in the News

News Article

Business 2.0
November 1999
By Kim Cross

Write of Passage

Stress-wracked college applicants can turn to the Net to dress up their wretched admission essay

It's that time of year again. Ask any graduating high school senior to describe, in 500 words, the experience of writing college application essays, and "stress," "anxiety," and "writer's block" will likely follow a string of expletives. This angst has fueled a market for companies that offer a range of professional editorial services-from grammatical proofreading to total composition- for fees ranging from $15 to $475 per essay. For such companies, reaching an increasingly connected college generation has never been easier, thanks to the internet.

Though these services target a niche of a niche, even a small slice of such a huge market could prove lucrative. Merrill Lynch estimates the entire higher education market in the United States to bet worth $237 billion-roughly one third of this country's education spending. Because online editing is relatively new, however, it's hard to estimate what this specific market is worth. But its targeted population is surely primed for online services. "If there's anybody who is going to use the Web, it's these kids," says Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research who specializes in young consumers. "To them it's so natural. It's an intimate part of their lives." According to Walsh, half of the country's 15 million college students are online. And, she adds, they're much less averse to buying things online than the adult wired population: 40 percent of 16- to 22-year-olds on the internet spend money online, to the tune of $1.5 billion in 1998. By comparison, only 30 percent of online adults are shopping there. The next question is: How many of these students are willing and able to pay for online editing? "I firmly believe sites like this have a promising future, Walsh says. "They offer a very clear distinct utility."

Inkless Edits

Editorial help has been around for the ages, whether from parents eager to get their kids into the best school or profiteering companies employing Ivy League editors. Bu the recent emergence of online business can offer unlimited geographic reach, accelerated turnaround, and Internet-enabled services such as email deadline reminders and online application submission. At it's quick and simple. The $100 fee buys an evaluation from a former college admissions officer and a grammar and style edit by a second editor, typically decorated with an Ivy League degree. The original copy, with edits and suggestions inserted within brackets, is emailed to the customer within three days. All editors must have a background in both writing and college admissions, according to CEO Vedant Mimani. "We have two major requirements: that they have admissions experience and they're skilled in grammar," says the 25-year-old Yale graduate who recruited most of his 30-plus member staff from his alma mater.

Other companies offer extensive mentoring from the first word to the final edit. begins with an hour-long phone interview to pin down an individual's strengths and experiences-anything that might be good fodder for an essay-and then suggests possible approaches. A single essay typically goes through three to four drafts. This multiple-session coaching package runs $375 for a single essay for all undergraduate or graduate programs except Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, which costs a premium $475.

If those prices seem steep-especially on a college budget-proponents argue it's a mere drop in the bucket of the total cost of attending college. "It's nothing when you think about what school is going to cost you," says Bernie Colson, 25, who gives partial credit to's services for his recent acceptance by the University of Michigan Business School. "It's absolutely worth it." Moreover, the editing costs are but a shadow of the fees charged by individual educational consultants. Fees range from $75 to $100 per hour or $750 to $2500 at a flat rate for help on everything from taking the right high school courses to selecting the right college, according to Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA).

The Payout Potential is financed by its founders, who take no salary and pay their two dozen freelance readers $20 per essay. The company also sells application and essay kits for roughly $20 containing information and tips on how to fashion a winning application. Mimani expects to be profitable by year end, with as many as 5,000 essay edits in the 1999-2000 application season, on top of the 500-odd edits conducted thus far. expanded its services this fall with an online application alert system, which keeps track of the colleges on a client's list and sends email reminders announcing imminent deadlines. Mimani says he's also working on co-branding with bigger Internet players such as, a portal for college students.

Despite promises of profits, investors are hardly flocking to fund such companies. Of 11 that turned up on an Internet search, none had any direct mention of venture backers. "That's a very small niche in the college market. It's one that doesn't seem on the surface that it would offer venture returns," says Gregory Belmont, partner and chief strategy officer at Grand Central Holdings, a New York-based venture capital firm. "However, as part of a larger online college resource, it could be a very valuable component.

A partnership with a larger online college resource such as the Princeton Review Online or Kaplan Educational Centers, both of which have longstanding reputations for standardized test preparation and pre-college counseling services, could be the key. "I think these are very interesting components and ultimately [complement the services of] the Kaplans and the Princeton Review of the world," adds Robert Santangelo, vice president of Wit Capital, a New York-based investment banking firm. "My gut tells me it's a billion-dollar market." The Princeton Review is open to the prospect of an alliance, according to President Jonathan Katzman, though nothing definitive is in the works. Kaplan, however, is taking its own initative. "We see this as a big business opportunity," says Andrea Wilson, a spokesperson for Kaplan Educational Centers, which plans to launch an admissions consulting business this fall and is rolling out a new site that will include online editing services.

Dicey ethical questions

Viable business opportunity or no, some critics argue that the business of editing college admissions essays walks a shaky ethical fence. writes a "sample statement," three "alternative approach" paragraphs and one free rewrite-fully customized according to the student's answers to a questionnaire. The Website states clearly, "Under no circumstances should sample essays be submitted by students as their own work." But it's a mighty temptation for naive and pressured minds.

Are the services worth the money? The Princeton Review's Katzman argues that there is no advantage to using them because the prevalent idea that essays pull substantial weight in the admissions process is a myth. "If you talk to a college admissions officer and you ask what percentage of their decision is the essay, zero percent," he says, adding that officers at small liberal arts colleges spend about three minutes reviewing each application in its entirety, giving the brief skim for egregious errors. "The only school at which it really matters is business school, and I'm talking five [top graduate] business schools," he notes.

Still, good editing can at least be a remedy for writer's anxiety. "It eliminates the stress of sitting in front of a computer, wondering what people will think about what you're writing," says Sam Levine, a 26-year-old customer of