This summer, I gave presentations about the American college application process at Company X, one of the largest companies in China that specializes in language training and overseas study consulting.
In September, a few months after I gave the presentation, I received a job offer from Company X:
“We are very impressed with your academic background and experiences, so we would like to ask for your help in editing (or rewriting an application essay of a top student here in our company.) He has got a SAT score of more than 2200 and a TOEFL score of 110. The scores are very competitive in applying to top U.S. universities.”
Attached in the email was a 699-word draft of an anonymous personal statement.
I read the essay, corrected the grammar, and pointed out conceptual and organizational issues that I thought the applicant should focus on. I emailed the edited draft back to A. The next day, I received my official title: “ College Application Counselor/Application Essay Editor” of the “U.S. college application department” (美国本科部文案顾问).
I quickly realized, however, that what Company X was looking for was not an “application essay editor” but an “application essay rewriter.” When I emailed back the edited draft of the second personal statement that they sent me, my new boss replied to me and said, “I am afraid that editing may not lead to the best possible effect. If you feel it would be better to rewrite the essay, then please rewrite it because I know that sometimes editing may be even more grueling than rewriting.”
I replied, “I can edit grammatical errors, help restructure the essay, and point out conceptual gaps that need more elaboration, but I cannot rewrite personal statements. Personal statements should be written by the applicants themselves.” My boss did not reply; she just sent me another essay to edit instead.
A few weeks later, my boss tried once again to trick me into doing more than just editing an essay. This time, she was somewhat subtler—she wanted me to write a personal statement for this following question posed by University of Pennsylvania’s application:
“Ben Franklin once said, ‘All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.’ Which are you?”
Her email continued, “The UPenn question is rather vague and [the applicant] cannot really understand the topic. What does the movable and immovable mean here? Does it mean that some people only have opinions and never take actions, while some people do really take actions towards his [sic] goals and ambitions?”
Appalled, I explained to my boss, “The point of UPenn’s question is to make the applicant think about what those terms mean to herself and to explain them. All the interpretations you provided are valid–no one interpretation is correct or wrong, as long as the applicant explains herself fully. I can’t tell [the applicant] how to interpret the terms because, well, that’s what the entire essay is about. Just know that there is no “wrong” answer.”
“Oh, OK,” my boss simply replied, “thank you very much for your clarification and explanation!”
Fortunately, my boss seemed to understand whenever I explained to her that I would edit but not completely rewrite (or write) essays. But these incidents did make me wonder—how many editors are there who do agree to rewrite essays? If we communicated better with the applicants and helped them improve their essay themselves, could we prevent plagiarism?
Once, I suggested to my boss, “If I email [the applicant] directly and discuss the personal statement with [her], it would be much easier for both of us.” “No, you cannot do that,” she replied curtly, “applicants must go through the company.”
Essay editing, like many other procedures in China, is bureaucratic. The applicant first sends the draft to Company X and Company X evaluates how likely the applicant is to be accepted by American colleges. If they decide that the applicant is sufficiently competitive, then the Chinese editors working in the “U.S. college application department” take a stab at the draft. “Attached is his draft of the application essay, I have edited it but was not satisfied with the effect,” my boss once told me. “The essay needs to be polished and edited.” At the very end, after the original draft has gone through its initial round of editing (or, quite possibly, rewriting), Company X emails the draft to its foreign editors.
Foreign editors who work for Company X are divided into ranks. “We need to have a test before we can set the price for an editor,” my boss once said. “The compensation ranges from 300 RMB to 500 RMB (about US$50 to US$80) per 500 words depending on the work of the editor.” Company X reserves the “best” editors for the most competitive applicants because “not every applicant needs such high quality [editing] work due to their limited academic conditions.”
High SAT scores and fluent English, however, are not enough to gain access to the “high quality work” Company X offers; the applicants also need cash. For every essay I edit, the applicants pay about 2000 RMB (about US$320), equivalent to approximately a half month’s salary for an average worker in Beijing. Out of this 2000 RMB, only 500 RMB (about US$80) reaches my pocket.
Assuming that the applicant always pays four times the amount I receive, one of the applicants I worked with, let’s call her D, whose father works at a bank and whose mother used to work in public relations, has so far paid RMB16,400 (approximately US$2,600) to Company X to have me edit her essays. As rich Chinese students increase their competitiveness in the American college application process by pouring Renminbi into essay editing, those students with fewer resources are left to struggle on their own. In a way, with help from companies like my employer, these rich Chinese students are buying their way into American colleges. And the poor are left behind, stuck.
It is difficult, however, to point fingers at the Chinese students who turn to Company X for advice. When I applied to U.S. colleges from Japan, because I attended the American School In Japan, I could turn to my teachers and counsellors for help. But if you go to a regular Chinese high school where no one is familiar with the American college application process, who else can you turn to for help? Furthermore, asking other people to edit your personal statement itself is not cheating. Many American applicants seek advice from friends, siblings, teachers, and parents. Oftentimes, this goes beyond copy-editing; they give conceptual guidance that influences the applicant’s ideas as well.
From my experience with the process, however, what the Chinese overseas study consulting companies are trying to offer is not just essay editing but something dangerously close to plagiarism. Because the concept of intellectual property is still relatively weak in China, however, many people do not regard rewriting essays as problematic; they view it as an easy, efficient alternative to the “gruelling” process of editing.
The Chinese students’ readiness to have their essays rewritten by foreign, “qualified” editors also reflects distrust in their own abilities to write quality personal statements. Even my boss, the “U.S. college application consultant,” seems unsure about her expertise in the field. “What kind of formatting do you think is the easiest on the eye? Do you think the font size should be 12, and the line space should be 1.5?” she once asked me. You can’t fool the admissions offices with formatting, I thought to myself; I just hope they won’t be fooled by other tricks either.