Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Getting a bunch of post ideas. Thanks. Keep 'em coming. Here's the first one I'll tackle.

"Essay editing services (check out for college/grad school applicants. Ethical/moral/sketchy/weird?"

Interesting topic. Something I don't mind ranting about for a bit. Especially since there's been a thread recently on a Princeton alumni discussion group I subscribe to. Someone posted a message about a week ago volunteering his services as an essay editor for 50 bucks an hour (I think), promising quick turnaround and effective results. And got hit with a barrage of messages that basically told him he should go shoot himself. The upshot was that (1) you're not supposed to troll for business on the alumni discussion groups, but, more important, (2) essay editing services are improper, unethical, and basically the cause of everything wrong in the world, and (3) even if it's okay elsewhere, Princeton has an honor code they make you sign that says everything on your application is yours and yours alone, so it's clearly not allowed on its applications.

This also dovetails nicely with the New SAT, which, as I understand from a set of articles in the Nov. 7th New York Times, will include an essay, and this essay will be electronically scanned and stored so that colleges can call it up and read it when they're evaluating applications. So that if your essay looks too polished, they can see how you write when you're not paying someone 50 bucks an hour to do it for you.

In my ideal world, I think all of this stuff should be outlawed. Test prep, admissions counseling, essay editing. To me, it's like cheating. Schools don't want to see how much help you can buy for your essay. They want to see you write an essay. But outlawing it is neither practical nor sensible. It'll exist anyway, under the table, and it just creates a false moral distinction. If I had a kid and he was applying to college, I'd read his essay and tell him how I think he could make it better. Obviously. And I absolutely wouldn't pay money to let someone else tell him. But the biggest reason I wouldn't pay someone is because I wouldn't trust that anyone can really do a better job than I can. So is that a good moral distinction.

I'm being wishy-washy. I think they're bad, but if everyone does it, what can I say? I don't think people who do the "right" thing should be penalized in the process. That's not a good answer. Part of the reason I'm being wishy-washy is because, in a small way, I'm part of the problem. Harvard has what I think is an embarrassingly excessive system set up between the undergraduate houses and the grad schools (that I don't expect is unique, so I really can't get too worked up over it, but still...). There is a set of "pre-law" tutors -- students at the law school who are each assigned to a different undergraduate house. In exchange for a handful of free meals per week, we're each assigned three or four undergrads or recent alums who are applying to law school. We meet with them, talk about where they're applying, why they're going to law school, tell them about law school, answer any questions they might have, [here's where it starts to slide down the slippery slope], are available to edit their resumes and personal statements, and write a recommendation letter that gets stapled to the Dean's Form. I think we probably do a good deal less editing work than the places people pay for, but that's perhaps mostly because Harvard undergrads don't really need our help. What seems embarrassing about this system is that if there's a population out there that doesn't need help with their law school applications, and that shouldn't get any extra help, it's Harvard undergraduates. They can handle the application process without hand-holding. It's the less-advantaged people who may need the help, just to get on equal footing with people from places like here. But the free meals are a good incentive, and I'm not bad at editing essays -- and to argue it's somehow wrong is a hard argument to make -- so I don't feel particularly morally suspect being involved... but I can't say I feel good about the process even existing.

Okay, I'm not going to be wishy-washy. I think they should make any sort of transactions for profit illegal. Books are ok. Classes are not. Tutoring, under the law, should not be allowed, even if it's going to happen under the table. Because I think there is a difference between a human being doing it and a company doing it. It's not a good distinction, but at least it's something. So Kaplan, Princeton Review, Essay Edge, I'd put them all out of business. Sorry. That's my take on it.