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.

Let me start by saying that The Essay Expert’s college essay consultants and MBA admissions consultants do NOT write essays for college and business school applicants.  When I get calls requesting that service (and I do get those calls), I have no problem turning down the business.

What Do We Do?personal statement writing

What do we do at The Essay Expert?  We coach.  We explore ideas.  We help applicants see what is unique about them and their life experiences.  We draw connections.  We suggest directions to take, layers to add, and ways to best impress an admissions committee.  Sure, we also might suggest a few grammatical or organizational corrections.  But in the end, the essay is ALWAYS the client’s essay, NOT ours.

Still, there are people who are troubled by the concept of what we 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 college 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, and my promise is that The Essay Expert does not go down that slippery slope.  Yes, I promise 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 a New York Times article, Crafting an Application Essay That ‘Pops’, which 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.”

Soon after, an article came out in The Wall Street Journal with a similar message to M.B.A. applicants:  In Looking for an Edge:  MBA applicants are turning to pricey consultants to help them navigate the daunting admissions process , The WSJ reports that 20% of admitted students say they used an M.B.A. admissions advisor in the application process.  Furthermore, the article relates, “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 We 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.  That’s where The Essay Expert comes in.  Indeed, what we 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.  We will make sure your essay does not sound like anyone else’s.

It is especially difficult to find a reliable advisor for M.B.A. admissions, where very specialized knowledge of business schools and their admissions processes is key to choosing the right essay focus and application strategy. In fact, one of our recent clients had enrolled several business school graduate friends to review his essays, yet still required ten hours of our consultant’s time to retool just two of his essay sets.

Lingering Questions

I understand there is still an issue present.  What about people who don’t know someone who can help, and who also can’t afford to hire someone? I am concerned about that point myself, and do provide assistance to a limited number of clients for a reduced fee or some type of trade.  I don’t believe I have been contacted by anyone thus far whom I turned away solely due to lack of ability to pay.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this topic. Admissions officers seem to have accepted that many applicants use paid consultants to assist them with the admissions process. Does this fact allay any of the concerns you might have had?

I believe The Essay Expert provides an extremely valuable service and that we do not cross the ethical line that would have students presenting an essay that is not theirs. And we do help students transform pedantic or blah essays into stories that capture the hearts and minds of the admissions committee.


  1. Brenda, I think you’ve addressed a sticky and important subject. It touches a variety of issues — plagiarism, haves-versus-have-nots, proper professional boundaries.

    Recently I wrote first drafts of essays for a good friend who is applying to graduate school. I had some moral issues around it. But I found my friend’s first essay drafts so impenetrable that I concluded it would be more efficient if he provided me with outlines that I could turn into prose templates from which he could then make the essays his own.

    Was that wrong? Perhaps…but perhaps not. The essays were his ideas which I just helped put into words. And I’ve also written essays or reports so heavily edited by others, both in substance and in content, that I daresay they were less my own than the essays my friend ultimately wrote from my initial drafts for him. (And afterwards I referred him to Strunk and White!)

    I’ve had writing teachers who have encouraged students to seek editors, and people who write books frequently mention and thank those who edit their work. So in sum, there can be a fine line between assisting someone and doing their work for them. I think awareness is the key to making sure you don’t cross the moral boundary.


    • You bring up another issue in my mind, Rich, which is the type of school someone is applying to. If it’s electrical engineering school, I’m much more likely to be hands-on with their essay than if they are applying to graduate school in History. Electrical engineers are not required to have advanced writing skills and they are not being judged so much on their ability to write as on their experience and passion — so the important thing is to get their experience across in a clear way. I wonder what type of graduate school your friend was applying to?

      And it’s true that in real life, we all get edited — so the editing process is a natural and accepted one — a way we can bring our writing to a higher level for our entire lives and careers.

    • What a great conversation! I agree with Ella and with Rich’s reassessment of his choice (scroll down for Rich’s new comment). Business is one area where writing is important (though many business people lack the skill sorely — maybe they had someone edit their application essays and it was downhill from there!) I would actually caution in general against helping a friend with business school application essays, since it is a very specialized area. Even I do not know as much about MBA essay strengths and weaknesses as my consultant Larry does.

      I also agree with Ella that the playing field is not an even one, given the lack of information out there that personal statement writing services like mine exist. I hope that with the world wide web the way it is, the situation will start to change.

      Again, I’m glad to have sparked this conversation — I was hoping a debate like this would arise!

  2. As it were, my friend was applying for business school…and surely someone who goes to business school and runs a business needs to be able to write a clear sentence more than an electrical engineer.

    Ella raises a good point about those who don’t even know what they don’t know…in this case, people who are so disadvantaged they wouldn’t even know a service like the Essay Expert exists! The issue of not knowing what we don’t know…

    Ella’s comments have made me rethink my tactic with my friend, and I now think I took the wrong approach, whatever the final result. Although I had good intentions, I suggested the path we took — him writing outlines, me writing a first draft — because it was expedient and because my friend was so pressed for time with deadlines. In retrospect I should have sent him to Strunk and White and refused to edit a word until he read the book cover to cover and applied it all.

    We all make choices in what we choose to learn. And as adults we can choose to learn or brush up on areas where we may be deficient. In the future, I’ll make sure my friends do their part before I agree to do mine.

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