in the News

News Article

The Boston Globe
Business Section
December 20, 1999

By Lori Valigra


Edward, 29, knows it will cost about $90,000 to attend business school, so spending another $5,000 on coaching services to beef up his applications seemed like a wise investment in the future.

The Hartford-area information technology consultant took advantage of the dozen or so new services springing up on the Internet to help students put their best foot forward on their college applications. They offer seasoned experts who review essays, help students prepare for standardized tests, give interview tips, and help fill out academic and financial aid applications. Internet essay services alone can cost applicants anywhere from about $30 per essay for a quick read to $400 or more for detailed commentary. But some colleges frown on such services, saying they cannot be sure the final essay submitted represents the student's own work.

Operators of these services say they guide students, and don't write essays for them or sell finished essays. (Because of the controversy, Edward asked to be identified only by his first name.)

Edward did all he could to improve his chances of getting accepted: He applied to six business schools and used three essay review services plus a Kaplan GMAT test preparation service. The six schools required a total of 27 essays, and Edward has spent close to 400 hours, or 20 hours a week, laboring on them since August.

"I'm not the greatest writer," he admitted. "And my undergraduate degree is from a state school, and that's not as strong as a Harvard degree. So if I write a strong essay, it could strengthen my application."

Edward tried three Internet essay services: of New York City; of Lancaster, Mass.; and of South Plainfield, N.J. He used all of them on the first read, and then selected to refine his essays. The total fees came to $2,350, or about $87 per essay.

Add that to the $700 total application fees, $1,000 for the Kaplan courses, plus another $950 for travel to interviews, and Edward figures he will spend about $5,000 in all, before he's even admitted into a program.

"I looked at it in the long run. Two years at a top MBA program will run up to $90,000 with all expenses, so spending $5,000 to get into school is a minimal investment in my entire future," he said. With his applications now completed, Edward has an even tougher task ahead of him: waiting until January, when the thick acceptance packets or thin rejection letters arrive.

David Silverstein, 26, confirms extra help can pay off. A first-year MIT Sloan School of Management student, he spent about $1,000 on a Kaplan course to prepare for his GMATs, which involved about 200 hours of class and home work. The MIT application alone took upward of 75 hours, much of that for the essays. Silverstein did not go to an essay service to read his personal statements, though he did pass them by his brother, a writer.

One thing that helped save Silverstein time during the process is another new Internet trend: electronic college applications.

Indeed, MIT Sloan School is one of the few schools in the country now requiring all applicants to file on line. Doing the application on line is more efficient than typing, he said. It's "relatively painless."

MBA hopefuls typically are big users of essay coaching services, because business schools tend to put more weight on personal experience statements, said Vedant Mimani, 25, cofounder and president of two-year-old About 25 percent of users are MBA applicants, another 25 percent are other graduate school hopefuls including those for medical and law schools, and 50 percent are undergraduate applicants.

Mimani started the company because he saw a need for the service.

"Students have the most trouble with the essay. I spent a lot of time on my essay for Yale," he said. "A lot of students don't realize this. I read a lot of books about essay writing."

Mimani, a 1996 Yale economics graduate, wrote his essay about playing street football as a kid while dreaming of the National Football League.

Even the most outgoing teens will freeze in their tracks at the mention of the words "college essay." The dreaded essay gives applicants a chance to trumpet their personal worth to their desired colleges. Undergraduate applications usually require one or two essays, and graduate applications can require as many as six.

The average price students and parents plunk down for applications and some counseling is $1,000, but those seeking extra help can pay up to $10,000, according to those who offer these services. Private consulting service Dunbar Educational Consultants Inc. of Brookline charges $500 for a one-time preparation session and $3,000 to advise students from high school through their first year of college. Companies say the expertise they provide is as necessary as are test-preparation courses for college or graduate school admission exams. boasts a team of 10 former admissions officers from schools including Yale, Harvard, and Columbia, two Rhodes scholars, and professional editors. It charges $99.95 per essay and one second read, $99.95 for additional reads, and $299 for a package of four essays. has former admissions officers and authors of a Barron's book series on admissions essays. For $15, students can buy sample essays from successful applicants. Essay editing fees range from $15 for a quick read to $400 for more in-depth reviews of several essays to one school.

Cambridge Essay Service in Cambridge is run by Sanford Kreisberg, a former expository writing teacher at Harvard. He charges $250 per hour. And CollegeGate LLC has Harvard-educated editors. It charges $24.95 for a quick read to $499.95 for comprehensive editing.

Edward, a veteran of three essay services, cautions students to be careful, since some essay editors are less thorough than others, and the services vary greatly in the type of editing they do.

CollegeGate, for example, tended to do more rewriting than the others he used, and he felt uncomfortable with that. Still, he said: "I'd recommend essay services. It's no different than having a former professor look at your essay."

Kreisberg said he asks questions to prompt students to add detail to their essay, rather than rewriting it for them.

"Detail, business savvy, and reflec tiveness are important in essays," he said.

Essays can count for as much as 40 percent in the business school admissions process, Kreisberg estimated.

"Stanford has no interviews, so the essay is critical," he added.

Undergraduate essays account for about 15 percent of the decision on whether to accept an applicant, Mimani said. The grade transcript is the most important factor at 30 percent, followed by SAT scores at 25 percent. Activities are 15 percent, teacher recommendations 10 percent, and the remaining 5 percent is the interview, he said.

But some schools are giving less weight to the essay.

"We realize that any given candidate may have had access to these extra services. We give no independent weight to the essay," said Marilyn McGrath Lewis, director of admissions at Harvard College. "But the essay is interesting when it helps us understand what makes an applicant tick."

Lewis said she realizes parents and high school counselors also might help students prepare their applications.

Thomas O'Horo, director of guidance at Boston College High School in Boston, said: "We suggest they write a draft and bring it to their English teacher."

And Thom Hughart, head of guidance at Wellesley High School, said the school takes an active role in college preparation. Starting during the second semester of the junior year, counselors meet with groups of 10-15 students weekly, and the meetings go on through the first semester of the senior year.

Rod Garcia, director of MBA admissions at MIT's Sloan School, said good students will stand out, no matter what.

"The stars will always manage to outshine the others, with or without coaching," he said. "Coaches don't change the applicant. We admit applicants because they are good people, not because they are good applicants." SIDEBAR FYI

Here are some dos and don'ts from

  • DO strive for depth, not breadth. Rather than try to cover several events, experiences, or ideas, focus on one.
  • DO convey a positive message overall. Cynicism, bitterness, and resentment will not score points with admissions committees.
  • DO write an essay that only you could honestly write. If it's possible the reader could read anything similar from any other applicant, go back to the drawing board.
  • DO use an informal conversational tone - not as informal as colloquial speech, but less formal than the tone of an academic assignment.
  • DO proofread your essay several times with fresh eyes. Careless mistakes are inexcusable.
  • DON'T expect or even attempt to write the perfect essay in one sitting. Write something, edit it, put it aside, and go back to it later. Good writing is the product of good, constant rewriting.
  • DON'T rehash what the reader already knows about you. Do not reiterate accomplishments or activities that are mentioned elsewhere in your application.
  • DON'T try to summarize your entire life's accomplishments. Your essay will end up sounding more like a superficial laundry list than a meaningful personal statement.
  • DON'T write anything that might embarrass the reader or make him or her feel uncomfortable. The reader is not your therapist, your confessor, or your close friend.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO, GLOBE PHOTO/STEVEN TACKEFF/David Silverstein, 26, a first-year MIT Sloan School of Management student, says he spent about $1,000 on a Kaplan course to prepare for his GMATs, which involved about 200 hours of work.