I've been a writer for many years, a writing teacher for several, and an editor for longer than many of my students have been around. Occasionally, particularly at this time of year, current or former students, former colleagues seeking to advance their education, or children of friends applying to college, contact me to see if I can give them feedback on admissions essays they write to academic programs they'd like to attend.
The question invariably arises of just how much advice I should give to anyone writing an application essay. These are, after all, used not just to get a sense of how the applicant answers the questions posed by the academic institution, but also to give the admissions committee a sense of how well the applicant can write.
Granted, there are untold stories of students who use outside services to "assist" them with their college applications. But how far is too far for such assistance to go?
Increasingly, academic institutions are aware of the challenge of making sure that the work someone submits on their application is their own work. Some students might be reluctant to ask for feedback after reading instructions that include a dictum like this: "Your essays may not be written, edited or translated by anyone but yourself."
How much advice is appropriate and still makes sure the work students submit reflects their own writing ability?
In my work as an editor, I don't hesitate to edit someone else's writing for publication so that the final article is as strong a piece of writing as possible. In such cases, it's a collaborative process to achieve the best outcome.
But the case of aspiring applicants is different. The work must represent their best writing efforts - and not been heavily edited by professionals to make it more than the writers would have been capable of producing on their own.
So what's the right thing to do when asked for help on admissions essays?
Advising prospective applicants on where they might trim or where they might address some issues of clarity in their essays is fair game, as long as revisions made are made by the applicants themselves. The right thing is to ensure that the work they submit must be their own. To go any further is both a disservice to the institution to which they're applying, and to applicants who might find it more difficult to succeed academically if admitted on the assumption they're capable of the type of writing reflected in their applications.
Parents who seek out assistance for their children to help them complete their college applications would do well to make sure that "consultation" doesn't give way to ghostwriting. Parents and others providing feedback to prospective applicants would send a clear message about integrity and honesty by reinforcing the notion that whatever is submitted should be reflective of the applicant's own ability.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business," is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of http://www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing(at)comcast.net.
The work you submit should be your own
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