when so much time is taken up with paper work, financial issues, etc. Ask. Find out if they outsource the essays or how they manage the time to give adequate attention.


“Hello Poppa Bear? This is Goldie Locks” If anyone says he has the “inside access to someone in the admissions office,” run for the hills. Buyer Beware: It is unethical for admission officers to talk to anyone, especially consultants about the process in detail. Just the appearance of impropriety can cost someone his job. An admission officer would have to be either an idiot or corrupt to help students get the edge through a consultant.

5. Just one more thing.   (Additional Questions to ask)

a)Does the person have another job or is this his full time career? How much TIME will be devoted to your teen? Obviously it’s less of a risk with someone who is currently a high school English teacher. If the person actually has a full time job as a copywriter or works in a totally different industry, there is a strong chance his time will be limited.

b)What is his philosophy about the college essays? His answers MUST include….

·      Essays are in voice of the student. The language isn’t supposed to sound like your son swallowed a thesaurus.

The point of the essay is strictly to illustrate WHO your son or daughter is as a PERSON. Not as an academic, not as an athlete, not as the president or the caption. As a PERSON. The point is….how will your teen fit into the community? What makes your teen different than the 38,000 other applicants…many of whom have identical grades, test scores and extra-curricular activities as your teen.