Inside the lives of people writing essays for US students

Originally published at:


American colleges: It costs a ton of money, but you get to spend four years just focused on learning and thinking, with access to amazing libraries and brilliant professors. getting shitfaced!


I think you mean, “my future presidents, senators and corporate executives.”


Once, when she was asked to write an admissions essay for a student in China who was applying to the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, she said she dreamed of what it would be like to go there herself.

The money quote. And kind of heartbreaking.




Before I go off on a tear: I agree with the flunk the student / encourage the writer assertion…brilliant! Now for my take on essay mills (which nobody asked for and nobody should feel obligated to read, though FWIW I am an instructor of writing & rhetoric at an R1 institution):

An ongoing cat-and-mouse game for some, but honestly there are good ways around this issue beyond just tech-based solutions. Not to knock TurnItIn and its ilk, but our approach at my institution has been student-centered engagement and community-based writing. We encourage students first to work in genres in which they are comfortable (unsurprisingly, the five-paragraph (-ish) current-traditional essay is often NOT what they want to write) and to work on topics that they encounter in their own lives - topics of import to their specific discourse communities.

This means we get fewer and fewer papers about enormous, abstract, national- or world-level problems (which promote dull and unoriginal essays that are easy to plagiarize, e.g. “why the death penalty should be abolished” or “why we should legalize marijuana”), and more articles, videos, web pages, and yes, essays, about topics our students really care about.

It’s hardly perfect, but it beats the snot out of trying to play gatekeeper and cop to students’ educational experience!


As a prof, I find this whole issue deeply frustrating. I just want them to do their work! I understand that the vast majority of students are not going to be historians, but just take the work seriously, get what you can out of the class, and do your work honestly! Part of the problem is the entire mindset that is instilled in kids in many of our public schools - that learning is a chore to get through in order to get a job, rather than an end itself. You can’t blame them for feeling this way, given the structures of the public school system, that just work to make people more standardized. I get that they don’t see me as someone who is there to help, and who genuinely cares about their intellectual development, but rather as an authority figure who needs to be pleased so that they can get a grade and get the hell out of dodge, and move onto “real life”.

And the young lady in question is correct with regards to having few options, and I feel for her.


Also, lest it go unsaid, “flunk the student” here needs to be tempered with some understanding of the violating student’s circumstances. Not every “cheater” is a scammer trying to game the system…some are confused, scared, desperate. I’m a fan of second chances.


And, to echo Mindy, addressing the underlying problems that lead to it. Which, to you and your institution’s credit, it sounds as though you are.

While No Child Left Behind was merely an egregious link in a parade of bad policies, orienting public education toward Procrustean standardization seems to be at the center of the immiseration of learning in American schools.

I’ve never taught writing or history, but as a TA in grad school I saw more students in whom the joy of learning science and especially math had been systematically beaten out of them before they ever got to college.


Where do I sign up?


Are you, perchance, shitfaced right now?


In my experience, the Venn diagram of “why we should legalize marijuana” and “topics our students really care about” is practically a circle.


Even then, that can be very challenging. I used to teach in a limited-entry vocational training program. One of our application requirements was a personal letter about why they wanted to join the program and what they hoped to get out of it. All well and good, right?

Apparently there are a few websites that will more-or-less generate an application letter for you. You enter a few details about your life, choose which thematic paragraphs relate to your letter, and off you go. I completely understand and sympathize with students who use any edge possible to get accepted into a program. And a letter generator is not exactly cheating, and yet…

Until we figured out what was going on, we ended up accepting students who basically couldn’t write at all. At all. Any homework assignment that required more than a one-sentence answer would be skipped or answered with word salad. It was a real problem: most of these students dropped because of their grades, and by accepting them under “false pretenses” we turned away students who might have been able to pass and succeed.

We ended up changing our application process. Applicants now have to handwrite a one-page essay (what I did last summer, my favorite person, etc.) while on campus, while supervised.


You’re not wrong lol


I hear that concern. We also have an emphasis, though not a requirement, on conferencing which helps us cut through that sort of dishonesty.

I’m really lucky though, I must point out: we have modest class sizes, manageable teaching loads, and excellent support from our department & the university. VocEd, CCs, and even other Universities have it way tougher. I can take time to talk to a student and make sure they’re where they need to be…I couldn’t do that at the CC where I was teaching a few years ago, and I have no doubt I passed at least one student who never wrote an actual word for me :frowning:


Mmhm; I have worked with someone who has at least one graduate degree, and I have seen current examples of their writing, much of it ahem “liberally borrowed” from goodreads and google books, and all I can think is that their ex-spouse must have written their papers in university.


Day drinking is not for everyone, but it works nicely for me.


Why We Should Legalize Marijuana.
By Someguy, 9/7/19

If marijuana is legalized, you will never have to read another essay on this topic.


I worked with a guy who had two graduate degrees, yet I had never known him to do any actual original work. Whenever he was tasked to do something, he’d turn around and ask someone else for it. Whenever he’d have to research something, he’d go on Google Scholar, search for something tangentially related, and copy and paste the Related Work sections from the first few things that popped up.

I’m hesitant to call people frauds, but this guy was a fraud.


Sounds like the same guy … but I think every organization has a version of this guy. Also;